Is the doomsday cult poised for revival?

The Scotsman/April 17, 2004
By Julian Ryallin

Tokyo -- Shoko Asahara has been sentenced to hang for masterminding the worst terrorist attack in Japanese history; 11 of his closest followers have received death sentences, and many more devotees are serving substantial prison sentences. Yet the deadly doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, is anything but dead.

The Japanese government warned yesterday that Aum - now renamed Aleph - is concentrating its efforts on rebuilding a number of profitable businesses and increasing membership.

Most worryingly, the majority of its members remain loyal to its leader Asahara's vision of an apocalyptic collision between believers in his "faith" and the world outside the walls of the cult's numerous compounds.

"Aum members continue to practise teachings that justify violence, while retaining absolute faith in Asahara," the justice minister Daizo Nozawa told reporters. "The situation still poses a threat to society and we have to keep the group under close surveillance."

It has come as a shock to many in Japan, who assumed that when, in February, Asahara was sentenced to hang, the country would finally be able to put the terrible events of 20 March, 1995, behind it. It was on that day that members of the Aum cult released Sarin nerve gas at a point where three train lines converge beneath the seat of government in Tokyo. Twelve commuters and station staff died, and many more were injured.

Aum changed its name to Aleph in January 2000, in an effort to shed some of the stigma that it had attracted, and has repeatedly claimed that it no longer poses a threat to society. Instead, its new leaders claim, it is committed to "correcting the errors" some of its members made in the past and compensating the families of the victims.

Yet in police raids on the cult's facilities across Japan shortly before the Tokyo district court sentenced Asahara, 49, to death on 27 February, officials discovered books and videotapes featuring Asahara's preachings.

The Public Security Investigation Agency (PSIA) has said that despite universal condemnation of Asahara and all that he stood for, the group today has some 1,650 members in Japan - 650 hardcore live-in followers and 1,000 others who practise at home - as well as 300 others in Russia.

"The followers have strengthened their seclusion from society and have not changed their self-deceiving nature," Mr Nozawa said, adding that its followers have set up about a dozen companies to earn funds and attract new disciples. The cult claims that the businesses, mostly in the computer software sector, will earn money to compensate the victims of their predecessors' errors. The PSIA, however, contends they are designed to expand the group, which is also conducting expensive seminars and holds yoga classes to recruit new members.

Some followers have also joined ordinary companies in the last six months and are contributing their salaries to the cult, the agency report said.

The rebirth of the cult without the active participation of its charismatic leader comes as a surprise. Asahara was a darkly inspirational figure.

Before he founded the cult in 1984, Asahara had set himself up as an acupuncturist and earned himself a conviction for selling quack medicine.

Half-blind since childhood, he claimed to have found enlightenment on a visit to the Himalayas and quickly earned a devoted following among a generation of young Japanese who had grown tired of material possessions and decided they were looking for a more spiritual life.

Asahara's early disciples targeted intelligent but lonely and vulnerable "nerd"-type youths from Japan's universities. These men and women were later to set up the facilities to produce Sarin, guns and drugs, including LSD. At the peak of his powers, Asahara - whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto - had 10,000 loyal acolytes in Japan and an estimated 30,000 in Russia. Small groups also existed in France and the United States.

In 1990, Asahara decided to set up a political party and run for the Japanese parliament.

His campaign attracted media attention as his followers made up "cheer-leading squads" dressed in flowing white robes and wearing hats in the shape of blue elephants' heads.

Disappointed at Aum's dismal showing in the election, Asahara apparently changed his tactic and prepared to overthrow the Japanese government by force. It was this that ultimately led to the gas attack.

Asahara's eccentricities were clearly on display at his trial. He refused to speak during hearings set aside for him to explain his side of events. He also failed to co-operate with his own lawyers and, on several occasions, had to be removed from the court for gesticulating at witnesses and court officials, and making unintelligible noises.

On the day he was convicted, he had to be restrained by four court officials after he tried to stand up, waving his arms around. His 12-strong court-appointed defence team took two days to read the 700-page document that detailed why their client was innocent.

The lengthy appeals process means it could be a full decade before Asahara's trial reaches its conclusion.

The cult leader's last-ditch defence is that some of the group's senior leaders misinterpreted his teachings and took matters into their own hands, while their leader remained completely in the dark. His defence has repeatedly stated that Asahara was never at the scene of any of the incidents.

Some of the cult's leaders are still on the run. At railway stations across Japan, mug-shots of three of Asahara's key lieutenants are prominently displayed. The three are almost certainly being sheltered by other believers in Asahara's vision of the Japan of the future.

The fact that they have not been run to ground while an entire country searches for them suggests that the descendants of Aum are taking very good care of those with an intimate knowledge and belief in Asahara's world view.

The cult Asahara founded is alive and well, but it is missing the vital ingredient to make it a major threat once more. What the authorities fear most is that a new charismatic leader will emerge from the ranks to map out a dangerous new path to doomsday.

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