Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 28, 2011

New Study on Aum Shinriko’s Bio and Chem Programs

Filed under: Biosecurity,Chemical Security,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on July 28, 2011

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.”


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Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 28, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

Oh Arnold, you stole my thunder. Was looking forward to commenting on this topic. Let me start by saying that the Tokyo subway attack did NOT “injure thousands,” what the report said what that it “prompt[ed] 6,000 others to seek hospital treatment.” This was a poor effort at explaining the truth, that less than a thousand required hospital treatment, mostly emergency responders going into the subways, and around 5000 citizens were worried that they had been exposed and jammed the hospital rooms. Other than the “worried well,” most of the actual casualties recovered quite quickly. But we need to stop this myth that “more than 6000 were injured” from the attack.

Second, I find the findings interesting but not of great import when discussing the larger issue of chem-bio terrorism. The Tokyo subway incident was more than 15 years ago. Let that sink in for a moment. Yes, there have been increases in technology development and there is more lab-type equipment available. But in more than 15 years, there have been ZERO chemical terrorism incidents and ONE biological terrorism incident, the latter being done by a highly skilled scientist with access to the raw material and specialized lab equipment.

This BS closing paragraph about Russian roulette is pathetic. It’s an attempt to say, yeah, here’s this case where every condition was optimal for the bad guys – they had time, money, expertise, hands off from teh government, and they couldn’t do it. BUT THAT WAS JUST LUCKY. Is it really luck? Or was the pistol being held to the head really a plastic toy and not a Colt 44?

I agree with you, we need a balanced counterterrorism approach that acknowledges the possibility of CB terrorism. However, this report did nothing to add any value to that discussion.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 28, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

I meant to steal no man’s thunder, though perhaps I’ll start labeling certain posts “Wolfe bait…”

In defense of the authors, the injury stat is my own laziness. They write: “The initial casualty figures used by the prosecution during Asahara’s trial on October 24, 1995, list 11 deaths and 3,796 injuries from the Tokyo subway attack, and those figures have since been increased to 13 deaths and 6,252 injuries.188 “Injuries” in these reports are broadly defined as essentially anyone who sought compensation. Those significantly physically affected probably are only in the hundreds. But among those, problems with psychomotor and memory functions persisted over seven years following exposure.189 Electroencephalogram anomalies persisted in the exposed population for at least five years,190 and long-lasting brain dysfunctions in victims of the Tokyo subway incident were observed six months to three years after the incident.191”

One can disagree with the observations pulled from the narrative and whether they are applicable outside this case (and the authors themselves point out this issue: “This report studies one idiosyncratic group that developed weapons of mass destruction 15 to 20 years ago in political and technological contexts that other groups will not experience. Moreover, as we have emphasized, our sources of information about Aum are limited and our understanding is imperfect. Despite these qualifications, we think that this is the most accessible and informative opportunity to study terrorist efforts to develop biological and chemical weapons.”). But the length of time that has elapsed since the attack doesn’t by itself negate any possible lessons learned. It’s been almost 10 years since terrorists hijacked some planes and crashed them into buildings. Hasn’t happened since but I’m guessing many would say there is a lot to learn still from that incident.

Personally I like the last statement, but to each his own.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 29, 2011 @ 6:57 am

The “worried well” in hazardous materials incidents/events intentional and unintentional is a huge problem and only can be directly reduced by accurate Emergency Public Information. Since the MSM can be counted upon to speak in ignorance and probably any WH press operation also there is likely to be significant diversion of resources in any bio-chemical or radiological event. Interesting how little in the recent literature on the “worried well” and spontaeous evacuation policies and issues. By the way few hospitals or emergency health care centers have portal monitoring and even fewer quarantine operations capability. YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CANNOT HIDE!

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