By Zachary Lynn
The idea of a cult that wants to end the world is a staple of fiction and science fiction. Such a group is very rare in our world, but not unheard of. Perhaps the most well known and very much most successful of these cults is the Japanese Organization known as Aleph, but once previously known as Aum Shinrikyo. Aum Shinrikyo also has a distinction of being an organization that has attempted to carry out its goals on the Japanese Populace.
So what does an actual doomsday cult believe? The groups founder Shoko Asahara believed in a syncretic belief system that drew from Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and other national millennialist ideals. Asahara believed that he was destined to take on the sins of the world, and that he could gift his followers with spiritual energy and liberate them from their sins and ill deeds. He did draw some apocalyptic concepts from Christianity and Judaism as well. This is common to many cult leaders who draw ideas from just about every religion and twist it into something that will allow them to maintain their religion. They believed in Asahara’s prophecy of a coming nuclear war that would be started by America. All of humanity would perish in the firestorm, except for those who believed in the Aum Shinrikyo faith. They believed however that this end was a good thing as it would restore a balance to this world.
Asahara, also like a startling number of cult leaders was a believer in conspiracy theories. He believed that the Dutch, the Freemasons, the Jews and all sorts of others were out to get the members of the cult. As such, it facilitated the otherizing and alienation of the members versus the rest of the world. The religion was founded by Shoko Asahara out of his apartment in Tokyo. It would actually attract a fair number of members from the middle and upper classes of Japan. He would work hard to spread his ideals to the people of Japan using anime and cartoons as the generally secular Japanese urban dwellers had rejected dry religious lectures. At this point, Asahara maintained a fairly ascetic life with the exception of an armored Mercedes benz he rode in.
During this time period (roughly 1980 to 1995), the group would attract people with promises of health improvement via physical exercise, achieving life goals by positive thinking and other related activities. However while this was happening, stories began to surface. Recruits were held against their will. Members were forced to donate money to the group, and supposedly they murdered someone who tried to leave in 1989. During this same time they were being sued by Anti-Cult Leader Tsutsumi Sakamoto. Sakamoto and his family after a disagreement over a broadcast interview, vanished from their home. While many suspected the group, nobody was able to prove that Sakamoto had been murdered until 1995.
Some of the other actions leading up to the 1995 incident are all confirmed incidents. There is one major one that verges into the realm of conspiracy theory that I will hold for later. The group most certainly had an assassination list of people critical of the cult, as well as rival religious organization leaders. In 1993 the cult would attempt to test a biological agent in Tokyo, releasing anthrax over the city from the roof of their headquarters in Tokyo. While many complained of foul orders, the spores did not actually infect anyone. During this time period the cult was expanding and recruited a number of people from Russia, finding a very wide breeding ground for the quasi nihilistic apocalyptic values of the cult. At a ranch in Australia, the group would attempt to manufacture automatic weapons. Asahara had a belief that the group should manufacture and be self sufficient in AK-74 Rifles. A weapon smuggled into Japan was later seized. The group at a ranch in Australia it owned then would go onto manufacture nerve gas. It manufactured and tested Sarin and VX nerve gas on sheep.
In 1994, the cult carried out a small attack in the city of Matsumoto and released a cloud of Sarin gas near the homes of several judges who were considered hostile to the cult. 8 people were killed and a number injured, though not the judges involved in the legal battle. As well as the Matsumoto attack, VX nerve gas was used to attack several individuals considered hostile to the cult. During this however, suspicion was thrown on the cult as Kiyoshi Kariya was abducted by the cult. Kariya was the brother of a former member who had been getting death threats from the cult. His body was incinerated. However he said "If I disappear, I was abducted by Aum Shinrikyo".
The police then prepared a series of raids against the cult. Until the subway attacks. On the morning of March 20th, 1995 a dozen cult members boarded trains in Tokyo. They carried plastic bags wrapped in newspaper. Each bag contained Sarin Gas. At each target, they dropped the bags, punctured them with an umbrella and quickly got out of the train. A dozen people were killed, 50 were severely injured and between 1000 and 6000 people were injured. This became the largest terrorist attack in Japanese History and the largest non-wartime chemical attack in history.
The police raids against the cult found some very startling things. At their headquarters, explosives, chemical weapons, a Russian Attack Helicopter, and stockpiles of chemicals to make more chemicals. As well, drugs, including LSD and meth were found. Millions of dollars in cash and actual prisoners were found locked up. A number of attempted copycat attacks were made by both Aum and people claiming to be Aum members. Eventually, 200 Aum Shinrikiyo members were arrested. After Asahara was arrested, he refused all communications with anyone until his execution. The group following the attacks was stripped out of all legal protections, but was allowed to continue operating as a religion under Japan’s religious freedom laws. In 2000, the organization would rebrand as Aleph, and removed much of its apocalyptic doctrine. It even apologized to victims and paid compensation.
Some fugitives would evade justice for years. However, in 2018, Shoko Asahara and 6 other members of the cult were executed. This action was widely supported by the Japanese public. The group continues to be monitored by the government of Japan. While the group claims to have reformed, Investigative Journalists have photographed inside Aleph Headquarters showing knives piercing pictures of Government Officials. Five offices were raided because of evidence that Aleph was still up to its old systems with taking large quantities of funds from others. Members are still ordered to follow Shoko Asahara’s teachings. In 2019, an Aum member engaged in a car attack where he rammed into pedestrians. It also is still headed by former members of Asahara’s inner circle.
So we are going to blend conspiracy and alternate history. It is widely known that Aum Shinrikyo had an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. They had recruited at least two former Russian Scientists. They were actively mining for Uranium on their ranch in Australia. On the 28th of May, 1993, a strange seismic disturbance was detected in the Banjawarn Ranch. This was a massive seismic event and the few witnesses say they saw a large fireball. The cause of the event remains unknown. While theories have been floated of an asteroid impact, no crater was left. A mine explosion was also ruled out because it would have been 170 times larger then the largest mine explosion in history up until that point. The event was the size of a small nuclear test. While research shows their was no evidence of radiation…what if there was.
What if Aum Shinrikyo had actually managed to manufacture an atomic weapon. What if they had tested it during some time of increasing global tensions. It is actually not impossible for non-state actors to manufacture nuclear weapons. They would basically need cash, technical know how and Uranium. Which Aum had.
What if they used this weapon during a time of global tensions and triggered off ongoing issues. A surprise nuclear detonation of an unknown source could very well have triggered off at best an international crisis. At worst the goals of Asahara could have been achieved. The end of humanity.
Even the gas attacks could have been far worse as the Sarin gas was of poor quality. If it had been more potent it could have killed 10s of thousands. So the Alternate History Question I pose is a simple one.
What if Asahara had burned the world. Created a self fulfilling prophecy as creation burned in an atomic hellfire?
I will however, leave you with something unsettling. A future history. We live in uncertain times, in some ways a time of increasing global tension and uncertainty. People wonder what the future will hold. So is the time right and the space open for new groups such as Aum Shinrikyo. Groups who see a world of suffering and want to liberate it from that. For that is the most disturbing part of Asahara’s doctrine. He believed that destroying this world was not a crime, but a mercy. To set people free from pain.
That is perhaps the most disturbing tenet of Aum Shinrikyo.
Zachary Lynn is the Author of Three Days in Yangon published by Sea Lion Press