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.
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.
Another smuggler, Faysal, who said he was awaiting results of vetting by the United States government to join a Pentagon-backed force opposing the Islamic State (the program has since been dropped), continued the lesson. ‘‘It has two different types: hot and cold,’’ he said. The cold form, which other smugglers sometimes call ‘‘spiritual mercury,’’ he said, ‘‘can be found in Roman graveyards.’’ He added: ‘‘Kings and princes and sultans used to take it to the graves with them.’’
This type of red mercury, the smugglers said, has been recovered by Middle Eastern grave robbers for at least several decades. ‘‘In previous generations, old women wore it in a necklace to keep the devil’s eye away,’’ Faysal said. More recently, rich men shopped for cold red mercury as either an aphrodisiac or to improve their sexual performance.
The substance was so valuable that dishonest traders, al-Safi said, often trafficked in fake red mercury. ‘‘In my village at least 15 people trade in it,’’ he said. ‘‘They buy normal mercury, and they color it. They use red lipstick and put a little on a spoon and heat the spoon until it turns to powder, and you put the powder in the mercury, and you mix it, and it becomes that color. This is how you cheat it.’’
This was especially dangerous, because hot red mercury could also be harvested from junkyards and seamstress shops. Al-Safi described how this came to pass. To prevent the weapons-grade material from falling into the wrong hands during what he called ‘‘the American occupation’’ of the former Soviet Union, he said, Russians safeguarding the stock late in the Cold War cached tiny reservoirs of red mercury in sewing machines and radios bound for export, which were then scattered throughout the Arab world. (Another version of the same tale says that red mercury is hidden in old television sets.)
These rumors have been circulating for years, once driving prices for old sewing machines as high as $50,000 in Saudi Arabia, according to a 2009 Reuters report. Often the most-sought-after machines were the Singer brand — which, considering that Singer was an American manufacturer, did not quite align with the Soviet fable. No matter. Abu Omar also insisted that old sewing machines were a red-mercury source. ‘‘Specific machines,’’ he said, ‘‘with a butterfly logo on them.’’ He said he knew this from experience because the red mercury used in the jihadists’ chlorine experiment in Ras al-Ain had come from his grandmother’s machine.
Interesting story illustrating the incredible naivety, gullibility and ignorance of our enemies.