Aum Supreme Truth (AUM)
Aum Supreme Truth (AUM)
ALTERNATE NAME: Aleph, formerly Aum Shinrikyo
LEADER: Asahara Shoko
YEAR ESTABLISHED OR BECAME ACTIVE: 1987
ESTIMATED SIZE: Two thousand in Japan; a similar number of followers live in Russia, where it has been outlawed
USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Japan; Russia; United States, United Kingdom
Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph) is an apocalyptic Japanese religious cult. Their belief that world salvation could only come through the destruction of most of the planet's population reached its horrifying denouement in 1995 when its members carried out a deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring thousands more. Despite being on the U.S. Department of State's list of terrorist organizations, it continues to operate under the name "Aleph."
Aum Shinrikyo's path from obscure religious cult to brutal terrorist group occurred over a decade, but its journey is telling of the dangers that can be posed by powerful and devout religious sects.
It was founded in 1987 by Asahara Shoko (born Chizuo Matsumoto; Asahara is his "holy" name), a blind herbalist and acupuncturist. Asahara had become devoutly religious when, as a 22-year-old a decade earlier, he had moved to Tokyo to study. He began to follow Agonshu, a new religion only created in 1969, which taught that people should strive to realize enlightenment in this life and that "bad karma" could be relieved by meditation.
Later, as a yoga instructor, he began to attract a following as a spiritualist and meditation guru. Yet, it was only in 1987 that he completed his "spiritual journey" and formed his own cult, which occurred following a trip to India when Asahara claimed to have received enlightenment. On his return to Japan, he changed his name and created Aum Shinrikyo. Aum is Sanskrit for "the powers of destruction and creation of the universe" and Shinrikyo means the "teaching of the supreme truth." The group's aim—as its name suggested—was to teach the truth about the creation and destruction of the universe.
Asahara Shoko's new cult soon acquired a following that numbered a couple of thousand. It attracted followers from across the spectrum of Japanese society, particularly, it seemed, those who felt alienated from the increasing materialism in a nation that was then approaching the peak of its economic power. Devotees were expected to live an ascetic life, eschewing material goods, giving their possessions to the cult and living in communes. In August 1989, following a legal dispute with the Tokyo authorities, Aum was finally granted legal status allowing members benefits such as tax privileges, the right to own property as an organization, and, perhaps crucially, a degree of protection from state or external interference in its workings.
Nevertheless, unfavorable accusations began to play out in the Japanese press during the summer of 1989 when the prominent newspaper, the Sunday Mainichi, published a seven-part series on the group. This included claims that members were involuntarily separated from their families and that children received no schooling, as well as accusations of mind control techniques, including sleep and food deprivation and "blood initiations." The newspaper also suggested sizable "donations" were, essentially, extorted from members. Aum responded by threatening to sue the editors of the SundayMainichi, but the newspaper received more than 200 letters of support from former members who also expressed similar grievances.
The Sunday Mainchi stories also cast light on an ongoing legal case initiated by the Yokohomo-based lawyer, Sakamoto Tsutsumi. Tsutsumi was taking forward an action against Aum on behalf of parents separated from their children. As part of his investigations, Sakamoto had discovered that a bizarre claim made by Asahara—that tests conducted at Kyoto University showed that his blood contained unique DNA, thus proving some special spiritual powers—was a complete fabrication and that no such tests had taken place.
Tsutsumi's investigation would, however, come to an abrupt end in November 1989 when he disappeared from his home with his wife and 14-month-old son. Blood at the scene pointed to a violent ending, possibly at the hands of Aum. However, no bodies were found until September 1995 when police were finally able to pin the disappearance on several of the cult members. Tsutsumi and his wife had been beaten and strangled to death, their baby drugged and smothered, teeth smashed out to obfuscate any investigation, and the bodies buried in three separate mountain locations.
In the midst of Aum's rising notoriety in 1989, Asahara decided that political action was necessary to save the world and so launched Shinrito (Supreme Truth Party) as a way of publicizing his teachings and offering salvation to a larger audience. Asahara was apparently convinced that each of the 25 candidates he put forward would win—but they lost miserably and became something of a national joke.
This further ostracized Aum from Japanese society and marked the onset of a major ideological shift. From seeking to prevent an apocalypse, Aum saw it as inevitable (even if it would have to be at their instigation) and began to prepare and protect its members—who would be chosen to survive and lead the post-Armageddon world to salvation—from the forthcoming "judgment day." Aum's leadership began to intensify the austerity of its members' existences, also beginning the construction of nuclear bunkers and communes. This increased introversion strengthened Aum's hierarchical structure, and the power of its leaders.
Secretly, on Asahara's orders, a team of members was set up to develop chemical weapons. Tsuchiya Masami, who possessed a Master's degree in Organic Chemistry, was placed in charge of chemical weapons research in March 1993, and by the end of the year had succeeded in producing the deadly nerve gas, sarin.
On June 27, 1994, a sarin attack took place in a residential area of the central city of Matsumoto. Seven people died and hundreds were injured. It was revealed in a subsequent court case that Asahara had ordered the attack—carried out by refrigerated trucks equipped with spraying mechanisms—to be conducted in the vicinity of three judges set to hear a case against Aum members. The attack succeeded in injuring the men.
Asahara Shoko (born Chizuo Matsumoto) is Aum's founder and spiritual leader. The blind former herbalist and acupuncturist was born in 1955 and claimed to be a religious guru following a trip to India in 1986, in which he reached a state of "enlightenment." His supporters claim he is a charismatic preacher and a deity, an image that apparently belies the popular portrayal of Asahara as a slovenly, long-haired madman.
His bizarre claims to hold supernatural powers because his blood contained "unique" DNA code, and his belief that the world would be ravaged by nuclear war in 1999 have seen him mocked; and the violent crimes carried out under his orders have seen him despised.
While others masterminded the sarin attacks of 1994 and 1995, it was Asahara who gave the initial instructions, and followers who have confessed involvement in other crimes have claimed they were acting under his direct orders. In February 2004, he was sentenced to death, a verdict that—at the time of writing—is still pending appeal and likely to do so for quite some time: Asahara is currently in a state of "permanent meditation" and refusing to cooperate with Japan's judicial authorities. His family, on the other hand, claimed in June 2005 that he is mentally ill and should be transferred from prison to a hospital.
Asahara's delusions of grandeur increased following the attacks. He established his own "government" in opposition to the Japanese government to promote his so called "imperial aspirations."
Not until January 1995, however, would police make the link between the Matsumoto attack and Aum. This was in spite of a major gas leak at the Aum commune just two weeks after the attack, in which Aum numbers were reportedly seen running from a building on the site wearing gas masks.
Police were, nevertheless, slow to make arrests. On March 19, 1995, they raided the Aum headquarters in Osaka and arrested three members for the alleged abduction of a member.
A day later, and seemingly fearing that the noose was tightening on the organization, ten Aum members in the midst of Tokyo's rush hour released packets containing liquid sarin onto trains in its underground system. The packages containing the poison were wrapped in newspaper and punctured by umbrella tips. Each contained around one liter of sarin: less than 1 milliliter can kill a person if administered through the skin. As a liquid, it is less potent, but the vapor caused by the leaked sarin was still devastating: twelve people died, and 5,500 more were seriously injured by the attacks.
Further violence followed as police cracked down on Aum, arresting two hundred of its members. On March 30, 1995, there was an attempt to assassinate the chief of the national police agency, and further gas attacks followed on trains in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. Plans were uncovered that Aum planned and intended to disperse seventy tons of sarin throughout Japan—enough to kill 36 million people—and that a former Russian military helicopter had been acquired.
Police took several weeks of searching Kamikuishiki, the village where Aum is located, to uncover Asahara, who was found meditating in the company of several comatose followers (who had been drugged), and a haul of cash and gold bars. He was eventually indicted for murder in relation to the Tokyo and Matsumoto attacks, as well as for the kidnapping and murder of Tsutsumi and his family and several other deaths and assaults. The lengthy police investigation also revealed that thirty-three Aum followers were believed to have been killed in the seven years leading to March 1995.
Asahara was sentenced to death by hanging by a Tokyo court in February 2004 after a trial process lasting eight years. He appealed the verdict before the Japanese Supreme Court, but the case has stalled because of Asahara's refusal—or inability—to communicate with the authorities. Eleven other Aum members have been sentenced to death pending appeal.
Aum's membership base was decimated following the attacks, and although it was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, it was, conversely, never declared illegal in Japan. In 2000, the organization regrouped under the leadership of Fumihiro Joyu and changed its name to Aleph (aleph being the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, meaning to start anew). Despite apologizing for the sarin attacks and setting up a compensation fund for its victims, the group has never revoked its ties to Asahara.
- Formed by Shoko Asahara as Aum Shinrikyo.
- Revelations about the cult's darker side in the Japanese press.
- Kidnapping and murder of Yokohomo-based lawyer, Sakamoto Tsutsumi, and his family.
- Sarin attack on Japanese city of Matsumoto kills seven.
- Sarin attacks on Tokyo underground kill twelve and injure 5,500.
- Aum Shinrikyo relaunches as Aleph.
- Trial proceedings against Asahara culminate in his death sentence in February 2004; sentence currently pending appeal.
PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS
The aims of Aum Shinrikyo and the reasons they carried out such horrific attacks in 1994 and 1995 remain muddied by the contradictory statements and subsequent silence of its leader Asahara Shoko. If one takes the sarin attacks to their most far-fetched potential, they may have triggered off the doomsday scenario to which he seemed to aspire. Destroying The World To Save It, one of many books on Aum, contains the essence of Asahara's apocalyptic beliefs.
Aum Shinrikyo's more benign teachings were based on strands of Hinduism and Buddhism, but it seemed to have no theological basis, nor manifesto, and its core beliefs have evolved substantially over the organization's relatively short life. Activities include yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises, and Aum's members lead Spartan lives far removed from the hustle and bustle of Japanese society. It has been argued that this austerity—by marginalizing members from the outside world—increases Aum's leaders' control over its followers and that this dominance has been one of the keys to Aum's relative success in attracting and retaining followers.
Japanese Cult Leader Sentenced to Death
A former leader of the Aum Shinrikyo, or Supreme Truth Cult, has been sentenced to death in Japan for his involvement in a series of murders, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground.
Tomomitsu Niimi, "home affairs minister" of the cult, was found guilty in seven murder cases and two attempted murder cases that took place between 1989 and 1995.
At the beginning of his trial in 1996, Niimi refused to enter pleas and pledged eternal loyalty to Aum guru Shoko Asahara, who is accused of masterminding the attack on the underground.
Niimi is since reported to have admitted to all the charges against him, except the one relating to the sarin gas attack, which killed 12 people and left thousands ill.
He allegedly said he was following Mr. Asahara's orders and should not be sentenced to death.
Mr. Asahara is still on trial for the attack on the underground.
Niimi was also found guilty of helping to organise the killing of lawyer Tsutsuni Sakamoto and his wife and son. Mr. Sakamoto was one of the first to question the group's activities.
Has about 1,000 lay followers and 650 followers in cult communes. Predicted an apocalypse that only cult members would survive. Thought to raise most funds from computer software business it runs.
Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for 11 cult members. Eight have been sentenced, but some have appealed and none of the sentences have been carried out.
Niimi is also expected to appeal the verdict.
Lawyers for Mr. Asahara—whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto—are not expected to end their submissions until next year.
Aum Shinrikyo has since changed its name to Aleph and claims to have renounced violence.
But Japanese security agencies announced last month that they were renewing their three-year surveillance of the cult as they believe it remains a threat.
Source: BBC News, 2002
Robert Jay Lifton, a Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at The City University of New York, has termed the control of Aum's leaders over its members as "ideological totalism." This essentially means, he writes, that "everything had to be experienced on an all-or-nothing basis. A number of psychological patterns characterize such an environment. Most basic is milieu control, in which all communication, including even an individual's inner communication, is monopolized and orchestrated, so that reality becomes the group's exclusive possession. Aum's closed subculture of guru and renunciants lent itself to an all-encompassing form of milieu control, though no such control can ever be complete or foolproof."
Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) a.k.a. Aum Supreme Truth, Aleph
A cult established in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, the Aum aimed to take over Japan and then the world. Approved as a religious entity in 1989 under Japanese law, the group ran candidates in a Japanese parliamentary election in 1990. Over time, the cult began to emphasize the imminence of the end of the world and stated that the United States would initiate Armageddon by starting World War III with Japan. The Japanese Government revoked its recognition of the Aum as a religious organization in October 1995, but in 1997 a Government panel decided not to invoke the Anti-Subversive Law against the group, which would have outlawed it. A 1999 law continues to give the Japanese Government authorization to maintain police surveillance of the group due to concerns that the Aum might launch future terrorist attacks. Under the leadership of Fumihiro Joyu, the Aum changed its name to Aleph in January 2000 and tried to distance itself from the violent and apocalyptic teachings of its founder. However, in late 2003, Joyu stepped down, pressured by members who wanted to return fully to the worship of Asahara.
On March 20, 1995, Aum members simultaneously released the chemical nerve agent sarin on several Tokyo subway trains, killing 12 persons and injuring up to 1,500. The group was responsible for other mysterious events involving chemical incidents in Japan in 1994. Its efforts to conduct attacks using biological agents have been unsuccessful. Japanese police arrested Asahara in May 1995, and authorities sentenced him in February 2004 to death for his role in the attacks of 1995. Since 1997, the cult has continued to recruit new members, engage in commercial enterprise, and acquire property, although it scaled back these activities significantly in 2001 in response to public outcry. In July 2001, Russian authorities arrested a group of Russian Aum followers who had planned to set off bombs near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo as part of an operation to free Asahara from jail and smuggle him to Russia.
The Aum's current membership in Japan is estimated to be about 1,650 persons. At the time of the Tokyo subway attack, the group claimed to have 9,000 members in Japan and as many as 40,000 worldwide.
LOCATION/AREA OF OPERATION
The Aum's principal membership is located in Japan, but a residual branch comprising about 300 followers has surfaced in Russia.
Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.
Professor Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University in New Orleans agrees that Aum members were cowed by its leaders and possibly coerced into carrying out acts of violence. Yet, she ultimately believes that the assaults came about because of the failings of Japan's law enforcement agencies. "The Japanese new religion known as Aum Shinrikyo stands in contrast to Jonestown and the Branch Davidians," she wrote in her history of religious cults, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate, "because Aum devotees detained, coerced, tortured, and killed people, and pursued the development of weapons of mass destruction in a national context in which the activities of religious organizations were not scrutinized by law enforcement agents. Aum's guru, Shoko Asahara, and his devotees saw themselves as belonging to a persecuted religious organization, but the activities of their cultural opponents were miniscule compared to the violence perpetrated by Aum devotees. Aum leaders were anxious to block investigation of Aum Shinrikyo because of crimes that members had committed before serious cultural opposition had developed. In terms of financial resources and violence against members and outsiders, Aum Shinrikyo makes Jim Jones's Jonestown and David Koresh's Mount Carmel Center appear small-scale."
Because of the scandal and outrage created by the sarin attacks and possibly because of the passing of the millennium (and the deadline for Asahara's apocalyptic prophesies), Aum Shinrikyo has regrouped under the name Aleph and apologized for its past violence. However, it has not denounced Asahara, whom it still regards as its spiritual leader.
Despite being regarded as a terrorist organization elsewhere in the world, its main area of operation—Japan—refuses to outlaw Aum, because its government "cannot prove" that it is an imminent threat to security. It has nevertheless placed Aleph under extended surveillance.
Its membership now numbers a couple of thousand members and it adopts more the characteristics of a conventional religious cult. Nevertheless, it maintains relatively extensive business interests, including a publishing group, record company, yoga training center, computer manufacturers, and software developers.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Owl Books, 2000.
Reader, Ian. Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: Case of Aum Shinrikyo. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.
Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York: Chatham House Publishers, 2000.
Apologetics Index. "Aum Shinrikyo." 〈http://www.apologeticsindex.org/a06.html〉 (accessed October 10, 2005).
Aum Supreme Truth (Aum)
Aum Supreme Truth (Aum)
A cult (also know as Aum Shinrikyo and Aleph) established in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, the Aum aimed to take over Japan and then the world. Approved as a religious entity in 1989 under Japanese law, the group ran candidates in a Japanese parliamentary election in 1990. Over time, the cult began to emphasize the imminence of the end of the world, and stated that the United States would initiate Armageddon by starting World War III with Japan. The Japanese government revoked its recognition of the Aum as a religious organization in October 1995, but in 1997, a government panel decided not to invoke the Anti-Subversive Law against the group, which would have outlawed the cult. A 1999 law gave the Japanese government authorization to continue police surveillance of the group due to concerns that Aum might launch future terrorist attacks. Under the leadership of Fumihiro Joyu the Aum changed its name to Aleph in January, 2000, and claimed to have rejected the violent and apocalyptic teachings of its founder. (Joyu took formal control of the organization early in 2002 and remains its leader.)
Organization activities. On 20 March, 1995, Aum members simultaneously released the chemical nerve agent sarin on several Tokyo subway trains, killing 12 persons and injuring up to 6,000. The group was responsible for other mysterious chemical accidents in Japan in 1994. Its efforts to conduct attacks using biological agents have been unsuccessful. Japanese police arrested Asahara in May 1995, and he remained on trial facing charges in 13 crimes, including 7 counts of murder at the end of 2001. Legal analysts say it will take several more years to conclude the trial. Since 1997, the cult continued to recruit new members, engage in commercial enterprise, and acquire property, although it scaled back these activities significantly in 2001 in response to public outcry. The cult maintains an Internet home page. In July, 2001, Russian authorities arrested a group of Russian Aum followers who had planned to set off bombs near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo as part of an operation to free Asahara from jail and then smuggle him to Russia.
The Aum's current membership is estimated at 1,500 to 2,000. At the time of the Tokyo subway attack, the group claimed to have 9,000 members in Japan and up to 40,000 worldwide. The Aum's principal membership is located in Japan, but a residual branch comprising an unknown number of followers has surfaced in Russia.
█ FURTHER READING:
Taylor, Francis X. U.S. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001, Annual Report: On the record briefing. May 21, 2002 <http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/rm/10367.htm> (April 17,2003).
U.S. Department of State. Annual reports. <http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism/annual_reports.html> (April 16, 2003).
Terrorism, Philosophical and Ideological Origins
Terrorist and Para-State Organizations
Terrorist Organization List, United States
Terrorist Organizations, Freezing of Assets