It is a terrorist's dream. Silent, odorless and deadly, sarin is one of the most toxic chemical agents known to man. In liquid or vapor form, it can kill within minutes, paralyzing the respiratory system and causing death by suffocation. Last week, some 5,000 Tokyo rush-hour commuters were overcome by the toxic nerve gas as they rode to work and school on the city's subway system. At least 10 victims died, and more than 50 remained in serious or critical condition at week's end. The gas was leaked on three train lines - the Marunouchi, Chiyoda and Hibiya - all of which converge on Kasumigaseki station, opposite most of Japan's government ministries and adjacent to the imperial palace. "The station where all the trains pass through is important," said Akira Fukushima, a professor of criminal psychology at Tokyo's Sophia University. "Right in front of the station is the police department headquarters, the symbol of the country's power."
Japanese authorities got the message, which also resonated in other major cities around the world. And within two days of the gas attack, Tokyo police appeared to track down the messenger. In a dawn sweep on March 22, more than 2,500 policemen wearing gas masks raided two dozen buildings and compounds of a shadowy religious sect and found tons of suspicious chemicals. The next day, police seized large quantities of sodium fluoride and phosphorus trichloride - the main ingredients of sarin - during another raid on the sect's complex at the foot of Mount Fuji, 100 km west of Tokyo. Shoko Asahara, the fugitive leader of the Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth sect, denied responsibility for the gas attack in a statement distributed to news media. But as evidence mounted of the apocalyptic cult's involvement, analysts warned that Japan could be facing a new era of religion-based crime. "Up to now, terrorist crime committed in Japan was restricted to left- and right-wing groups and gangsters," said Prof. Susumu Shimazano, a religion expert at the University of Tokyo. "But now religious groups will also have to be watched carefully, especially because there are so many and because they are popular."
As the gas seeped through the subway shortly after 8 a.m. on Monday morning, thousands of passengers staggered onto the streets, gasping for breath and vomiting. Others foamed at the mouth and bled from the nose. Office worker Norihiro Takahashi, 26, said he saw a package, wrapped in paper and covered with a clear plastic bag, on a train platform. "It seemed to have two bottles wrapped inside, and a liquid was running out of it," he said. "I walked past it and went outside. About 15 minutes after I started walking to my office, the sunlight suddenly seemed to brighten, and my vision got hazy. I felt my chest being pressed, and my neck became stiff. I had a headache." Among the victims was Carolyn Snyder, 23, of Duncan, B.C., who teaches English and studies Japanese. Tokyo doctors said she suffered some liver damage, but would soon be released from hospital.
Whatever the motive for the attack, it clearly sowed terror among Tokyo residents. Many nervous Japanese avoided the subway system in following days, and authorities removed trash cans from 148 train stations as a precaution against hidden terrorist devices. Security measures extended to Tokyo airport, where announcements every half-hour appealed to passengers to inform police of any suspicious objects or people.
Some local media reports suggested that two recent unexplained incidents might in fact have been test runs for the Tokyo gassing. In early March, 19 train passengers in the port city of Yokohama were taken to hospital complaining of eye and respiratory pain from an unknown source of fumes. Ten days later, three mysterious attaché cases were discovered at a Tokyo subway station, each containing three tanks with an unknown liquid, small motorized fans, a vent and a battery. One was giving off a vapor.
The Tokyo attack also brought echoes of a strange, unresolved case last June when sarin gas seeped through the open windows of homes in the central city of Matsumoto one evening, killing eight people and seriously poisoning 200. No one claimed responsibility for the incident, and no one has been arrested. A month later, the National Police Agency's science squad detected traces of sarin at a building in the small village of Kamiku-Isshiki at the foot of Mount Fuji. Suspiciously, the building was used by the same Aum Shinri Kyo sect.
During last week's first raid on the sect's national headquarters in Kamiku-Isshiki - ostensibly in connection with an unsolved kidnapping case - police found several bizarrely dressed members wandering aimlessly about the filthy compound. One man wore what looked like an aviator's helmet with wires protruding from electrodes stuck to it. A pregnant woman in a dirty white butcher's smock shuffled nearby, appearing disoriented. The compound's grounds were littered with electrical and industrial equipment, including gas or chemical tanks. Police said about 50 followers appeared comatose, and doctors later said they were malnourished and dehydrated. One 23-year-old woman complained that she had been forcibly detained in a crate by sect members, and police arrested several officials of the cult on illegal confinement charges.
Since the 1980s, Japan has seen a surge of interest in religious groups, particularly those with elements of mysticism and the supernatural. Official figures put the number of registered religious organizations in Japan at almost 184,000. They are exempt from income tax and are given preferential treatment on other assets, leading to widespread speculation that at least some of the groups are using the designation as a front to hide profits. Among them is Aum Shinri Kyo, led by the enigmatic Shoko Asahara.
Asahara was born in 1955 as Chizuo Matsumoto, the partially blind fourth son of a tatami mat maker on the southern island of Kyushu. As an adult, he first practised acupuncture, then peddled medicine. He was arrested in 1982 for claiming a concoction he sold could cure rheumatism and other diseases. He later pleaded guilty and paid a fine. In 1984, he founded Aum Shinsen-no-kai (the society of mountain wizards) and began gathering followers by preaching that people can attain enlightenment through yoga, meditation and psychic training. Asahara claims to have been given the secrets of Tibetan Buddhism by the Dalai Lama in 1987. The pudgy, bearded, 40-year-old guru also claims he can levitate at will - and that the world will end in 1997.
In the late 1980s, Asahara changed the sect's name to Aum Shinri Kyo. It now has an estimated 10,000 members in Japan, as well as overseas branches in the United States, Germany, Russia and Sri Lanka. Aum's members are mostly young. They must donate all assets to the sect before joining and promise to sever all contact with their families. (In last week's raids, police discovered about $11 million in cash and 22 lb. of gold at various sect buildings.) According to former members, novices are held in solitary confinement for days to force meditation - and sometimes drink Asahara's blood. They study yoga and the works of the guru and perform rites such as swallowing water and then vomiting it up to "purify" their bodies. "Many young people in Japan are disillusioned with mainstream society, which focuses on material goods and competition," said religion expert Shimazano. "What appeals mostly to them is the leader's message that promises them true spiritual fulfilment."
There was a series of defections from the sect after the mysterious disappearance in 1989 of a lawyer representing former followers seeking legal protection. Police discovered an Aum badge at the scene of the lawyer's apparent abduction, but have made no arrests. The lawyer, his wife and son are still missing.
The sect owns a MIL Mi-17 Soviet military helicopter, equipped with rocket pods, which it keeps near its complex at Kamiku-Isshiki. Jane's All the World's Aircraft describes the aircraft as a cargo-carrying helicopter with a secondary passenger transport role. In 1990, Asahara and 24 followers ran for seats in Japan's parliament under the cult's banner. The followers campaigned in elephant masks or masks resembling Asahara's face. They all lost.
As Tokyo authorities continued their search for evidence in the gas attack, terrorism experts warned that similar incidents could occur in other countries. In New York City, where the Aum has a branch, police and subway workers were placed on alert for packages that appeared "unusual" or were left unattended. (City officials were particularly sensitive to the dangers: last December, a firebomb exploded on a subway in the Wall Street area, injuring dozens of people, some critically. The suspect, Edward Leary, who also was injured, has pleaded not guilty.) In what might have been a copycat prank three days after the Tokyo attack, four teenagers sprayed the debilitating chemical Mace onto a crowded Manhattan subway train, injuring nine passengers. And in Washington, congressman Glen Browder of Alabama, a chemical warfare specialist on the House of Representatives National Security Committee, said it was only "a matter of time" before a similar attack occurs in the United States. He pointed to a 1993 congressional study he headed on chemical and biological warfare threats that concluded that the United States and its allies should not discount or ignore terrorist use of chemicals.
Asahara, whose whereabouts remained unknown at week's end, issued numerous statements to the media in Germany, Russia and Tokyo. In a chilling message echoing the end of other doomsday cults, the elusive guru told followers: "It's time to carry out the salvation plan and to greet death without regrets." Japanese authorities remained on alert against the possibility of a mass suicide by cult members or further terrorist attacks. But in cities around the world, many people felt a little less safe.
Maclean's April 3, 1995