Aum bio-attacks opened Pandora's box

Yomiuri Shimbun/October 26, 2001
By Akihiko Misawa

Among the items found in the New Jersey apartment of one of the men suspected of taking part in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the United States was a copy of a U.S. weekly magazine that featured a report on the 1995 sarin nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, according to a recent press report.

This news comes on top of the rash of incidents involving anthrax-tainted mail in the United States.

On Oct. 5, an American woman who was a passenger aboard one of the Tokyo trains attacked with sarin nerve gas described her harrowing experience at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing.

The Aum Supreme Truth cult, which is responsible for the sarin gas attacks, is one of 28 groups mentioned on a list of foreign terrorist organizations kept by the U.S. State Department.

The list, released Oct. 5, is updated every two years. The Japanese Red Army, a group that shook the world with its radical antiestablishment violence, has been taken off the list, but the Aum Supreme Truth cult remains on it.

This means that Aum, in the eyes of the U.S. government, should still be regarded as a highly dangerous terrorist organization even after the 1995 arrest of Aum leader Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, and the change of the name of Aum to Aleph in January 2000.

It seems that the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden has carried out its terrorist activities following the model of crimes committed by Aum.

Investigations have shown that Aum had plans to stage terrorist attacks using not only chemical agents, such as sarin, VX gas and phosgene, but also biological weapons such as anthrax and botulin.

It is natural for the United States to have been highly alarmed by Aum's activities.

When seen from abroad, it seems difficult to understand why the cult is still allowed to continue its activities in this country despite the spate of appalling crimes it committed.

Aum embarked on its campaign of bioterrorism in April 1990.

In February that year, Matsumoto and other high-ranking members of the cult had all been soundly defeated in a general election and were on the verge of losing the support of cult adherents.

It was later reported that Matsumoto around that time drew in his horns for the first time, telling his associates it might be advisable to disband the cult.

It was the idea of resorting to bioterrorism that resuscitated Aum.

As part of his bioterrorism strategy, Matsumoto claimed to be a prophet at an Aum-sponsored seminar on Ishigakijima island, Okinawa Prefecture, telling those attending the seminar that there would be a horrific incident in Japan in the near future.

He went on to say that the only way they could survive was to join Aum and donate all their money and possessions to the cult.

To fulfill Matsumoto's prophecy of armageddon, Aum leaders spread botulinus bacilli in the area around the Diet building.

In 1992, the cult began culturing anthrax. The following year it spread the bacteria in an area in Tokyo, apparently with the aim of killing a large number of people.

Both the botulin and anthrax offensives ended in failure, since the cult was unaware that it had made nontoxic varieties that were used for cattle vaccination purposes.

Aum subsequently shifted to chemical weapons and began manufacturing sarin.

However, the cult did not abandon the idea of using biological weapons.

Immediately before the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995, Aum members set up a timed device to sprinkle botulinus bacilli in the compound of the Kasumigaseki subway station, located near a large number of central government ministries and agencies. This plan failed because the timer on the device malfunctioned.

While the outcome of these attempts was not what the group expected, Aum was the first nongovernmental organization in the world to have employed bacilli, viruses and lethal chemicals for terrorist purposes.

The Aum incidents prompted many countries to address the threat posed by terrorist use of biological and chemical weapons by stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics, improving steps to counter biological weapons and taking other measures.

Japan, however, was markedly slow in taking such action.

Legislation was passed shortly after the Aum incidents, placing a ban on production, possession and use of sarin and other chemical weapons. However, there is no law even today to prohibit the use of biological weapons.

At the time of the spread of anthrax by Aum members, prosecutors were unable to investigate the case because of the absence of an antibioterrorist law. In addition, the government has done little since the Aum attacks to prevent another bioterrorist assault or to improve crisis-management systems in the event of such an occurrence.

Imagine what would have happened if the anthrax Aum made had been a highly toxic strain of the disease, instead of a harmless cattle vaccine.

We must face up to the fact that we ignored the potential gravity of Aum culturing anthrax until the outbreak of anthrax-laced mail in the United States.

Though somewhat slower off the mark than other countries, the government now is working all-out to put bioterrorist countermeasures in place. However, it is still uncertain whether a medical institution, should it detect a case of infection caused by bioterrorism, would be able to convey the information accurately and without delay to law-enforcement authorities.

Furthermore, nobody knows exactly how many doctors in this country are capable of promptly making a diagnosis and treating such diseases as anthrax and smallpox.

Clearly, Aum opened a Pandora's box of bioterrorism six years ago, and the result has been tragic for the United States.

The Japanese have spent the past six years unaware of what the Aum incidents really meant, or pretending to be unaware of the potential threats involved.

Under the circumstances, no time should be wasted in readying ourselves to face up to the challenges of bioterrorism and chemical weapons.

We must not forget the terror and sense of crisis we had at the time of Aum's sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway system.

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