TOKYO -- The cult that planted nerve gas in the Tokyo subway three years ago, killing 12 people and injuring thousands more, is back.
Aum Shinrikyo, which was found responsible for the sarin attack and for several murders with VX, a highly lethal nerve agent, is regrouping, recruiting new members at home and abroad, and raising vast sums of money, security officials and Japanese and American terrorism experts say. The U.S. State Department has designated it a terrorist group, but it has not been linked to any illegal acts since 1995.
The resurgence of the sect that masterminded the most serious terrorist attack in Japan's modern history, the officials said, is a result partly of Japan's unwillingness to ban it.
The Tokyo District Court deprived Aum Shinrikyo of its legal religious status in 1995 and liquidated its assets after declaring it insolvent the following year.
But the Japanese government decided last year that the Justice Ministry had not proved that the group posed an "immediate or obvious threat" to Japanese society. It rejected a request from security officials to outlaw the sect under a 1952 law against subversive activities. The law has never been applied.
Aum Shinrikyo, arguing that the government has effectively sanctioned its existence, has used the decision to rebound.
"There has been no word of repentance or apology," concludes the Public Security Investigation Agency, the main intelligence arm of Japan's Ministry of Justice, in a 70-page report issued in January.
Moreover, the document states, Aum Shinrikyo -- the name is the Buddhist mantra "Om" followed by "Supreme Truth" -- has not revised or abandoned "its dangerous doctrine that justifies murder to achieve its ends."
According to the report and interviews with Japanese security officials and independent experts, the group now has about 5,000 followers, including 500 "monks," followers who are "ordained" and live communally. It operates some 28 installations at 18 branches (down from a peak of 24) throughout the country.
Despite being banned in Russia, the group is still active there, as well as in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakstan.
It maintains encrypted Web sites and chat rooms in Japanese, English and Russian and controls a network of electronic, computer and other stores that generated about $30 million in revenues in 1997. Its publishing company, now its second-largest source of revenue, reopened in April and issues at least one book or pamphlet a month, officials said.
The group is weaker and poorer than it was at the peak of its influence in 1995, when it owned about 30 pieces of property throughout Japan, as well as a business empire that controlled restaurants, computers and other technology companies. Its net worth was estimated at $20 million to $1 billion. It was also said to have 10,000 followers in Japan and up to 40,000 in other countries, 30,000 of them in Russia.
The group's resurgence troubles security officials, who say they monitor known followers and businesses 24 hours a day and continue searching for three of its leaders accused of involvement in earlier plots and deadly assaults.
Pub Date: 10/11/98