The Age of Terrorism

When writing the bloody history of terrorist groups, historians will be able to point to Japan’s Aum Shinri Kyo cult as the first to use nerve gas. D.W. Brackett traces its path from its founding as a Buddhist sect, down into the murky waters of paranoia and murder. The result is more than a fascinating history of a bizarre group: it’s no less than a claxton call of what to expect in the future, a call accentuated after the events of September 11.

“Holy Terror” can also be seen as a template of history, an object lesson of how a group can turn toward evil. This is not just a value judgment: before its members punctured plastic bags of sarin at five locations on Tokyo subway cars last year, it had carried out two other nerve gas attacks, using a refrigerator truck modified spray the gas. There were other victims as well: an attorney, his wife and infant child were killed to stop a pending lawsuit, and police are investigating the disappearance of at least 33 cult members believed killed in either ‘purification’ rituals involving scalding water, or simply to prevent them from escaping.

Their murderous mindset had a black comic element out of a Quentin Tarentino movie. They attempted to gas three judges about to rule against them in a lawsuit, but arrived too late to kill their targets because they stopped to buy disguises. In a hastily improvised alternative, they released sarin gas outside the apartment building the judges were staying in, and panicked when the wind shifted and a white cloud of toxic smoke gathered around the truck. Driving out of the parking lot, the driver knocked over a concrete post, and they forgot to cap the nozzle, spraying the remnants of the gas down the street. It would have been funny if the attack had not killed seven and injured 24.

Their activities were not just limited to making and using sarin nerve gas. Using the money donated by its members, Aum officials also attempted to manufacture other deadly gasses, such as VX and hydrogen cyanide, tried to make biological toxins, and acquired blueprints from Russia to manufacture its own AK-74 machine guns, all with an eye toward taking over the country.

What makes the Aum’s activities so frightening is that they carried out their murderous program over a period of five years in a country regarded as one of the safest in the world. “Holy Terror” points out that what was possible in Japan is even more likely to occur in other, less restrictive countries, including, of course, our own.