Arms smugglers and ISIS buyers are hunting for red mercury, a substance that can make dumb bombs smart, hide anything from a drone, and allow for the creation of miniaturized nuclear weapons. If ISIS actually manages to get their hands on the material, it's likely they could develop weapons that would wipe out any force sent to destroy them.
Searches for red mercury are like snipe hunts. Those in the know get a good laugh while the new kid tries desperately to find something that doesn't exist.
As with the legendary snipe, the physical description of red mercury changes depending on who is telling the tale. Sometimes it's a powder, sometimes liquid. It's always some tint of red or brown, but it may change to yellow at high temperatures.
This is mercury iodide, a compound that is red until it is heated about 258 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it turns yellow. There is no temperature at which it becomes a nuclear weapon. Photo: Wikipedia/W. Oelen CC BY-SA 3.0
Likewise, its abilities change in every telling. When references to it first appeared in the 1970s, it was an essential ingredient for boosting the yield of nuclear weapons. As its myth grew, it became capable of guiding missiles to their target or hiding aircraft from enemy radar. It was later described as a nuclear material, capable of fueling a bomb on its own.
The legend of red mercury was boosted through the work of Sam Cohen, a U.S. nuclear physicist. Cohen claimed that red mercury served as a containment vehicle for nuclear reactions, allowing enough pressure and temperature to build for deuterium-tritium fusion bombs to become a reality.
North Korea, Iran, South Africa and others have all searched for the substance to accelerate or enhance their nuclear weapon programs. Now ISIS has joined them, even though the British, Russian, and American governments have all investigated it and determined it is an urban legend.
In a recent New York Times piece, journalist C. J. Chivers compiled a number of stories about the element. Men in the Middle East discuss a test of red mercury where a bit of the powder was mixed with chlorine. The resulting gas supposedly filled the room and then the building, forcing all the viewers from the area.
There is also a tale of different types of mercury, from green to red to the "Blood of the Slaves." That last one can be used by magicians to summon a genie, allegedly.
ISIS is looking specifically for the weaponized version of red mercury, and has a photo of what they think it looks like. From the C. J. Chivers piece:
The images showed a pale, oblong object, roughly the length of a hot-dog bun, with a hole at each end. It bore no similarity to the red mercury that smugglers often described — a thick liquid with a brilliant metallic sheen. It appeared to be a dull piece of injection-molded plastic, like a swim-lane buoy or a children's toy. But it had an intriguing resemblance that hinted at how the Islamic State's interest might have been piqued: It was the exact likeness of an object that in 2013 the Cihan News Agency, one of Turkey's largest news agencies, had called a red-mercury rocket warhead.
So what is the government doing to prevent ISIS getting red mercury? Mostly just celebrating that ISIS is expending time and a lot of money to get it. With the International Atomic Energy Authority declaring red mercury "a bunch of malarkey," there are much worse and very real things ISIS could be hunting for instead, like yellow cake or weaponized anthrax.