Ten years of Al Qaeda-focused concern about terrorism may have faded the memory of a group that in the 1990s had significant programs aimed at developing biological and chemical weapons and successfully used Sarin nerve gas in an attack on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring thousands. Reminding us of those efforts and seeking to cull insights from their work, The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has released a report, “Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons.” According to their website, this report
“culminates a multi-year project led by Richard Danzig, former Secretary of the Navy and Chairman of the CNAS Board of Directors; with Marc Sageman, Advisor to the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army on the Insider Threat; Terrance Leighton, Senior Staff Scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and Chief Scientist at Science Applications International Corporation; Lloyd Hough, Senior Research Scientist at Battelle in International Technology Assessments; Zachary Hosford, Research Associate at CNAS; and two Japanese colleagues investigating these issues. Through personal interviews and correspondence with former members of Aum Shinrikyo’s leadership, the report provides never-before documented information on the terrorist group and its operations.”
It is an interesting document that provides a great deal of detail about the cult’s evolution, members, and technical background on their efforts to produce and deploy biological and chemical weapons. From this narrative the authors have pulled out ten points that they feel can be useful in understanding future terrorist groups who may attempt to go down a similar path. Here are the points, though I would strongly recommend reading the report itself for explanation and in-depth analysis of each observation:
1. Aum’s biological program was a failure, while its chemical program was even more capable than would have been evident from its successful release of sarin in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
2. Effectively disseminating biological and chemical agents was challenging for Aum.
3. Accidents recurred in Aum’s chemical and biological programs but did not deter pursuit of these weapons.
4. When Aum’s top members transitioned to using violence, they readily brought other leaders down this path and effectively persuaded, isolated or killed dissidents.
5. Though police pursuit of Aum was remarkably lax, even intermittent or anticipated enforcement actions highly disrupted the cult’s efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons.
6. The key work on Aum’s biological and chemical programs was conducted largely by the leadership group.
7. Aum’s hierarchical structure facilitated initiating and resourcing biological and chemical programs.
8. Even a retrospective assessment of biological and chemical weapons programs like this one is difficult and burdened with gaps and uncertainties.
9. Aum displayed impressive persistence and produced successes despite its commitment to many bizarre ideas, its misallocation of resources and its numerous operational failures.
10. Significant failures preceded or accompanied Aum successes.
Guns and bombs will continue to be the most likely weapon utilized by terrorists, and as Anders Breivik demonstrated, they can be horrendously destructive. Yet it has been more than 15 years since Aum used Sarin in the Tokyo subway and technological trends are not moving in a direction that will make it more difficult for future groups to attempt something similar. A balanced counter-terrorism approach is necessary to prevent the most likely types of attacks while not closing our eyes to the possible, if more remote, threats.
Or as the authors put it:
“Groups such as Aum expose us to risks uncomfortably analogous to playing Russian roulette. Many chambers in the gun prove to be harmless, but some chambers are loaded. The blank chambers belie the destructive power that the gun can produce when held to the head of a society.”