The Experience of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo Group and Biological Agents

Milton Leitenberg

Center for International and Security Studies

University of Maryland


"The Experience of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo Group and Biological Agents,"  Hype or Reality:  The "New Terrorism" and Mass Casualty Attacks,  Brad Roberts, ed.  (Alexandria, VA: CBACI, 2000), pp. 159-172.


The 1990s have witnessed a resurgence of concern regarding biological weapons (BW) and biological warfare. This has occurred for three reasons. The first was the disclosure of a massive Soviet BW program in the 1970s and 1980s, in gross violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, signed in 1972 and ratified in 1975. The second was the disclosure in 1995 by the UN Special Commission that, by the time of the Gulf War in 1990, Iraq had prepared a significant BW arsenal and prepared it for battlefield use, essentially without the world's knowledge. The third reason was the evidence, also disclosed in 1995, that a Japanese cult group, Aum Shinrikyo, had not only produced chemical weapons but had spent four years attempting to produce and use biological weapons.

Although the potential terrorist use of biological agents in the United States had been referred to at various times by government officials since 1989, the issue has swept the national security sector of official Washington since 1995. The primary catalyst for this process and a major influence on it was the discovery in 1995 that the Aum Shinrikyo group in Japan, which had produced Sarin and had used it to cause large-scale public injury, had also attempted to produce and disperse Botulinum toxin and Bacillus anthracis. 1 The intervening four years have already witnessed the resultant establishment of major national-security policies in the United States, the planned expenditure of billions of dollars, and the involvement of a plethora of institutions and contractors. None of the elements of this process are likely to be reversible or to be reconsidered.

The story of the Aum and biological weapons (BW) is that of a religious-based fringe cult, one that would not ordinarily have been considered a "terrorist" group, but whose megalomanic leader included in his program of action the development of nerve gases and biological weapons. The group reportedly had available to it extraordinary financial resources, in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, some of which it converted into the procurement of equipment and facilities for work on these agents. Their efforts in the biological weapons area took several directions, but despite semi-professional capabilities, substantial time and effort, all of these efforts failed.

From the very beginning, almost all of the publicly available information regarding the Aum group in relation to biological weapons, aside from the fact that they had attempted to produce the two agents, was grossly inaccurate. The first major source was the report by the Counsel to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the United States Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. The report was made public in October 1995, and was published in 1996.2 The significant statements pertaining to the biological weapons capabilities of the Aum group were as follows:

Japanese authorities believe the Aum succeeded in producing Botulinum toxin. The same Japanese authorities are less certain but have serious concern that the Aum had also produced anthrax bacillus (page 62).

The Staff has learned that the police suspect that the Aum dispersed anthrax bacilli at their Tokyo headquarters. This belief is based on a confession by one of the former Aum members. The event occurred in June 1993, and coincided with complaints from members of a foul odor (page 63).

The cult was also in the process of developing biological weapons, including anthrax, botulism (sic), and Q fever ... (page 48).

It appears from official Japanese government material reviewed by the staff that the police determined that Seichi Endo had produced an antibody for botulinus ... (page 63).

Another entry, which does not actually refer to biological weapons at all, but which became important because of the way it was reformulated by subsequent reporting reads:

In January 1995, the Aum purchased molecular modeling software from Cache Scientific of Beaverton, Oregon...their product enabled a chemist to synthesize molecular experimentation on a computer screen instead of in a laboratory, which results in savings of time and money (page 78).

Another early and widely quoted source was the book by David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, The Cult at The End of The World, published in 1996.3 This source reported, in addition to the anthrax and botulinum allegations, that the Aum group was in possession of Q fever cultures, and it quoted "one sensational Japanese weekly" to the effect that the Aum also possessed samples of Ebola virus. The Japanese magazine quoted an unidentified Aum member as saying "We were cultivating Ebola, but it needed to be studied more."4 As noted in the Senate Subcommittee report, the trip of the Aum group to Zaire in an attempt to obtain Ebola took place "in 1992", and Japanese sources place the date of the trip more specifically as having taken place in October 1992.5

Botulinum Toxin

As for the first allegation, it appears that the Aum group did not in fact succeed in producing Botulinum toxin at all. The Asahi Shimbun of May 24, 1996, reporting on material presented by the Japanese prosecutor, stated that "A group led by Seiichi Endo tried to culture Botulinus, but failed in isolating the germ...Then...Hideo Murai installed a big tank in order to make a large-scale production of the germ. After all the facility was not accomplished to produce germs." The Chief Toxicologist of Chiba Prefecture used somewhat more exact phraseology in a conversation in Tokyo, stating that the group had not been sufficiently competent to succeed in their effort to produce biological agents.6 Following the testimony in March 1997 of another of the Aum members who was involved in the BW operations, it was reported that "Actually the Botulinus was not fully completed to culture, the operation ended in failure."7 Endo did test his "toxin" on laboratory rats; they remained unaffected. It was not "the facility" that "was not accomplished," rather it was the personnel.8

Having failed to isolate botulinum toxin from their cultures, it would therefore have been impossible for Aum staffers to produce an antibody to the toxin, even though they had maintained animals intended for that purpose.

Anthrax

Kaplan and Marshall describe the 1993 anthrax dispersal attempt as follows:

It was late June 1993....Aum's highest-ranking officers had gathered on the top floor of an eight-story building the cult owned in eastern Tokyo, touring their latest biolab. Along with Asahara were Murai, Endo, Hayakawa, and others....There, on the rooftop, stood what looked to be a large cooling tower. In reality it was an industrial sprayer, fitted with a powerful fan....For four days, toxic steam poured from the tower on top of Aum's building in Tokyo. Cult scientists in chemical suits had revved up a steam generator and poured in their solution of anthrax spores. Next they turned on the sprayer and fan, and waited.9

This description was repeated all through 1997 by virtually every authority on biological warfare in Washington, DC, at international conferences, and so on. Each of nine experts who quoted the description was asked whether they had contacted the authors for any details or particulars. It turned out that not a single person had done so. The police report of this event, which was relied on by Kaplan and Marshall as their source and which was essentially reproduced in toto in the Japanese press, does not at all report spraying for four days.10 What it says is that the Aum added some sort of volatile odorous agent to their spray, and that "the bad smell was reported during a four day period" by the neighbors, beginning on June 28. The report does not refer to a "steam generator," only that "...steam was rising from the top of the building." (It is not clear what the purpose of "a steam generator" would be in such a system.) It would have required very large volumes of liquid to keep "an industrial sprayer" going "for four days; it would require large amounts to run continuously even for four hours. (The Japanese accounts do not include the word "industrial," only "sprayer...fitted with a fan.") Notably, the reports of this event make a point of stating that no one was known to have suffered any illness as a result of the spraying of an allegedly highly infective agent. The success of the Aum's B. anthracis culturing efforts are not, in fact, known, and the group also encountered subsequent problems with keeping their dispersing devices from clogging.11 After the rooftop "spraying," the neighbors also reported "something like fish jelly...scattered in the street." If these were clumps of culture medium, it would scarcely be surprising that clogging took place. There is no record that any official authority, Japanese or American, cultured anthrax (Bacillus Anthracis) from the vicinity of the spraying.12

In any case, the reason for the failure of the Aum group with this organism was entirely different. In 1998, it became known that the strain of Bacillus Anthracis that the Aum group had obtained in 1992 and attempted to culture was the vaccine strain.13 It could not cause anthrax, no matter how many times and how successfully it could have been dispersed. There are indications that Endo himself discovered that he was working with a harmless vaccine strain. The most complete description of the efforts by the Aum group to disperse BW agents was the report in the New York Times on May 26, 1998. It describes four attempts in 1990 to spread what the group assumed to be Botulinum toxin, from moving vehicles, and four attempts to spread anthrax, two from stationary sprayers and two from moving vehicles, in 1993.14 The "anthrax" was incapable of producing anthrax disease, and the "botulinum toxin" was very likely nothing more than the liquid of the carrier fluid.

Q Fever

Q fever was a newly reported phenomenon in Japan beginning in 1987, and in January 1995 Aum members were suffering from a respiratory syndrome that Endo decided was Q fever. He therefore imported a diagnostic test kit for Q fever from Australia.15 There is no evidence, however, that the Aum had cultures of Coxiella burnetii, the organism responsible for producing Q fever. They were therefore not "working with" Q fever.

Ebola

The first outbreak of Ebola in Africa occurred in 1976, in Zaire. There was a second in 1979 in Sudan, and a third in 1995, again in Zaire. There were no reported Ebola cases in Africa in 1992, when the Aum group traveled to Zaire. However, a month or two before their trip a Japanese tourist on a gorilla-viewing safari had contracted a hemorrhagic fever, which only developed on his return to Japan. He died, and the public announcement of the diagnosis as presumptively Ebola precipitated the Aum trip. It is not known if cultures of Ebola were available in any repository facility in Zaire during 1992. Sometime in May 1993, Endo visited "... a major research institute in Tsukuba" (presumably Tsukuba University) and purchased "... cells for promoting the multiplication of viruses". There is however no indication that the Aum actually possessed a sample of Ebola, or that they had established a functioning cell culture system, and it is considered extremely unlikely that they had either.

Genetic Engineering

The mention of molecular design software in the report of the Senate Committee became entirely--and gratuitously--transmuted in a subsequent reference into a leap of orders of magnitude in significance. Writing in Science in October 1997, Eliot Marshall claimed that investigators in Tokyo had "...discovered that Aum members had built crude biological weapons, including a bomb containing anthrax...[and] had purchased sophisticated molecular-design software and bacterial growth media, an indication, according to the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, that the cult was trying to engineer deadly new bacteria."16 Other than the phrase in the Science report, there is no other known reference to an anthrax "bomb" being made by the Aum group, and no authorities in Japan have ever heard of the Aum attempting to produce an anthrax "bomb."17 The Aum on all occasions tried to spray their wet "BW" preparations. But more significantly, there is NO 'indication" in the Senate report linking the 'molecular design software' to genetic engineering of bacteria, and if there were, it would have been a gross error. The software is designed to model organic chemical reactions; it cannot be used to help "engineer deadly new bacteria." Finally, as will be seen in a moment, NO evidence has been found by Japanese investigators that the Aum attempted any genetic engineering. The Aum group had also obtained molecular design software early in 1995 from two other US companies, Tripos Inc. of St. Louis, and Biosym Technologies of San Diego, by asking to examine the software. These were both returned to the respective companies, but whether they were copied by Aum staffers is not known.18

The Aum had failed utterly in its attempts to work with two basic bacterial species, Clostridium Botulinum and Bacillus Anthracis. Despite this, the suggestions of attempted genetic engineering by the Aum unfortunately appeared again, and in frameworks that certainly appeared to give the suggestion greater credence. It would have been of enormous significance to all of the current discussion of potential terrorist use of biological weapons if that had been the case, an indication of a leap in capabilities of orders of magnitude. In October 1997, the publication Janes Defense Weekly carried a report on the BW defense program being initiated by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US Department of Defense. The report quoted Dr. Jane Alexander, Deputy Director of DARPA's Biological Warfare Defense Program and Dr. Shaun Jones, another of its staff in the DARPA program:

Dr. Jones and Dr. Alexander said that the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult successfully reengineered an e-coli agent to "place" botulinum toxin "inside" the original agent. Although it was not deployed, the goal was to develop a reengineered agent in which the highly lethal component would not affect the victims for some time. Since these new types of manufactured agents pose a significant future risk, DARPA's research stresses countermeasures that can attack broad classes of pathogens...19

In January 1999, the British Medical Association (BMA) released a book-length study on the implications of molecular genetics and genetic engineering for the future of biological weapons and warfare. The book, which would undoubtedly see extremely wide distribution and exposure, picked up the Janes Defense Weekly quote: "Senior DARPA officials were reported as saying that...the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult successfully reengineered an e-coli agent to 'place' botulinum toxin 'inside' the original agent."20 Though only eight lines in a book of 150 pages, the claim that the Aum group had successfully carried out genetic engineering was also repeated in the press conference that was held to release the BMA volume. It was picked up by the press and reported worldwide.21 Upon contacting the DARPA officials named in March 1999, it developed that they had never seen the Janes Defense Weekly story in which they were quoted. Dr. Jane Alexander stated that she had made no remarks at all concerning the Aum in her conversations with the reporter. Only Dr. Jones had mentioned the Aum. Dr. Jones stated flatly that he had not made any statement to the effect that the Aum had carried out genetic engineering.22 The most plausible explanation for how the text came to say what it did was that, to demonstrate "the threat," Dr. Jones explained what could be done--in theory--and that the journalist attributed the carrying out of the laboratory procedure to the Aum group. As indicated, no evidence whatsoever was found by Japanese authorities that the Aum personnel had attempted or even considered "genetic engineering" of biological agents.

It was, however, reported that the Aum had purchased what was variously identified as "a DNA/RNA synthesizer", "...an advanced DNA device", or a "DNA machine": what was this and what was it used for?23 Presumably it was a thermal cycler, or "PCR machine", for automating polymerase chain reactions. Its use by the Aum, however, had nothing to do with the development of biological weapons. The Aum had invented a religious initiation rite utilizing the "DNA and lymphocytes" of the group's leader, Shoko Asahara, which they introduced in January 1989.24 Asahara had asked Endo to find a method to replicate his "DNA and lymphocytes", an the purchase of the "DNA machine" was the result, and it was to serve that purpose.

Summary Comments

There are two significant points to make about the Aum story that pertain to "terrorist" groups and their ability to produce biological weapons. The first is that the Aum utterly and totally failed, after no small expenditure of time and money. Their financial budget was virtually unlimited, they procured appropriate equipment, they spent four years working with two "elementary" agents, and they had among their staff individuals with graduate and postgraduate training, about a dozen of whom worked at attempting to produce the biological agents.25 Aum representatives were also apparently able to make contact in Moscow with a retired senior official of the former USSR's biological weapons program. It would appear, however, that they were not able to obtain any assistance from him.26 (The Aum group also sought to obtain information on the production of chemical weapon agents in the former USSR, and here too they apparently came away empty handed.) This is of some importance in view of the opinion almost universally expressed that terrorist groups would be able to purchase the expertise of either unemployed or poorly paid former Soviet biological weapons scientists.

The experience of the Aum is therefore in marked contrast to the legion of statements by senior US government officials and other spokesmen claiming that the preparation of biological agents and weapons could be carried out in "kitchens," "bathrooms," "garages," "home breweries," and is a matter of relative ease and simplicity. This was a theme repeated again at the late-1998 conference at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, and repeated in the press reports of the conference.

The second is the record of misinformation, disinformation, and inaccuracy regarding the Aum's BW efforts that was propagated unquestioned and unchallenged for three to four years. It will now receive a new boost from the entry in the British Medical Association volume. The considered assessment--"lesson"--from the experience should have been precisely the opposite of the one that has been purveyed, also unchallenged, for the same period of time. Whether the policy consequences would have been the same in any case is impossible to know, but the accompanying alarum and hysteria were not warranted. The information provided here on the capabilities, efforts and results of the Aum group in their attempt to produce biological weapons is all available to the US government. It is maintained at a classified level. No representative of any agency of the US government has offered to set the public record straight. It can only be hoped that a considered reassessment of the plausibility of "BW terrorism" overall will take place, and that the government apprehensions might become more consonant with historical experience and with a more accurate understanding of the technical problems that must be overcome by terrorist groups attempting to prepare and use biological agents.

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References and Notes

1. The key event was the Senate Hearing, held in October 1995, referred to in note #2 below.  It has become customary for people to substitute the name of the disease, "Anthrax," for the biological disease-producing agent, Bacillus anthracis, and so people almost universally refer to "Anthrax.."

2. John Sopko and Alan Edelman, "Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Case Study on the Aum Shinrikyo," Staff Statement, in Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction; in Hearings, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation, Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, Part I, 1996, pp. 47-102.

3. David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, The Cult At the End of the World, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 94-97.

4. A 1997 paper by Kyle Olson attributes "R&D" by the Aum group using "botulinum toxin, anthrax, cholera, and Q fever." As Olson uses the phrases that "the cult released botulinum toxin," and on a second occasion, "spraying an aerosol of botulinum toxin," and "attempted...to send a cloud of bacillus anthracis spores out over the city," as well as the testing of "the toxins and spores" on guinea pigs, he clearly implies that the Aum succeeded in producing these agents, although he notes that no casualties ever resulted, and that the guinea pigs did not die. He also states that the Aum "...had research underway involving a variety of organisms, including...the Ebola virus."  Kyle B. Olson, "State of the Arts Aum Shinrikyo and WMD Terrorism in Japan," manuscript, March 1997, pages 18-20. This material was apparently published as "Biological Weapons and the Terror in Japan," Terrorism, vol. 1 (August 1997).

5. Sopko and Edelman, p. 94; and the autobiography of Ikuo Hayashi (one of the Aum members, see footnote 7). I would like to thank two Japanese scholars, Dr.s Maasaki Sugishima and Keiichi Tsuneishi for their generous assistance in supplying me with Japanese language sources (such as the memoirs of some of the senior Aum members), as well as information derived from the prosecutorial records in Tokyo as these were reported in the Japanese press.

6. Personal Communication, February 1998.

7. Asahi Shimbun, March 19, 1997.

8. It is useful to indicate the technical training of some of the major figures involved in the Aum's efforts to produce biological and chemical weapons:

The Aum's laboratory for working with biological agents reportedly also included some 300 volumes on bacteriological research (and an electron microscope) in addition to more standard equipment. Yomuri Shimbun, May 27, 1995.

9. David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, The Cult At the End of the World, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 94-97.

10. "Cultists Admit They Released Anthrax in Tokyo's Streets," The Japan Times, July 26, 1995; "Asahara Ordered Anthrax Attack; Joyu Also Implicated," The Japan Times, July 27, 1995; "Police: Cultists Admit to Spraying Anthrax," Mainichi Daily News, July 27, 1995; "Asahara Fingered in Anthrax Attack," Asahi Evening News, July 27, 1995. All of these press items appeared in English-language daily papers in Tokyo.  All were attributed to "police sources."  All the press items stem from a common police release.  (The press items were kindly supplied by David Kaplan.)

11. One point noted in the 1995 police report referred to (reference 9), suggests a possible procedural error in preparation.

12. Personal communications, 1996, 1997.

13. William Broad, Sheryl Wudunn, Judith Miller, "How Japan Germ Terror Alerted World,"New York Times, May 26, 1998;  Masaaki Sugishima, "Biocrimes in Japan," manuscript; Tim Beardsley, "Facing An Ill Wind: The US Gears Up to Deal with Biological Terrorism," Scientific American, April 1999, pp. 19-20.

14. Broad, William, Miller, "How Japan," May 26, 1998.

15. Maasaki Sugishima, personal communication, April 1999.

16.Eliot Marshall, "Bracing for a Biological Nightmare," Science 275:5301 (October 22, 1997):745.

17. Personal communication, April 1999.  The reporting on the Aum in Science appears to be of an extraordinarily poor quality.

18. .Amal Kumar Naj, "Before Gas Attack, Japanese Cult Tested U.S. Chemistry Software", Wall Street Journal, April 3, 1995.

19. Barbara Starr, "DARPA Begins Research to Counteract Biological Pathogens," Janes Defense Weekly, October 15, 1997, p. 8.

20. British Medical Association, Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity (Australia etc: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), p. 50.  The BMA quote included nearly all of the sentences quoted above from the Janes Defense Weekly.  No one at the British Medical Association, under whose authority the book was released, or the book's author had made any attempt to contact the two DARPA officials quoted, the JDW reporter, or any Japanese authority.

21. For example in the Reuters dispatch,----, 1999.

22. Personal communications with the author, March 1999.  On being contacted in April 1999, the author of the JDW report suggested that perhaps there had been a copy-editing error, that she did not recall the original quote being phrased that way, and that she did not have access to her interview notes.

23. .Japanese press accounts, March 28 1995; Mainichi Shimbun, May 31,, 1995.

24. According to the Japanese prosecutor's statement, the initiation rite was called "Initiation of Love", and those cult followers who donated more than one million yen to the group were given liquids to drink containing Asahara's "DNA".

25. There have also been somewhat inflated estimates of the numbers of people the Aum assigned to producing biological agents.  In a letter in the New York Times, David Rapoport refers to the Aum having "300 scientists"from which to draw on in producing both chemical and biological agents.  ("Germ Warfare Isn't Easy," New York Times, January 29, 1999.)  It appears that about ten to twelve people within the Aum group worked at attempting to produce the two biological agents.

26. .Tadashi Shirakawa, "The whole aspect of the coup d'etat mapped out by Aum which was written in Hayakawa's memorandum," (title translated from the Japanese), Bungei Shun-jyu, June 1995, p. 110, and Fumiya Ichihashi, "The power of darkness revealed by the CIA document," (titled translated from the Japanese), Shin-cho 95, May 1996, p. 160.