The Doomsday Scam
For decades, aspiring bomb makers — including ISIS — have desperately tried to get their hands on a lethal substance called red mercury. There’s a reason that they never have.By C. J. CHIVERS, Politico.com
NOV. 19, 2015
The hunt for the ultimate weapon began in January 2014, when Abu Omar, a smuggler who fills shopping lists for the Islamic State, met a jihadist commander in Tal Abyad, a Syrian town near the Turkish border. The Islamic State had raised its black flag over Tal Abyad several days before, and the commander, a former cigarette vendor known as Timsah, Arabic for "crocodile," was the area’s new security chief. The Crocodile had an order to place, which he said he had received from his bosses in Mosul, a city in northwestern Iraq that the Islamic State would later overrun.
Abu Omar, a Syrian whose wispy beard hinted at his jihadist sympathies, was young, wiry and adaptive. Since war erupted in Syria in 2011, he had taken many noms de guerre — including Abu Omar — and found a niche for himself as a freelance informant and trader for hire in the extremist underground. By the time he met the Crocodile, he said, he had become a valuable link in the Islamic State’s local supply chain. Working from Sanliurfa, a Turkish city north of the group’s operational hub in Raqqa, Syria, he purchased and delivered many of the common items the martial statelet required: flak jackets, walkie-talkies, mobile phones, medical instruments, satellite antennas, SIM cards and the like. Once, he said, he rounded up 1,500 silver rings with flat faces upon which the world’s most prominent terrorist organization could stamp its logo. Another time, a French jihadist hired him to find a Turkish domestic cat; Syrian cats, it seemed, were not the friendly sort.
War materiel or fancy; business was business. The Islamic State had needs, it paid to have them met and moving goods across the border was not especially risky. The smugglers used the same well-established routes by which they had helped foreign fighters reach Syria for at least three years. Turkish border authorities did not have to be eluded, Abu Omar said. They had been co-opted. "It is easy," he boasted. "We bought the soldiers."
This time, however, the Crocodile had an unusual request: The Islamic State, he said, was shopping for red mercury.
Abu Omar knew what this meant. 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.