In 2004 three men were arrested in the UK for trying to buy red mercury – a trigger for a nuclear bomb – from an undercover journalist working with British intelligence. This plot inspired multiple films and TV programmes and the resulting trial cost over £1 million. The problem is that ‘red mercury’ doesn’t exist. This week we examine the myth of red mercury, where it originated, how it was featured in state-sponsored entertainment and how it still hits the headlines today.
In late September 2004 the British tabloid the News of the World announced that it had helped bust a terrorist cell who were planning to set off a dirty bomb containing red mercury. Nearly two years later the three men were put on trial, accused of a very seriously terrorist plot. During the trial it emerged that the undercover News of the World journalist Mazher Mahmood, commonly known as the ‘Fake Sheikh’, had essentially run the entrapment scam.
Who is the Fake Sheikh? On the one hand he is an award-winning undercover reporter who has carried out successful stings on celebrities and other public figures, including then England football team manager Sven Goran Eriksson. He helped convict over 200 people over a 25 year career as a journalist, often using his Fake Sheikh persona to help dupe them. On the other hand he is an entrapment artist and a liar who in October 2016 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for altering evidence in a case against pop star and TV presenter Tulisa Contostavalos, who was supposedly dealing cocaine. He also faces various civil suits from other people who had their lives and reputations damaged by his actions.
How did the Fake Sheikh get involved with the Red Mercury plot? According to his testimony, an informant known only as Mr B had told the police about one of the three – Dominic Martins – but they hadn’t shown much interest so he approached the Fake Sheikh. Between the two of them they provoked and manipulated the three men into a position where they could be arrested. However, Mahmood says that he was a registered informant for the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism squad, that he signed a memorandum with them governing his behaviour, that they told him what to say and what to do.
This is where the story starts to break down. Are we really to believe that Mr B went to the police and told them about this, but they didn’t take it seriously, but when the Fake Sheikh came in with the same story a short while afterwards they registered him as an informant and went ahead with the operation? But Mahmood testified in court that when he discussed the case with the police on September 9th – about two weeks before the arrests – he thought it was nonsense and that they might be being set up by a rival media outlet, ‘The whole thing is bizarre, we thought it might be the Sunday Mirror or some other newspaper trying to do a deal at the end of it.’
Furthermore, the police had valid reasons to suspect that the Fake Sheikh was the morally corrupt liar he has now been exposed as. Two years before the Red Mercury Plot Mahmood had made front page headlines after supposedly helping to bust up a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham and her two children. As confirmed in a BBC Panorama episode on the Fake Sheikh, the whole thing was a scam.
In short, the police knew Mahmood was dodgy as hell, so why did they go ahead with the operation after Mr B got him involved? Who was Mr B working for? Special Branch? MI5? Why did they take the plot seriously when the Fake Sheikh was telling them he thought it was a scam, possibly concocted by another newspaper?
Red Mercury doesn’t exist
Another problem with this trial and the whole story around it is that Red Mercury doesn’t exist, and Mahmood testified in court that he knew it didn’t exist and that he said so when he talked to the police. One of the defendants Abdurahman Kanyare is apparently on tape saying he was looking for a liquid called Red Mercury that could be used to wash the dye off of banknotes (he worked for a bank). According to the BBC, ‘He said when Mohammed (the Fake Sheikh’s persona for the operation) mentioned it was radioactive or toxic he “strung him along” because he thought he might be able to pass the information on to a Norwegian police officer whom he had helped in the past.’
So we have the mysterious Mr B informing to the police about a trio of men that included another guy who provided information to the Norwegian police, and Mr B teams up with an undercover reporter who police know is a liar and probably a criminal, and the police, Mr B and the Fake Sheikh entrap the trio by pretending they can sell them a substance that doesn’t exist.
But wait, it gets better.
The notion of Red Mercury originated with the KGB, who created rumours about its existence and apparent ability to enable people to build nuclear bombs the size of tennis balls. That is to say, it is a fiction created by Soviet intelligence to help them draw out and entrap terrorists and nuclear smugglers, recycled by British intelligence and a criminal reporter for the News of the World. Indeed, throughout the mid-1990s Russian conmen were running around the Middle East and Eastern Europe purportedly selling Red Mercury to gangsters and terrorists, having supposedly stolen it from the Soviet government after Communism collapsed.
Needless to say, none of this made it into the News of the World’s story when they proudly proclaimed ‘Dirty Bomb Foiled by News of the World’ and ‘Armed Terror Cops in Swoop on Gang’. Remember, this is a couple of weeks after the Fake Sheikh said to the police that Red Mercury didn’t exist, so he knew that, the police knew that, and the News of the World knew that.
But it didn’t matter. As the prosecutor at the trial said, ‘The Crown’s position is that whether red mercury does or does not exist is irrelevant.’ He told the jury not to get ‘hung up’ on the question of whether the substance at the heart of the trial actually existed.
Why did this trial, and this police operation, happen? Everyone involved seems to have known there was no real threat – the three men weren’t looking to make a bomb, they weren’t terrorists and Red Mercury doesn’t exist. There was no threat. This wasn’t a counter-terrorism operation because there was no terrorism being countered.
It is probably relevant that it was the News of the World who, eventually, had to shut down because of the phone hacking scandal. That would be the same phone hacking scandal that involved private detectives like the ones being used by the Fake Sheikh, and which the police knew about years before it became a big deal but did nothing about, just like they did with the Fake Sheikh. It seems there is a disturbingly close relationship between the Met Police and the Murdoch media empire that is yet to be properly investigated.
However, it does occur to me that everyone involved in this operation seems to have been suffering from a kind of a madness, a groupthink or even doublethink. The prosecutor said that whether Red Mercury exists or not isn’t relevant to whether the men were guilty. The Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General signed off on the prosecution. The CPS also issued statements defending the decision to prosecute when the real story started to emerge. Some will say ‘this is just what institutions do to cover their ass’, but I ask you, what’s the difference between covering your ass by lying, and participating in a form of doublethink where everyone deludes themselves into thinking they’re doing a good thing?
Red Mercury in Fiction
Part of the reason for this mass delusion is that Red Mercury appears in quite a lot of fiction. Only a few weeks after the arrests the British TV drama Spooks broadcast an episode that aped what had happened in reality. Bear in mind they would have had to write this script weeks or months before the Fake Sheikh was even approached by Mr B.
In the episode several MI5 agents set off a bomb in a housing block in a poor area of London, to make it look like some terrorists blew themselves up by accident. Where have we heard that before? Then, the head of MI5’s counter-terrorism section, Harry Pearse, approaches an old friend who he had recruited decades earlier, who is now a big time Nobel Prize-winning university professor. He ‘activates’ him, and the professor is put to work by MI5 entrapping a group of terrorists who are apparently trying to buy Red Mercury. He pretends to have made some red mercury and that he has it for sale, which the would-be terrorists take seriously because he’s a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
You get the idea – this is the same story. A small group of supposed terrorists are trying to obtain Red Mercury so the British security state create an entrapment scam to flush them out and take them down. As part of the operation they create a fake news story and use a public figure as an asset. All of this happens despite everyone involved knowing that the stuff doesn’t exist. A few of the details are different, but it’s all there.
Along similar lines, a few months later a film was released called Red Mercury, which is about three Islamic terrorists who have somehow managed to obtain some of the non-existent substance. While the film may be a coincidence, or even partly inspired by the fake Red Mercury plot created with the help of the Fake Sheikh, Spooks was produced with the help of former British intelligence officers and most likely with help from MI5 as well. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this plot appeared in an episode broadcast within weeks of the real life intelligence operation.
Red Mercury has featured in fiction before and since – indeed the idea appears to have originated in a novel in the 1930s. For more on that I can recommend Robert Durham’s book Modern Folklore, which covers the Red Mercury myth in some detail, pointing out that it also appeared in an episode of the 1990s BBC series Bugs and on more recent TV shows.
But following the launch of the post-9/11 War on Terror the first mention of Red Mercury I can find in any pop culture is in this Spooks episode. Until then, it wasn’t part of the news dialogue, it wasn’t part of the political discussion, it wasn’t a theme in popular entertainment. That all changed in September-October 2004, via an extremely suspect police operation and a state-sponsored TV series with an uncanny ability to predict news headlines. It isn’t impossible that this is a coincidence, but given the available evidence the smart money is that it isn’t.
The obvious purpose of this would be to help sell the story to the public, and potentially to the jury. This was always a case that was going to struggle once it actually got to court, because the evidence was as non-existent as a substance made up by the KGB 30 years earlier, and the methods used in the investigation are so obviously dodgy, if not corrupt. And that’s how it turned out – the three men were acquitted and the judge in the case criticised the News of the World for not checking the credibility of their story. There was hardly any news coverage of the arrests in 2004 and the ludicrous non-plot, except in the News of the World. To bring the story to a wider audience and make it seem more plausible, within weeks of the arrests the BBC broadcast an episode of a very popular TV series that duplicated the narrative.
Hyperreality and Homeland Security
This is a story that illustrates the machinations of our society during this War on Terror paradigm. Even though there was no threat, the authorities spent a million pounds on the trial and more on the investigation, utilising a tabloid journalist and known fraud artist in the process. And even though we know all of this, they got away with it. No one from the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or the News of the World got into any trouble for doing this. No inquiry was conducted, no review of systems took place to try to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Fortunately, the trio were acquitted and the misery the Fake Sheikh has left in his wake is finally catching up with him. The Tulisa case is quite telling – because she did actually phone up a friend and ask him to sort out some cocaine for the Fake Sheikh. She was pressured and tempted into doing so by an offer of being in a film with Leonardo DiCaprio, but she still did it. However, Mahmood got his driver to change his statement to the police so the driver said he didn’t remember a conversation Tulisa had with a friend that was very anti-drugs. Because of this manipulation of evidence the case got thrown out, and both the driver and the Fake Sheikh were prosecuted for perverting the course of justice.
So a celebrity, who did actually do the relatively minor crime she was accused of, was given much better treatment by the press and the judiciary than three innocent guys who were accused of a much more serious crime. The Fake Sheikh wasn’t prosecuted for setting up those men, but for setting up a celebrity. This shouldn’t come a big surprise, but it does illustrate the hypocrisy of how we deal with miscarriages of justice in this country.
However, this isn’t just a story of the corrupt prosecution of the War on Terror at home, it’s a tale of mass madness, confusion and lies. There are a fair number of people who only read the initial story, so they still believe that these men were trying to buy Red Mercury and that there are terrorists everywhere trying to kill us with extremely hi-tech weapons. There are many people who don’t realise the Fake Sheikh is now in prison for manipulating evidence, or that he employed criminals as part of his entrapment scams, or that the police knew this and continued to work with him.
Beyond that, this story is symptomatic of our increasingly weak connection with reality, our experience of mass hyperreality. What is the reality in these situations? If enough people are scared of Red Mercury, even though it doesn’t exist, does that mean the police and prosecutors should be able to do this to people? Is that episode of Spooks actually the most realistic depiction available to us of what actually happened? Was this whole thing a conscious conspiracy, or a bunch of people who had deluded themselves into being scared of non-existent terrorists, and then inflicted that on innocent people and the public at large?
Looked at another way, 40 years ago the KGB invented a non-existent substance that’s supposedly a holy grail for terrorists and nuclear smugglers, which got reformed by British intelligence into both the excuse for a corrupt entrapment scam and, simultaneously, the plot for a popular TV show about MI5. The only people who had to live with the consequences of this were the three accused, and us, the general public.
This is how hyperreality comes to serve the security state. Fear is a natural, useful thing. All mammals experience it, and quite a lot of other living things too. But fear is usually anticipatory, it is part of our ability to intuitively predict bad consequences and avoid them. It is therefore easy to be overly-fearful, or to fear things that don’t exist. With a media that is so willing to embrace falsehoods in the name of whipping up the maximum amount of fear possible, the public is bombarded with things to be scared of. Without a firm grip on reality, or strong rational skills or other means of defending against this, most people have no choice but to absorb and internalise a lot of this.
This is still going on. If you search for the phrase ‘red mercury’ you’ll find stories about ISIS trying to buy the stuff, some of which take it seriously. You will also find an incident in March this year in Atlanta. According to a local TV news station:
ATLANTA – The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are handling a hazardous materials situation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in downtown Atlanta.
Officials confirm they received a call saying a man carried red mercury from Africa into the facility.
The Atlanta Fire Department shut down parts of Courtland and Baker streets while they investigate the situation.
The Fire Department said the first readings have come back negative for any type of danger.
Look at how vague the story is – a man supposedly carried Red Mercury from somewhere in Africa, the world’s second largest continent, and this caused the local Fire Department to shut down roads and the FBI and Homeland Security turned up. All because of one phone call, about a substance that doesn’t exist.
The politics of fear requires and originates in the fact that the public are scared of some things. This is true of pretty much all politics everywhere, as all politics is a politics of fear. But the policies that are then adopted vary according to what the public fears and how much they fear it, and when this is done without reality slapping people in the face like a wet fish, we end up with insane politics. There’s nothing to stop the insanity, because most people aren’t experiencing all this in a realistic way.
In a nutshell, that’s one of the main reasons I do what I do. There has to be some force pushing back against the ever-increasing security state that results from the politics of fear. Simply accusing the security state of secretly doing this, that and the other isn’t effective. It just contributes to the state of fear the public is in, and in most cases the accusation isn’t true so it also contributes to them suffering from hyperreality. People don’t know what they’re blaming the security state for, and blaming them for anything and everything just renders those accusations powerless. They just become part of the background noise.
Instead, I want to blame them for things they have actually done, things they do actually continue to do, and to explore other possibilities in a realistic way based on evidence rather than suspicion and speculation. For me, that is the personal and political lesson to be learned from these events.