Cult Shadow Still Looms Over Japan

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Cult Shadow Still Looms Over Japan

A raid by Japan’s spy agency this month on sites tied to Aum Shinrikyo is a reminder of the troubling legacy the cult has left.

This month, nearly 300 agents from Japan’s national spy agency, the Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA), raided 26 sites tied to the infamous cult Aum Shinrikyo. The terrorist group grabbed global headlines in 1995 when members attacked Tokyo subway train cars with sarin gas, resulting in the deaths of a dozen people and injuring hundreds more. The attack had an enormous and lasting psychological impact on the country.

The PSIA raids were by no means covert or unexpected. As a result of legislation that came into force in 1999, the agency is permitted to conduct surveillance activities on groups that have previously ‘committed acts of indiscriminate mass murder.’ But this act is set to expire next year, which could significantly inhibit Japan’s ability to gather intelligence against the once lethal organization. The question facing policymakers is whether the legislation needs to be extended.

Also known as Aum and Aleph, the cult has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the US State Department since 1997. After the Tokyo subway attack, Aum divided itself into two interconnected groups – a dominant one named Aleph, and a splinter group called Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light).

Aum’s leader, Shoko Asahara, an eccentric individual with formal studies in religion and pharmacy, was imprisoned shortly after the subway attack, and currently remains on death row awaiting execution.

Asahara based the cult around a curious cocktail of religious beliefs that incorporated elements of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Christianity. He claimed that the world was nearing the apocalypse, which would be triggered by the use of weapons of mass destruction by the United States on Japan. He believed it was his spiritual duty to hasten this by overthrowing the Japanese government.

Aum Shinrikyo holds the dubious distinction of being the first group of non-state actors to effectively launch a large-scale attack using chemical weapons. Investigations after the 1995 subway attack revealed that Aum had planned and executed nine smaller chemical attacks within Japan. Aum has used several different chemicals in its attacks, including the nerve agent sarin, phosgene, and VX gas. In its early attacks, Aum largely targeted attorneys, judges and journalists who were seen as sympathetic to the group’s victims.

In May 1994, Aum members tried to kill an attorney by releasing sarin gas outside of a local courthouse in Tokyo. A month later, Aum launched its most devastating attack up until that point by releasing sarin gas in Matsumoto city using a van equipped with a heating pot and fan, killing seven people. But the group’s interest in WMD didn’t end there. In the autumn of 1994, cult members attacked a randomly chosen man on the street in Osaka, spraying VX gas in his face, resulting in his death. Aum leaders also demonstrated their brutality by murdering twenty of their own ‘dissident cult members’ by squirting them with VX gas.

But Aum also researched the use of biological weapons, and had planned – although it didn’t succeed in implementing – seven attacks using this approach. In 1993, Aum members attempted to release botulinum toxin from a vehicle to target the wedding of Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito. Shortly following that failed attack, Asahara led a group of 16 cult doctors on a trip to Zaire, with the intention of acquiring samples of the deadly flesh-eating Ebola virus.

These attacks, along with several other failed attempts, presaged the much more dramatic attack on the Tokyo subway system, which left the nation gripped by fear. The attack grabbed international headlines and surprised intelligence officials around the world who hadn’t imagined that such an incident would take place in Japan. Unfortunately for Aum, this attack also led to its virtual demise; within days, Japanese security officials raided Aum facilities and froze millions of dollars in financial assets. Over 200 Aum members were arrested after the subway attacks, and 12 people, including Asahara, have been sentenced to death by hanging.

However, despite his imprisonment, PSIA officials believe that Asahara still has considerable influence over the direction of both Aleph and Hikari no Wa. In publications from both groups, Asahara is still referred to as a ‘respectable teacher’ and ‘guru.’ Aleph, meanwhile, maintains substantial financial assets. According to the Kyodo News agency, Aleph last year acquired a large building in Tokyo for 100 million yen ($1.3 million) and remains focused on attracting new young followers over the internet.

Indeed, Aum has previously proven itself to be resilient and self-reliant, accumulating an estimated $1.4 billion in business assets before the government crackdown in 1995. Most of Aum’s funding came from a thriving computer business, which has been largely dismantled by Japanese authorities. However, Aleph is still able to generate a modest amount of revenue through the merchandising of its religious publications. Despite this, the massive decline in its membership has hit the level of donations, which have served as the primary source of the group’s funding in the past.

The group was, and remains, without a state sponsor, but was able to infiltrate several ministries of the Japanese government through its vigorous campaign of recruitment into several elite Japanese universities. Some members with specialized skills were distributed by Aum into powerful government agencies such as the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Yet while Aum has thus far not carried out any international attacks, its ability to extend influence beyond Japanese borders remains a concern. In 1995, shortly after the subway attack, the US Senate reported that Aum had as many as 10,000 adherents in Japan and an additional 65,000 members worldwide. This number has fallen considerably, with the PSIA recently reporting that the membership of both groups was around 1,600.

But despite the drop in international followers, Fumihiro Joyu, the head of Hikari no Wa, retains strong connections to cult adherents in Russia, which formerly served as a secondary base of operations for Aum in the 1990s. Joyu used to be the Aum station chief in Moscow, where he spearheaded efforts to purchase time on national radio and TV to promote the organization. However, after a number of raids by Russian police over the past 15 years, Aum redirected its members back to Tokyo.  

So, how credible is the threat of a resurgent Aum? Certainly, since the Tokyo attack, Aum hasn’t been able to launch any successful attacks on civilians or government targets. Aleph, meanwhile, has appealed to the US State Department to be removed from the FTO list. It has apologized for the attacks in Tokyo and Matsumoto, and claims that it currently serves only peaceful purposes. Despite this, security officials in Japan and around the world remain suspicious as the Armageddon doctrine and anti-government writings are still promoted by the group.

While the group hasn’t been entirely neutralized, it’s under intense daily surveillance by the PSIA. Aum continues to be nowhere close to its objective of overthrowing the Japanese government, and it remains a pariah cult in Japanese society. Still, its legacy remains strong in Japan. This alone may be enough to prompt an extension of the decade-old surveillance law.