Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

FALSE PROPHET: THE AUM CULT OF TERROR

Bio-Terror First Attempts

Richard Manchee in a letter to New Scientist, Sept.29, 2001 wrote, "the sect's choice of anthrax as an agent of biological warfare was a logical one because anthrax produces resistant spores which remain alive for many years." The British can testify to that truth for their anthrax test on Gruinard Island rendered the island uninhabitable for more than 40 years.  They literally had to strip off all the vegetation on the island and treat the soil with formaldehyde and other chemicals to destroy the anthrax spores that still lived in the soil decades afterwards.

Japanese officials say that a cult member who was a graduate student in biology had obtained the sample of anthrax through the another member with medical credentials. Then Endo cultured the bacteria in large drums. He had a choice of producing the anthrax in either liquid form to spray at intended victims or in powder form which could also be inhaled. For some reason, Endo chose the liquid, which is less likely to establish itself in the victim's lungs.

On the roof of the building, an industrial sprayer had been set up to extract the spores from a sealed laboratory one floor below and, with the aid of a powerful fan, spread the bacteria over the neighborhood. Dressed in a "bio-hazard" suit, Asahara watched as the bacteria was released. The device ran continuously for at least 24 hours and possibly as long as several days.

 Soon, local residents complained to authorities about a disgusting smell that covered the area. Some reports claim that plants wilted, pets became ill and people reported mysterious stomach ailments.  No one died or even showed any signs of anthrax, but many reported the matter to the police, who eventually identified the Aum building as the source. Again the police were reluctant to take action. They accepted Asaharas explanation of the smell being the combination of perfume and soybean oil that had been burned to "purify" the building. Japan's religious protection laws may have stopped the police from searching the Aum building, but the police did take samples of fluid that was emanating from a pipe outside.

Why didn't this continuous spray of anthrax create a huge calamity? According to New Scientist, the fluid taken by police still contains lots of healthy anthrax baccilli, but the sample Endo used was a veterinary vaccine strain of the bacteria and lacked the ability to cause disease.

While it appeared to many that despite the abundant money and talent that the Aum sect possessed, Endo and colleagues were technically incompetent.  This example is often cited by experts to demonstrate how difficult it is to create biological weapons. However, the truth is that Endo had solved the main problems of anthrax delivery and keeping the bacteria alive during the processing.  Kimothy Smith of Northern Arizona University, a member of the team that analyzed the bacteria Aum used, says of the cult, "I have no doubt people would have been sick, and probably died, if they had used a virulent strain."

Undaunted, Asahara ordered Endo to increase his efforts to find a suitable virus. A team was sent to Africa to investigate the possibility of culturing the Ebola virus. It's not certain if the team came back with any samples of Ebola.

Russian helicopter
Russian helicopter

Teams were also sent to America to scour the nation's libraries for more information on chemical and biological weapons. Endo was sent to Russia to learn more about biological warfare and gain access to the world's largest stockpile of chemical and biological weapons.

Hayakawa also returned to Russia with a "priority" shopping list. He attempted to purchase an ex-army helicopter, a MiG-29 fighter aircraft and an SL-13 Proton rocket launcher. Of these, he would be successful in obtaining only the helicopter. One particular entry that police would later find in his diary indicated just how far Aum was prepared to go in its pursuit of Armageddon, in Hayakawas hand writing, it read, "Nuclear warhead -- how much?"

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