Jul 15, 2018

The Japanese Death Cult's String of Futility

Aum Shinrikyo

Scott Stewart

July 10, 2018

  • From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Aum Shinrikyo launched the most ambitious weapons-of-mass-destruction program ever by a non-state actor. 
  • Despite devoting years of effort and tens of millions of dollars, the program met with only limited success. 
  • Using more readily available weapons such as guns and explosives remains far cheaper and more effective in causing mass casualties.

On July 6, Japanese authorities executed Shoko Asahara, the founder of the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult, and six of his followers, closing the book on one of the most high-profile acts of terrorism in modern Japanese history. Aum Shinrikyo is best known for the March 1995 attack in which the group released the nerve agent sarin on five different trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people and sickening hundreds of others. But the group's most infamous action was far from its first attempt to inflict mass casualties on an unsuspecting public.

Not many people are aware that before the subway assault, Aum Shinrikyo used a variety of biological and chemical agents to conduct a number of assassination attempts and other attacks. It was responsible for 20 confirmed attacks or attempts between 1990 and 1995, 13 using chemical agents and seven using biological agents. The Japanese government further suspects that Aum Shinrikyo was behind another 13 attacks that remain unsolved. In addition, there were six others that are believed to be the work of individual members or copycats. The group also reportedly executed 20 or so dissident members using VX nerve agent.

The Big Picture

Despite the hype that the potential terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons generates in the media, the production of large quantities of these deadly agents is quite difficult. Weaponizing and delivering them for an effective attack also require overcoming significant hurdles.

Aum Shinrikyo's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program even had a nuclear component. Its members attempted to purchase Soviet nuclear warheads, hired nuclear scientists and purchased a vast sheep station in Western Australia, where it apparently attempted to mine uranium. The group also used the station to carry out chemical weapons research and reportedly set up a laboratory where it used sheep to test the effectiveness of its chemical weapon recipes.

Aum Shinrikyo spent tens of millions of dollars on its WMD program, recruiting scientists and even building significant modern research facilities in Japanese industrial parks, where it produced thousands of gallons of biological and chemical agents. Under Asahara's guidance, Aum Shinrikyo created the largest non-state WMD program in history as it tried to bring about a global apocalypse. The doomsday cult's efforts thus offer many lessons, including the difficulty of applying chemical or biological weapons to deadly mass effect.

An Early Focus on Biological Agents

In its efforts to kill significant numbers of people, Aum Shinrikyo first focused on developing biological weapons. The group's scientists experimented with botulinum toxin, anthrax, cholera and Q fever. Asahara and about 40 of his followers even traveled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in October 1992 under the guise of rendering medical aid to Ebola victims in what is thought to have been an attempt to acquire samples of the Ebola virus for use in their biological weapons program.

Between April 1990 and August 1993, Aum Shinrikyo used liquid biological agents to carry out seven large-scale attacks. Three of these attacks involved botulinum toxin and four the release of liquefied anthrax. In their first attempt at mass death, the group's members used trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers to release liquid botulinum toxin at a variety of sites including the Imperial Palace, the National Diet Building and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. They also targeted two U.S. naval bases and the Narita International Airport. Despite spraying thousands of gallons of the agent, no casualties resulted — and, in fact, nobody outside of the cult even knew the attack had taken place. Two subsequent botulinum attacks, one of which targeted the June 1993 wedding of Prince Naruhito, likewise had no effect.

After those failures, Aum Shinrikyo's scientists shifted their focus to producing liquid anthrax. By the middle of 1993, they had stockpiled enough to attempt another round of attacks. Between June and August, the group dispersed thousands of gallons of aerosolized liquid anthrax inside Tokyo, using its sprayer trucks. It also unleashed the agent using sprayers mounted on the roof of its Tokyo high-rise headquarters building. Nevertheless, the results were the same: no casualties and zero attention from the public. In fact, it was only when the group's leadership was arrested after the subway attack that a Japanese government investigation even uncovered the series of biological attacks. These investigations discovered that the group had used a strain of anthrax spores that had been weakened for vaccination purposes to create its agent.

A Shift to Chemical Weapons

In the wake of the anthrax failures, Aum Shinrikyo took another tack and began to produce chemical weapons in late 1993. Of the group's 12 confirmed chemical weapons attacks, there were four using sarin, four using VX nerve agent, three with hydrogen cyanide gas and one with phosgene. Several other suspected hydrogen cyanide attacks occurred in which neither the perpetrator nor the agent used were ever identified, and it's possible that the group was behind some or all of them.

Aum Shinrikyo was thought to have used chemical weapons beginning in late 1993 or early 1994 to target enemies such as rival cult leaders, reporters, attorneys, judges and dissident members. They were largely ineffective and involved such tactics as applying VX to doorknobs, keyholes or car door handles; spraying sarin into auto ventilation systems; or pumping phosgene through a mail slot in an apartment door. The group found more success when it began to attack people directly by squirting them with VX or injecting it into victims with a syringe.

In June 1994, the group rigged a van to disperse sarin and parked it near an apartment building where three judges it had been targeting lived. The judges were not harmed, but the release of sarin left seven dead and seriously sickened 140 others in the area. Beyond directly targeting its enemies, however, Asahara and the Aum Shinrikyo leadership had not lost sight of its larger goal: 
conducting apocalyptic mass casualty attacks. In pursuit of this objective, the group is known to have attempted at least three attacks in 1995 using improvised binary hydrogen cyanide gas devices in the Tokyo subway system. In the first attack, on May 5, 1995, sodium cyanide and sulfuric acid, which when combined give off the deadly gas, were planted in a subway restroom in separate vinyl bags. The bags were set aflame in hopes they would rupture, leaving the chemicals to combine. But setting the fire attracted attention, and the bags were discovered before they burst fully, and as a result, only four people were slightly injured. On July 4 and 5 in 1995, Aum Shikrikyo again deployed devices that used vinyl bags to separately hold acid and sodium cyanide. The second generation of devices were designed to be activated by a timer connected to a small motor. In theory, the motor's rotating blade would rupture the bags, releasing the their contents to combine. Those attempts both failed when the devices malfunctioned. No injuries resulted.

Vinyl bags had been the delivery method for its deadliest attack: The sarin gas assault in March 1995 in Tokyo. Members of the group used sharpened umbrella tips to puncture 11 sarin-filled bags on five different subway trains. Beyond the 12 dead, the attack seriously sickened 40 others and affected at least 5,500 people to some degree. The magnitude of the attack led Japanese authorities to seriously pursue Aum Shinrikyo, whose leadership was quickly rounded up. Shoko Asahara and many of the group's leaders were arrested in May 1995.

The Limits of WMD

The Aum Shinrikyo case is a good illustration of the limits of chemical and biological weapons in the hands of non-state actors. It is amazing to consider that despite the tens of millions of dollars spent and years of effort by a team of trained scientists, nobody even noticed the release of thousands of gallons of liquid botulinum toxin and anthrax in and around Tokyo in what what was perhaps the largest deployment of biological agents in history.

Aum Shinrikyo's WMD scientists worked under near ideal conditions in a first-world country with a virtually unlimited budget. The team worked in large, modern purpose-built laboratories to produce substantial quantities of biological weapons. Despite those dedicated efforts, it still could not create virulent biological agents or develop an effective dispersal method. Even when the group became frustrated with its biological weapon failures and switched to chemical nerve agents, it only succeeded in killing a handful of people.

Even today there remain some serious misconceptions about biological weapons.

Even today there remain some serious misconceptions about biological weapons. The three biggest are that they are easy to produce; that they are easy to deploy effectively; and that they always cause massive casualties. While it is certainly true that it is not difficult for bad actors to gain access to rudimentary biological agents, such as the castor oil beans (used to make ricin) seized from a jihadist suspect in Germany in June 2018, it is difficult to isolate the toxin or virulent strain of a disease. It is also far more difficult to weaponize a toxin or organism in a form that would be easy to produce in large quantities, remain deadly for a period of time and be suitable for use in an attack. Finally, using these substances in a way that will result in a mass casualty attack presents a challenge of its own.

Techniques such as gene editing might one day make it possible for a person to develop and produce an effective and virulent biological agent. But right now, the only actors capable of creating the types and quantities of weaponized biological agents required for a widespread attack are nation-states.
Synthesis, weaponization and efficient deployment in an attack also remain serious hurdles for non-state actors wishing to use chemical agents. The Islamic State conducted several chemical weapons attacks in Iraq and Syria using sulfur mustard and other agents in mortar rounds. However, the group was not able to generate a significant quantity of the agents, and their chemical weapon attacks fell more into the category of a nuisance than an effective battlefield weapon. There is a good reason that military doctrine calls for the deployment of chemical weapons in large artillery barrages in order to produce the desired effect on enemy forces.

Even though chemical and biological agents remain effective weapons for targeted assassination, they still are not as efficient at killing as a handgun. Really, the value of chemical and biological weapons is realized in the fear that comes with their use. The attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March (and the echoes of that attack this past week with two more exposures, one of them resulting in a death) with the use of Novichok, an exotic chemical nerve agent developed in the Soviet era, has caused an inordinate amount of disruption and tension between the United Kingdom and Russia.


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