The group Aum Shinrikyo—now renamed Aleph—is a cult terrorist organization based in Japan and founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. Aum Shinrikyo (Shinrikyo meaning Supreme Truth) is one of the most violent and feared groups in the history of terrorism. It emerged before the rise of groups like Al Qaeda, and even though it killed 27 people, it is feared because of the nature of its attacks, i.e., chemical.
Who Was Shoko Asahara?
Shoko Asahara was born in 1955 to a low-income family of many children. He was partially blind and went to a boarding school for blind students. There he grew up to become a bully and scammed kids. He opened an acupuncture shop, but in 1982, he was fined for selling medicines without a license. This cemented his extremist ideals. He then turned to religion. He claimed to have attained enlightenment (Nirvana) and even released pictures of himself levitating.
He worked from his single-bedroom apartment in Tokyo, and by then, he had a following of over a thousand people. He drew inspiration from Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism and selectively chose his values. He had doomsday in his mind—the day the world would end.
The Growth Of Aum Shinrikyo
The group members increased along with the net value of Shoko Asahara, and he had a considerable following. He targeted the new generation of Japan. He aimed for the lost and alone students and offered them enlightenment, a sense of community, and supernatural powers, and they followed him in thousands to find an escape from the world. They all left bright futures in companies and dropped out of school to follow him.
They put up ads in magazines and created videos and books to attract people to join them. In a culture of emerging computers and kids sinking in their room into their computers and comics, it was easy for them to be attracted by such a cult. The entire generation grew up watching anime. They created their Studio called MAT to recruit the otaku—the computer nerds. They made their 10-episode anime called “Chouetsu Sekai.” It focuses mainly on Asahara being a Christ-like figure.
Their main aim was to recruit literate and smart people and be the scientists and engineers for the cult. Slowly and steadily, brilliant scholars joined them as they started finding their jobs boring and the Aum Shinrikyo gave them the opportunities the civilized world would not allow.
The Spread Of Aum Shinrikyo Over The World
In 1987, having gained enough capital, the group expanded in different countries, starting with the United States of America. It was registered in New York as a charitable Non-Profit organization. In Russia, however, it was able to form the biggest arm of the group outside of Japan. It had up to 35,000-50,000 people operating and visiting the Russian perimeters. It also spread to other countries like Australia, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, etc.
It wasn’t till Aum Shinrikyo turned into a violent group that it was actively targeted and looked for by both the government and media. Until then, it went under the radar.
The Turn Of Aum Shinrikyo Into A Violent Group
Shoko Asahara, after 1989, wanted to turn this religious organization into a military organization. In 1990. With 24 other members, Shoko ran for power in the elections, but they all lost. This incident made him decide to use force against the state to capture power.
He prophesized that there would be a war between the United States of America and Japan, and the followers of Aum Shinrikyo would be the only ones to survive.
The group slowly started collecting high-level tech, arms, and even deadly biological viruses like the Ebola virus from the outbreak. Russians trained them, used Australian grounds to mine Uranium, conduct Sarin gas tests on sheep, and test chemical weapons, and they even studied the work of Nikola Tesla.
The 1995 Tokyo Subway Attack
On the morning of 20 March 1995, the members of Aum Shinrikyo released a poisonous gas, chemically similar to Sarin nerve agent—that they had been testing in Australia. It was a coordinated attack on five different trains of the Tokyo subway and killed 13 people. As many as 6,000 people have been estimated to be injured by the gas. It can be more as many people hesitate to come up and talk about it.
It is believed that Shoko Asahara got the information that the police would be raiding their bases, so to divert their attention, he ordered a chemical attack on the subway. The police still conducted a simultaneous joint raid on the various compounds of the cult.
Shoko Asahara was found hiding in the wall of a compound in May of the same year and was arrested. He, along with all the senior members of Aum Shinrikyo, was sentenced to death.
Aftermath Of The 1995 Incident
After the arrest of Shoko Asahara, the status of a religious legal entity was taken away from Aum Shinrikyo, and it was declared bankrupt. It was, however, allowed to continue under the constitutional guarantee of Freedom to Religion. The cult was banned in Russia in 2016. Two sons of Asahara took over and changed the name of the group to “Aleph” in 2000.
Shoko Asahara and 12 other members of Aum Shinrikyo were executed on 6 July 2018.
Death Sentences in Japan are rare and usually have the entire public’s support. It was labeled as the biggest execution in the history of modern Japan.
A group that was allowed to exist and grow right under the noses of the government and media is still a mystery. Their numbers grew exponentially, and they were able to recruit the next generation of people and make them work as members of the cult, creating weapons having the capacity to destroy millions. Could the cult members rise again and cause such damage, or even larger scale damage to the world, is still to be seen.