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Aum Shinrikyo, which is also known as Aum and Aleph, is a Japanese cult that combines tenets from Buddhism, Hinduism, and is obsessed with the apocalypse. The group made headlines around the world in 1995 when members carried out a chemical attack on the Tokyo subway system. A nerve agent, sarin, was released onto train cars, killing twelve and causing an estimated six thousand people to seek medical attention, according to the U.S. State Department 2010 Country Report. Aum Shinrikyo is listed as a terrorist organization because of the 1995 attack and for previous attempts to carry out biological and chemical attacks. The group split into two factions in 2007 due to internal friction over attempts to moderate the cult’s religious beliefs and improve its public image. Despite years of inactivity, both groups remain under surveillance by Japanese authorities. Most of Aum’s current 1,500 members live in Japan while about three hundred reside in Russia, says the State Department. Investigation of the 1995 attack remained cold until 2012 when three remaining fugitives were tracked down and arrested, finally closing the chapter on the worst terrorist attack in Japan’s history.
Doctrine of the Aum Shinrikyo
At the center of the group’s belief is reverence for Shoko Asahara, Aum’s founder, who says that he is the first "enlightened one" since Buddha. Asahara preached that the end of the world was near and that Aum followers would be the only people to survive the apocalypse, which he predicted would occur in 1996 or between 1999 and 2003. Asahara has claimed that the United States would hasten the Armageddon by starting World War III with Japan. Aum accumulated great wealth from operating electronic businesses and restaurants, in addition to requiring members to sign their estates over to the group. Aum recruited young, smart university students and graduates, often from elite families, who sought a more meaningful existence, according a New York Times profile of the group. At the time of the 1995 subway attack, the group claimed to have an estimated forty thousand members worldwide, with offices in the United States, Russia, and Japan, according to the State Department.
The group has been led by two charismatic men, but suffered a split that appeared to debilitate it in 2003. Since then, it has been unclear whether the cult is following a disciplined leadership of any kind. Here is a look at the two men who led the group through the 1990s and early part of this century:
- Shoko Asahara, Aum’s founder and spiritual leader, is awaiting execution for his role in planning the 1995 attack. He was born Chizuo Matsumoto in remote, southern Japan in 1955 and attended a school for the blind due to his severely impaired vision. After failing to gain university admission, Asahara studied Chinese medicine and married a college graduate, who would later become a senior leader of Aum. Asahara traveled to the Himalayas in 1987 to study Buddhist and Hindu teachings, where he met several important religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama, and studied yoga. Asahara, who strove "to take over Japan and then the world," according to the State Department, was arrested in May 1995 for his role in the subway attack. His trial took eight years, from 1996 until 2004, when he was sentenced to death. Asahara’s avenues for appeals were exhausted in 2006.
- Fumihiro Joyu, a former engineer who was the head of Aum’s Moscow operation, succeeded Asahara. As leader of Aum, he aimed to move the group away from its violent history and toward its spiritual roots to convince the Japanese that the group was no longer a threat to society. Despite the image overhaul, which included changing the name to Aleph, Japanese authorities did not accept a remade Aum. Joyu resigned as leader of the group in 2003 because of internal friction over whether the group would continue to worship Asahara, officially establishing an offshoot, Hikari no Wa, in 2007. It is unclear who replaced Joyu as the leader of Aleph in 2007.
The 1995 Sarin Attack
During the morning rush hour on one of the world’s busiest commuter systems, Aum members put a liquid form of sarin, tightly contained in packages made to look like lunch boxes or bottled drinks, onto five cars on three separate subway lines that converged at the Kasumigaseki station, where several government ministries are located. The perpetrators punctured the packages with umbrellas and left them in subway cars and stations, where they began to leak a thick liquid. Witnesses said that subway entrances resembled battlefields as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground with blood gushing from their noses or mouths. Twelve members of Aum, including Aum founder Shoko Asahara, were sentenced to death for the subway attack. Japan’s longest running manhunt finally ended on June 15, 2012 with the arrest of Katsuya Takahashi, Asahara’s former bodyguard. He was tracked down following the arrests of two other fugitives associated with the attack, officially bringing closure to the case.
The 1995 attack was the most serious terrorist attack in Japan ’s modern history, causing massive disruption and widespread fear in a society that is virtually free of crime. But the subway attack also showed the world just how easy it is for a small cult or group of terrorists with limited means to engage in chemical warfare. It illustrated that groups not affiliated with rogue states posed a great national security risk. Sarin, which comes in both liquid and gas forms, is a highly toxic and volatile nerve agent the Nazi scientists developed in the 1930s. Chemical weapons experts say that sarin gas is five hundred times more toxic than cyanide gas. Although sarin is very complex and dangerous to make, experts say that the gas can be produced by a trained chemist with publicly available chemicals.
As early as five years before the March 1995 subway attack, the group attempted to carry out at least nine biological assaults—all failed—according to a 1998 New York Times investigation. Originally, Aum planned to massacre citizens by spraying botulin, the most lethal natural poison to humans, from buildings and modified delivery vans. Aum’s team of young scientists cultured and experimented with biological toxins, including botulin, anthrax, cholera, and Q fever. The transition to chemical weapons came after biological attacks failed. Investigations and raids after the subway attack showed that Aum was capable of producing thousands of kilograms of sarin a year, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The cult had also acquired a Russian military helicopter that could have been used to distribute the gas, the police said.
Initial plots failed to produce the deadly chaos that Aum wanted, although one incident in June 1993 in which Anthrax spores were released from a Tokyo building caused a foul odor in addition to the deaths of some birds, plants, and pets. According to the CDC, Aum sent a fact-finding team to Zaire to study and collect Ebola virus samples in 1993. Aum reportedly sprayed some of the failed batches of biological weapons in the areas surrounding U.S.military bases in the early attempts involving botulin, according to the New York Times. After the subway attack, the State Department says that Japanese authorities reinvestigated and found Aum responsible for a mysterious attack—that later proved to be sarin—on a residential neighborhood in 1994 that killed seven and injured over one hundred people.
Russian officials arrested several Aum followers in 2001 for planning to bomb the Imperial Palace in Japan as part of an elaborate attempt to free Asahara.