How cult caused death on the Tokyo subway

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The Independent Online
AT THE height of the morning rush hour on 20 March 1995, commuters on three lines on the Tokyo subway began to notice an unpleasant smell. Many began to feel sick, others suffered headaches and pain in their eyes. By the time the trains stopped at the stations, disgorging thousands of fainting, vomiting passengers, the damage had been done, writes Richard Lloyd Parry.

Twelve people died and more than 5,000 others suffered ill-effects, ranging from temporary nausea to post-traumatic mental illness and permanent coma. The sense of shock in Japan, a country with low rates of violent crime and no history of domestic terrorism, was incalculable.

The Tokyo nerve-gas attack, an attempt to kick-start the Apocalypse by a religious cult named Aum Shinri Kyo, was the first terrorist use of chemical weapons. That a bunch of Buddhist crackpots in white pyjamas could manufacture the nerve gas sarin and release it into the middle of the world's biggest city caused alarm not just in Japan, but in security agencies around the world.

The story of Aum is in some ways illustrates the difficulties in the large- scale amateur manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. If the sarin attack owed much to the ingenuity of the Aum leader, Shoko Asahara, it also had a lot to do with the incompetence of the Japanese police who for months had been bombarded with clues that Aum was up to no good.

Aum, moreover, was not simply a bunch of deluded hippies - among its members were scientists and technicians from some of the best universities in the country. Asahara built well-equipped laboratories in huge metal sheds on the slopes of Mt Fuji. He imported ex-Soviet technology and know how and over the years thousands of tonnes of chemicals were assembled at the Aum HQ, allegedly for the manufacture of fertiliser. But even with these resources, Aum's most ambitious plans failed.

On occasions Aum members attempted to disperse anthrax and botulism in Tokyo, but the anticipated decimation of the city never took place.