Amazing terror weapons: the imaginary suitcase nuke
KGB/Mafia scam compound gets day in court, cleared of all charges
Analysis Three men were last week cleared of charges after one of the global war on terror's more ludicrous trials. They had been accused of an imaginary plot to produce an imaginary radioactive 'dirty' bomb using an imaginary substance. Imagination throughout proceedings was greatly aided by the efforts of Mazher Mahmood, the imaginary "fake sheikh" who produces scoops for the News of the World, which has been known to imagine itself a newspaper.
The trial centred on an alleged plot to acquire red mercury, described by the News of the World as "a deadly substance developed by cold war Russian scientists for making briefcase nuclear bombs", and described by The Times (relation) as a chemical "thought to have been developed by the Soviet Union  whose existence was called into question during the trial." There is however no question  about its non-existence. Note the statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency saying so.
It's not entirely clear who cooked up the original red mercury story. It might have been dreamed up by the Soviet Union, complete with 'suitcase bomb' as a cold war sting, or it might be sourced to the Russian Mafia as something it could 'sell' to terrorists who don't trust Wikipedia. Or a bit of both, but really, there's no such thing. But you can see how Mafia scammers, popular newspapers, terrorists and counter-terrorists could all, for slightly different reasons, get twitchy at the mention of 'suitcase nuke', and how there's plenty scope for them to bang into one another when they've got twitchy.
They should all know better (apart from maybe the Mafia). How, then, do you end up keeping three suspects in custody for two years and spend over £1 million on a trial (the total cost of the investigation was surely a lot more)?
In his evidence Mahmood claimed to have been contacted by a man described in court as Mr B, who had said he had been unable to interest police in his claims. Via B, Mahmood made contact with the alleged plotters, posing as a possible source of red mercury. Once Mahmood was involved the Met's terror squad was interested, the three men were arrested in September 2004, and the NotW ran a screamer exclusive. Whether or not red mercury existed was not important, the prosecution claimed at the outset: "The crown's position is that whether red mercury does or does not exist is irrelevant," prosecutor Mark Ellison told the jury.
And, from the point of view of the charges, this was correct - for them to be found guilty the prosecution needed to prove simply that they had attempted to obtain "a highly dangerous mercury-based substance" which they believed could be used to make a dirty bomb; their beliefs and intent were therefore relevant, but the substance itself was not.
From our point of view however, the non-existence of red mercury is of considerable relevance. Could that have been why Mr B's initial approach to the police was rebuffed? To what extent did the Met's terror squad believe in the existence of red mercury? And if it did believe in it, to what extent does it still believe in it? Might it also believe in the son of the late President Mobutu when he tells it he needs help to move $50 million out of Kinshasa?
These are questions we really shouldn't have to ask, but previous cases have shown the British security services applying vast resources to threats which are scientifically improbable, and then resolutely insisting that their actions were entirely justified and appropriate. Police sources still claim that the ricin plot  was a serious threat (Charles Clarke, Home Secretary at the time of the trial, avoided admitting ricin hadn't been found by suggesting in a parliamentary answer that the presence of ricin in a castor bean somehow 'counted'), and also still claim (but generally only when asked directly) to be searching for the improbable Forest Gate bomb  (although 'sources' have now downgraded this to a cyanide weapon)*.
Given that the defendants in the red mercury case were talking to a fake sheikh in Brent Cross Holiday Inn about getting hold of the mythical substance, as opposed to just trying to buy it on the open market, one might reasonably make some inferences about their motivation.
They appear to have thought a) That it was a chemical used to wash stained banknotes; b) A highly-prized medicine; c) A way to make some money; or d) Worth up to $300,000 (some useful background here , spoiled by a final bit of BBC-style fence-sitting). The surveillance seemed to indicate only that it was Mahmood who'd been stressing the 'dangerous' nature of red mercury, that nobody was sure what it was, and that one of the defendants at least had been looking it up on the Internet.
So, if the terror squad became involved in Mahmood's operation because they genuinely believed in the existence of red mercury, we should worry. If on the other hand they didn't believe it existed but pursued the case on the basis that people attempting to obtain terror weapons, non-existent or not, should be caught, we should still worry, but for different reasons.
The security services claim that in the face of today's terrorist threat it is important to move early, before the threat has entirely matured and, and often before they have built a case. Problems associated with this approach are covered in some detail here , but note that in this case there was no reason to move early - if the terror squad understood that red mercury does not exist.
If you think some villains are trying to get hold of a non-existent substance in order to build a bomb, then there's no great urgency in trying to stop them. The reverse, in fact - longer surveillance increases the chance of their incriminating themselves, and if you actually sold them something, you might well scoop up would-be bombers, al-Qaeda Mr Bigs, who knows? So moving in without conclusive proof would seem entirely illogical.
It's possible you might have decided, belatedly, that you'd been wasting your time. And one could consider the possibility that having a journalist (well, he says he is) on board tends to set some kind of deadline - these boys need to pay the rent somehow, and can't hang around Holiday Inns forever without a result. What might happen in the (hypothetical, honest...) case of police calling off an investigation because they didn't reckon there was anything there, and a paper running a screamer anyway, about 'these dangerous men' who remain at large?
But we'd be the last to suggest that the popular press defined police schedules, or indeed that the police would let it. Scotland Yard defended the investigation, and said that it would not rule out working with the NotW again, while a Crown Prosecution Service spokeswoman said it was right to bring the case, and that the evidence had been credible. No future intent to work more closely with Porton Down, or even Wikipedia, seems to have been expressed. ®
* Doomweapon update: From the would-be terrorist's point of view, cyanide has the virtue of being more readily available than the more esoteric substances that make it into the headlines, because it's used in volume in some industrial processes. Weaponising it, however, is a challenge, as the explosion intended to vapourise and disperse it will tend to ignite it instead.
This happened in the case of the first World Trade Center bomb, where the cyanide compound added had no measurable effect. An alternative method is claimed (in Ron Suskind's pants-scarer The One Percent Doctrine) to have been planned for alleged attacks on the New York subway in 2003. The design, which Suskind says was found on a laptop in Saudi Arabia, envisaged two chambers, one containing sodium cyanide and one hydrochloric acid. Break seal between the two (with, for example, a small detonation), the chemicals mix, and the result begins to disperse. "In the world of terrorist weaponry," Suskind tells us, "this was the equivalent of splitting the atom."
Which if true suggests that the level of technical expertise in the world of terrorist weaponry is lamentable (or, as the rest of us might view it, hearteningly) low. Rationally, however, we should accept that terrorists know full-well that two glass vessels plus small bang starts to mix chemicals. It does not, however, necessarily have much effect. The removal of the big bang leaves a dispersal problem, and conventional weaponry is as we've seen in Madrid and London far more likely to cause major casualties. There is however a logic to terrorists using relatively low-tech chemical weapons, because of their disproportionately high psychological effect. The more we overstate the potential, the more we panic, and the more attractive they become to terrorists. So go figure... ®