July 29, 2011 — The sarin nerve agent strikes carried out by a Japanese cult in the 1990s suggest that chemical weapons are a more viable and accessible option than biological materials for terrorists seeking to use a weapon of mass destruction, according to a new study (see GSN, March 8).
"You need to have a hands-on feel for growing bacteria in a lab," former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said on Thursday at the rollout of a Center for a New American Security report on the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult.
With chemical weapons, "if you're appropriately trained, you follow the recipe. [The agents are] familiar to you," added Danzig, who prepared the report with a team of researchers.
He noted that Seiichi Endo, the group's lead biological expert, was a virologist, not a bacteriologist, and not well-versed at making virulent strains of pathogens.
The cult, which was originally founded as a yoga school, also succeeded in creating a chemical agent because the equipment and materials necessary to ensure its purity were readily accessible on the open market and therefore made it easier to produce, the new report concludes.
The group eventually manufactured lethal sarin gas. It released the nerve agent in the city of Matsumoto in 1994 and in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. The two incidents killed 20 people and caused thousands more to become ill.
Aum benefited, in part, from the persistence of its intention to acquire a weapon of mass destruction, despite a series of errors while trying to develop biological agents such as anthrax and botulinum toxin, according to Danzig, whose team interviewed former cult members in preparing the report.
In one instance, a member of the sect fell into a vat of botulinum toxin and nearly drowned. The follower was rescued and showed no signs of the disease, he said.
"It's striking that they kept coming back to this," Danzig told audience.
In addition, the group failed to develop an effective dissemination method for its biological experiments. A pump first used to spread anthrax "spouted like a whale," according to one cult member's account detailed in the study.
When the self-produced disseminators and aerosols did work, poorly predicted wind patterns caused members to miss their targets, the report states. The cult used three trucks in failed efforts to spray botulinum toxin at two U.S. naval bases in Japan, Narita airport, the Japanese Diet, the Imperial Palace and the headquarters of a rival religious group.
The ability to produce large quantities of pathogens also proved difficult due to problems with contamination. The group seemingly did not establish or maintain sterile conditions for its botulinum fermenters, allowing other bacteria to get into the units and curb growth.
The new report also highlights the cult's hierarchical structure, which saw many of its top leaders actively involved in the daily operations of the nascent WMD programs, including driving trucks that contained equipment and other materials.
However, that insular approach proved a "double-edge" sword as those same leaders often embellished the progress of their pet projects to ingratiate themselves with cult chief Shoko Asahara.
The report states that while Japanese law enforcement's pursuit of the cult was "remarkably lax," periodic actions proved highly disruptive to the group's WMD efforts and caused them to shelve the programs several times.
"Paranoia is an important disruptive factor to be considered in these programs," Danzig said.
Asahara and a number of his followers have been sentenced to death for the sarin attacks and other acts. Aum has been reformed under a new name and has sworn off violence.
Danzig applied Aum Shinrikyo's actions to the WMD threat posed by other cults, saying the world is playing a game a game of Russian roulette. Cults follow "notions that are bizarre, concepts that are sterile and then one of those chambers turns out to be loaded."Related: