The Nuclear Terrorism Threat and the Aum Shinrikyo Cult
Until the mid seventies, the term nuclear terror was used predominately to describe the threat of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Since then, however, it has taken on a whole new meaning which many security experts feel poses a more serious threat to national security. In the past few decades, formal terrorist organizations have exploded planes out of the sky, bombed US military and diplomatic facilities abroad, and with the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombing incidents, they have even launched attacks on American soil.
Yet until 20 March 1995 when five members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, the world had not seen a successful case of the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by a terrorist organization. The Aum cult did not limit itself to the development of chemical weapons; the acquisition of biological and nuclear weapons was on their agenda as well. Because of the group's diverse efforts at attaining nuclear weapons, the Aum Shinrikyo cult is an excellent illustrative case of the possibilities for nuclear terrorism. Using Aum as a reference point, valuable insight can be gained into the potential motivations behind nuclear terrorism as well as the means of acquisition and delivery. Throughout this analysis, the Aum case demonstrates that the dynamic and unpredictable terrorist mindset requires security officials to think beyond preconceptions in order to correctly determine the nature of the nuclear terrorist threat.
Brief Background and Description of the Aum Shinrikyo Cult
The group was founded in Japan in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, a forty-year-old legally blind former yoga instructor. The Sanskrit term Aum refers to the powers of destruction and creation in the universe while Shinrikyo translates as 'the teaching of supreme truth.' The religious doctrine of Aum is a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism and Nostradamus-like mysticism and is devoted to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.1 The religion also includes the concept of a path towards higher consciousness marked by a variety of stages and initiations. The guru, Asahara, is an essential guide throughout this spiritual evolution. Members of the group believe that salvation will only be achieved after Armageddon, even for those who are killed in the process. In spite of its religious nature, Aum's leadership structure was organized in the form of a ministerial cabinet patterned after the Japanese government.
Since its establishment in 1987, the Aum organization expanded physically, geographically, and financially. It is believed that at its height, the group had over 65,000 members, yet only 10,000 of these were located in Japan. Aum had a large representation in Russia, approximately three times the number of followers in Japan and half of its total membership worldwide. By the end of 1994, there were six Aum Shinrikyo branches in Moscow alone and...