Does Aum still pose a threat?

BBC, Sept 28, 1999
By Jane Little

Reports that the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, is planning to admit that it carried out the 1995 Tokyo subway gassing and to change its name, come amid fears that it has regrouped since the attack.

Local residents' organisations are intervening to stop the cult opening up centres in their areas, while the government is considering introducing legislation to ban it.

Aum Shinrikyo - or Aum Supreme Truth - stands accused of one deadly chemical attack which galvinised fears across the world.

The Tokyo subway gassing led to the American senate mounting a major investigation into the nature of the cult.

It found that it had assets of $1bn and had about 40,000 followers from the United States to Australia.

The largest block however, was in Russia and investigators found evidence that it had tried to buy nuclear warheads there.


Aum Shinrikyo was founded in 1986 by Chizuo Matsumoto. After being arrested for selling unproven magical elixir from his health food shop, he changed his name to Shoko Asahara and declared that he was the first Japanese to attain enlightenment.

He grew a long beard and rapidly gathered devotees, encouraging them to live in monastic isolation from their friends and families.

The cult claims Buddhist-Taoist-Hindu roots and uses texts from different religions.

Once two stages of enlightenment are reached, a member can enjoy "supreme bliss".

Experts attributed its rapid rise in Japan to a widespread disenchantment with a rigidly-ordered society.

Mr Asahara's anarchic and aggressive methods to rid society of "evil" led to a catalogue of arrests for kidnappings, and other cases involving gassing and falsely advertising health food products.

Cult 'regrouping'

But the sinister, dramatic nature of the Tokyo attack - 12 dead, 5,000 injured - led to mass arrests of its leaders, police raids on cult facilities and calls to renew a controversial anti-subversion law. Police claimed it had been reduced to a few hundred members, but now say that it is regrouping with some 1,500 followers at 30 bases in Japan. But it is impossible to tell exactly how many members are still active in Japan and abroad or how cohesive they are.

The cult's seeming readiness to admit responsibility for the subway attack and to change its name, marks a remarkable about-turn and indicates that it is taking proprosals to ban it seriously.

It may be more on the defensive and less of a potent force than many, who fear it is planning a millenium-timed showdown, would believe.

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