Lessons Learned: Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack

Uploaded by cfr on 20.03.2012

What would happen if terrorists got their hands on a weapon of mass destruction? This
is one of the most terrifying scenarios that people can imagine. But it isn’t an idle
fear. It actually happened in 1995.
I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons Learned. Our topic today is the sarin gas attack that
the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo launched in the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995.
Aum Shinrikyo, which translates as “Supreme Truth,” was a religious cult started in
1984 by Shoko Asahara. He had lost most of his sight as a child, and as a young adult
he studied various strains of Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These studies eventually convinced
him of two things: that he was the first "enlightened one" to appear on Earth since Buddha, and
that the end of the world was near.
Asahara targeted his pitch at disillusioned young people. He was a good recruiter. By
1995, Aum Shinrikyo had as many as 40,000 followers.
Just as important, Aum Shinrikyo grew rich. By the early 1990s, it had more than $300
million in assets. How did the cult get so wealthy? Partly by running businesses, and
partly by requiring members to sign their wealth over to the cult.
Aum Shinrikyo’s deep pockets enabled it to secretly master the difficult task of making
sarin. First created in the 1930s by Nazi scientists looking for better pesticides,
sarin is a deadly nerve agent. It kills by disrupting the ability of nerves to communicate
with the rest of the body. Sarin is so toxic that inhaling a single drop can be lethal.
During the rush hour on the morning of March 20, 1995, five Aum Shinrikyo agents put a
liquid form of sarin into packages made to look like lunch boxes and bottled drinks.
Perhaps they were driven by the belief that the Apocalypse was beginning. Or perhaps they
wanted to punish Japan because police were about to raid Aum Shinrikyo’s offices.
Whatever their motives, the Aum Shinrikyo agents boarded three subway lines, punctured
their packages with umbrellas, and walked away. The liquid sarin leaked out and turned
into gas.
The results were horrific. Within minutes, commuters lay on the ground gasping for air.
Blood poured from their noses and mouths. Said one survivor of the attacks: “hell
describes it perfectly.”
Twelve people died that day. Four to six thousand more were injured. The death toll would have
been many times higher had Aum Shinrikyo succeeded in creating a more effective way to disperse
the deadly sarin gas.
Japanese officials discovered after the attack that Aum Shinrikyo had been experimenting
for years with chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, the cult had carried out at least
nine biological attacks. They all had failed because the cult hadn’t found an effective
way to spread the biological agents. And Aum Shinrikyo had used sarin gas at least once
before, in a previously unexplained incident that killed seven people in a Tokyo neighborhood.
Asahara and his accomplices were charged with murder. In 2004, they were sentenced to death
by hanging. Asahara exhausted his legal appeals in 2006. He now awaits execution.
What is the lesson of Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system? Just
this: technology makes it possible for groups and individuals to carry out the kinds of
attacks that once only governments could undertake.
If anything, advances in technology are making it easier for terrorists to contemplate using
weapons of mass destruction. The internet makes it far easier to find and share information.
Cheaper, more powerful computers and better scientific instruments make it possible for
people with basic skills to accomplish things that once required sophisticated laboratories
and teams of highly-trained, highly-skilled scientists.
These concerns lie at the heart of the current dispute over news that scientists have discovered
a way to transform the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form that could cause a deadly human
pandemic. Many scientists worry that this work could eventually be duplicated by less
skilled individuals intent on doing harm. Such debates are only going to grow more and
more heated in the years to come as technological advances make it possible to do more and more
with less and less training.
So here is a question to consider: what steps should society take to protect itself as technological
developments make it easier for terrorists, messianic figures, or just embittered individuals
to inflict great harm? I encourage you to weigh in with your answers on my blog, The
Water’s Edge. You can find it a CFR.org.
I’m Jim Lindsay. Thank you for watching this installment of Lessons Learned.