Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 2, 2011

The Relevance of Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 Attack

Filed under: WMD — by Alan Wolfe on August 2, 2011

Last Thursday, Richard Danzig released a study at the Center for a New American Security that provided some additional background on the infamous Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

The report didn’t change the basic nature of the case. This attack stood out because of the use of sarin nerve agent on an unwitting public, causing 12 immediate deaths and about a thousand injuries associated with the nerve agent exposure. About 5000 people stormed into hospitals demanding attention for phantom symptoms. This incident directly led to the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation in 1996 entitled “Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996” and the formation of what is now the WMD Civil Support Teams.

These facts are easily understood.

Last Tuesday, David Ignatius of the Washington Post offered a different view of the report.  He suggested that the world public should not have been surprised that a right-wing Norwegian extremist would cause 76 deaths in a single day, in what most would agree was a secure and stable nation. Ignatius suggested that all you had to do is consider the Aum Shinrikyo incident, pulled out of its obscurity by Mr. Danzig.

Most important, the next time the weapons of choice may not be a bomb and a semiautomatic rifle, as in the case of the Oslo attacker who killed 76 people. Lunatics and sane plotters alike may have access to chemical and biological weapons that could kill thousands.  …

Danzig and his co-authors make the essential point: In dealing with these extremist groups and cults, the world is playing Russian roulette: “Many chambers in the gun prove to be harmless, but some chambers are loaded.” Another bullet was fired last Friday, and we are surely clicking toward more. The surprise is that we’re still surprised.

Now, if you were to ask me as to how the Norway incident compared to any other past major terrorist incident, I personally would have looked at the “lone wolf” actor and his use of an ammonium nitrate fertilizer bomb and immediately said “Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City, 1995.”

The Aum incident was unique in its basis in a religious cult, the availability of millions of dollars and numerous personnel, the mode of attacks and its targets, the ability to develop a production plant and test its nerve agent prior to the Tokyo incident, and the lack of police engagement throughout all this.  The two incidents are absolutely nothing alike, and no one should speculate about the future of CBRN terrorism based on Norway’s tragic incident.

But then I saw this Federation of American Scientists’ report, which suggests that Anders Breivik’s writings within his 1500-page manifesto made him out to be a potential CBRN terrorist, someone deliberately attempting to get the materials and technology required to pull off a significant mass casualty CBRN incident.

He talked about getting hydrogen cyanide or anthrax in quantities sufficient to kill thousands of “traitors,” specifically his Norwegian fellow citizens. He wrote about high-risk commercial radioactive sources and even suggested low-yield nuclear weapons and nuclear EMP attacks. As a result of this madman’s intent, the report suggests that his attempts “to secure, weaponize, and deliver certain CBRN agents” was possibly “directly linked in a campaign of violent revolution,” and that “subsequent violent extremists” will now find this approach valid and applicable to their ends.


One has to consider the elements of “intent” and “capability” in any discussion of WMD terrorism. I recently heard an analyst say that “we believe that nations have WMD capabilities but question their intent; while with terrorists, we question their capabilities but believe their intent.” I believe that it’s actually relatively easy to decipher the intent of nations when they develop and store unconventional weapons. But it does seem that people get very excited over terrorists’ stated intentions to obtain WMD, even when said terrorists have no capability to get these weapons. The fact remains, while Breivik may have had delusions about getting CBRN agents, he didn’t have access to them nor is there any indication that he could get them. He obtained his weapons just like any other terrorist, criminal, or insurgent does, on the open market.

There has not been a chemical terrorist incident on the scale of Aum Shinrikyo over the past 15 years. There has been one biological terrorist incident of note since the 1984 Rajneeshee cult use of salmonella in Oregon, a span of more than 25 years. That’s not just the luck of “playing Russian roulette,” as Mr. Danzig and the Federation of American Scientists would have you believe. That’s an empty gun. The only thing you can derive from McVeigh, Aum Shinrikyo, Ivins, and Breivik is that “black swan” events exist. You should not ignore the possibility of “black swan” events, but you should also not try to plan and budget for emergency response based on “worst case” scenarios. Other routine challenges and threats need to be addressed.

Our analysts and newspaper op-ed writers draw the wrong conclusions about the Aum Shinrikyo and Breivik cases.

Mass casualty events can happen, but constitute less than 0.5 percent of historical terrorist incidents. CBRN incidents can happen, but are so infrequent as to be nearly statistically insignificant. These are characteristics of “black swan” events. The key to coping with a negative “black swan” event is to build robustness, resiliency if you will, into one’s structure so that the impact, if and when it happens, doesn’t leave one so devastated in its wake.

The 9/11 incident did not devastate the United States. Likewise, a terrorist CBRN incident is not an existential threat to the nation. Let’s not use the Breivik incident as a convenient excuse to resurrect unwarranted fears about CBRN terrorism.

Dorothy Thompson, an American journalist and author, once said “There is nothing to fear except the persistent refusal to find out the truth, the persistent refusal to analyze the causes of happenings.”

The truth is that our government overreacts to the threat of CBRN terrorism by focusing on the most dangerous materials in existence and their potential effects if released in large quantities. And when faced with the fact that they cannot adequately pay for and sustain enough detectors, medical countermeasures, hospital beds, and federal responders for all CBRN threat scenarios, they ignore what can be done – what ought to be done – in terms of resiliency and local response. That’s not the way to develop a sustainable strategy that also has to address the daily challenges of conventional terrorists, criminal organizations, and other non-state actors.


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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 2, 2011 @ 1:22 am

Another great post from Alan! And his sentence provides a focus for me stating:
“He obtained his weapons just like any other terrorist, criminal, or insurgent does, on the open market.”

Hey turns out some were internet purchases including E-bay!

Nothing like the free market?

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