If there are terrorist playing cards, one of the aces in the deck surely ought to bear the face of Shoko Asahara, the fanatic, half-blind guru of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo sect. Aum, you may recall, blazed to world notoriety in March 1995 with its rush-hour nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. The New Age cult made real the nightmare scenario that a handful of terrorism experts had warned about for years that an independent group, not backed by any state, could obtain weapons of mass destruction and use them indiscriminately against civilian targets. Aum was years ahead of al Qaeda in its quest for WMD, and its record on this is the stuff of nightmares.
Last Friday, after a decade in the courts, Asahara had his final appeal rejected by Japan's Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence for the murder of 26 people. I doubt Asahara is long for our world. Japan not only still has capital punishment, folks it still has hanging, and Japan's plump, sadistic guru could face the gallows at any time.
A one-time yoga teacher who peddled quack cures, Asahara found his calling as founder of Aum Shinrikyo (in English, Aum Supreme Truth), a hodge-podge of Buddhist, Hindu, and New Age religion, with heavy doses of fire-and-brimstone Armageddon. At its peak the cult boasted as many as 40,000 followers, largely in Japan and Russia, with resources that al Qaeda would envy: tens of millions of dollars, state-of-the-art laboratories, and a host of young scientists with advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine.
I was based in Tokyo at the time of the attack. With police finally on the cult's trail, an increasingly paranoid Asahara ordered his followers onto the subway, armed with bags of the deadly nerve agent sarin. They boarded five trains on three lines, all converging on Kasumigaseki, the transfer station nearest police headquarters in central Tokyo. I often changed trains there en route to a part-time editing job, but as luck would have it, I worked at another office that day. At the height of Monday morning rush hour, they released the sarin by puncturing the bags with sharpened umbrellas. The scenes that followed were unreal, giving the world its first taste of WMD terrorism, with unprotected first responders, unprepared hospitals, and clueless cops.
Within days, the media were reporting that suspicion centered on an obscure New Age cult called Aum. As the weeks passed, the stories we read in the Japanese press went from strange to incredible. Authorities and the media were linking the cult not only to poison gas production but to a litany of devices and crimes that seemed right out of a science-fiction novel: biological agents, laser and particle beams, conventional explosives, electromagnetic guns, eerie techniques for mind control, medical experiments that belong in a horror movie, massive production of narcotics, and attempts to both build and buy a nuclear bomb. Fascinated with what was unfolding before us, I joined with the talented British journalist Andrew Marshall to coauthor the first book in English on Aum, The Cult at the End of the World. (So unsettling was the material that I vowed never to do another book on cults.) The book is out of date these days, but key lessons from Aum's bizarre story are not.
First, Aum remains a case study in what not to do in fighting terrorism. The system failed at every level police and prosecutors failed to investigate or share information, intelligence and security officials failed to heed warning signs, health officials and social workers failed to intervene, the news media failed to aggressively report. (Sound familiar?) Here was a group with chem and bio labs, conventional weapons plants, and paramilitary training just 70 miles outside Tokyo virtually unnoticed and unbothered for years. To appreciate what Aum got away with, consider the scope of crimes by its members between 1989 and 1995:
All this was before the subway attack. The cult got away with so much, in fact, it felt it could get away with almost anything until one day the world awoke to find that the world's busiest subway system had been nerve gassed.
A second lesson drawn from the strange case of Aum is actually a bit of good news. A few years after our book on Aum, I worked on a study of the group with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In that research, I identified 20 separate attacks by Aum 10 with biological agents and 10 with chemical agents. All of the biological attacks failed, and Aum's most successful chemical attack on the Tokyo subway killed only 12 people. Moreover, a widely cited statistic that 5,000 people were injured is just wrong: While 5,000 worried souls may well have flooded Tokyo hospitals, only about 1,000 were actually injured and many of those not seriously. Aum's record suggests that homemade chemical and biological weapons, while scary as hell, may be tougher to do than the media and many terrorism experts have made out.
With that said, the third lesson is that we nonetheless were lucky. Had Aum's members been not quite so paranoid, had they bought themselves a little more time, chances are they would have produced more potent sarin and better delivery devices. Aum's membership is now down to some 1,650, and the Japanese police watch them closely. But it's not Aum that worries me today. Consider the three key elements that made the cult a success: alienated young people, access to high-tech tools and technology, and bungling authorities. It's hard to believe that won't happen again.