Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

FALSE PROPHET: THE AUM CULT OF TERROR

Alive and Well

On September 11, 2002, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that the Japanese public still distrusts the Aum cult even though its followers have renounced Shoko Asahara, acknowledged Aum's past crimes and paid 330 million yen ($2.8 million) in compensation to the victims.

Now renamed Aleph, the cult no longer has a sprawling compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji, its membership has fallen from more than 10,000 to about 1,650 but it is still under constant police surveillance.

Public distrust has been heightened by inspections of the cult's offices and living areas that found materials suggesting it still reveres Asahara.  Its very visible presence in Tokyo and other enclaves scattered around the country suggests the cult is alive and well.

We live in constant fear, it's like living with terrorists, said Noriko Chiba, who lives near the five-story brick apartments and two smaller adjacent buildings that the cult now uses. Aum committed all these crimes in the past how can we be sure they won't do it again?

Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has taken on several cults in Japan, believes the threat is strong and goes beyond Japan.  Aum is not just a domestic problem, he said, alluding to revelations that in the 1990s the cult had an extensive network of followers in Russia and developed biological weapons in Australia. If the authorities cannot contain it, Aum can spread sarin again, perhaps overseas next time.

The police do not agree saying the group poses no immediate threat to society.  Even so, officials warn against a false sense of security.

Aum's membership includes 650 hard-core followers who have cut family and social ties and live at cult facilities. More than half of all Aum members are believed to have joined after the subway attack. The cult continues to run a profitable computer business and gets substantial donations.

The five-year period during which police are allowed to keep close watch on the group is due to expire in January 2003, and an investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity said it is keeping a low profile in hopes that the surveillance will not be renewed.

Fumihiro Joyu, one of the few Aum leaders at the time of the gassing who did not face serious charges, is now the cult's leader. Our current group has undergone reforms and abandoned the use of any type of violence, he said in a statement published on his Web site. We are not a terrorist group.

The neighborhood association's fears have not been allayed since the cult moved in nearly three years ago.  It has collected 30,000 signatures demanding the surveillance be extended. Its representatives keep watch on Aum from a tiny booth as cult members in baggy yoga pants come and go, occasionally stopped for brief questioning by uniformed police.

Although the neighborhood has campaigned to prevent the cult members from finding jobs nearby and tries to keep cult children out of local schools, the threat of a repeat of the events of 1995 is still very real.

On September 12, 2002, the Kyodo News reported that the wife of Shoko Asahara was due for release from prison in October.  Tomoko Matsumoto, 44, was arrested in 1995 on suspicion of murdering an Aum member with her husband and others. She was sentenced by a high court to six years in jail in 1999.

Matsumoto has said she has left the cult but public security authorities will monitor her movements after her release.  Matsumoto appealed against the high court ruling and promised she would never return to the cult but the Supreme Court dismissed her appeal and confirmed her sentence in July 2001.

According to the high court ruling, Matsumoto conspired with her husband  and other senior Aum members to strangle Kotaro Ochida, 29, with a rope at an Aum facility in Kamikuishiki in Yamanashi Prefecture in January 1994.

On October 08, 2002, the Japan Times reported that the Japanese Justice Ministry's Public Security Investigation Agency would ask the Public Security Examination Commission for permission to keep the Aum cult under surveillance for a further three years.

According to the report, the agency has inspected 85 Aum facilities in 16 prefectures since January 2000, monitoring the group's activities under an anti-Aum law.  The law, under which the cult is obliged to report the names of its members and details of its assets to security authorities, gives the commission final say over whether the group is a danger to the public and whether ongoing surveillance is necessary.

The agency has since decided that the inspection should continue for three more years as they believe that Shoko Asahara still holds influence over Aum members.

On October 21, 2002, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the number of tips to police regarding the three members of the Aum cult on the nationwide police wanted list has declined. 

The Metropolitan Police Department announced that it will continue to offer 6 million yen in reward money for information leading to the arrests of the three for another year.

The three members are Makoto Hirata, 37, Katsuya Takahashi, 44, and Naoko Kikuchi, 30.

The rewards for information leading to the arrests of the suspects were first offered in October 1999 by a group of former MPD officials.  According to the MPD, 144 tips were sent in by mail and fax on a special form to qualify for the reward by 2001. However, only one form has been received in 2002.

Phone calls and e-mails brought in another 1,349 tips in the first year the rewards were offered. In 2002, 223 tips were sent in by September, none of which was specific enough to investigate.  The victims' families have become concerned that the Aum-related incidents may have been forgotten.

According to the MPD, Kikuchi and Takahashi remained in hiding in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, until November 1996. However, their whereabouts have been unknown since then.

Hirata was spotted meeting with another Aum member, Yasuo Hayashi, 44, in August 1995 in Nagoya.

On October 29, 2002, the Kyodo News  reported that, according to a recently released CIA report, the Aum cult had the potential to mount a cyberterrorist attack on the United States.  The report stated that Aum is the terrorist group that places the highest level of importance on developing cyber skills and identifies itself as a cyber cult and derives millions of dollars a year from computer retailing.

The declassified CIA document was submitted to a special Senate committee in April to discuss threats to U.S. national security. 

On December 11, 2002, AP Reuters announced that the Canadian government had added the Aum cult to a list of banned terrorist organizations.  The list, which was created after the September 11 attacks to target the financing and activities of terrorist groups, includes Hezbollahs military wing and The Kurdistan Workers Party.

On December 25, 2002, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that Japanese government intelligence officers will interview the AUM cult to decide whether a tough watch over the group will continue after the scheduled surveillance period expires at the end of January, 2003.

Designated as a group "that could undermine public order," the cult has been under surveillance by the Public Security Investigation Agency and ordered to report its activities regularly.

In response to the agency's request to extend the surveillance for three years, AUM members have tabled a report apparently asking for it to be suspended. Under the law, surveillance renewal reviews normally involve simply screening submitted requests.  However, the government has decided to give the cult a chance to explain its reasons for requesting that the  watch be lifted.

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