Biological and Chemical Weapons

New CNAS Report on Aum Shinrikyo

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 9:59 PM

An interesting column by David Ignatius pointed me to this fascinating-looking report by Richard Danzig, Marc Sageman, and others. Published by the Center for a New American Security, the report is entitled "Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons," and is due to be released on Thursday. In Ignatius's account, it is,

case study of the only terrorist group that has successfully used chemical and biological weapons on a mass scale — the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo. It poisoned the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a deadly nerve gas, in 1995, causing 13 deaths and an astounding 6,252 injuries.

Danzig’s report, drawn from interviews over the past three years with imprisoned members of the cult, is revelatory. It shows how extremists are driven toward ever-more toxic weapons. And it illustrates how lax police can be until disaster happens. Though the Japanese police had evidence that Aum Shinrikyo was producing chemical weapons, they couldn’t prosecute because no Japanese law specifically banned the manufacture of poison gas!

The report makes some interesting contrarian points, too. There’s a self-limiting quality in these terrorist cults — an emphasis on secrecy and hierarchy that sometimes prevents them from using materials they can so easily obtain. They botch repeated attempts to make their weapons work. But they are persistent: They keep coming back until they get it right.

I will have thoughts on this report after I've read and digested it. For now, here is the report's summary of observations:

This detailed case study of Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) suggests several lessons for understanding attempts by other terrorist groups to acquire chemical or biological weapons. We provide the basis for these observations in the discussion that follows and return to them at greater length in the conclusion of this report.

1. Aum’s biological program was a failure, while its chemical program was even more capable than would have been evident from its successful release of sarin in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Though the reasons for this disparity are complex, a number of factors suggest that chemical weapons are likely to be more accessible than biological capabilities for terrorist groups intent on killing substantial numbers of people.

2. Effectively disseminating biological and chemical agents was challenging for Aum. Difficulties of this kind are likely to burden other groups.

3. Accidents recurred in Aum’s chemical and biological programs but did not deter pursuit of these weapons.

4. When Aum’s top members transitioned to using violence, they readily brought other leaders down this path and effectively persuaded, isolated or killed dissidents. There was no evident resistance to moving from conventional weapons to pathogens and chemicals.

5. Though police pursuit of Aum was remarkably lax, even intermittent or anticipated enforcement actions highly disrupted the cult’s efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons. Even if it is not an effective deterrent, law enforcement pressure can substantially inhibit efforts to develop biological and chemical weapons.

6. The key work on Aum’s biological and chemical programs was conducted largely by the leadership group. This made it easier to keep the program secret, but this secrecy significantly limited access to the skill sets available for weapons development. Other groups that seek to develop chemical and biological weapons are also likely to grapple with this tradeoff.

7. Aum’s hierarchical structure facilitated initiating and resourcing biological and chemical programs. However, it distorted their development by focusing power and resources in the hands of some who were not well-positioned to make good judgments about the programs. We anticipate similar effects in other terrorist organizations.

8. Even a retrospective assessment of biological and chemical weapons programs like this one is difficult and burdened with gaps and uncertainties. Contemporaneous assessments of Aum’s intentions and capabilities would have been much more difficult and, even if correct, partial understanding at particular junctures would probably have been misleading. Similar uncertainty is likely to be common when assessing other terrorist groups. Our expectations of intelligence, and the weight we attach to it, should be moderated accordingly.

9. Aum displayed impressive persistence and produced successes despite its commitment to many bizarre ideas, its misallocation of resources and its numerous operational failures.

10. Significant failures preceded or accompanied Aum successes. When we encounter terrorist pursuit of these weapons the failures may be less a source of comfort than a warning of activity that, if persistently pursued, may result in success.