The terrorist threat is strongly associated with weapons of mass destruction and unconventional warfare both in public consciousness and federal risk management policies. Aum Shinrikyo is often cited as a typical example of such activities. The following paper aims at analyzing the Tokyo subway sarin attack, evaluate the threat of such type of attack by applying the risk management perspective suggested by John Parachini (2003), and explore the obtained implication for useful takeaways for US policymakers.
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Aum Shinrikyo was a powerful authoritarian religious cult from Japan. Today, it is mostly remembered for the execution of a major terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Although not the first terrorist activity by the group, the 1995 attack was the most successful one, and the one most prominently covered by media worldwide. The attack was a coordinated operation that occurred simultaneously in five locations of the Tokyo subway.
During the rush hour on March, 20, the perpetrators entered the subway carrying plastic packages that contained liquid sarin. The packages were dropped on the floor and pierced with sharpened umbrella tips. Since sarin is one of the most volatile nerve agents, it quickly vaporized following its release, covering a large area. The casualties resulting from the attack included 13 people dead, 50 severely wounded, and several thousand lightly affected, which qualified the 1995 attack as the deadliest incident in Japan since World War II (Pletcher, 2014).
The magnitude of the event, its dramatic quality, and a range of unprecedented elements also led to a visible reshaping of perception of terrorist threats both in the public consciousness and the policies of defense agencies around the world. In particular, the U.S. federal agencies, which have long theorized on the possibility of terrorists using the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack not only created a precedent for the possible scenario but illustrated the aftermath and indicated several challenges in case of such an incident. However, according to Parachini (2003), it also introduced several factors which diluted the focus of subsequent policymakers and distorted the perception of the terrorist threat.
The principles of risk management of terrorist threats are based on several factors, not all of which are relevant to the efficiency of the resulting operations. For instance, the agencies tend to place excessive focus on the use of CBRN as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (Parachini, 2003). While such an approach can be useful for effective preventive techniques since CBRN use necessitates the use of specific countermeasures.
For instance, sarin, used in the Tokyo subway attack, is highly volatile, which makes it a rapid but short-lived threat, and requires specific protection means and equipment. The combination of these factors creates a setting that demands special training and resource allocation for successful mitigation and prevention. At the same time, the dramatic effects of such an attack align well with the supposed needs of the terrorist groups seeking attention and notoriety. At the same time, the technological and resource proficiency required to obtain, manage and utilize the chemical weapons significantly decrease the likelihood of using them by perpetrators (Parachini, 2003).
This comes in visible conflict with the orientation of the contemporary US policies at the vulnerability to the WMD attack rather than its likelihood (Parachini, 2003). In other words, while the US agencies are not equipped to withstand an attack such as that executed by Aum Shinrikyo, this should not automatically serve as a signal to move in that direction – instead, the viability of such an approach must first be thoroughly assessed. The Tokyo attack remains among the most visible terrorist activities in terms of casualties, but its overall impact becomes less dramatic when viewed in perspective. It contradicts the suggestion of low probability put forward by Parachini (2003), but it should be considered about the magnitude of the organization and the environment which contributed to the event.
Aum Shinrikyo was a powerful and influential entity with a sufficient resource base which allowed it to amass WMD as well as conventional warfare in unprecedented amounts (Pletcher, 2014). Besides, it operated in a permissive environment with Japanese law enforcement mostly observing and gathering evidence instead of taking a more direct approach (Parachini, 2003). And even under such favorable conditions, the organization managed to perform poorly: its other ten attempts to use biological weapons for attack all failed (Parachini, 2003).
Even their best-known attack resulted in death toll comparable to less sophisticated means of mass destruction or even the attacks performed using conventional warfare, which is more accessible, simple, less expensive, and generally aligns better with capabilities of the majority of terrorist groups, who are usually unorganized, untrained, and less technologically and scientifically proficient. Finally, Aum Shinrikyo’s success can be partially explained by the fact that its motivation was initially misattributed to religious considerations while both the 1995 and 1994 attacks had a clear strategic value of political and social kind (Parachini, 2003).
Overall, the Tokyo subway sarin attack remains an outstanding occurrence rather than a common example of terrorist activity. Its outcomes can illustrate possible ways of mitigating similar risks in the future. However, when viewed against the organization’s capabilities, they undermined the likelihood of using VBRN as WMD by terrorists and raise the question of reconsidering approaches to risk management on a larger scale.
Parachini, J. (2003). Putting WMD terrorism into perspective. Washington Quarterly, 26(4), 37-50.
Pletcher, K. (2014). Tokyo subway attack of 1995. Web.