The threat of terrorism is a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States. While there is a clear understanding that terrorism does pose a threat to national security there are questions that arise regarding the threat that a terrorist would use a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) on the United States.
There has been precedence set for the use of WMDs by a terrorist group. While these events did not occur in the United States, they should serve as a warning that steps should be taken to prevent a WMD attack. “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.” (Fletcher, 2012, June 19) The dangers of Aum Shinrikyo or a similar type group should not be understated. This organization did not start out as a terrorist group; they were primarily a new religious movement (AKA a cult). It was not until after the 1995 Sirin gas attacks that the group was reclassified as a terrorist organization. “Aum Shinrikyo is listed as a terrorist organization because of the 1995 attack and for previous attempts to carry out biological and chemical attacks.” (Fletcher, 2012, June 19) In addition to this, Aum has proven that it possesses the technological skill needed to develop a WMD. Unlike traditional terrorist organizations, Aum also possesses the funding that allows for the purchase of components necessary to develop a WMD and facilities that are needed to build them. There is also evidence that supports that fact that Aum had been attempting to develop WMDs at these facilities for years before the final WMD attack.
Aum Shinrikyo has not perpetrated any additional terrorist attacks since the 1995 attack but that does not indicate that this group no longer poses a threat to national security and has lost its ability to perpetrate additional 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.” (Fletcher, 2012, June 19) There are now multiple groups that have some connection to initial Aum doctrine. It would be difficult to identify what faction of the original group held more radical beliefs. Due to this, there is not only one group that holds radical beliefs and was willing to perpetrate a WMD attack but now there are multiple groups that may hold the same ideology. More pressing, even after it has been proven that Aum was behind a WMD attack there are still individuals that are willing to maintain membership in the organization. It is also important to point out that Aum has members living in Russia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Aum members residing in Russia may have access to WMDs that had been developed by the Soviet government and are now either lost or up for sale to the highest bidder. It is also potential that former Soviet scientists would be willing to sell knowledge regarding the development of new WMD technology.
History of Aum Shikrikyo:
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. (Fletcher, 2012, June 19)
Aum is an interesting case due to the fact that it did not develop in the same fashion as more traditional terrorist groups. Meaning that the group started as a religious organization that was attracting members based on a religious ideology, not a political ideology. Aum was teaching that its members would be the only ones to survive the end of the world. There was a belief that a world war would be the case of the end of the world and it was the responsibility of Aum members to defend against this action. Unlike traditional terrorist groups there was no attempt to initiate a political and/or religious change.
Leadership in Aum was split between two men. This is the sort of leadership that is commonly seen among cults and/or terrorist groups. At the top of the group is a leader with enough personality to attract members that are willing to give away their possessions and follow a radical lifestyle. Beneath this position will be one trusted lieutenant that will enforce the regulations put in place by the group’s leader:
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. (Fletcher, 2012, June 19)
What makes Aum such an interesting case study is the basic ideology of the group. Aum based its core beliefs around the tenants of Buddhism. “Essentially, according to Buddhist teachings, the ethical and moral principles are governed by examining whether a certain action, whether connected to body or speech is likely to be harmful to one's self or to others and thereby avoiding any actions which are likely to be harmful. In Buddhism, there is much talk of a skilled mind. A mind that is skilful avoids actions that are likely to cause suffering or remorse.” (A Basic Buddhism Guide: Buddhist Ethics, n.d.) A core belief of Buddhism is that the follower should not cause suffering by word or by action. Shoko Asahara was able to twist the belief of his followers that allowed for them to perpetrate a WMD attack against the citizens of Japan. As it would be difficult for one man to manage everything about an organization there was another prominent individual involved in Aum.
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. (Fletcher, 2012, June 19)
It is unclear as to why Joyu attempted to shift Aum beliefs away from violence and toward a more peaceful organization. What is known is that he had been a member of Aum during its turn toward violence and therefore it remains unclear as to whether this attempted change was an actual turn away from violence or an attempt to put an innocent non-violence face to the organization in public while still gathering the ability to produce more WMDs. What is known is that Aum continues into present day under a different name.
Evidence existed that indicated that Aum was in the process of developing and preparing for some sort of terrorist event in the years leading up to the 1995 subway attack. For example “Aum Shinrikyo began its public campaign of terror on June 27, 1994. On that Monday in Matsumoto, a city of 300,000 population 322 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, a group of cult members drove a converted refrigerator truck into a nondescript residential neighborhood. Parking in a secluded parking lot behind a stand of trees, they activated a computer-controlled system to release a cloud of sarin. The nerve agent floated toward a cluster of private homes, a mid-rise apartment building, town homes, and a small dormitory.” (Olson, n.d.) This organization like other terrorist and/or cult groups have spent years developing everything necessary to successfully complete a terrorist attack. If intelligence officials had been paying attention to Aum that would have been able to identify the threat posed and possibly has stopped it before it began. In addition, “This neighborhood was targeted for a specific reason. The dormitory was the residence of all three judges sitting on a panel hearing a lawsuit over a real-estate dispute in which Aum Shinrikyo was the defendant. Cult lawyers had advised the sect's leadership that the decision was likely to go against them. Unwilling to accept a costly reversal, Aum responded by sending a team to Matsumoto to guarantee that the judges did not hand down an adverse judgment. A light breeze (3 to 5 knots) gently pushed the deadly aerosol cloud of sarin into a courtyard formed by the buildings. The deadly agents affected the inhabitants of many of the buildings, entering through windows and doorways, and left open to the warm night air. Within a short time, seven people were dead. Five hundred others were transported to local hospitals, where approximately 200 would require at least one night's hospitalization.” (Olson, n.d.) Aum members made little to no attempt to disguise their involvement in this initial WMD attack. However, the perpetrators of the attack were able to continue on with the development and planning of additional WMD attacks around Japan. This initial WMD attack was a dress rehearsal for a more coordinated WMD attack in Tokyo. Again, if law enforcement and/or intelligence authorities were paying attention to the developing threat that Aum posed, steps could have been taken to prevent the attack. “On the morning of March 20, 1995, packages were placed on five different trains in the Tokyo subway system. The packages consisted of plastic bags filled with a chemical mix and wrapped inside newspapers. Once placed on the floor of the subway car, each bag was punctured with a sharpened umbrella tip, and the material was allowed to spill onto the floor of the subway car. As the liquid spread out and evaporated, vaporous agent spread throughout the car.” (Olson, n.d.)
What is more frightening about this attack is the idea that “Tokyo was experiencing a coordinated, simultaneous, multi-point assault. The attack was carried out at virtually the same moment at five different locations in the world's largest city: five trains, many kilometers apart, all converging on the center of Tokyo. The resulting deaths and injuries were spread throughout central Tokyo. First reports came from the inner suburbs and then, very quickly, cries for help began to flow in from one station after another, forming a rapidly tightening ring around the station at Kasumagaseki. This station serves the buildings that house most of the key agencies of the Japanese government. Most of the major ministries, as well as the national police agency, have their headquarters at Kasumagaseki.” (Olson, n.d.) Instead of one attack or even several smaller attacks Aum members were able to undertake a series of coordinated attacks against the Tokyo subway system. This level of coordination would not be seen again until the events of 9/11 when a group of hijacked planes were able to begin striking targets within the United States before those in authority realized there was a problem. In both of these cases if proper intelligence was collected that would have identified the problem sooner and if action was taken regarding that intelligence it is possible that those of these events could have been prevented or at the very least the impact of these activities would not have been as sevear.
Also, chemical weapons were not the only WMDs that Aum was attempting to develop:
Chemical weapons were not, however, the only option available to the Aum. The first cult laboratory for toxin production was actually in place by 1990 and was subsequently replaced with two new laboratories, one at Kamakuishki and the other in Tokyo. Aum dabbled in many different biological agents. They cultured and experimented with botulin toxin, anthrax, cholera, and Q fever. In 1993, Ashahara led a group of 16 cult doctors and nurses to Zaire, on a supposed medical mission. The actual purpose of the trip to Central Africa was to learn as much as possible about and, ideally, to bring back samples of Ebola virus. In early 1994, cult doctors were quoted on Russian radio as discussing the possibility of using Ebola as a biological weapon.
The cult attempted several apparently unsuccessful acts of biological terrorism in Japan between 1990 and 1995. As early as April 1990, the cult had tried to release botulin toxin from a vehicle driving around the Diet and other government buildings in central Tokyo. In early June of 1993, another attempt was made to release botulin toxin, this time in conjunction with the wedding of the crown prince. A vehicle equipped with a spray device was driven around the imperial palace as well as the main government buildings in central Tokyo. (Olson, n.d.)
Aum had been attempting to develop a series of biological weapons to use in addition to chemical weapons. However, their attempts at biological weapons development were not as successful as their attempts at chemical weapons development. It is also important to note that Aum had and continues to have followers in Russia. The Soviet Union and its successor the Russian Federation are in possession of the largest biological weapons developing program in the world. While Russian officials deny that a biological weapons program is operating in Russia, the Soviets had operated a biological weapons program during the entire duration of the cold war. It cannot be verified as to where these biological weapons are being stored and/or if they have been destroyed. Given this information it is possible that Aum may be able to purchase Russian biological weapons or at the very least attract a former bio-weapon scientist into Aum membership that can assist with weapons development.
The following information is being added to shed light on the size and scope of the Aum WMD program:
Within 48 hours of the subway attack, police were carrying out raids against Aum Shinrikyo facilities throughout Japan. Police entered cult facilities carrying sophisticated detection systems and wearing military-issued chemical gear (which was issued to the Tokyo police the week before the subway attack).
The real target of the raids that began on March 17 was the building known as Satyan 7, a supposed shrine to the Hindu god Shiva, the most prominent figure in the Aum Shinrikyo religious pantheon. In reality, the building housed a moderately large-scale chemical weapons production facility, designed by cult engineers, with first-rate equipment purchased over-the-counter.
Although the facility's design was crude by industry standards, it was nonetheless very capable of producing the sarin used in the Matsumoto attack. At the time of the Tokyo attack, however, Satyan 7 was not in service, having been mothballed after an accident during the previous summer. In an effort to get the plant back into production, the cult had, during the fall of 1994, unsuccessfully attempted to recruit Russian chemical-weapons engineers. The cult was adept at recruiting educated professionals (scientists and engineers), but most were young and largely inexperienced. Satyan 7 was designed to produce sarin, not on a small terrorist scale, but in nearly battlefield quantities: thousands of kilograms a year. (Olson, n.d.)
Aum’s WMD program was relatively large and sophisticated in nature. This was not a small fly by night operation. Intelligence seems to indicate that Aum was well underway in developing other WMDs and given a proper amount of time they most likely would have become successful in attempting to develop biological weapons. This also indicated the level of danger that Aum continues to pose. As stated Russia is in possession of former Soviet bio-weapons, it would be easy for an Aum member to buy or steal a weapon or attract a scientist that understands how to develop a weapon and is willing to share that information with Aum.
Aum Shinrikyo is an interesting case study due to the fact that they are both a new religious movement or cult and a terrorist organization. They are also interesting when one considers that Aum was able to perpetrate a successful WMD attack against a major city and that they did not come to the attention of law enforcement and/or intelligence authorities until after the attack had taken place. This also should serve to indicate that terrorist organizations can obtain the ability to develop and use WMDs.
Evidence was in existence that showed that Aum was in the process of attempting to develop WMDs and even were able to make a dry run of a chemical weapons attack. The Tokyo subway attack was a coordinated attack on the subway. All aspects of the organization had to function properly to ensure that the attacks had occurred as planned. The 9/11 attacks also served to indicate that other coordinated attacks can continue to occur with devastating results. Both the Aum attack and 9/11 could have been prevented with the proper intelligence and proper political/law enforcement action taken to prevent the attacks.
It is also important to note that Aum currently has members residing in Russia and had at one point been running a fairly sophisticated biological weapons production program. Although this program was unsuccessful during the 1995s, that is not to say that the program remains unsuccessful and/or that Aum has not been able to obtain the technology necessary to develop a biological weapon from Russian followers.
A Basic Buddhism Guide: Buddhist Ethics. (n.d.). BuddhaNet - Worldwide Buddhist Information and Education Network. Retrieved October 6, 2013, from http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/budethics.htm
Fletcher, H. (2012, June 19). Aum Shinrikyo (Japan, cultists, Aleph, Aum Supreme Truth). Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved October 6, 2013, from www.cfr.org/japan/aum-shinrikyo/p9238
Olson, K. B. (n.d.). Aum Shinrikyo: Once and Future Threat? - Vol. 5 No. 4 - August 1999 - Emerging Infectious Disease journal - CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 6, 2013, from http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/5/4/99-0409_article.htm