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Bioweapon Attacks: Aum Shinrikyo Case Study

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Updated: Jun 29th, 2022

Introduction

Highly dangerous agents either in the form of naturally acquired or artificially introduced, have the perspective of infecting a large number of vulnerable individuals and in some cases resulting in a chain of infection. The potential of bioweapon (BW) can be comparable to that of Nuclear Weapons and this is the reason for these agents to be included in the category of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). What makes them even more popular among the antisocial elements are their low cost and widespread accessibility of twin technology of low complexity.

Bioweapons are mainly attractive to terrorist groups as their production is simple and their cost is low. They have been termed “the poor man’s nuclear bomb” (Lesleor and Koran, 1993). In fact, studies have proven that BW agents are more efficient in terms of exposure per kilogram of goods than any other weapons system. The recent developments of technology in the field of biotechnology have helped in production and have also improved the capability to produce more diverse, tailor-made agents.

Though there are several steps taken in the past to control or stop the production of these destructive weapons, not much is done in this field. For instance, excluding countries that have dismantled their BW programs, e.g. USA, UK, France etc., it is anticipated that there are about 11 other countries that are believed to have developed the capability to produce biological weapons (US Committee on Armed Services, 1993).

Biological weapons differ from the other WMD as their effects manifest after an incubation period. This allows the person/people involved in the antisocial activity to move away from the site of attack before the infection catches them.

The agents used in BW are mainly natural pathogens and the illnesses they cause simulate existing diseases (Dudley and Woodford, 2002). Tracing back or identifying the culprit will be much difficult as the diagnosis and treatment would be carried out by the medical team, rather than by a specialized agency as in the case of WMDs. Thus bioterrorism is defined by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as, “the deliberate release of bacteria, viruses or toxin for the intention of harming or killing civilians” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001). History records several attempts at bioterrorism. In spite of widespread programmes and stockpiling of BWs, there have been not much done in the field of lay enforcement. This paper intends to present a case study on the Aum Shinrikyo that occurred in the year 1995 in Japan.

Case Study – Aum Shinrikyo

Aum Shinrikyo has been known for creating threat from the 1990s and is known to uses biological agents such as anthrax, botulinum toxin, Q fever Ebola virus and chemical agents such as sarin, VX, hydrogen cyanide (Tucker, 1999). It was on March 20, 1995, members of the Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme truth) attacked the Tokyo channel or the subway structure and uncovered a fatal nerve agent called the sarin (Pate and Cameron, 2001). This attack killed 12 and injured more than 1,000 passerby and required hospitalization. In fact this was not the first time that this cult group is linked with several incidences of terror attack (Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2001).

The main aim of this group was to get rid of opponents and enemys, stop the progress of an unfavorable court declaration, and take hold of Japanese government. The ideology of this group is as follows: “to establish a theocratic state in Japan, with a charismatic, power-hungry leader”. The main targets were common public and individuals who opposed the ideology of the cult and also the judges whose verdict were against then and police (Tucker, 1999). Since 1995 many of their active members were arrested and from then on their activities decreased.

Aum Shinrikyo group targeted its own members who failed to agree on issues but also it affected each and every one in Japanese society. The main person or the leader of this group was the aggressive founder — Shoko Asahara. It was in the mid-1980’s, Asahara developed a divine message based on achievement of total spiritual consciousness. Besides, he also had chain of inauspicious enlightenment that persuaded him he would show the way to the God’s army to win against the United States in a final battle (Kaplan, 1999). Soon he began to spread his views and increase the members in his group. People who joined the group thought that Asahara would help them to lead to happiness.

In most of the cases of WMD used by Asahara, it was directed against Japanese society. They intended to bring about a disastrous social breakdown in the society and thought that among the consequential death and confusion, people of Japan would hold responsible the United States. Asahara would then take the advantage of the confusion in various ways to achieve his objectives. Aum Shinrikyo was strong-minded to obtain any type of useful WMD.

For instance, there are records that point out that the cult purchased a green laser priced about $400,000. The aim of this purchase was to develop a weapon which is competent enough to affect the eyesight of masses of people. The cult had appointed efficient scientists who researched on particle beam weapons which was again very destructive (Kaplan, 1999).

Once there were a large number of people who joined the cult it acquired a property that was secure and close to the base of Mt Fuji. They constructed a building and complex that had the greater part of its WMD work. In fact it is reported that in this place they had all types of WMD facilities including biological, chemical and nuclear research along with high-tech equipment and expert technicians.

It was in this compound that Aum Shinrikyo established a biological toxin laboratory intended to create clostridium botulinum that is a causative agent of botulism. It is said that it is 16 million times comparatively highly poisonous than strychnine. It is also claimed to be 10,000 times more poisonous than cobra venom (Kaplan, 1999). Botulism is having a capacity to kill masses of people. It was also known to produce another lethal BW the Anthrax spores. In fact they intended to use both botulism and anthrax spores to attack Tokyo. The cult realized the fact that, the biological weapons program only gave them partial success. As a result they found that biological agents are comparatively effortless to make but also need to be delicately handled (Clinehens, 2000).

The cult miscalculated the delicacy of the BW that resulted in loss of several Japanese lives. Later when they realized this fact they began to concentrate on manufacturing chemical weapons. Over a period of time their chemical weapon expertise gained prosperity than any other WMD methods. Their scientist learned that chemical agents were easier to manufacture and more predictable when compared to biological agents. Additionally Asahara’s confidence on chemical agents amplified with the reports of by success in Gulf War. There are reports that the cult managed to produce quantities of Sarin and the nerve agents VX, tabun and soman (Clinehens, 2000).

Bioweapon attacks of Aum Shinrikyo

The cult group Aum Shinrikyo was firm in destroying Japanese society so as to hasten the approaching destruction. Asahara was believed that by executing his plans to eradicate the Japanese Diet, they would destroy a society that is almost equivalent of the U.S. Congress. Among the biological weapons they planned to the use of botulinus toxin. They transported the toxin for cult members to spray into the air around the Diet building.

The members of the cult who were in the truck protected themselves by wearing biohazard suits. However, their attempt failed as the spraying device that was designed to transfer the toxin instead of performing its duty killed the biological agent. The reason behind this is that these biological agents are very delicate and cannot tolerate adverse conditions and these biotoxins can merely live in a narrow band of ecological parameters. The cult had surpassed these parameters in the groundwork and conduct of the attack and hence the biotoxin was absolutely unproductive (Kaplan, 1999).

This failure however did not prevent further attacks. Despite this failure, the cult sustained to plan further attacks against the Japanese society and the government. For instance, they again planned a biological attack on the world dignitaries who were there to attend the wedding of Prince Naruhito. As per the plan of Asahara, during the wedding, cult scientists were to again introduce botulinus toxin into downtown Tokyo that is very close to the venue of the wedding.

The scientist worked on the spraying device after their failure in the Japanese Diet attack. They thought that this attempt would be a great success and Asahara himself drove the truck that was loaded with botulinus toxin. However, this attempt was again a failure as the spraying devise was unable to spray the toxin as intended (Kaplan, 1999). In fact they had planned to drive through downtown Tokyo close to the royal wedding and spray the killer toxin into the air in order to kill as many delegates and common people as possible.

Though the toxins worked as expected in the laboratory using the modified device, it was a failure again in reality. The reason behind the failure was analyzed later and was found that as the toxin had to pass through a chain of steps intended to vaporize so as to mix with the air in the form of fine mist during this process the toxin had again been exposed to environmental stresses that exceeded parameters (Clinehens, 2000). This failure made Asahara to think of new innovations in the field of bioweapon and as a result he instructed the scientists to find better bioattack agents that are more reliable.

The next time the scientists determined to use anthrax. They found the anthrax spores to be much more stable when compared to botulinus toxin and hence they believed it to be a more reliable weapon. Additionally, the scientists further improved the delivering device. As an alternative to a transportable delivery truck, they determined to spread anthrax spores from a stationary point that was situated in their own building in downtown Tokyo.

In fact they had blown the anthrax-saturated steam for 4 consecutive days but did not produce the expected result. It could only create some sickness and no fatalities (Kaplan, 1999). The reason for the failure is still not known, however it is predicted that the scientists miscalculated the incubation period of anthrax spores or it might also be possible that Tokyo is still host to billions of anthrax spores that might be dormant. Probably under the right conditions it could germinate and harm the human population.

Conclusion

Until 1995 attack of the Tokyo subway by sarin a chemical weapon, neither the Japanese nor the American intelligence could track the antisocial activities of the cult Aum Shinrikyo. They were active for years as a terrorist/WMD threat until subsequent to the Tokyo subway attack. In fact several factors supported their growth and execution of WMD and other terrorist activities. For instance, they had good financial support from the members, they could develop a good infrastructure for manufacturing and storing the chemical and biological weapon, and they are able to continue to spread their ideology through seminars and publications. It is only possible by stringent law enforcements that each and every nation can be safe from the attack of biological weapons (Tucker, 1999).

There are many nations that do not have any preparedness in case of any nuclear, biological or chemical attack. Hence it is essential that in addition to the law enforcement, all nations are well prepared to face these problems with complete preparedness. Further research and technology development can only help to face these threats. Preparedness and capability in the area of bioweapon attack is a serious concern for most of the nations. The environment is changing rapidly and many unknown fears have been surfacing in different parts of the world and it is essential to stay abreast of events.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2001) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The public health response to biological and chemical terrorism, interim planning guidance for state public health officials. Web.

Clinehens, N.A. (2000) Aum Shinrikyo And Weapons Of Mass Destruction A Case Study, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Web.

Dudley, J.P. and Woodford, M.H (2002) Bioweapons, Bioterrorism and Biodiversity: Potential Impact of Biological Weapons Attacks on Agricultural and Biological Diversity. Rev. Sci. tech. Off.int.Epiz. 21(1) 125-137.

Kaplan, D.E. (1999) Chapter 12: Aum Shinrikyo In: (Ed) Tucker J.B. Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. PP 207-225.

Lesleor S, Koran V, trans (1993). Military bacteriological programs in Russia and USA are strictly secretive and represent terrible threat to the world. Izvestiya, June 26, p 15.

Monterey Institute of International Studies, (2001) Chronology of Aum Shinrikyo’s CBW Activities. Web.

Pate,J. and Cameron, G. (2001) Covert Biological Weapons Attacks against Agricultural Targets: Assessing the Impact against U.S. Agriculture, BCSIA Discussion Paper 2001-9, ESDP Discussion Paper ESDP-2001-05, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Tucker,J.B. (1999) Historical Trends Related to Bioterrorism: An Empirical Analysis, Special Issue, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 5, No. 4. Web.

U S Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (1998) Medical Management of Biological Casualties Handbook.

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