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.