A really, really interesting report from The Center for a New American Security about how Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo developed its own chemical weapons program, and what factors enabled it to successfully attack a Tokyo subway with sarin gas. I'm still reading through this and will probably have something longer to say later. But it's got some very interesting examples of things I've noticed in other analyses of successful terrorist attacks: Groups can do things that make them seem comically inept, and they can fail over and over, and still end up pulling off a successful attack. In the end, some of this is about simple, single-minded perseverance. You don't have to be a criminal mastermind. You just have to be willing to keep trying long after most people would have given up. (Via Rowan Hooper)

10 Responses to “How a cult created a chemical weapons program”

  1. Pierce Nichols says:

    The biggest takeaway for me from that is that despite that enormous amount of effort, they still only killed a dozen people. How many more people would they have killed if they had devoted that effort to acquiring and planting explosives instead?

    Conclusion: biochemical terrorism is a minor to non-existent threat. The ROI is demonstrably complete shit, and anyone who spends more than five minutes thinking about it knows that.  Old-fashioned guns and explosives are the real weapons of terrorism.

    • benher says:

      “Conclusion: biochemical terrorism is a minor to non-existent threat.”

      What an asinine ”conclusion” that you have drawn – not to mention ignorant.

      Unless you sincerely believe that terror attacks are merely about raw numbers.Yes, “only” 13 human lives were extinguished… but thousands were injured. Thousands. Many with permanent injuries to their senses, forever after blind, deaf, or even paralyzed. The psychological effect on everybody was devastating. Also, Aum was not without it’s missteps, but they were far from comical morons. Nearly 2 decades later many responsible are still at large, and several of the members were highly educated engineers and chemists. Sarin isn’t something you whip up in your parent’s basement. 

    • Itsumishi says:

      Perhaps traditional explosives would have killed more people, however it wouldn’t have left hundreds with permanent migraines, vision problems and symptoms similar to chronic fatigue. It wouldn’t have left thousands with similar, but less permanent problems. Additionally that attack devastated the psyche of  Tokyo’s population. If that’s not “successful terrorism” then I’m not sure what is. 

      On the other hand, if the chemists behind making the liquefied sarin had been less concerned about the lives of the people that dropped the packets and had made the liquid gasify quicker. Hundreds would have likely died. Its only because they created mixed the liquid in a way that meant it took longer after exposure to oxygen to turn into the toxic gas. This was so the agents dropped and piercing the packets could have a chance to escape without ingesting too much of the gas. As a result, the release of the gas was much slower than traditional sarin, and people got a lower dosage than Aum intended.

    • Sam Ripley says:

      According to a HazMat specialist I work with (I know I know, some guy that some guy on the internet knows…) the biggest reason that casualties did not number in the thousands was that cultists believed the Japanese authorities were close to catching up with them, and launched their attack earlier than scheduled. Aum Shinrikyo chemists only had time to reach approximately 25% pure Sarin. A higher purity level, and a higher aerosolization, would have meant many more people were affected (read: killed.)

  2. meerkat says:

    Murakami wrote an excellent book that focuses less on the science and more on the psychology of the cult and the people they terrorized called Underground:
    http://www.amazon.com/Underground-Tokyo-Attack-Japanese-Psyche/dp/0375725806
    Interesting, there is a similar type of cult in his newest book -  1Q84 !

  3. Tchoutoye says:

    Groups can do things that make them seem comically inept, and they can fail over and over, and still end up pulling off a successful attack. In the end, some of this is about simple, single-minded perseverance. You don’t have to be a criminal mastermind. You just have to be willing to keep trying long after most people would have given up.

    Or, more often, get some help from agents provocateurs.  The Rezwan Ferdaus case is just one one of many examples.

  4. teapot says:

    The thing these guys did that made their attack much less deadly than it could’ve been is that they targeted subway trains instead of high traffic public areas. If a nondescript bag of liquid was left on the street in a place like Shinjuku, no one would even notice it and the potential for death would be unimaginably high.

    For a country that is so practically-minded there sure are a lot of wacky cults there.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C5%8Dka_Gakkai_International
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Science

    • Itsumishi says:

      Murakami argues that it is precisely because of Japan’s practical, business minded, consumer driven culture that cults like Aum popped up in the first place. The people that reject such a strong culture tend to reject it in equally as strongly.

    • benher says:

      A lot of wacky cults? Didn’t your country invent Scientology? 

      Compare the numbers of Soga and Happy Science dupes (both groups are admittedly wacky) to the number of wack-job cults in the US; It’s not about the numbers of course, but I think you’ll find America has no shortage of religious fanatics itself. 

      Hell, if you want to spill a dumptruck of sand onto the American side of the scales, feel free to include Mormons and ‘hovies.

  5. AnthonyC says:

    ?Groups can do things that make them seem comically inept, and they can fail over and over, and still end up pulling off a successful attack… You don’t have to be a criminal mastermind.”

    I’m not sure if there are real criminal masterminds, but…

    “If you did commit the perfect crime, nobody would ever find out – so how could anyone possibly know that there weren’t perfect crimes? And as soon as you looked at it that way, you realized that perfect crimes probably got committed all the time, and the coroner marked it down as death by natural causes, or the newspaper reported that the shop had never been very profitable and had finally gone out of business…” http://hpmor.com/chapter/53

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