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Aum Shinrikyo's Biological Weapons Program: Why Did It Fail?

NCJ Number
Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Volume: 24 Issue: 4 Dated: July/August 2001 Pages: 289-301
William Rosenau
Date Published
13 pages
This article explores the failure of Aum Shinrikyo’s nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
To date, only one group, Aum Shinrikyo, has attempted to acquire and use biological agents to kill on a large scale. Despite its impressive resources, dedicated personnel, and high motivation, Aum failed to achieve its goal of creating a biological weapon capable of causing mass casualties. This failure suggests that requirements for mass-casualty bioterrorism are considerably higher. Many have alleged that biological weapons are easy for terrorists to fabricate, particularly in comparison with a nuclear device. Aum’s failure suggests that it may in fact be far more difficult to carry out a deadly bioterrorism attack than has sometimes been portrayed. Although terrorists have obtained biological agents from nature or cultured them themselves, acquiring virulent strains appears to be a major challenge. Sophisticated terrorists may also seek to culture pathogens or toxins “in-house,” or acquire them from nature, although the Aum case suggests that this is a far greater challenge than suspected. Dissemination remains a major hurdle for any terrorists seeking to kill with biological agents on a mass scale. Drying the anthrax spores or other living organisms for the purpose of aerosolization demands great skill as well as sophisticated equipment. Terrorists also may face a major hurdle within their own organizations. Cult-like organizations may be least suited to meet the complex demands associated with a bioweapon program. A paranoid, fantasy-prone and sometimes violent atmosphere is not conducive to the sound scientific judgement needed to produce mass-casualty biological weapons. Aum’s attempts at bioterrorism may provide the raw material for developing a set of indicators that will allow intelligence and law enforcement officials to determine which groups or individuals are attempting to acquire and use biological agents. 65 notes