A Cloud Of Terror--And Suspicion

The target symbolized Japan. Clean and safe, the Tokyo subway is so quiet that many of the 6 million people who ride it daily grab a nap during the commute. It may never feel so comfortable again. Certainly it won't for secretary Junko Okada, 25. On her way to work last week, she saw two subway employees using newspapers to try to wipe up what she thought was gasoline spilled on the floor. Some passengers began coughing. By the time she got to her office, her vision was blurred. People who had moved more slowly, spent more time near the spilled liquid, were retching blood and half blind. Five chemical devices disguised as lunch boxes and soft-drink containers had spewed poison through subway cars converging on Tokyo's government hub, Kasumigaseki, during the morning rush. Ten people died and more than 5,000 were treated for injuries in what the daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun called "an assault against society."

The weapon a nerve poison called sarin--symbolized Armageddon. At least that's the role the poison plays in the apocalyptic teachings of a 40-year-old cult leader who last week became Japan's most wanted man. "Venerated Master" Shoko Asahara. whose followers greet him by kissing his big toe, says sarin will be a primary weapon in the "final world war," set to begin as early as 1997. Thousands of police raided outposts of Asahara's empire and allegedly turned up truckloads of chemicals that could be used to make. detect and treat sarin--along with such other items as a Russian helicopter and millions of dollars in cash and go] d.

The disclosures also highlighted growing fears about millennial cults (page 40). But no charges were brought immediately. And it appeared that the Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") sect had violated no Japanese law merely by stockpiling the chemicals. Startling as that may have seemed, Japan's laws aren't unique. Experts have long complained that the need to curb chemical and biological weapons is overshadowed by efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. Now there's fresh cause for concern. The attack, says Israeli terrorism expert Yonah Alexander, "has global implications. It's a quantum leap to terrorism by mass destruction."

The attackers clearly wanted to strike down the maximum number of Japanese "If we are going to start a war, it will be with the United States': Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyo Invisible killer. Victims of the nerve-gas attack, some bleeding from the nose and mouth, receive first aid outside the entrance to Tokyo's Tsukiji Station government commuters. Like most such elaborate plans, it worked imperfectly. The terrorists used simple binary bombs that allowed them to combine ingredients at the last minute-possibly by carrying two plastic containers in the same sack, then stepping on them to mix the liquids before heading to an exit. They hit five locations in cars on three subway lines scheduled to converge from the north and west on Kasumigaseki between 8:09 and 8:13 a.m. -just in time for the 8:30 start of the workday. But only two bombs released sarin at the government station; three others were discovered either before or after their trains had reached the target area.

It was a wonder that many more people didn't die. Sarin, which can kill in amounts smaller than a droplet, was discovered in the 1930s by German chemists seeking better insecticides, tested by the Nazis in death camps and eventually used by Saddam Hussein to annihilate Kurdish villages. But it is a poor choice as a terrorist weapon: hard to make, tricky to handle and no more effective in a closed space like a subway car than the traditional pipe bomb would have been--apart from the shock value. Japanese experts examining the evidence said they believed the sarin used in the subways had been diluted in order to make it less likely to kill the terrorists. U.S. observers speculated that whoever made the sarin failed to purify it or kept it stored too long. Tokyo was spared the worst.

Still, the harm was horrific enough, and deeply shocking to a nation that usually defines "terrorism" as the odd hijacking or firebombing. Of the major corporations in the area, Nissan Motors seemed worst hit: about 50 of its employees ended up in hospitals, two in critical condition. (Sarin can cause permanent brain damage.) Many civil servants were hurt, but the dead also included retiree Yasuo Hori, 76, and tobacco company employee Eiji Wada, 29, whose widow expects their first child next month. Motorman supervisor Tsuneo Hishinuma, 51, and deputy station manager Kazumasa Takahashi, 50, died after trying to clean up the poison. "We thought we were just doing our usual job," says one of their colleagues, who placed a dish of salt outside his office door, a traditional way of purifying an area after a death.

Who could benefit from such an outrage? Authorities immediately focused on Aum Shinrikyo. The group had both the means and the motive. After at least six years of unsolved kidnappings and suspicious poisonings linked to the group, Japanese authorities were preparing to move against Aum Shinrikyo in force. just a day before the subway attack, police had raided Aum Shinrikyo's Osaka headquarters, and they'd already requested chemical-warfare gear from Japan's Self Defense Force. Aum Shinrikyo was bracing for confrontation. Twelve days before the gas attack, its leaders had sent a written "last warning" calling members to an emergency meeting at the cult's Aoyama training grounds. The message was that the sect faced attack by "biological weapons." "This is our warning that there will be more death coming," said the notice. "The only remaining choice you have is to be a slave or die."

Cult leader Asahara was last seen leaving Aum Shinrikyo's main training facility in a limousine shortly after the Tokyo attack. In videotaped statements released later from hiding, he denied responsibility for the attack-and the kidnappings-and said the chemical stores removed from a big cult compound near Mount Fuji were for making plastics, fertilizers and pottery. The U.S. military has dropped biological weapons on his followers, he claimed, adding: "If we are going to start a war, it will be with the United States." On Saturday, the Kyodo News Service reported that investigators had matched residue found at one of the group's properties with evidence recovered both from the subways and from a town in central Japan where seven people were fatally poisoned last year.

Almost two decades after Jonestown, the world has grown accustomed to the questions Asahara's saga raises. The pattern is familiar. When Asahara founded the movement, in 1987, he described it as means of obtaining self-enlightenment through Tibetan Buddhism with a touch of Hinduism. The cult's chief symbol was Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction, and it grew into a militants army claiming 30,000 followers worldwide.

Parents began telling police that the cult had kidnapped their children; a lawyer who took on the sect six years ago disappeared along with his wife and child. Cult initiates are kept incommunicado while studying Asahara's teachings; they practice rapid breathing exercises and meditate with the help of the monotonous drone of devices taped to their heads. Cleansing rituals reportedly include drinking copious amounts of warm water and then vomiting. Some trainees practice the disciplines of staying underwater or in closed. airless spaces for prolonged periods; on one raid last week, police found a woman in a box. Recruits donate their money and property to the cult. Their only goal is to "make the world a better place by taking on the suffering of others," says David Bower, a Columbia College sophomore in New York City, where the cult has a small chapter. "There is not a shred of evidence against us," says a woman named Tatyana in Moscow.

Is Aum Shinrikyo still a threat? Authorities weren't taking any chances. About 10,000 disciples have answered the call in Japan, and the cult has additional offices in Bonn and Sri Lanka, as well as in New York and Moscow. Last week Russian deputies called on the security services to investigate the sect's activities in the former Soviet heartland, where the guru's rejection of any form of private ownership may hold special appeal. The cult has spent $1.6 million in Russia over the last two years on nationwide radio broadcasts; until government registration was withdrawn six months ago, it had a half-hour weekly television show in Moscow. Last week the radio network also pulled the plug. Meanwhile, subway systems in the United States tightened security. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gave heads of key city departments two days to submit plans for handling an attack like Tokyo's. The risk was that the attack might give cults, or others, the idea of trying something similar.

The fact is, once lethal poison is in a terrorist's hands, an attack is hard to thwart. "No protective action can be completely effective for terrorist acts of the sudden-release variety," says one recent study. That's been clear since 1966, when a U.S. Army team sprayed test bacilli through subway gratings over New York City's Seventh and Eighth Avenue lines. The conclusion: such an attack would "cause high casualties." Still, it took Saddam's 1988 gas attacks to bring about international action on such arms. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which sets up an international mechanism to control and track trade in the precursor chemicals needed to make sarin and other nerve agents, was agreed upon by representatives of 159 countries in 1992. But so far only 27 have ratified it. Among those that haven't ratified: Japan and the United States. They can no longer ignore the threat posed by some of the world's most dangerous weapons.