Fourteen years ago today Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway. A few years ago I wrote a short post about it on my old blog, which I re-post below. (The old blog is now defunct, but I am slowly posting it into The TerrorWonk.) At the time, this was seen as the future of terrorism. In retrospect, there are enormous barries to terrorist groups producing and delivering WMD in major quantities. In a chapter of the Stimson Institute’s October 2000 publication Ataxia: The Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat and the US Response, Amy Smithson shows how little Aum accomplished relative to its massive investment in chemical and biological weapons. The sarin attacks killed 12 on crowded Tokyo subways. Supposedly 5500 were injured by the sarin attacks, but the vast majority experienced minor symptoms and or were merely scared – there were 54 serious injuries. While these injuries and deaths were tragic, conventional attacks on subways have wreaked much more terrible damage. Suicide bombers on London’s subway in July 2005 killed 52, bombs planted on the Mumbai trains killed 209 in 2006, and the Madrid train bombings killed 191 people.
Relative to the investment (and Aum Shinrikyo had far more resources and expertise than most terrorist groups are likely to acquire – including a number of qualified scientists) WMD production does not pay off. Successful terrorist groups employ cold hard logic in developing their tactics and capabilities. While many terrorist groups have shown a willingness to employ WMD, terrorist use of WMD has – thankfully – had limited efficacy. However, if the acquisition costs decline dramatically, this could change. Some kinds of WMD might become easier to produce, a state may choose to provide it, or terrorists may be able to procure from corrupt or failing states.
But this is cold comfort in the face of the continual adaptability terrorists have shown using readily available technology.
From the Profiles in Terror Blog Archives
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Another Anniversary – Tokyo Subway Attacks
The focus on the 3-year anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom overshadowed the anniversary of another day important in the annals of terrorism – Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway.
The strange cult, with its apocalyptic ambitions, is right out of a Bond thriller. Their use of sarin and their attempts to acquire biological weapons raise interesting questions about the future of terrorism. Did Aum Shinrikyo, which only had limited success at acquiring WMD despite its recruitment of top scientists and vast financial resources, show just how high the bar would be for a terrorist group to acquire WMD? Or were these attacks the equivalent of WTC I, a harbinger of a much deadlier attack in the future.
Another aspect is how Aum Shinrikyo represents an “X” factor terrorism that is very difficult to predict or deter. Much of the terrorism today is connected to radical Islam. There are also various terrorist groups left over from the Cold War and various separatist movements – most notably the FARC and the LTTE. Aum Shinrikyo represents something very different – a truly radical group disconnected from any political stream. Aum Shinrikyo was actually a large group and carried out its attacks, at least in part, because its many enemies (particularly the Japanese government itself) were beginning to crack down. But smaller groups with equally bizarre goals, fueled by obscure frustrations, could operate under the radar screen and carry out mass attacks.
A final note – Aum Shinrikyo operatives, on the order of the cult’s leader, underwent flight training in Florida. There is no evidence that they made any attempts to use this training. It is just an odd, disturbing coincidence.