There have long been fears that terrorist groups – of all stripes and creeds – could gain access to weapons of mass destruction and use them against vulnerable population centres in the West. After the attacks on Paris last week, this fear was raised yet again with the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, saying that 'we must not rule anything out, there is also the risk from chemical or biological weapons.'
While the remarks were not specific, and they were also made just before a parliamentary vote to extend France's state of emergency following the attacks in Paris, there are reports that precautions are being taken with Sarin gas antidotes being distributed to French medical personal for the first time.
The history of terrorists and their efforts to acquire WMDs, whether nuclear or other, is somewhat unclear. This article in The Guardian by Jason Burke is a good short history of the failed efforts of Al Qaeda and its affiliates to acquire chemical and biological weapons. There is often little public evidence to back up many of the claims about the plots themselves. But there is little doubt that these groups have tried in the past, and that smugglers have some access to the necessary material. Indeed, ISIS may have its own 'department' of former Iraqi scientists working on chemical weapons and the US has claimed to have targeted ISIS chemical weapon experts in its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
That's what makes a recent long-form piece in The New York Times Magazine a pretty fascinating read. The article is about 'red mercury', a fake substance that has gained almost mythological status among smugglers, arms traffickers and some terrorists:
Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.
Also to be completely honest, when I read this, the first thing that entered my mind was the end scene of the 2009 movie Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams. In the scene, the crew of the Enterprise uses 'red matter' to destroy the ship of the villain Nero. The second thing that occurred to me was the story of red mercury, and the rumors of its existence and capabilities, is almost like reading about the fake cancer curing herb Essiac (the spelling of Essiac is the backwards spelling of Caisse, the surname of the Canadian nurse who peddled it). I think it's fascinating that the same sort of rumor, belief and mythology that exists around fake herbs or drugs that 'enhance performance' or miracle medical cures can extend to weapons of mass destruction. As C.J. Chivers, the author of the NYT Magazine piece, says:
To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist...
...Aided by credulous news reports, it became an arms trafficker's marvelous elixir, a substance that could do almost anything a shady client might need: guide missiles, shield objects from radar, equip a rogue underdog state or terrorist group with weapons rivaling those of a superpower. It was priced accordingly, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilogram. With time, the asking price would soar.
And as Chivers found, there are apparently many types of mercury that can be used for a variety of purposes:
Safi al-Safi, an unaffiliated rebel and small-time smuggler specializing in weapons, antiquities and forged documents, sat in an open-air cafe beside the Syrian-Turkish border. He was smoking scented tobacco from a water pipe while discussing the cross-border mercury trade. ''Red mercury has a red color, and there is mercury that has the color of dark blood,'' he said. ''And there is green mercury, which is used for sexual enhancement, and silver mercury is used for medical purposes. The most expensive type is called Blood of the Slaves, which is the darkest type. Magicians use it to summon jinni.''
The article is worth a read, if not to just have a glimpse into how rumors and smuggling work in war. Of course as typical of my generation I searched for red mercury on Youtube. The second video to appear was titled 'Very secret - red mercury', which automatically made me question its secrecy and reminded me of another famous scam.