Remembering the Tokyo Subway Attacks

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.

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5 Responses

  1. According to former Russian GRU Colonel Stanislav Lunev in his book “Through the Eyes of the Enemy”, Aum Shinrikyo members underwent marksmanship training with the GRU shortly before the Tokyo subway attacks.

    In 1992, the sect opened its Moscow branch on Flotskaya Street. It received permission to broadcast prime-time programmes on a central Moscow TV channel to promote its ideas and beliefs about “supreme intellect”. The leader of the sect – “His Reverence” Asahara — often appeared on these programmes. In March 1998 the sect became known worldwide following the attack, using sarin. A year earlier, the sect had sent an expedition to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to seek and obtain strains of a deadly Ebola virus.

    Former KGB officer Alexander Kouzminov (from whose book “Biological Espionage” the immediately preceding paragraph is adapted) wonders who in Moscow gave shelter to this strange sect, and who benefited from it. He wrote: “What was hidden behind the veil of the sect’s widely publicised ‘supreme intellect’? And why did the FSK permit the sect to open its office on quiet Flotskaya Street of all places, where many KGB-FSK offices were secretly located?”

    As often happens in terrorism cases, all roads lead to the Third Rome.


    “…Mar 18, 2009 — Universal Detection Technology (OTCBB: UNDT), a developer of early-warning monitoring technologies to protect people from bioterrorism and other infectious health threats and provider of counter-terrorism consulting and training services, reported today that it has entered into an exclusive distribution agreement with ATAC Sciences. ATAC Sciences will act as UNDT’s sole agent and distributor in Malaysia.

    The Malaysian government has been combating terrorists for the past decade in particular the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jemaah Islamiayah, which was responsible for the Bali bombings. Malaysian officials believe it is a matter of time before terrorists revert to using bio-weapons as a terror tool as other Southeast Asian terrorists groups, such as Abu Sayaf, are known to have the capability to produce anthrax…”

  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    There was a Russia connection with Aum Shinrikyo, but I think it is really in the category of corruption rather then a KGB plot. Considering the extremely limited results it is tough to see what the Russian government got out of it strategically. Securing bio and chem capabilities so that they don’t end up in terrorist hands remains a real concern. (That I’m not sure if the Russian state sponsored Aum does not mean that the Russian state hasn’t been up to all kinds of no good.)

    Many terrorist groups would leap at the chance to use chem and bio. But acquisition remains a problem. Making small amounts is one thing – but making it in a quantity that can do truly massive harm and delivering it is another.

    I am unaware of Abu Sayyaf producing anthrax. Abu Sayyaf is basically a group of bandits operating in remote areas of the southern Philippines, it is unlikely that they would have access to the facilities necessary to make an anthrax weapon.

    That being said, the dangers of chemical and biological weapons are real and prudent states will invest in capabilities to detect, prevent, and ameliorate these kinds of attacks.

  4. Perhaps the release of Al Qaeda’s anthrax scientist Yazid Sufaat is precedent for concern?

    Al Qaeda’s anthrax scientist
    By Thomas Joscelyn
    December 12, 2008 1:16 PM

    This article was originally published at The Weekly Standard.

    “…The government of Malaysia made a curious announcement this week: Yazid Sufaat, a known al Qaeda operative, and four other alleged terrorists have been released from jail. It is not clear why Malaysian authorities thought it was time to set them free. Malaysia’s home minister, Syed Hamid Albar, simply declared, “They are no longer a threat but they will be watched closely.” We can only hope…”

  5. It is not clear if Sufaat actually has the skills to make a weapon. He may have been released because authorities determined that he did not. Even if he were highly skilled he would need a great deal of specialized equipment. Further, there are different requirements for creating test quantities and massive quantities of biological and chemical weapons. Finally, he would also need to develop an effective means of delivery.

    All of this is difficult and expensive.

    This is not to say that governments should not be prudent about WMD terror. But these threats should be carefully assessed next to traditional terror – firearms and explosives.

    There are much easier ways of killing lots of people than manufacturing sarin or anthrax. Terrorists will find them.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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