This is the story of the ultimate cult: a wired, high-tech, designer-drug, billion-dollar army of New Age zealots, focused around the leadership of a blind and bearded madman, armed with weapons of mass destruction. Like scenes of an apocalyptic future in a cyberpunk novel, this story is also the stuff of nightmares.
Cultists wired electrodes to their heads while chanting ancient mantras and logging on to computer nets. Methamphetamine, LSD, and truth serum – the product of homemade laboratories equipped with the latest gear – ran through their veins. Those same labs worked at refining enough chemical and biological weapons to kill millions. Other cultists attempted to build a nuclear bomb while massive facilities were built to manufacture handguns and explosives. All this activity went toward preparing for – and then unleashing – Armageddon.
In 1984, guru Shoko Asahara had a one-room yoga school, a handful of devotees, and a dream: world domination. A decade later, Aum Supreme Truth boasted 40,000 followers in six countries and a worldwide network that brought it state-of-the-art lasers, lab equipment, and weaponry. Aum’s story moves from the dense cities of postindustrial Japan to mountain retreats where samurai once fought, and then overseas – to Manhattan and Silicon Valley, Bonn and the Australian outback, and finally to Russia. It is there, in the volatile remains of the Soviet empire, that the cult found ready suppliers of military hardware, training, and, quite possibly, a nuclear bomb.
Aum leaders systematically targeted top Japanese universities, recruiting brilliant but alienated young scientists from chemistry, physics, and engineering departments. They forged relations with Japan’s ruthless crime syndicates, the yakuza, and with veterans of the KGB and Russian and Japanese militaries. They enlisted medical doctors to dope patients and perform human experiments that belong in a horror movie.
For years this went on, with barely a question from police or the media on three continents. Before long, Aum had become one of the world’s richest, most sophisticated, and most murderous religious sects. Few would know the scope of the cult’s madness until Aum burst onto the world scene in March 1995 with a cold-blooded nerve gas attack in the subways of rush hour Tokyo.
In a world poised between the Cold War and the new millennium, the tale of Aum is a mirror of our worst fears. Heavily armed militias, terrorist cells, zealous cults, and crime syndicates all find their voice in the remarkable ascent of this bizarre sect. For years, experts have warned us: the growing sophistication of these groups, combined with the spread of modern technology, will bring about a new era in terrorism and mass murder. The coming of Aum Supreme Truth shows just how close these nightmares have come to reality.
The story of Aum is the story of its charismatic and increasingly psychopathic leader, Shoko Asahara. The son of a dirt-poor weaver of tatami mats, Asahara attended a boarding school for the blind. There the partially sighted boy grew into a bully, dominating and scamming his classmates. Eventually, he opened an acupuncture business that specialized in quack cures, but in 1986, the ever-ambitious Asahara was traveling the Himalayas in search of enlightenment.
On descending the mountains, Asahara transformed himself into a guru, shopping the world’s religions to form Aum. He blended mystical Buddhism with Hindu deities, added the physical rigor of yoga, and, from Christianity, drew on the concept of Armageddon. But Asahara the con man never lay far from the surface. The aspiring guru also began to offer an array of high-tech devices, shortcuts on the road to enlightenment for the youth of Japan. There were electrode caps, astral teleporters, magic DNA – one could give Aum credit for enterprise, at least. Unfortunately, the cult’s darker side would not be limited to scamming naive kids out of their hard-earned money.
__ The best and brightest__
They came from college campuses, from dead-end jobs and fast-track careers. Thousands flocked to Asahara’s embrace, seeking Aum’s promise of enlightenment, community, and, most of all, supernatural power.
They were nearly all young, wide-eyed kids in their early and mid-20s. Some dropped out of Japan’s finest schools to join the cult, leaving behind families, friends, and bright futures. Others left the nation’s top companies in steel, computers, insurance, and other fields.
Asahara found the weak point in Japan’s new generation and then pressed with every resource he had. In magazines, videos, and books, he took his message to the youth of his country, appealing to the lost and alienated. Aum members wrote stories and placed ads claiming they had gained powers of telepathy and levitation, offering to teach others these secret skills. Their favored publications: a booming genre of science-fact, science-fiction magazines with names like Mu and Twilight Zone.
The magazines were only part of a wave of popular culture that dealt in the far-out and the fantastic. Young people immersed themselves in a world of fantasy – movies, cartoons, computer games, comics – in violent tales of half-human, half-computer cyborgs and explosive, galactic battles fought between superbeings. All this was fertile ground for Asahara and his apocalyptic vision.
A whole generation grew up watching anime, brilliantly animated cartoons like Space Battleship Yamato and Naushika in the Valley of the Wind. Many graduated to the gekiga – ultraviolent, book-length comics drawn with realistic pictures and dramatic narratives, filled with graphic depictions of rape, murder, and a decadent, retrograde future.
Of those seeking out Aum, many were students of the sciences or technical fields like engineering. More than a few were the otaku – Japan’s version of computer nerds – technofreaks who spent their free time logged on to electronic networks and amassing data of every type. They were invariably described as quiet kids, with little apparent interest in the outside world. They spent what free time they had absorbed in their comics and their computers.
If Japan’s youth retreated into these far-out worlds, one could understand why. For many, there was nowhere else to go. They were pushed there by a culture that crushes individualism. And nowhere was this more true than in the schools.
Studies dominate the life of young Japanese. Students spend 240 days at school each year – a third longer than their American counterparts. Late afternoons are spent at cram schools, working to pass the examinations that begin in kindergarten. Nights are spent doing homework. The system has helped breed a generation of nerds, of technically literate, highly knowledgeable young people who lack basic social skills and have little understanding of the outside world.
If the schools don’t drive you into your own mind, the environment does. In a land where urbanization knows few bounds, where homes and offices are torn down in endless succession, the only land most Japanese know is the growing sprawl of the megalopolis. Mile after mile the cities of Japan go on, a relentless, urban sea of power lines, roads, and uninspired buildings of steel and concrete. There are crowds seemingly everywhere, on the trains, the streets, the highways. In an area the same size as California are crammed more than four times as many people.
One can understand why, then, the Japanese say they prefer to cultivate inner space – the inside of their homes, the inside of their minds. And Aum offered the ultimate inner space, one that would take its followers on a direct line to outer space. “Aum members lived in a purely imaginary world,” observed Shoko Egawa, a journalist who followed the cult for years. “One that combined primeval fear with a computer controlled, cartoon version of reality.” Adds another Aum-watcher, “It was virtual reality made real.”
So they came. Not just the curious and alienated, but the very bright and very talented. By 1989, remarkably, Asahara had gathered around him some of the finest young minds in all Japan – chemists, biologists, doctors, computer programmers. The high-tech children of postindustrial Japan were fascinated by Aum’s dramatic claims to supernatural power, its warnings of an apocalyptic future, its esoteric spiritualism.
There was Seiichi Endo, 28, who left prestigious Kyoto University, where he did experiments in genetic engineering at the medical school’s Viral Research Center. Another, Masami Tsuchiya, 24, a first-rate graduate student at the University of Tsukuba, abandoned cutting-edge work in organic chemistry to join the cult. Fumihiro Joyu, 26, arrived with an advanced degree in telecommunications from Waseda University, another leading school, where he studied artificial intelligence. Joyu had gone to work at the National Space Development Agency of Japan, but resigned after only two weeks. “The job,” he told stunned officials, “is incompatible with my interests in yoga.”
And then there was Hideo Murai, the astrophysicist. Brilliant, intense, and soft-spoken, Murai would become the chief scientist of Aum and engineer of the apocalypse. A quiet kid who enjoyed bicycling and science, he won acceptance to prestigious Osaka University, where he earned an advanced degree in astrophysics from its highly competitive Graduate School of Science. There, he studied the X-ray emissions of celestial bodies and proved a whiz at computer programming. On graduation, he joined Kobe Steel, a ¥1.1 trillion (US$10.5 billion)-a-year conglomerate with interests in metals, machinery, electronics, and biotech. Murai worked in the firm’s R&D section, running experiments to make steel supermalleable, like hot caramel. Interesting work for the young physicist, but not terribly fulfilling.
After two years at Kobe Steel, Murai’s behavior began to change. While browsing through a bookstore, he had picked up an Aum publication on yoga and ESP, and he was hooked. He spoke to colleagues at work about how levitation and telepathy might be possible and lost interest in his career. For his wedding, he brought his fiancee not to Hawaii, as do many Japanese men, but to Nepal. On his return, Murai announced to all that he was quitting the company to devote himself fully to Aum and his new spiritual life.
Murai’s parents tried desperately to talk him out of it. But their son simply handed them a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the onetime best-seller about a seagull’s struggle to learn to fly. The novel, he told them, expressed his true feelings. (“I hate that book,” his mother later said.)
Murai thrived inside Aum. He devoured Asahara’s teachings and became a prize disciple. So ascetic was Murai’s life that he moved permanently into a tiny cell used for meditation. “This room is very small and dark for those who want to escape,” he once said. “But if one wants to meditate, it is as big as the universe.”
The 30-year-old Murai was the senior scientist at the cult, and Asahara looked upon him with growing favor. Murai and the others had ideas about how to push forward Asahara’s ideas, using the tools and techniques of modern science. There were ways to analyze the unique qualities of their guru’s blood and brain waves, Murai explained. And there were technologies the cult could use to protect itself from the coming dark age.
Murai and the other scientists lent chilling detail to Asahara’s vision of an apocalyptic future. The guru was fascinated as his young brain trust talked of fantastic weapons that would hasten the world’s end: lasers and particle beams, chemical and biological agents, new generations of nuclear bombs. The land would be laid to waste as never before, they assured their leader.
For Hideo Murai, the astrophysicist, he at last had found a place in the world. What he heard from his master’s voice fit perfectly with his own thoughts of the universe. Indeed, all this had been predicted before, he told the others. Far more important than Jonathan Livingston Seagull was another work by an American writer. And this man’s books would serve as the master plan for the scientists of Aum.
__ Planet Trantor__
“The Empire will vanish and all its good with it. Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish.” It could be Shoko Asahara talking. But it is Hari Seldon, a science fiction figure 10,000 years in the future. Seldon is the key character in the Foundation series – Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi epic – and he would give Murai and Aum their high-tech blueprint for the millennium and beyond.
Seldon is a brilliant mathematician who discovers “psychohistory,” the science of true prediction, and warns that the galactic empire will fall into ruin for a thousand generations. “Interstellar wars will be endless,” Seldon tells a skeptical but threatened government. “Interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy.”
The empire fails to heed his warnings, prompting Seldon to take matters into his own hands. Asimov’s core trilogy, written in the 1940s, depicts his hero’s efforts to save humanity by forming a secret society that can rebuild civilization in a single millennium, instead of the 30,000 years they face.
At the center of Asimov’s universe lies Trantor, the ruling planet of an empire that spans 25 million worlds across the galaxy. Trantor is a planet of 40 billion souls that, writes Asimov, holds “the densest and richest clot of humanity the race had ever seen.” The surface of the planet comprises a single, vast megalopolis, extending a mile deep into the ground in an endless, mind-boggling labyrinth of humanity. Nature has long since disappeared, replaced by the sight of gray metal protruding skyward and delving deep underground. All that remains of the natural world is the emperor’s palace, an island of trees and flowers amid the sea of a planetary city.
It is not hard to see the parallels between Trantor and modern Japan, right down to the leafy grounds of the emperor’s palace that stand in central Tokyo. For years, in fact, Japanese engineers have worked at developing what they call “superdepth construction,” with plans to build the world’s first underground city by 2020.
The coincidences could not have escaped Hideo Murai as he read a Japanese-language copy of Foundation. But the similarities did not end there. In Foundation, Hari Seldon gathers the best minds of his time – scientists, historians, technologists – and, like monks in the Middle Ages, sets about preserving the knowledge of the universe. Seldon, however, has in mind no less than controlling the future.
Hari Seldon dies, but true to his predictions the empire falls into chaos. To survive, Seldon’s secret society (the Foundation) transforms itself into – what else? – a religion. His followers create a hierarchy of scientist priests whom the rest of the galaxy, having lost the command of science and technology, look upon as wizards and holy ones. “The religion we have is our all-important instrument,” explained one follower. “It is the most potent device known with which to control men and worlds.”
The similarities to Aum and its guru’s quest were remarkable. Aum’s central mission seemed a mirror image of the Foundation’s struggle to save humanity. “If Aum tries hard, we can reduce the victims of Armageddon to a fourth of the world’s population,” Asahara had preached. “However, at present, my rescue plan is totally delayed. The rate of survivors is getting smaller and smaller.”
In an interview, Murai would state matter-of-factly that Aum was using the Foundation series as the blueprint for the cult’s long-term plans. He gave the impression of “a graduate student who had read too many science fiction novels,” remembered one reporter. But it was real enough to the cult. Shoko Asahara, the blind and bearded guru from Japan, had become Hari Seldon, and Aum Supreme Truth was the Foundation.
__ Brain waves__
“We have a new initiation,” said the cult doctor. “Please drink this.”
It was September 1994, and Dr. Ikuo Hayashi was experimenting. A cardiovascular surgeon, the 48-year-old Hayashi had joined Aum after nearly killing a mother and daughter in a car accident. With his anesthesiologist wife and a dozen cult doctors and nurses, Hayashi presided over a horror shop of human testing, drugging, and crackpot medicine.
The victim this time was a Japanese army veteran, a 25-year-old personal bodyguard for Asahara. Hayashi had summoned the cult member and handed him a glass used for urine samples. Inside was a yellow liquid. “Soon I got dizzy and was knocked out,” the man recalled. “When I came to, I was on a bed and didn’t know what was going on. It seemed many days had passed, but I had no memory. When I touched my head, there were swollen spots – they were so painful both inside and outside my head. It was a dull, aching pain.”
The “spots” were in fact surgical incisions, made at four points in the man’s skull – one at each temple and two in the back. Each cut was 1 centimeter long and 2 centimeters wide. Fresh scars and swelling bald spots showed through what was left of his hair.
The man was later rescued and nursed back to health. “When I went home I had a thorough exam of my brain,” he said. “But a CAT scan showed nothing. As for the four scars Š I think they might have put electrodes in my head.”
“Electrodes in my head” – the phrase echoes, as if from some distant retrograde future. Aum, the high-tech death cult, had met the cyberpunk world of Neuromancer, William Gibson’s science fiction classic. In Gibson’s book, a “console cowboy” called Case prowls the holographic backstreets of Tokyo and wires his mind directly onto computer nets. He might have felt right at home inside Aum’s laboratories.
Aum’s scientists were fascinated by electronics and the brain. Their main focus, though, was not so much in logging on, but in locking up – in finding new ways to achieve mind control. Dogma, drugs, and brainwashing apparently were not enough to keep Asahara’s legions in line. What Asahara really wanted to create was a realm of zombies.
Brain wave patterns had always interested Aum’s scientists. These were, after all, the basis of the electrode caps worn by the cult priesthood. But the scope of their experiments expanded radically. One set of tests performed by Dr. Hayashi used electric shocks to wipe the memories of suspicious followers. According to Hayashi’s detailed medical records, 7 shocks of 100 volts each, delivered to the scalp, were enough to blank the short-term memory of one of Asahara’s drivers, who had been branded a spy. The man couldn’t remember he had ever driven the guru’s car.
A worker at the compound who tried to escape received 11 shocks, while a male follower accused of sexual relations got 19. During one three-month period beginning in October 1994, Dr. Hayashi administered more than 600 electric shocks to 130 followers. Afterward, some of them forgot which cult they were in, what the guru was called, even their own names.
__ Body snatchers__
Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the classic 1950s sci-fi film, Aum’s insidious influence seemed to reach into every corner of society. The cult reportedly counted among its flock as many as 40 young bureaucrats from Japan’s top ministries – education, post and telecommunications, justice, construction, transport – plus tax collectors and regional judges. One judge was said to have donated ¥1 million (US$9,505) to the cult. There were also reporters and editors, including a program director at NHK, the national broadcaster.
Aum’s membership list also included more than 100 experts in engineering, communications, computing, and other fields from companies like Toshiba, Hitachi, and IBM Japan – all high-tech firms whose state-of the-art technologies Aum coveted. Some eventually left their firms to join the cult full time; others merely donated large sums of money. There were also those considered “sleepers” – nonmembers who perhaps only attended yoga classes but could, with the right plan, be recruited into the cult.
Aum’s tentacles reached deep into the Japanese military. Nearly 40 active duty members of the Self Defense Force had enlisted in Asahara’s army – plus another 60 or so veterans. One member at the National Defense Academy slept under a large poster of Shoko Asahara and vowed to recruit others before graduation. Even more helpful was a first lieutenant in Japan’s second Antitank Helicopter Unit who leaked reams of classified data to the cult.
When infiltration failed to get what Aum wanted, the cult turned increasingly to wiretapping. Like biochemical technology, the tools to conduct electronic eavesdropping are now within the reach of everyday people – and Aum took full advantage. The first tap had been discovered as early as 1991 by NTT, the national phone company. Aum’s technique was simple enough. It reportedly obtained NTT uniforms and ID badges, and put together a tapping manual for its security and recruiting teams. Favorite targets were rich potential donors and Aum enemies. Opponents claim at least seven wiretaps were found in homes belonging to relatives and others opposed to the cult.
It was the police that most occupied the minds of top Aum officials. Fortunately for Aum, its recruiting had paid off here, too – at least a half dozen members of Japan’s finest had joined up. One top official admitted that two of them belonged to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, widely considered the elite of Japanese law enforcement.
__ Shadow government__
Infiltrating the Japanese establishment was not enough – Aum needed arms for Armageddon. The cult, now endowed with millions of tax-free dollars, launched crash programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Aum’s scientists had built a vast automated plant to mass-produce sarin, the Nazi nerve gas that would prove their weapon of choice. Others worked on synthesizing mustard gas, VX, and other chemical killers. In cult biolabs equipped with the latest gear, technicians cultured agents that cause anthrax, Q-fever, and botulism. At the same time, assembly lines were set up to produce 1,000 Russian machine guns and tons of TNT. All this would enable Aum to survive apocalypse and inherit the Earth.
In cult publications and radio broadcasts, Aum experts described in macabre detail the weapons of the future and how their followers alone would survive Armageddon. Murai spoke admirably of the plasma cannon, which concentrates microwaves into a single beam of 4,000 degrees centigrade. The weapon burns away living tissue while leaving structures intact. Such a weapon has been researched by the Pentagon, but Murai claimed the Americans had already deployed it in the Gulf War, evaporating Iraqi soldiers by the thousands. That was why, he said, only 8,000 bodies were found, while Iraq claimed it had lost 100,000.
Murai also claimed the superheroes of Aum would survive this devastating attack. “Enlightened believers produce an electromagnetic field,” Murai explained. “When the plasma from outside affects your body, you can take it as your own energy, and you will be more powerful.”
Another “ultimate” weapon was the “fixed-star reflection cannon,” which Aum swore Russia was then developing. A stationary satellite focuses solar energy onto an Earthbound target. The intense heat melts everything in its path – except Aum believers. “Enlightened believers can separate their bodily senses from their consciousness,” an Aum text explained. “So they can withstand the high heat that would burn ordinary people. That’s why they have been trained by submerging for 15 minutes in hot water of 50 degrees centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit).”
Like the indestructible comic-book heroes of their youth, Aum followers believed that they alone would rise from the ashes of Armageddon. Then, as Asahara prophesied, they would build the millennial Kingdom of Aum. But what would the kingdom look like? How would it be governed?
Endowed with superpowers, armed with weapons of mass destruction, Aum lacked only one thing: a state. In the summer of 1994, Asahara ordered a sweeping reorganization, setting up the cult as a shadow government. At least on paper, Aum now resembled a cross between a medieval theocracy and postwar Japan. A constitution was drafted, spelling out the structure of the new nation and the duties of its subjects. Citizens, for example, “shall be liable to military service in order to protect the sacred law.”
To govern the republic, Aum set up 24 ministries that eerily reflected the Japanese state its members were so eager to destroy. The cult’s chief scientist, Murai, became minister of science and technology. The other appointments were not without irony. Kiyohide Hayakawa, the engineer intent on giving Aum the means of mass destruction, was made minister of construction. Microbiologist Seiichi Endo, who spent his time culturing bacterial weapons, rose to minister of health and welfare.
Aum Supreme Truth, of course, was no democracy, nor was the state it sought to create. The millennial kingdom was from here on dubbed The Supreme State, leaving no doubt about who would inherit the world. And on top of the great empire, ruling serenely over the cosmos, sat Shoko Asahara, now deemed by law the Holy Monk Emperor.
__ Death ray__
Next to Murai’s Ministry of Science, no part of Aum was more vital to the cult than the Ministry of Intelligence and its 25-year-old chief, Yoshihiro Inoue. And no mission was more important to Inoue than the pilfering of sensitive data from Japan’s top high-tech companies. To the enterprising Inoue, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries compound in Hiroshima was a virtual library of classified military secrets. MHI designed tanks, escort ships, and nuclear power plants, and its Hiroshima facility was a technological gold mine – one that Inoue was about to plunder.
It was about 11:30 p.m. on December 28, 1994, a dead hour in the middle of the slow holiday season. While millions of Japanese lived it up at overseas resorts, Inoue’s five-man team sped through MHI’s front gate in a rental car. Sergeant Tatsuya Toyama, a member of an elite Japanese paratrooper unit, was at the wheel. Inoue sat beside him. There was another paratrooper in the back, one more curled up in the trunk.
Also in the backseat sat cult member Hideo Nakamoto, a 38-year-old MHI senior researcher. Nakamoto had provided Inoue’s squad with the MHI uniforms they now wore, and his company ID ensured an easy passage through the 24-hour security at MHI’s gates. Once inside the compound, Toyama stood guard, swinging a flashlight. The others walked swiftly into the building.
Then the thieving began. Inoue’s team logged onto MHI’s mainframe and downloaded megabytes of restricted files onto a laptop computer. What they couldn’t fit on disks was photocopied or simply pilfered. Among Inoue’s loot was a description of laser sighting devices for tank guns, and a document – marked “Top Secret to Company Outsiders” – containing data on laser technology to enrich uranium. Afterward, Toyama helped carry cardboard boxes full of documents and disks out to the car. Then Inoue and his squad drove out the way they’d come in – through the front gate.
Breaking into MHI was so easy that Inoue returned again – and again. The information he stole was funneled back to Aum scientists, injecting new energy into the sect’s grandiose designs to develop a dazzling variety of futuristic weapons.
Chief among them was the laser, which Aum had been studying for several years. In fact, just two months before the MHI break-in, residents at Mount Fuji had witnessed a bizarre sight – a sharp beam of red light streaking across the night sky. It was 4 inches wide and emanated from one of Aum’s buildings. For two hours, the beam was locked on to another sect facility about a mile away. Cultists later told locals that Aum was merely conducting a “laser irradiation experiment.” The real reason was less reassuring. They were out to make laser weapons.
The cult’s firearms factory had used laser cutters capable of slicing through iron plates since April 1994. But the guru had long been obsessed with the dark beauty of lasers. “I believe that in the end a giant laser gun will be developed,” Asahara preached in 1993. “When the power of this laser is increased, a perfectly white belt, or sword, can be seen. This is the sword referred to in the Book of Revelation. This sword will destroy virtually all life.” The guru’s passion for lasers was easy to understand. After all, what was a high-tech death cult without the classic “death ray” seen in a thousand sci-fi movies?
During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union spent billions of dollars trying to create such a “death ray.” With the guru’s blessing, Aum was spending millions, too. But lasers were just one of myriad technologies preoccupying the sect’s mad scientists. On one encrypted optical disk, they had compiled a wish list of cutting-edge research: studies on advanced liquid and gel explosives, blueprints of rocket ignitions, data on missile targeting systems for fighter jets – Aum wanted it all.
But while Aum prepared for Armageddon, the extraordinary happened – Armageddon came early. On January 17, 1995, an earthquake of awesome power struck Kobe in central Japan, toppling freeways, crumbling apartment blocks, and igniting a firestorm of destruction. More than 5,500 people perished in what became Japan’s worst disaster since World War II.
For Asahara, the Kobe earthquake was stunning proof of the coming apocalypse. Aum’s chief scientist Hideo Murai, however, did not believe the quake was an act of God. He was a scientist after all, and scientists have rational explanations.
“There is a strong possibility that the Kobe earthquake was activated by electromagnetic power or some other device that exerts energy into the ground,” Murai later told an assembly of international reporters. This device, he added, was possibly operated by the US military. Murai’s attempts to explain further were drowned out by derisive snorts from reporters. A device capable of triggering massive seismic movements sounded hopelessly sci-fi and far-fetched. But as it turned out, Aum wasn’t the first to be fascinated by the idea.
“Nikoratesura” is the closest Japanese rendering of Nikola Tesla (1856 1943), the brilliant Croatian-American who discovered alternating current and pioneered radio, the electric motor, and remote control. Tesla studied the possibility of transmitting electric energy over long distances by taking advantage of electromagnetic waves emitted by Earth – in effect, using the planet as a giant, wireless conductor. In 1899 at Colorado Springs, Tesla lit hundreds of lamps about 40 kilometers away using a large induction coil, a device that produces an electric current by changing magnetic fields. He afterward claimed that the same method could in theory be used to send a signal through the Earth that could be picked up on the other side.
Nikola Tesla’s remarkable mind led him to a field we now know as telegeodynamics. Here his theories grew extraordinary. He believed that by manipulating the Earth’s electromagnetic forces, one could dramatically affect both climate and seismic activity; in other words, play god. Tesla warned that his discovery could split the planet in two – “split it as a boy would split an apple – and forever end the career of man.”
Although many geologists dismiss this notion as comic-book nonsense, recent research has shown that earthquakes are preceded by unusual emissions of low-frequency electromagnetic waves, produced by small cracks in lower layers of plates in the Earth’s crust. Tesla’s ideas were in fact taken very seriously by both the US and Soviet militaries. Portions of the man’s papers, seized by the US government after his death, remain classified even today. Some US experts reportedly believe the Soviets used a “seismic weapon” to trigger an earthquake in Beijing in 1977.
An earthquake machine! It’s not hard to see why the idea excited Murai. He wanted to know more, and that’s where the six members of the Japan Secret Nikola Tesla Association came in. A month after the Kobe quake, the members began a series of trips to the Tesla museum in Belgrade, where many of his papers reside. There they searched for data on seismology and electromagnetism. Meanwhile, the cult’s New York office contacted the International Tesla Society in the US, asking for information on Tesla’s inventions, patents and writings. The Kobe tremor may have been an act of God. Hideo Murai was determined that Japan’s next earthquake would be an act of Aum.
__ The deed__
The hit squad drove out of Mount Fuji at sunset. There were five of them – one doctor and four vice ministers in the Science and Technology Ministry. The men chosen to unleash terror in the heart of Tokyo were among Aum’s, and Japan’s, brightest minds.
The first was Dr. Ikuo Hayashi. As the brains behind Aum’s clinics, the good doctor had coldly presided over the wholesale doping, torture, and death of many followers. Still, he found it hard crossing the line from gross medical malpractice to mass murder, if later reports are to be believed. “I didn’t know why I was chosen for the attack,” Dr. Hayashi said. “I wanted to refuse, but the atmosphere didn’t allow it.”
Less likely to refuse the mission was the squad’s second member, Yasuo Hayashi. The good doctor’s namesake was a 6-foot-tall ethnic Korean who had grown up in Tokyo. Hayashi was a mean-looking 37-year-old with Neanderthal brows and a fur of acne on each cheek. His qualifications included an electrical engineering degree and a criminal record of substance abuse. His fascination with the supernatural had led him to India, then to drugs, and then to Aum. He became a monk in 1988, and proved adept at abduction, wiretapping, and intimidation. The subway attack would earn him a new nickname from Japan’s media: “Killer Hayashi.”
The next man, 30-year-old Kenichi Hirose, had graduated at the top of his class in applied physics from Waseda University in 1987. He turned down a job at a big electronics firm to join the cult, but often returned to the university to question his professor about laser research. The professor was baffled by Hirose’s choice. “Floating in the air violates the law of inertia,” the professor once said, referring to Asahara’s trick of appearing to levitate. “Why would a student of physics believe such an outrageous thing?” Hirose replied: “Because I saw it.”
Masato Yokoyama, 31, was another graduate in applied physics. His classmates at Tokai University outside Tokyo remember him as a quiet student who dressed in preppy clothes and enjoyed bowling. On graduation he joined an electronic parts maker and secretly attended Aum yoga classes. Then one day Yokoyama presented his boss with a cult book. “Please read this and study,” he said. On the last page of the book, he had scribbled: “Those who handle this book carelessly will pay for it.” Soon after, Yokoyama quit work and joined Aum – “to save mankind,” he told his protesting family.
The fifth and final attacker was 27-year-old Toru Toyoda. He studied particle physics as a graduate student at Tokyo University, Japan’s top school, where his copious note taking made him popular among classmates. Toyoda was relatively outgoing. Before joining the cult, he entertained his fellow lab rats with a mean impersonation of Shoko Asahara during Aum’s 1990 election campaign. The guru had the last laugh. Toyoda was converted to Aum by another Tokyo University student and, in the spring of 1992, signed up.
On the morning of March 20, 1995, these five Aum members blended with the rush-hour crowds in Tokyo’s subways. The cultists boarded five trains at different ends of the vast network. They knew the exact times and locations for each train and each station. They also knew that by 8:15 a.m., all five trains would converge upon Kasumigaseki, the center of power in Japan, home to the bureaucracies that rule more than 125 million Japanese.
It was here that Aum’s high-tech terrorists would strike their preemptive blow – to paralyze the Japanese state and begin the cult’s historic mission of world domination. Police were threatening to raid cult facilities, leaving Aum no choice but to attack first.
By 7:45 a.m., each member of the hit squad sat in his designated train, clutching a cheap umbrella and a package of sarin wrapped in newspaper. A few stops from Kasumigaseki, the cultists laid their bags on the car floors and punctured them with the umbrella tips. Then, as the car doors opened, they darted into crowds and out of the station, where getaway cars waited.
Only one cultist seemed aware of the carnage ahead. Aum physician Hayashi was standing on the Chiyoda line platform. The doctor was having a last-minute fit of morals. He looked around and saw a young girl waiting in line behind him. Go away, he thought. If you get on here, you’ll die.
The train pulled up. Dr. Hayashi boarded the first car, as instructed, and sat close to the door. He caught the eye of a woman in her 30s and quickly looked away. You too will be dead soon, he thought. His sarin package was wrapped in two newspapers: Red Flag, the Japanese Communist Party daily, and Seikyo Shimbun, published by a rival religious group. Dr. Hayashi hoped the choice of reading would later throw police off.
His station was announced over the intercom, and the train slowed with a lurch of brakes. Kasumigaseki was now four stops away. Dr. Hayashi placed the package at his feet and stuck the umbrella in several times. He felt one of the bags rupture, but wasn’t sure about the second one. He wasn’t waiting around to find out.
By 8:10 a.m., Dr. Hayashi and the four other cultists were back on the street, looking for their drivers. Soon after, the cars were nudging through morning traffic, heading back to the hideout. In the tunnels below, 11 bags of nerve agent on five subway cars thundered toward the city center, along with thousands of unlucky commuters.
Within minutes, the air in the cars was thick with choking, invisible fumes, and passengers were groaning with nausea. On one train, a man kicked the offensive package onto the platform when the doors opened, but not before two commuters collapsed on the ground, their bodies shuddering with spasms. Incredibly, the train did not stop, but pulled out a minute later, bang on time. It would make two more stops until the growing panic inside the cars reached critical mass. Passengers tumbled from the train, gagging and vomiting, clutching handkerchiefs across their faces, gasping for breath. Five collapsed on the platform, foaming at the mouth. Three others lay inside the car, their bodies jerking violently. As commuters staggered toward the exits with pinhole vision and crashing headaches, an announcement echoed across the station: “Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.”
Above ground it was pandemonium. Pavements and roads were blanketed with casualties. The victims were eerily quiet – the nerve gas had crippled their lungs and stolen their voices. Soon ambulance sirens cut through the silence, and TV helicopters throbbed overhead. Even as police tried to work out what had happened, more reports were coming in. Another subway line had been hit Š and another, and another.
Soon, wave after wave of blind, disoriented victims flooded nearby hospitals, baffling doctors with their symptoms. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s brutally efficient subway continued to spread Aum’s killer chemical. One train passed through Kasumigaseki three times before its deadly cargo was discovered.
By the time the subway system finally ground to a halt, the whole nation reeled at the news. The death toll eventually climbed to 12. More than 5,500 were afflicted, many with appalling injuries. At least two passengers now slept eternally in vegetative comas. One woman was admitted to a hospital in agony after the nerve agent had fused her contact lenses to her eyeballs. In the end, she had both eyes surgically removed.
Preview of the 21st century?
A psychopathic band of brilliant scientists, bent on indiscriminate murder and the world’s end – Aum’s story seems more at home in the world of science fiction novels and TV thrillers. Yet it happened in real life. More frightening still, it will happen again.
“We’ve definitely crossed a threshold,” warns terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. “This is the cutting edge of high-tech terrorism for the year 2000 and beyond. It’s the nightmare scenario that people have quietly talked about for years coming true.”
In the weeks following Aum’s subway attack, terrorists in Chile and the Philippines threatened to unleash their own chemical arms. In America, Ohio traffic cops pulled over an outspoken white supremacist and found three vials of the bacteria that cause bubonic plague. Meanwhile, two members of the Minnesota Patriots Council – one of scores of heavily armed US militia groups – were convicted of planning to use ricin, a biological toxin, to kill federal agents. The trial was a sign of the times: the men were the first convicted under a 1989 US law, the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act.
It would be easy to dismiss Aum as a peculiarly Japanese case, and indeed, there are conditions in Japan that shaped the cult’s unique character. The straitjacket schools and workplaces, the absentee fathers and alienated youth no doubt helped fuel Shoko Asahara’s rise to power. But to suggest that what happened in Japan could not happen elsewhere would be a dangerous mistake. Ineffective and bungling police, fanatic sects, and disaffected scientists are hardly limited to the Japanese.
Aum’s forays into conventional weapons – its explosives and AK-74s – were alarming enough, as were the cult’s eerie experiments with electrodes, drugs, and mind control. But where Asahara and his mad scientists charted new ground was in their pursuit of the weapons of mass destruction. This, unfortunately, will prove Aum Supreme Truth’s lasting legacy: to be the first independent group, without state patronage or protection, to produce biochemical weapons on a major scale. Never before had a subnational group gained access to so deadly an arsenal.
The word is out. A college education, some basic lab equipment, recipes downloaded from the Internet – for the first time, ordinary people can create extraordinary weapons. Technology and training have simply become too widespread, too decentralized to stop a coming era of do-it yourself machines for mass murder. We are reaching a new stage in terror, in which the most fanatic and unstable among us can acquire the most powerful weapons.
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