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Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Insurgency Overview

Few groups are as fascinating from an analytical perspective as the Japanese new religion cult, Aum Shinrikyo. Founded in 1987, the organisation’s apocalyptic belief system meshed with a frightening level of scientific competence. The 1995 Tokyo Subway attack was the result of this risky convergence of end-times fantasies and CBW (chemical-biological weapons) production. Aum (now called Aleph), still operates today, though at a much smaller and more restricted scale.

History & Foundations

Apocalyptic imagery became an important aspect of post- World War II Japan, a clear psychological impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The founder of Aum Shinrikyo, Shoko Ashara (born Chizuo Matsumoto) capitalized on this. The mostly blind Asahara showed an inclination towards authoritarianism at an early age. His domineering nature isolated him from his peers, but it did not stop the young man from having dreams of leading, even telling his teachers that he hoped to one day be Prime Minister.(1)

Following a handful of failed business ventures and run-ins with the law, Asahara turned to new religion. A new religion is a spiritual movement with roots in the modern era and are often deemed cults. Aum was founded in 1987 and became popular, with Asahara giving speeches at universities and recruiting medical and scientific minds, even creating its own anime to spread Asahara’s message. What started out with yoga quickly expanded to include a whole set of practices, infused with an apocalyptic narrative that the only way to save the world was to destroy it. The end point of this was the 1995 subway attack, which led to a crack down of the group by the Japanese government.(2)

In 2007, it split into two groups: Aleph and Hikari no Wa, the latter group’s members seeking to distance themselves from Asahara.(3)

Ideology & Objectives

Though Asahara mixed elements from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, the most important aspect of the group’s belief system is “that world salvation could be achieved only by bringing about the deaths of just about everyone on this earth.”(4) Aum followers believed that humans had been so corrupted by desire, particularly by the consumerism of the time, that they were irredeemable. Believing Armageddon was imminent and would be instigated by a third World War provoked by the United States (it saw the U.S. as the main exporter of consumerism and capitalism), Asahara constructed an end-times fantasy that required adherence to Aum’s belief system in order for humanity to navigate through the tragedy. Salvation, therefore, could only be achieved by the spread of Aum communes called Lotus villages and the elimination of non-Aum members.(5)

Military & Political Capabilities

Thanks to its recruitment of scientific minds and military members, the cult developed a frightening capacity at deploying weapons of mass destruction. At its height, Aum was capable of procuring or developing chemical, biological, and even radiological weapons. Asahara, who was obsessed with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, aimed to use the “poor man’s atom bomb,” that being sarin, to bring about armageddon. They acquired these weapons thanks to their heavy recruitment of scientists, who were able to manufacture biological weapons such as botulinum toxin and chemical weapons like sarin and VX. The cult ordered equipment by disguising its efforts as computer manufacturing to order chips from the United States. Aum’s scientists learned the formulas to develop different chemical agents through Russian scientists, whose poor financial situation in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse made them prone to bribery. They even ordered and received an MI-17 helicopter from Russia, which was capable of dispersing chemical agents.(6) In the wake of the Tokyo Subway attack, Aum’s infrastructure was dismantled, as was any political capacity it had.

Whereas Asahara once lectured at and recruited from top universities, Aum is now deemed a “dangerous organization” by the Japanese government, subjected to intense surveillance, and must regularly report its membership numbers. Being split into two groups as it is now does not help, though a 2018 estimate put the combined membership at around 1500.(7) The groups are unwelcome in areas they reside, with signs and banners often warning those of their presence.

Approach to Resistance

Aum carried out assassinations to silence critics that threatened the group. The most notable example was the murder of Japanese lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, and his family in 1989. Sakamoto was attempting to aid those who wanted out of the cult.(8) In another instance, the group spread sarin gas using a van equipped with a rudimentary spraying device. In this instance, the cult was attempting to kill judges hearing a fraud case against them. This goal was not accomplished, however eight were left dead and some 270 more suffered injuries or symptoms.(9)

Violence came to internal dissidents as well. Members who threatened to leave were tortured and in extreme cases murdered. One instance of this came in the fall of 1994, when 20 members of the group were executed with VX gas.(10)

The most infamous attack carried out by the group came on March 20, 1995. Feeling increasing pressure from law enforcement, Aum decided to carry out its most ambitious attack, hoping to expedite the end of the world. Five members boarded the Tokyo Subway system and punctured bags containing sarin gas. The rushed, imperfect concoction of sarin spread through the train cars and platform areas used by over six million people a day. Had a more pure form of sarin been used, the death toll could have been unimaginable. 12 people died and over 5,000 people reported injuries or symptoms.(11)

A 2019 car ramming in Tokyo left nine injured. The perpetrator claimed he carried out the attack in response to the execution of those behind the 1995 subway attack.(12)

International Relations & Potential Alliances

In the 1990s, Aum operated in many former nations of the Soviet Union. As mentioned previously, they used the day-to-day difficulties in post-Soviet Russia to obtain important information and material to construct chemical and biological weapons. It also managed to recruit new disciples, intaking an estimated 35-50,0000 Russian members.(13) Australia was also a site where Aum operated, its remote countryside perfect for discreetly testing chemical weapons. In the aftermath of the subway attack, foreign countries cracked down just as Japan did.

Aum is labeled a terrorist organization by many states, including Japan and Russia. The United States formerly designated the group, but the State Department removed them from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2022, citing a lack of activity. This has not stopped Aum from trying foreign activity. In 2016, Montenegro deported 58 Aum members. The same year, Russia raided 25 of the group’s properties.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Lifton, R. J. (2000). Destroying the world to save it: Aum shinrikyō, apocalyptic violence, and the the new global terrorism. Henry Holt and Co., p. 12-22

(2) - Lifton, R. J. (2000). Destroying the world to save it: Aum shinrikyō, apocalyptic violence, and the the new global terrorism. Henry Holt and Co.

(3) - Anton. (2012, June 15). Hikari no wa: Circle of rainbow light. Apologetics Index.

(4) - Lifton, R. J. (2000). Destroying the world to save it: Aum shinrikyō, apocalyptic violence, and the the new global terrorism. Henry Holt and Co., p. 8-9

(5) - Lifton, R. J. (2000). Destroying the world to save it: Aum shinrikyō, apocalyptic violence, and the the new global terrorism. Henry Holt and Co., p. 45-49

(6) - Ibid., p. 181-183

(7) - BBC. (2018, July 6). Aum Shinrikyo: The Japanese cult behind the Tokyo sarin attack. BBC News.

(8) - Japan Today. (2019, November 5). 30th anniversary of murder of lawyer, family by Aum members observed.

(9) - Monterey Institute of International Studies. (n.d.). Chronology of aum shinrikyo’s CBW activities - James Martin Center ...

(10) - Ibid

(11) - Ibid

(12) - McKirdy, E., & Ogura, J. (2019, January 2). Tokyo car attack: Driver Hits New Year’s revelers in City’s Harajuku District. CNN.

(13) - Sinelschikova, Y. (2016, October 4). Why has aum shinrikyo been banned in Russia only now?. Russia Beyond.

Additional Resources


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