Senate investigators of the Japanese doomsday cult accused of the Tokyo subway gassing warned Tuesday that it now is only a question of when - not whether - a similar terrorist attack will be unleashed on the United States.
Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate permanent investigations subcommittee, reacted to the warning by calling a terrorist attack the nation’s “top national security threat for years to come.”
Lt. Col. Edward Eitzen, an Army expert from the biological defense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., said: “A terrorist attack using an aerosolized biological agent could occur without warning, and the first sign of the attack might be hundreds or thousands of ill or dying patients, since biological clouds are not visible.”
The March 20 attack in Tokyo, allegedly carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult (or the Aum Supreme Truth Sect) with the nerve gas sarin, killed 12 subway passengers and injured more than 5,000. The cult’s leader, Shoko Asahara, is awaiting trial on charges of masterminding the attack.
Nunn said the peacetime use of chemical weapons against civilians signals that “the world has entered a new era.” He added, “The activities of the Aum should serve as a warning to us all. This is a lesson that we will ignore at our peril.”
Alarmed by the scope of Aum Shinrikyo’s operation, its anti-American rhetoric and the ease with which it acquired materials and technology, Nunn asked the investigators whether such an attack could occur in the United States.
“All the experts we talked to said, ‘It’s really not a question of ‘if.’ It is rather ‘when?”’ replied lawyer-investigator John F. Sopko, adding that such an attack likely would be biological or chemical because such weapons are easier to make and deploy than nuclear devices.
Terrorists can find instructions on making weapons of mass destruction on the Internet, he said, adding: “The experts are telling us that these (weapons) … are simple and very, very scary.”
The Senate investigation traced a worldwide network allegedly run by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Its operations, backed by $1 billion in available cash, ranged from a major arms-buying organization in Russia to mining uranium for nuclear weapons in Australia and included largely unsuccessful attempts to buy technology and materials from U.S. companies, investigators said. It even reportedly tried to obtain the deadly Ebola toxin from Zaire.
“This was truly an organization whose tentacles reached round the globe,” said Alan Edelman, an investigator for the panel.
The investigators’ report notes that Asahara, the jailed cult leader, moved up his prophecy of “Armageddon” from 1997 to November 1995, raising concern that the annual Asia-Pacific economic summit to be attended by President Clinton and 17 other regional leaders in Osaka, Japan, on Nov. 16 might have been a target.
In the United States, the group established a New York office in 1987 to buy computer software and hardware, a laser measuring system, serum bottles, fans, batteries, gas masks and other equipment. Most of its efforts were thwarted when American companies became suspicious about how their products would be used.
Two cult members received helicopter training in Florida. The cult converted a Russian helicopter to enable it to spray toxins, and also had a drone - a small, unpiloted plane - that could have been used as a dispersion device, said the investigators.
The Aum office telephone records showed calls from New York to Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Israel, Australia, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Nigeria, and the pace of the international exchanges accelerated after the Tokyo subway gas attack.
Despite all the cult’s activities here and in Japan - its alleged involvement in a June 1994 release of sarin in the city of Matsumoto, which killed seven and injured 500, was publicized before the Tokyo attack - the Aum Shinrikyo remained virtually unknown to U.S. intelligence, the panel was told.
Nunn, calling for “beefed up” intelligence and international cooperation to track and control nuclear, chemical and biological materials, said: “In an age when we have witnessed two major terrorist attacks on targets in the United States, anything other than constant vigilance in this area could have catastrophic consequences.”
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.
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