The Great Mercury Plot!

Four men have been arrested on terrorism charges apparently after they were induced to attempted to buy so-called “red mercury” from a man who turned out to be Mahzer Mahmood, the News of the World‘s “investigations editor”. The NOTW broke this story today under the headline “Dirty Bomb Foiled by News of the World“. BBC radio news reported the arrests and the story without, however, either attributing it or making any enquiry into its credibility.

Red mercury – now, I personally never thought I’d hear that phrase again. If you recall, a spate of rumours ran around the world shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union that Soviet scientists had invented some sort of material known as red mercury, for which a fantastical variety of claims were made. Some said it might hold the key to anti-gravity, others that it was the most dense material known to mankind, still others that it was used to paint Soviet stealth aircraft. Most agreed that, whatever the exact details, it was some kind of weapon. Various stories suggest either that it is supposedly used to build a pure fusion weapon, which could theoretically be a very small neutron bomb, or that it is a chemical explosive powerful enough to initiate fusion.

Scary stuff, if it wasn’t for the fact that nobody has ever seen any.

There were numerous cases of people claiming to have the stuff for sale to the highest bidder, but they all without exception turned out to be fraudulent. Tomato ketchup figured prominently in their wares. Most recent comment about it comes from highly dubious websites (one claims that Iraq possessed secret red-mercury fusion bombs capable of taking out the US’s strategic deterrent systems…), and the vast majority of web search results for it relate to a computer game.

“Now you can experience the war against terrorism from the safety of your own living

room in Shadow Ops: Red Mercury!”

I thought the point of terrorism was that your living room wasn’t safe, but let that pass. No doubt this obscurity is partly because it had its 15 minutes just prior to the internet, but most scientists in the field have long since considered it to be a myth. (Although Dr. Frank Barnaby of SIPRI apparently thinks it might be usable as a detonator.) For example, let’s look at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1997, here.

“The asking price for red mercury ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 per kilogram. Sometimes the material would be irradiated or shipped in containers with radioactive symbols, perhaps to convince potential buyers of its strategic value. But samples seized by police contained only mercury oxide, mercuric iodide, or mercury mixed with red dye-hardly materials of interest to weapons-makers.”

A couple of pars further down, another quote of interest to us:

“Indeed, authorities in Russia and Central Europe are hard put to identify any buyers of stolen nuclear substances who were not undercover police, intelligence agents, or journalists searching for a story.

This is the heart of the story, in fact. Mahzer Mahmood, for those of you unfamiliar with British tabloid journalism, has made a career of dressing up as an “Arab sheikh” and persuading celebrities to commit embarrassing acts (taking cocaine, usually) in front of a hidden camera. His triumph/nadir was the report that the NOTW had “foiled” a supposed plot to kidnap David and Victoria Beckham – a stellar scoop which backfired badly when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case against the “kidnappers” on the grounds that the £10,000 Mahmood had paid to the key (indeed only) witness might possibly skew his evidence (Link). It didn’t stop there. The witness, a Kosovar parking attendant, turned out to have previous convictions for dishonesty and had been treated for psychiatric problems. And – strangely enough – he was the first of the group to mention kidnapping or the Beckhams on the tapes provided by the paper. (Link) He had also previously taken part in two other NOTW sting stories. The whole thing was frankly sordid.

One feature of Mr. Mahmood’s controversial career has been his impressive rapport with the police. After all, they turned out with a crack firearms unit for the Beckham story. Now, it would appear, they have gone one better with a major anti-terrorist operation. Let us get this completely clear – you cannot make a dirty bomb with red mercury, because a) mercury isn’t radioactive and b) red mercury, in all probability, does not exist. As usual, Mahmood presented himself as the potential seller – posing important questions of incitement. It is outrageous that both the Metropolitan Police and the BBC seem to have gone along with this pathetic pantomime.

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