Ben Macintyre

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For a US State Department employee in Guangzhou, China, it started one evening in 2018 with a sound like a glass marble hitting the floor overhead with a loud crack, followed by headaches, insomnia and memory loss. Fifteen other American officials in China reported similarly inexplicable symptoms.

A few months earlier, in a Moscow hotel room, visiting CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos experienced what felt like vertigo. His health steadily deteriorated over the following months and years, with migraines, dizziness and exhaustion, to the point where he was forced to retire.

Two senior US intelligence officers suffered the same abrupt and baffling medical problems on a visit to Australia earlier this year.…  Seguir leyendo »

In June 1944, deep in Nazi-occupied France at the fag-end of a filthy war, a team of SAS soldiers and French Resistance fighters ambushed a column of enemy troops on a quiet country road. Thirty-one men were killed by Bren gun fire and grenades, with several dozen wounded and captured.

Among these was a Russian officer, one of many captured on the Eastern Front who, given the choice between collaboration and execution, had switched sides to fight for the Nazis. He was badly, perhaps mortally, wounded but still lucid, and begged his SAS captors to kill him.

“What would you do?”…  Seguir leyendo »

Cuando Kim Il sung (el Gran Líder) ungió a su hijo Kim Jong II (el Querido Líder) como su sucesor, el periódico oficial de la dictadura de Corea del Norte dejó claro que ese acto no había sido un mero traspaso de poderes, sino una auténtica epifanía religiosa. «Gentes del mundo, si estáis buscando un milagro, venid a Corea», exhortaba el diario, identificando a los Kim con reencarnaciones del Padre y del Hijo en la Santísima Trinidad. Tres décadas después está en marcha una coronación seudorreligiosa similar, en la que Kim Jong Un, el hijo menor del Querido Líder, surge como heredero claro de una de las tiranías más despreciables del mundo.…  Seguir leyendo »

Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard lies on his side in the Afghan earth, his gun still clutched in his hand. The air is speckled with the dust thrown up by the rocket-propelled grenade that has just been fired from a grove of pomegranate trees, blowing off one of Bernard’s legs.

As the camera shutter clicks, two other US Marines, blurred in their frantic efforts to save his life, are shouting: “Bernard, you’re doing fine. You’re gonna make it.”

The 21-year-old soldier did not make it.

This photograph of the dying Marine, taken by the Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson on August 14, moments after a Taleban ambush outside the village of Dahaneh, has provoked fury in America.…  Seguir leyendo »

Across the Western Front, the anonymous war dead are reclaiming their names. At Fromelles scientists have begun to exhume the bodies of men cut down by German machineguns in 1916 and buried in mass graves, to try to identify them through DNA tests.

In the Red Cross archives, historians are poring over newly discovered wartime lists of the names of hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers, in the hope that those buried under blank headstones can be identified at last.

The unknown soldier is a dying breed. Today it is all but unthinkable that a soldier could perish in battle and not be formally identified, returned to his or her family and laid to rest.…  Seguir leyendo »

Hubo un tiempo en que trabajé en una granja de cría de pollos. A decir verdad, hablar de granja es emplear un término excesivamente suave para referirse a la forma en que se criaban aquellos pollos y decir fábrica parece excesivamente cínico. Aquello era el séptimo círculo del infierno de los pollos, una cadena de producción que no dejaba de cloquear, que exhalaba un hedor vomitivo y que estaba anegada en la inmundicia, con un único objetivo: producir la máxima cantidad posible de carne comestible, con tanta rapidez y a un precio tan bajo como fuera posible, sin tener en cuenta ni la calidad, ni la crueldad, ni la higiene.…  Seguir leyendo »

I once worked on a chicken farm. Actually “farm” is far too gentle a word for the way these chickens were raised, and “factory” sounds too clinical. This was the seventh circle of chicken hell, a clucking, stinking, filthy production line with just one aim: to produce the maximum quantity of edible meat, as fast and as cheaply as possible, regardless of quality, cruelty or hygiene.

The creatures were raised in vast hangars, living on a diet of hormones, antibiotics and cheap grain, thousands crushed together in their own dirt under artificial light, growing from chick to slaughter size in a few grim weeks.…  Seguir leyendo »

We call them “pirates”, because that is how they most easily translate into Western culture, but the Somali marauders currently terrorising Indian Ocean shipping might better be termed ocean-going shiftas, heirs to a long and uniquely African tradition of banditry.

The term shifta may be unfamiliar, yet it is a key to understanding what is happening off the coast of Somalia, and how it might possibly be resolved. Shifta, derived from the Somali word shúfto, can be translated as bandit or rebel, outlaw or revolutionary, depending on which end of the gun you are on.

In the roiling chaos that is Somalia, the killers and criminals are variously pirates, warlords, kidnappers, fanatics or Islamic insurgents.…  Seguir leyendo »

Two British imperial legacies collided on the streets of Lahore when gunmen opened fire on the Sri Lankan cricket team. The first, of course, is cricket itself: Britain's great sporting gift to its former empire, the most civilised game devised by man. The second, less obviously, is the situation in the vast swath of Pakistan once known as the North West Frontier.

The British struggled for a century to govern this mountainous region. Today Pakistan is still failing to govern a place where international Islamic terrorism thrives and where the gunmen in Tuesday's attack were almost certainly trained.

The tribal areas along the Pakistan border with Afghanistan are some of the most lawless places on Earth, a source of chronic and growing instability to Pakistan and a looming threat to the world.…  Seguir leyendo »

Abbreviated version of Premier Wen's speech at Cambridge University

This week I was sitting in the audience directly in front of the Chinese Prime Minister when a large grey trainer whizzed out of the crowded auditorium behind me, missed Wen Jiabao by a few feet and thudded on to the stage.

Mr Wen's lecture at Cambridge University came to an abrupt halt. The lone protester was hustled, shouting and shoeless, out of the lecture hall and into the waiting arms of the Cambridge police. A Chinese security guard retrieved the offending shoe, and hid it under his coat.

Flying footwear has suddenly become the world's favourite protest statement.…  Seguir leyendo »

Why do you want to join the Secret Service?” demands John Cleese, the British spymaster interviewing a new recruit in the old Monty Python sketch.

“Can you keep a secret?” “Yes.” “Good, well you're in then.”

Some British spies have proved notoriously bad at keeping secrets, but for most of the last century the British intelligence agencies insisted on complete secrecy as the central defining tenet of their work. MI5, the Security Service, and MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, worked in deep shadow, anonymous, deniable and invisible.

As the historian Sir Michael Howard remarked in 1991: “So far as official government policy is concerned, the British security and intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, do not exist, enemy agents are found under gooseberry bushes and intelligence is brought in by the storks.”…  Seguir leyendo »

The horror story that is cholera-wracked Zimbabwe begins with a hand-pump in a Soho street and a British doctor who came up with a very simple, very brilliant idea one and a half centuries ago.

Cholera is more than just a dreadful disease: it thrives on ignorance and the most abject poverty; it breaks out when a state breaks down; and it is ultimately curable not by medicine alone but by organising society itself on rational, scientific principles. The only antidote to cholera, in the end, is political action.

Today, Robert Mugabe's most powerful accuser is John Snow, the man who tracked down the cause of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae in Victorian Britain.…  Seguir leyendo »

I write from a motel beside the I-95 Interstate in North Carolina. The throb of traffic is constant but not unpleasant, a low-level roar at the edge of the mind. From my room I can see the neon signs of three gas stations towering over the landscape like church spires drawing in the faithful.

A pickup truck pulls up outside in the parking lot: a Ford Explorer Sport Trac Adrenalin, a growling, bright-red monster with tinted windows and tyres a foot wide. Its red-white-and-blue bumper stickers proclaim: “Support our troops” and “Fayetteville: Home of the Brave”.

The driver, to my surprise, is not some hairy veteran with barbed-wire tattoos, but a diminutive middle-aged woman.…  Seguir leyendo »

Heard the one about Zimbabwe? A policeman stops a motorist and asks for a donation: terrorists have kidnapped the former Sir Robert Mugabe, and have vowed to soak him in petrol and set him alight if the ransom is not paid.

“How much are other people giving?” the motorist asks.

“On average about two or three litres.” It may not be new, or even funny, but the joke represents one of the few points of light on the dark landscape of Zimbabwe. Mugabe and his thugs have killed off any meaningful election, food shortages are acute, inflation is heading for 1.5 million per cent, but one currency in Zimbabwe is steadily increasing in value - jokes.…  Seguir leyendo »

There is a certain sort of Englishman who, on seeing a man in a kilt, feels it incumbent on him to curl his stiff upper lip and point out that the wearing of tartan is nothing but a Victorian fad.

If that Englishman is feeling brave, he may go on to sneer that the entire system of clan tartans was invented in 1842 by a couple of fraudulent English brothers claiming to be grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

And if that Englishman is the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, a brilliant historian and champion lip-curler, he will write an entire book debunking Scottish mythology.…  Seguir leyendo »

When, exactly, did Russia become the new superpower of the art market? Was it earlier this month, when Roman Abramovich spent £60 million on two paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud? Was it in 2004, when Victor Vekselberg, a Ukrainian oil and aluminum magnate, acquired the entire Forbes collection of gold-and-jewel-encrusted imperial Fabergé eggs? Did the turning point come last September when Sotheby's called off the sale of the £20 million art collection amassed by the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich after the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought the lot?

Or was it, more subtly, the moment last May when Christie's auction house in New York quietly added Russian roubles to the list of currencies displayed during bidding?…  Seguir leyendo »

In 1985 a man wrote to the Ministry of Defence, politely explaining that he had been in contact with aliens since the age of 7. He had visited alien bases in Cheshire and Wirral, he said, befriended a charming alien called Algar and seen a UFO shot down next to Wallasey Town Hall, “as if done by an invisible entity”. The writer described how he had arranged for his alien chum to meet representatives of the Government, but sadly Algar was killed by rival aliens before the meeting could take place. The writer concluded: “That, of course, was that.”

The matter-of-fact tone is what makes this particular letter so touching, and so representative of the hundreds of similar alien and UFO sightings reported to the MoD and now made public for the first time.…  Seguir leyendo »

For the first time in a generation, archaeologists have begun to sift through the most sacred soil in Britain, in search of the secret of Stonehenge.

The full artillery of modern science will be trained on a trench of earth, measuring 11 feet long and eight feet wide, inside the great stone circle. Pollen grains, tool fragments, snail shells, and chips of the original bluestone pillars will all be carbon- dated, to try to answer a question that had intrigued thinkers since medieval times: how and why, some 4,500 years ago, did our ancestors bring 80 stones, weighing up to three tonnes each, from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales to Salisbury plain?…  Seguir leyendo »

Two gravestones stand side by side in the churchyard of the little village of Röcken, south of Leipzig: one belongs to Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the greatest and most misunderstood philosophers; the other marks the grave of his sister Elisabeth, a lifelong anti-Semite who hijacked her brother's writings after his death and used them to serve the cause of Nazism, leaving a stain on his philosophy that has never been fully erased.

Today, bulldozers belonging to a power company are preparing to dig up the town where Nietzsche and his sister were born and buried, to get at the seam of coal that runs beneath.…  Seguir leyendo »

Doodling on his notepad in 1981, the science fiction writer William Gibson was trying to think of a name for an invisible electronic communications network he had dreamt up for a new short story, Burning Chrome. “Dataspace”? No, he crossed that out. “Infospace”? No, too nerdy. Then he hit on the perfect word, scientific- sounding but also alliterative and oddly poetic: cyberspace. Later, he reflected: “It seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless.”

It would be another decade before the internet would transform the world, but a novelist's imagination had already given shape and meaning to something that science had yet to invent.…  Seguir leyendo »