Aum Shinrikyo was an international organization, and investigators claim the group may have plotted a chemical attack in the US. Tokyo's subway attack is partially blamed on an intelligence failure by both US and Japanese officials. At a US Senate hearing following the sarin attack, which killed 12 and injured 5,500, the US intelligence community admitted that it had no reason to suspect Aum Shinrikyo was linked to possible terrorism.
Shoko Asahara was found guilty of masterminding Tokyo's 1995 subway attack, and was sentenced to death on 27 February 2004 by the Tokyo District Court. Asahara directed Aum Shinrikyo to release sarin onto five subway cars.
Emily Keller is a journalist in New York City. She graduated from New School University with an emphasis on the history of biological arms race in the 20th Century.
Japanese police have been widely criticized for failing to prevent the subway killings by ignoring Aum Shinrikyo's activities, even though in 1994 the group killed seven and injured 600 Japanese in their first chemical attack.
Investigations following the Tokyo subway attack found that Aum Shinrikyo had an active biological weapons program along with aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons, but their activity was eventually foiled before additional human impact.
Asahara's leadership is a chilling reminder of how a terrorist group can organize and orchestrate and attack off the radar of authorities.
Both Japan and the US appeared to be safe from terrorism prior to the first World Trade Center bombing, and Tokyo's first attack the following year. The 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City may have included cyanide gas, some experts conclude. Sodium cyanide was intended to gas those trapped occupants of Tower 1, but the cyanide burned instead of vaporizing rendering it harmless. In June 1994, Aum Shinrikyo released a cloud of sarin by remote control into a Tokyo suburb. The sarin gas floated towards apartment buildings resident to three court judges set to hear a lawsuit in which Aum Shinrikyo was the defendant.
Biological weapons (BW) attacks that release contagious disease pose a much greater threat than even chemical weapons. There are two known biological attacks in US history, although neither of the illnesses that resulted was contagious past original exposure. The most publicized biological attack occurred in the Fall of 2001 when anthrax-laced letters arrived at business and residential addresses, killing five citizens. To this day the origins of this attack is unknown.
However, the first large-scale biological weapons attack on US citizens occurred in Oregon in 1984. The Rajneeshees, a local sect, poisoned residents with salmonella bacteria using restaurant salad bars, which sickened more than 700 people. The Rajneeshees intended to prevent residents from voting in an upcoming election so the candidate they favored would win. The candidate lost.
Biological weapons are old warfare, and date back to use in the Roman Empire. Modern day scientific advances escalate the threat. In 1972, world leaders created the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which banned bio-weapons research meant for offensive purposes. The BWC was signed and ratified by 144 nations, including the US, Iraq, South Africa, Japan, and the former Soviet Union. The treaty suffers from lack of enforcement and vague criteria for differentiating offensive from defensive programs.
In an ironic twist, most of the nations supporting the BWC have continued past or present biological weapons programs of their own, in effect creating the very threat they oppose.
During the Cold War, the Soviets designed warheads meant to bombard US cities with anthrax, smallpox or antibiotic-resistant forms of plague. Although they were never used against the US, Soviet weapons caused hundreds of casualties against the Soviets themselves who were accidentally exposed to pathogens during experimentation.
In World War II, the Japanese dropped porcelain bombs containing plague-infected fleas over Manchuria, killing thousands of Chinese. And during apartheid leaders of South Africa laced chocolates with anthrax, beer with botulinum, and sugar with salmonella, killing and sickening many dissidents.
The US initiated a biological weapons program in 1942 which was banned in 1969 by President Richard Nixon. The program was directed by George W Merck, president of pharmaceutical company Merck, based in Fort Detrick, MD. Experimental pathogens included smallpox, anthrax, and plague. General Electric, Lockheed, Monsanto, Goodyear, and General Mills all participated in the program.
The history of Iraq's biological weapons program is largely unknown, although United Nations inspectors estimate it began in 1975 and involved animal tests conducted with anthrax supplied by the US. In 1988, Iraq used nerve gas against Kurds and Iranians in Kurdistan and Halabja, killing thousands. It now appears that this program declined or ceased all together following the 1991 Gulf War.
Analysts conclude that the lack of enforcement against biological and chemical weapons programs worldwide inspired Aum Shinrikyo's attack in Tokyo.
Biological weapons possessed by governments and stateless terrorists alike have the potential to become as destructive and politically influential as nuclear weapons. The discovery of fission in 1938 was pivotal to the creation of nuclear weapons which determined the balance of power among nations through the Cold War. Today, biotechnology follows a similar thread, with the exception being, not only governments, but organizations without borders possess these weapons.
Scientific advances meant to help humanity and prevent disease through gene-manipulation also allow science the plans for manufacturing new germs which are resistant to antibiotics and vaccines. To counter this growing threat, increased funding and planning for first responders, such as medical personnel, as well as air filtration installations are recommended solutions, but remain not implemented.
International efforts to strengthen the BWC began in 1995 in the areas of enforcing compliance and initiating inspections of the medical facilities of all nations. However, the US, who signed and ratified the BWC originally, blocked these recent efforts. The US opposes mutual, cross border inspections out of fear that pharmaceutical companies' patents and trade secrets could be exposed in the process.