Aum Shinrikyo Cult/Terrorist Organisation

On 20 March 1995 members of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult carried six packages onto Tokyo subway trains and punctured the packages with umbrella tips, releasing deadly Sarin gas killing 12 persons and injuring more than 5,000. The incident involved six devices; disguised as a soft drink can, a briefcase, a white plastic bag, and a gas can wrapped in newspaper. These were set to go off on five different subway cars on three different lines; Marunouchi, Hibiya, and Chiyoda, all of which were en route to Tokyo's government centre Kasumigaseki, where the national police headquarters are. This was the first major attack using chemical weapons by a terrorist organisation and shocked the world that a terrorist organisation would not only have the will but the capability to mount a chemical weapon attack on a populated urban target. For some time there had been considerable academic debate as to whether a terrorist organisation could produce or acquire a lethal chemical agent and would have the desire to use one indiscriminately. The previous norm for terrorist attacks was a political aim that adhered to the principle of Propaganda of the deed and did not aim to cause large-scale death. The attack by the Aum cult was a grim fore taste of things to come with extreme terrorist groups looking to launch attacks with a big body count.

The Aum cult was established in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, its aims are to take over Japan and then the world; its organizational structure mimics that of a nation-state, with "ministries" and mock government departments. The Cults leaders control the followers with mix of charismatic and coercive leadership. The head of the cult was Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, a partially blind, charismatic former acupuncturist and yoga instructor, self-styled as the “one and only person who has acquired supreme truth” and who attributed to himself supernatural powers. Approved as a religious entity in 1989 under Japanese law, the group was active although unsuccessful in local Japanese elections in 1990. Disbanded as a religious organization under Japanese law in October 1995, this stripped the cult of its legal status and tax privileges as a religious organization, as a direct result of the poison gas attack on Tokyo.

At the time of the Tokyo subway attack, the group claimed to have 9,000 members in Japan and up to 40,000 worldwide. Its current strength is unknown. The Cult operates in Japan, but previously had a presence in Australia, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, and the United States. The groups funding comes from the savings that new members turn over to the cult, from tax-exempt businesses staffed by cult members, and from fraud and extortion. Aum's assets have been estimated at between 300 million and one billion dollars. Thirteen Aum-associated businesses and five stores earn billions of yen each year. The cult's specialty is selling cheap computers. In 1997 its computer sales earned it more than 57.5 million dollars

The cult has succeeded in recruiting highly trained scientists and graduate students in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and electrical engineering. Its recruiting methods include a wide range of standard brainwashing techniques, such as sleep deprivation and forced isolation. The group may have perpetrated other crimes before the March 1995 attack and without a doubt planned future attacks; evidence indicates that members of the group travelled to Africa to try and obtain samples of the Ebola virus to use as a biological weapon and may be actively seeking other biological and chemical agents for use in terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of September 11th the world’s intelligence services have stepped up operations against those trying to obtain such materials and it is unlikely the Cult will be successful as they lack the operational skill and experience of other international terrorist groups. In April 1990 Aum attacked the Japanese parliament with botulinum toxin aerosol, and in June 1993 it targeted the wedding of the Japanese crown prince. Later that month, Aum reportedly also attempted to spray anthrax spores from the roof of a building in Tokyo. There were no casualties as a result of these attacks.

The number of Aum followers is levelling off, not decreasing. Currently, Aum has an estimated 2,000 followers, including more than 500 live-in members. The latter live in 15 cult bases across Japan. The cult owns 28 compounds in 18 Japanese prefectures for religious training, missionary work and other operations. Out of some 400 Aum disciples arrested in crackdowns on the cult since 1995, a total of 155 have returned after being released. In 1997 a government panel decided not to invoke the Anti-Subversive Law against the cult, which would have outlawed the sect, by the Cult remains under close surveillance by the Japanese Police authorities.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (13 November 2004), Aum Shinrikyo Cult/Terrorist Organisation, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_aum.html

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