Assessing the Threat – Case Study #1

03 Jun

This is a case study supporting my argument that actual analysis is missing from the assessment of threats in our world today. Look at these excerpts about the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin suway attack, all of which are from the Council on Foreign Relations website:

“[T]he subway attack also showed the world just how easy it is for a small cult or group of terrorists with limited means to engage in chemical warfare.”

“Although sarin is very complex and dangerous to make, experts say that the gas can be produced by a trained chemist with publicly available chemicals.”

Look at the two assumptions from the excerpts above – they assume (1) Aum Shinrikyo had limited resources, and (2) weaponizing and devising a means to deliver the sarin to the target was not a problem. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

The Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 is regarded as the “chemical 9/11” in the security field. The attack was carried out by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. However, contrary to most professionals, I don’t rate their operational capability very high.

Aum Shinrikyo was founded by a man named Shoko Asahara, who argued that he was the Christian messiah, that a great cataclysm would soon destroy the earth and that a global apocalyptic war was inevitable. David Kaplan, in the book Toxic Terror (2000), argued that “belief in Armageddon appears to have been the primary motivation behind the cult’s far-ranging attempts to arm itself with powerful weapons, including biological and chemical agents,” (p. 208).

When the topic of chemical terrorism is mentioned, Aum Shinrikyo usually comes up. What is missing from these arguments is analysis . . .

Consider this:

Aum Shinrikyo had an unusually favorable operating environment. Japanese authorities were aware of their activities, but allowed them to continue. Either the Japanese authorities were professionally incompetent or I fail to grasp the intricacies of their political difficulties. Kaplan (2000) put it more politely, “Despite an extraordinary six-year crime spree, the sect met with surprisingly little resistance from Japanese officials, who were hampered with jurisdictional problems, a reluctance to probe religious organizations, and a lack of investigative initiative. Only after the Tokyo subway attack did authorities move quickly against the cult,” (p. 223).

•  Aum Shinrikyo had significant financial resources. At its peak in 1995, analysts believe Aum had in excess of $1 billion in funds. This figure is widely cited in various reports on the cult. 

Aum Skinrikyo had a robust chemical and biological weapons program, run by “believers” with credentials in medicine, biochemistry, biology, physics – and they still failed to achieve the massive death toll they sought.

Despite this expertise, Aum Shinrikyo never developed a delivery method for their C/B weapons suitable for mass casualties.

     –   They attempted to release anthrax from a building in Tokyo with a sprayer and a fan – no casualties resulted, probably from the low quality of the anthrax.

     –   In all, they attempted ten biological attacks, each of which resulted in no casualties.

     –   In 1994, Aum Shinrikyo killed seven people in a sarin attack in the city of Matsumoto which made use of a heater and a fan.

     –   In 1995, twelve were killed in the subway attack, which was crudely executed by puncturing bags of diluted sarin inside a subway car.

     –   Jonathan Tucker, in Toxic Terror (2000), argued that, “the fact that the cult did not succeed in its effort to inflict mass casualties suggests that chemical terrorism is not as easy as some analysts contend,” (p. 6).  

Al-Qaeda, despite the impassioned warnings from “experts,” has never demonstrated anywhere near the C/B capability of Aum Shinrikyo. Their online terror manuals for C/B weapon development are crude and amateurish, reflecting an intention to cause harm but little credible capability.

If we look at appropriate case studies, we can see lessons learned for present-day situations. In this case, did Aum Shinrikyo successfully overcome the three operational hurdles?

Devise a plan of attack? Yes.

Obtain the weapon? Yes.

Successfully deliver the weapon to the target? No. Aum attempted 10 biological attacks and 10 chemical attacks from 1990 – 1995. These attacks resulted in nineteen deaths, 12 of which were from the 1995 subway attack. The crude delivery methods and generally poor quality of the agents involved drastically lowered the potential casualty rates.

When you examine a potential threat, remember to consider intentions and capability. You usually get a different, but more accurate picture.


Tucker, J. (Ed). (2000). Toxic terror: assessing terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons. Cambridge, MS: BCSIA.

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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


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