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Tokyo Subway Attack of 1995
Shinjuku Subway Station, Tokyo, Japan
On the workday morning of March 20, 1995, many people were on their way to work in the sprawling subway system of Tokyo, the largest city in the world. Five men carrying plastic bags that looked like lunch bags boarded three separate subway trains in different regions of the city and took their seats beside passengers. The men also carried umbrellas with sharp points. Each train was destined to pass through Kasumigaseki, the subway station near many of Tokyo's government buildings.
Just a few stops prior to Kasumigaseki, the men pushed down on the umbrellas, punching holes in the bags. Then they left the bags in the subway cars and swiftly exited the subway.
Within a matter of minutes, oily liquid seeped through the bags. A sickening smell filled the air. People began to gag and gasp for breath. When the smell became more and more offensive, they began to panic. Many felt dizzy and collapsed on the station platforms after coming out.
Inside one train, an assistant station manager used a mop to try to clean up the liquid on the floor of the subway car, assisted by another subway worker. Both soon fell ill and died. The poisonous liquid also affected police and subway workers without gas masks and special protective clothing.
Ambulance after ambulance make their way through the packed streets of downtown Tokyo and carried the victims of the attack to over 100 hospitals. Inside hospitals, injured people sprawled on the chairs and floors of emergency rooms.
When the commotion was over, 12 people had died and more than 5000 were injured. Most people recovered, but some were left with serious, permanent injuries such as blindness.
The five men who perpetrated the attack were not amoung the casualties--they had taken an antidote prior to the release of the poisonous liquid, identified by authorities to be the extremely lethal sarin nerve agent.
The Bright Side
The disaster could have been worse for three factors:
1) The trains were not as crowded as they usually were on Monday mornings because the next day was a national holiday and many people did not go to work.
2) The sarin was in liquid state, not a gas. If the sarin had been in gaseous form, thousands of people might have died.
3) The sarin had considerable impurities, which weakended it significantly. The people who prepared it were in a hurry and did not have time to purify the sarin. If the sarin had been pure, thousands of people would have died within minutes, since treatment for exposure to a nerve gas must begin within 1-2 minutes after exposure to be effective.
The Perpetrators: Aum Shinrikyo
In the aftermath of the Tokyo subway attack, the Japanese people wondered who would commit such an atrocity. No group stepped forward to claim responsibility. The Japanese police had their suspicions, however. They had been gathering intelligence that Aum Shinrikyo, a religious group, had been manufactuing sarin nerve gas, but the police were afraid to act for fear that they would be accused of religious persecution
Within days of the attack, police raided 30 offices of Aum Shinrikyo. They found two tons of chemicals, some of which were ingredients for sarin nerve gas. They also discovered gas masks. The Japanese police concluded that Aum was responsible for the subway attack, but the group's leader, Shoko Asahara, denied the accusation.
Soon, however, details about Aum's past emerged into the public view. Asahara preached that Armageddon would occur between 1996 and 1998 in Japan. He claimed that salvation could only be achieved through anyone who listened to the teachings of the "Supreme Master"--himself.
Members of Aum Shinrikyo were required to submit their entire income to the organization. As a result, Aum was a very wealthy group (with assets valued at over $1 billion) and could afford to purchase various weapons of mass destruction.
Shoko Asahara's Trial
Shoko Asahara, founder and leader of Aum Shinrikyo, was sentenced to death by hanging on February 27, 2004. In the recent February 2006 decision, the Tokyo High Court determined that Asahara was psychiatrically fit to stand trial. On March 27, 2006, the court rejected Asahara's appeal against the death sentence.
Aum Shinrikyo's Motivation for Attacking
The reason for the horrible attack perplexed many people throughout the world. But Aum had a purpose in carrying out the Tokyo subway attacks. It had been warned about a forthcoming raid and investigation by the police. Aum hoped that by killing and maiming thousands of people, it could prevent the Japanese government from taking action against it. Ironically, the attack lead to mass searches and arrests. The organization also wanted to show that it was prepared to fight a war against the government and police.
A wanted poster in Japan. As of March 2006, three people are still wanted in connection with the 1995 sarin subway attack.
Aum's Past Crimes
Beginning in 1987, members of Aum purchased materials in the United States for the manufacture of biological and chemical weapons. The group recruited scientists and technicians in Japan and other nations such as Russia to obtain the expertise required to produce these weapons. While it was doing so, the group pretended to engage in lawful commercial operations.
In 1993, Aum attempted to infect people in Tokyo with anthrax. Fortunately, this attempt failed because the anthrax Aum employed was not poisonous enough.
In 1994, members of Aum sprayed sarin nerve gas over an apartment complex in Matsumoro, Japan, in an attempt to kill judges who were part of a court trial in which Aum was a participant. Seven people died and more than 500 were injured in this attack. The sarin did not succeed in killing the judges, though it made them ill.
Aum's Future Plans
When police raided Aum's facilities after the Tokyo subway attack, they discovered a large supply of anthrax and botulinum toxin. Authorities learned that Aum planned to attack New York City and Washington, D.C. in the future.
Significance of the Attack
The Tokyo subway attack of 1995 was the first case in which a private group successfully launched a terrorist attack with chemical weapons on a large scale. It raised serious national security questions not only in Japan, but throughout the world. If a little-known, relatively small group such as Aum could secretly manufacture and deploy chemical weapons that could kill thousands of people, then other groups certainly had the potential.
The modern-day targets of chemical weapons could be civilians, ethnic groups, soldiers, or minorities seeking independence.
Shizue Takahashi, the wife of a subway worker killed in the 1995 subway attack, prays after laying flowers in the 11th anniversary since the attacks
March 20, 2006
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