Terrorist Group: Aum Shinri Kyo

16 April 2002
On 20 March 1995, Aum members simultaneously released the chemical nerve agent sarin on several Tokyo subway trains, killing 12 people and injuring up to 6,000 more. Todays law enforcement is constantly dealing with smaller and smaller terrorist groups. Throughout history, large armies have fought battles, but today individuals fight battles. With modern technology and an open market for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism has reached a level obtainable by even the smallest groups. The Japanese Aum taught the world a lesson on how easily an organization can threaten a nation with chemical and biological terrorism.

The Aum Shinrikyo (meaning the Aum Supreme Truth) was built on the belief of one man being the messiah. Chizuo Matsumoto was born blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other to an extremely poor craftsman of straw mats. As a young boy, Chizuo attended local schools, dreamt of being a leader, and even boasted to peers of one day being the Prime Minister of Japan. Chizuo went out to find wealth with his disadvantages and came up with a plan that started a cult, the Aum Shinrikyo. Under this new cult Chizuo was named Shoko Asahara, due mostly in part to a messiah needing a more flashy name (Kaplan, 12). This new self-made messiah has proved that anyone with a little charisma can influence people to do extraordinary acts that would normally not be considered. Unlike other leaders of terrorist organizations, for example bin Laden, Asahara did not have a lot of money to start a new organization. This is only one example of how easy it was for one charismatic person to get an organization ready for an attack with chemical and biological weapons.

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Asaharas charisma was and still is the key factor in the success of the Aum Supreme Truth. It is puzzling how a man of poor education, humble origins, and half-crazy can influence others of superior intelligence (Laqueur, 95). Many of Asaharas followers were men and women with a strong educated background. Among the group were doctors, lawyers, and business owners that were looking for a higher purpose that was found in this institute of higher learning. In order for Asahara to achieve the following of such sophisticated people, he had to demonstrate supreme self-confidence, ambition, and a sense of total control. The leader of such an intelligent group cannot be allowed to make oversights or false-prophecies and the guru of the Aum Supreme Truth was not about to let his apocalyptic prophecies credibility fall short. Asaharas prophecies centered around the end of the world, and his followers were instructed to pay close attention and prepare for the inevitable.

The Aum Supreme Truth organization was established in 1985 with Asahara as the modern-day messiah. Very quickly, Aum collected a large following through various means, including, but not limited to, leafleting and street corner proselytizing (Susumu, 387). Aums classes on yoga, herbal healing and meditation also played a part. Additionally, Aum owned a number of computer stores, bookstores and noodle shops through which it was able to gain recruits. Using these methods for enrollment, the Aum was able to gather a following for the new messiah to lead them to peace and tranquility. These acts of street corner recruitment and storefront displays showed that there is no place safe from a terrorist organizations reach to influence the public mind.

Shoko Asaharas Aum Supreme Truth is the most recent example of a cult that teaches to prepare for the end of the world and actually tried to deceive a nation into believing the same. The guru told his followers that the end of the world was unavoidable, and to seek shelter in distant hideouts to be spared as the saved rement bound for heaven, the rest of the world was doomed to hell (Laqueur, 241). At first glance, this doesnt sound like a harmless religion, but the events that unfolded in the 1990s proved what a sect based on religious extremism is capable of.

1989 marked the first major turning point for Aum when it obtained official religious corporation status. This status came as a result of the Aums vigorous lobbying campaign and scandalous efforts to pressure the certifying agency and local politicians. Apparently, after demonstrations, protest letters, a lawsuit, and having its officials hounded, government officials caved in and registered the cult (Kaplan, p. 24). Aums recognition as an official religion was important for a variety of reasons. In addition to providing Aum with massive tax breaks, it also presented the organization with immunity from official oversight and prosecution. By law, Aums new found religious recognition would tend to inhibit any investigation with regard to its doctrine or practices, including seemingly for profit activities. Even criminal activities would now be difficult, if not impossible to investigate because of the governments reluctance to investigate religions. A religious organization is often mistaken as a peaceful entity, but the Aum proved that even these types of organizations could opt to use acts of violence to achieve validity.
In the larger context, the new religions doctrine was influenced by many themes, some deeply rooted in Japans religious history. These themes include, (1) a taste for religious syncretism; (2) a concern with miracles; (3) a stress on recruitment, donations, and growth; (4) a fascination with esoteric Buddhism and its attendant beliefs (such as in holy men, living Buddha capable of the direct physical transfer of power); (5) a taste for Buddhist doctrines and meditation practices that see reality as an illusion and approve of a calm and serene detachment; and (6) an interest in occultism and psychological techniques as means to effect physical and spiritual transformation (an interest widespread in mass culture since the 1970s) (Susumu, 41011). Basically, Asahara took a mixture from many different religions and made a mostly Buddhist, Heinz 57 variety, religion and named it the Aum Supreme Truth. Within months of Aums receiving official religious status, the cult felt so confident that they were immune from government interference that they decided to silence Sakamoto, a distinguished lawyer who had represented many anti-Aum groups. After murdering Sakamoto, his wife and his one-year-old son, the lack of any government response apparently emboldened the cult to commit even more horrible and blatant attacks upon their perceived enemies in Japan. Even with a background steeped in Buddhism, which promotes peace and tranquility, the Japanese Aum showed that terrorism could be displayed by a religious organization regardless of the doctrine they preached.
The second major turning point in Aums development occurred in 1990. Asahara revisited his once youthful dream of becoming Prime Minister of Japan, and so he campaigned, along with other followers, to be elected to the Japanese parliament. However, despite Asaharas predictions, “The election proved a disaster. All twenty-five Aum candidates went down to miserable defeats, including Asahara” (Kaplan, p. 47). The political failure affected the developing character of the organization. As Aums election fortunes turned sour, Asaharas views towards the future turned increasingly more pessimistic. His preaching dwelled more and more on the disasters awaiting humanity. He had taken the defeats personally and swore revenge on those who dared to stand in Aums way. With a politician supposedly by all accounts having the general publics safety in mind, the Japanese Aum had taught the world that a would be civil servant can turn to a terror campaign and hurt the people that they were supposed to serve.

Even though Asaharas cult of the Aum Supreme Truth started out as a peaceful organization, no group can be overlooked when forecasting the terrorist threat within a nation. With the technology of todays world and the availability of information, a chemical and biological weapon can be easily built even by a small group. The Japanese Aum taught the world a lesson on how easily an organization can threaten a nation with chemical and biological terrorism.

Kaplan, David. The Cult at the End of the World. New York:
Crown Publishers, Inc., 1996
Laqueur, Walter. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms
Of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University, 1999.

Susumu, Shimazono. In the Wake of Aum: The Formation and
Transformation of a Universe of Belief, Japanese Journal
Of Religious Studies, 1995 22/34.

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