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?