Extremist groups from the Arab world that claim religious affiliation with Islam have shaped the way we see the word “terrorist,” but a Japanese-based cult thought dead in 1995 may be resurfacing as a terrorist organization worthy of international concern.

In April of this year, Russian police raided twenty-five homes and shrines in St. Petersburg and Moscow that were tied to Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult originated in Japan.  Ten were arrested for their ties to the cult, which has been banned in Russia despite having an estimated 30,000 active members within the sprawling nation.

“During the searches, we found and seized ritual items and electronic media. In addition, we discovered addresses of several more active participants of the cult – 11 in Moscow and 14 in St Petersburg,” Irina Volk, a spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs said about the raids at the time.

A month prior, fifty-eight foreigners, many of whom were Russian, were expelled from Montenegro after raids in Danilovgrad and the nation’s capital, Podgorica.  The cult members were expelled due to failing to register with immigration upon entering the nation, though thousands of euros and various electronics were confiscated for forensic analysis.

Aum Shinrikyo was founded in Japan by Shoko Asahara, a man who, in true cult leader fashion, declared himself to be both Jesus Christ and the first truly “enlightened” human being since Buddha.  The group grew in prominence and membership throughout the 1980’s, eventually claiming tens of thousands of members all across the globe.  Their name, Aum Shinrikyo, translates roughly to Supreme Truth, and combined concepts and ideals from both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs initially, before incorporating Christian beliefs regarding the apocalypse as the fledgling religion transitioned into what is commonly referred to as a doomsday cult.

Many of Aum’s followers in Japan were students from prestigious universities that sought the comfort and stability of Asahara’s leadership.  His methodology included promising more meaningful lives for Japan’s young professionals that felt extraordinary pressure to succeed academically and professionally.  Soon, however, Asahara’s teachings began to incorporate more cult-like ideologies, including the requirement for members to be completely isolated from their families and friends and to surrender all money and possessions to the organization.

By 1989, the Japanese government officially recognized Aum Shinrikyo as a religion, though within Asahara’s inner circle, plans were already being made to usher in the Armageddon Aum’s belief structure stated would occur in 1997.  From their headquarters in Tokyo, Asahara used the estimated $200 million he acquired from members around the globe to purchase an attack helicopter from the former Soviet Union, an entire factory used to manufacture AK-47s, and all the equipment necessary to produce both psychotropic drugs and chemical weapons.  Recruiting within Japan’s military had allowed Asahara to establish and begin training a ground force, who were then sent to Russia for further paramilitary training.  Drug sales helped establish ties with the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia.

Aum Shinrikyo founder, Shoko Asahara (left) with his top disciple, Yoshihiro Inoue. Both are currently incarcerated.

Because of Japan’s strict laws regarding the sale and possession of firearms, Asahara saw the AK-47 factory he built near their Tokyo stronghold as an integral piece of the cult’s ability to engage in offensive and defensive operations.  The work, however, was slow going and dangerous, due in large part to the strict religious rules that disallowed sleeping for more than four hours per night, eating very much, and near constant doses of LSD, which they made themselves on the compound.  It is estimated that within the Aum ranks, over eighty people died in various industrial accidents or as a result of torture and punishment at the Tokyo headquarters.  The bodies were microwaved until all but the bones had become liquid, then disposed of in local lakes and rivers, or simply flushed down the toilet.

Eventually, the Japanese police gathered enough evidence to conduct a raid on Aum’s Tokyo compound, but Aum members within the police department were able to provide Asahara with advanced notice.  Unfortunately for the cult leader, there would not be enough time to relocate their massive weapon and drug operations, particularly their latest development: a stockpile of sarin gas.

On March 20th, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo launched a last-ditch effort to prevent the police from raiding their compound.  Plans had already been scrapped for direct attacks on the police station, with the cult opting instead to create a mass casualty event that would throw the city into panic and leave the police unable to execute their raid.  Asahara dispatched five individuals with bags of liquid sarin to different Tokyo subway lines that were all headed directly into the city’s center.  Each of the five punctured their bags and vacated the packed subway cars during rush hour, leaving the passengers inside to suffer the ramifications of the leaking sarin gas.

Emergency workers coming to the aid of people wounded in the 1995 Tokyo Gas Attack

Fortunately, the sarin Aum Shinrikyo had produced was only thirty percent pure, resulting in only thirteen deaths, though the casualty count was in the thousands.  Asahara had intended to kill tens of thousands of people, ushering in the very apocalypse he had spoken of in his teachings, but proved unable to prevent his own arrest.  While incarcerated, three more gas attacks, this time using hydrogen cyanide, were attempted by cult followers, but were foiled by firefighters and law enforcement.  Eventually, Asahara and twelve high-ranking members of his cult were convicted and sentenced to death.  Asahara remains on death row to this day.

After the reported fall of Aum Shinrikyo, new information surfaced about Asahara’s despotic plans, which included negotiations with members of the former Soviet Union to purchase a nuclear weapon, as well as a significant stockpile of sarin gas and other chemical weapons.  The leader of the group’s Moscow branch, Fumihiro Joyu, became Asahara’s successor, though he claims to have taken the group in a more “spiritual” direction to move away from its violent past.  He renamed the group “Aleph” as a part of continued efforts to expand membership, before establishing another, smaller group in 2000 called Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light).

In both Russia and the United States, Aum Shinrikyo is legally deemed a terrorist organization, but in Japan they retain religion status, despite being the subject of increased police scrutiny.  Some human rights advocates defend Japan’s estimated Aum membership base of approximately 1500 people, claiming that they have not been convicted of any crimes, but the organization’s dangerous and militant past, as well as their living Guru, Asahara, leave many concerned that the religion is still seeking a means to bring about the Armageddon they previously intended to usher in.

Had the sarin gas attack in 1995 been a success, Aum Shinrikyo could have killed more civilians in a single terrorist attack than died on September 11th, 2001 in the United States, and if Asahara had successfully attained control of a nuclear weapon, which he had already secured funding for, the death toll could have been in the millions.  As the group continues to gain members and prominence throughout Russia and Europe, they may find themselves with yet another opportunity to bring their violent leader’s prophecy to fruition.


Images courtesy of the Associated Press