Planning for Japanese Terrorist Attacks Undertaken in Outback Western Australia
20 March 1995 – Morning Peak Hour – All Hell Breaks Loose on Tokyo Subway Transit
Springtime in Japan, picture cherry blossoms and millions of morning commuters stepping out into a bright spring morning and onto one of the world’s busiest underground systems. Today however on board the trains are five members of a doomsday cult each carrying packages filled with liquid nerve agent.
Coordinated attacks take place at strategic locations across the network, clearly orchestrated to inflict mass casualties. The packages were designed to leak after cult members spiked them with sharpened umbrella points and left the subway undetected.
Passengers felt stinging fumes hitting their eyes. The toxin struck victims down in a matter of seconds, leaving them choking and vomiting, some blinded and paralysed. Twelve people died and at least 5,800 were injured and sought hospital treatment.
The cause was Sarin, a nerve agent first developed as a pesticide in 1938. It was the worst domestic terror attack ever carried out on Japanese soil.
The culprits were members of Aum Shinrikyo, a religious group who believed the end of the world was coming.
This article takes a fresh look at how a Japanese doomsday cult evolved to become Japan’s most-deadly terrorist organisation and the pivotal role their activities and experiments on a remote sheep station in Western Australia played in this 1995 Tokyo mass murder.
The terrorists were members of an organisation known as Aum Shinrikyo, or Supreme Truth, whose founder was Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara.
Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) Origins
In 1986, Shoko Asahara walked out of the holy Himalayas a self-proclaimed prophet and created the world’s first scientific death cult. Aum’s eclectic blend of Eastern religion and supernatural powers attracted thousands of devotees in Japan, many of them brilliant but alienated young scientists, systematically recruited from top universities.
It was in the mist-shrouded foothills of Japan’s Mount Fuji that Aum’s guru Shoko Asahara began his descent into madness. It was there that Asahara predicted the apocalypse – a final battle that would destroy civilization and usher in a new Kingdom of Aum.
Cult laboratories experimented with laser and particle beam weapons and stockpiled some of the deadliest biological and chemical weapons on Earth including Nazi nerve gases, cyanide, anthrax and botulism. To acquire weapons of mass destruction – including a nuclear bomb – Aum’s tentacles spread around the globe, from Moscow and Manhattan, to Silicon Valley and the Australian outback.
The cult recruited Japanese gangsters and KGB veterans, and used kidnapping and murder to launch its historic mission, the destruction of Japanese society, followed by world domination. Within a few years, Aum had become one of the world’s richest, most sophisticated and murderous sects.
Asahara outlined a doomsday prophecy, which included a third world war instigated by the United States. Asahara described a final conflict culminating in a nuclear Armageddon borrowing the term from the Book of Revelation (16:16)
In 1992, Shoko Asahara published a foundational book, declaring himself to be Christ, Japan’s only fully enlightened Master, as well as identifying himself as the ‘Lamb of God’. It is somewhat ironic therefore that the following year, 1993, the sect established a laboratory and experimented with chemical precursors for the production of Sarin Gas on the lambs and sheep on Western Australia’s Banjawarn Station
In March 1995, believing itself under siege, the cult burst onto the world scene with a coldblooded nerve gas attack in the subways of rush-hour Tokyo.
The Australian Connection – Banjawarn Station
In early 1993, two years prior to the March 1995 subway attack, two senior sect members, a so called Construction Minister and an Intelligence Minister arrived in Perth and through a local Real Estate Agent of Japanese origin set out to inspect a number of remote properties for the purposes of conducting experiments to ‘benefit mankind’. The sect was structured similarly to aspects of the Japanese government, which the sect was planning to replace when it instigated the governments downfall.
After viewing several properties, they decided to settle on Banjawarn Station, a remote pastoral lease some 800kms North- East of Perth on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. They paid AUD540,000 for the lease of Banjawarn Station which had been established as a pastoral lease in 1903 and comprised 999,986 hectares (10,000 square kilometres – an area larger than the island of Cyprus), some 800kms NE of Perth.
The sect also set up several Australian Companies with one of the directors being Sect Leader Asahara. They also engaged a mining consultant and purchased mining exploration licenses for Banjawarn Station for AUD150,000. It is almost certain that the sect had devised a ‘mining screen’ as a cover for their clandestine activities which then denied prospectors access to the land. Arguably this so-called mining screen also complemented the sects stated considerations to obtain uranium to ultimately pursue a nuclear option.
On 9 September 1993, Sect Leader Asahara and twenty-four (24) of his followers arrived in Perth from Tokyo. They had paid AUD30,000 for excess baggage including masks, respirators, diggers, protective equipment, tools and what ostensibly passed for technical equipment for mining purposes. Customs baggage inspection located an array of chemicals including hydrochloric and perchloric acids in glass bottles marked as hand soap. Two crates of chemicals and laboratory equipment were confiscated.
As a result, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) charged two members, a biochemist and a doctor with Carrying Dangerous Goods on Aircraft and were each fined AUD2,400 in a Perth Magistrates Court. Money seemed of little object as they had chartered three aircraft to convey the group to Banjawarn station. A new batch of chemicals were sourced with one member travelling to Melbourne to purchase two 25-gram bottles of the chemical Thioacetamide valued at AUD190. Simple mathematics would suggest several million dollars would have been expended by the cult to set up and support the Banjawarn experiments.
Aum Shinriyko and most of the group, including Asahara departed Australia and following their return to Japan Asahara and twelve (12) sect members made further application to enter Australia. Their applications were declined on the basis of their earlier detected breaches at Perth Airport and the overall level of suspicions attached to their previous travel. Asahara appealed the decision, which failed however two sect members were granted visas by making application at the Australian Consulate in Osaka. They subsequently travelled to Australia, seemingly undetected, to become caretakers of Banjawarn station.
Whilst a dedicated Terrorism Financing or Money Laundering investigation wasn’t carried out in Australia at this time there was the possibility that Proceeds of Crime investigation (enacted 1988) could have been warranted, the difficulty however being that to gain a conviction the authorities would have had to have evidence of the group having committed a foreign indictable offence, something they were well short of without comprehensive release of intelligence holdings by the Japanese Authorities.
Recent commentary has noted that with the introduction of a raft of Counter-Terrorism legislation the sect could have been investigated under counter terrorism laws, again this would have required significant releases by the Japanese Authorities. One piece of legislation that appeared to have not been considered, certainly at a National level, was the Foreign Incursions Recruitment Act (since repealed) an act which made for offences in furtherance of the overthrow of a legitimate foreign government, however the same difficulties of release Japanese Authorities would have applied.
The AFP and ASIO did provide Japanese authorities with advice on the arrival of the group in Australia and their somewhat unusual activities. The advice from the Japanese was that the sect was being investigated for kidnapping sect members however no mention of the more serious suspected anti-state leanings was made.
One would have ordinarily anticipated that the Japanese would have been more aware of the criminal organisation and, in the spirit and protocols of International Police and Intelligence liaison would have been more forthcoming as to their suspected activities. It is reasoned that they played down their activities for reasons of being embarrassed that their nationals could be undertaking illegal activity in a foreign country.
Confirmed use of chemical/nerve agents between the Banjawarn Station and the Tokyo Subway Attacks.
After the Australian experiments at Banjawarn Station (1993) and before the Tokyo Subway attack (March 1995) the sect significantly upscaled their planned chemical and nerve agent attacks in Japan. During this period Japanese Agencies were aware that this group were capable, but not it seems highly efficient in the use of nerve agents/chemical agents. The group was thought responsible for having developed and used nerve and chemical agents in Japan no less than eight (8) times between late 1993 and the March 1995.
It seems that a tip off of an imminent raid by Japanese Authorities to the Aum Shinriyko precipitated the hastily arranged attacks on the subway and on 20 March 1995, five (5) members of the Japanese doomsday cult/terrorist group, released the deadly Sarin Gas into the Tokyo subway system attracting world headlines.
How this doomsday cult developed into a terrorist organisation and managed to organise and undertake a wide range of chemical attacks against individuals, dissidents, judges and innocent travellers can only be viewed as a significant intelligence failure on the part of the Japanese authorities.
Summary of confirmed chemical attacks by Aum Shinrikyo (1993-1995)
|Late 1993-early 1994||Sarin||Tokyo||Two failed attempts to assassinate Daisaku Ikeda, leader of Soka Gakkai.|
|9 May 1994||Sarin||Tokyo||Attempted assassination of Taro Takimoto: Attorney working on behalf of victims of the group – Takimoto was hospitalised but made a full recovery.|
|27 June 1994||Sarin||Matsumoto||Matsumoto Sarin Attack: Eight people were killed and over 500 were harmed by sarin aerosol that was released from a converted refrigeration truck in the Kaichi Heights area.|
|20 September 1994||Phosgene||Yokohama||Attempted assassination of Shoko Egawa: Journalist who had covered the 1989 disappearance of Tsutsumi Sakamoto.|
|Autumn 1994||VX||Various||VX was used to assassinate up to 20 dissident Aum members.|
|12 December 1994||VX||Osaka||Posing as joggers, Aum members sprayed Tadahito Hamaguchi, a man who the cult believed was spying on them, with VX from a syringe. He was pronounced dead four days later.|
|4 Jan 1995||VX||Tokyo||Attempted assassination of Hiroyuki Nagaoka: Head of the ‘Aum Shinrikyo Victim’s Group’ – Nagaoka was hospitalised for several weeks.|
|Feb 1995||VX||Tokyo||Attempted assassination of Ryuho Okawa: Leader of the Institute for research into Human Happiness, who had criticised the group – Okawa suffered no ill effects.|
|20 March 1995||Sarin||Tokyo||Tokyo subway sarin attack, 12 Killed and 6,000 injured|
Note: VX is an extremely toxic synthetic chemical compound, In the class of nerve agents, it was developed for military use in chemical warfare. VX is the most potent of all nerve agents. Compared with sarin, VX is considered to be much more toxic by entry through the skin and somewhat more toxic by inhalation.
Note: Phosgene: The chemical was first used at Ypres in WW1 as chlorine gas, or phosgene. It was the brainchild of Fritz Haber, a German Jewish chemist who would become known as the “father of chemical warfare.” When liquid phosgene is released, it quickly turns into a gas that stays close to the ground and spreads rapidly. Phosgene gas may appear colourless or as a white to pale yellow cloud. At low concentrations, it has a pleasant odour of newly mown hay or green corn. Phosgene was used extensively during World War I as a choking (pulmonary) agent and was responsible for the large majority of deaths. Phosgene is not found naturally in the environment.
Wheels Up – The AFP Response
On 24 March 1995, four days after the Tokyo subway attack and following a fresh tip-off from the owners of Banjawarn Station, AFP Operation Sea King, swung into action. Led by then Detective Sergeant Barry Turner, AFP Forensic Team Leader Keith Taylor, Investigator Peter Wilkinson, Commonwealth Chemist Colin Campbell and WA Police Pilot Ruebin Ziegler lifted off from Jandakot Airport in Perth for Banjawarn Station.
At that time, it was relatively common for AFP investigators to be allocated time-sensitive and unusual investigative challenges, often at short notice and often following intelligence of suspected drug activity by small craft on the remote West Coast. This investigation however was to become one of Barry’s most interesting in a long and distinguished career. At the time Barry was investigating a complex multi-million-dollar taxation evasion, a long and painstaking process following the money trail. Barry welcomed the opportunity for some respite of a ‘country trip’ with a difference. I contacted Barry, now a retired Police Commander and he has provided his recollections of the investigation undertaken at Banjawarn Station.
We received a call from the lessee’s of Banjawarn Station, via their Lawyers, advising that members of the Sect had occupied the property prior to them taking over the lease. They reported that there were a number of bottles of liquids and chemicals that had been left there.
On arrival at Banjawarn we met the lessee Rosie Day, her adult daughter Sharon White and Sharon’s two children, Neil (9) and Ryan (2-3). Rosie’s husband hates sheep and was then managing a cattle property to the north. Sharon is a qualified Wool Classer and effectively ran the property whilst Rosie tended the home and kids. They were salt of the earth good country folk.
On arrival we found the bottles of chemicals which were handed over to our forensics and Colin Campbell for later testing. We also found a number of assay bags filled with dirt. We also noticed a room in the old deserted homestead with the door marked ‘Laboratory’ in Japanese and English.
I then had a conversation with Sharon with a view to perhaps identifying anything out of the ordinary. I shall always recall this conversation as country folk are generally people of few words and not being a country boy myself, my need to understand what was being said required extrapolation. In essence we were keen to ascertain if the Sect had firstly, developed the Sarin there, and secondly, had perhaps used it. Given it is a sheep station numbers of dead sheep were of interest.
After dealing with the things described as normal, i.e. Lots of dead sheep around the shearing sheds which had been put down due to age, sickness etc, the following exchange took place with Sharon focused on “anything unusual” around the property.
“OK, apart from the shearing sheds have you ever seen anywhere else on the property where there are lots of dead sheep”?
“Well, there are dead sheep everywhere, it’s a big property”.
“Any that you might consider unusual”?
“Well there were some dead sheep up on a hill I saw when out on the trailbike”.
“And this was unusual”?
“Yes, because they were on top of the hill”
“Why is that unusual”?
“Because sheep always go to lowlands looking for water when they are nearing death”.
“So how many dead sheep are we talking about?”.
“Probably 20 or more which is also strange that they are all together”.
“Can you remember where this spot was?”
“Yes, we could probably find it. It’s about 15-20Kms from the house”.
So, off we go by vehicle and after a few wrong turns in the bush we find the spot. Yep, lots of sheep carcasses all in one area. Cordon off and hand over to Forensics with the end result (as we all now know) that they had been killed with Sarin. This was a major turning point and confirmation of what had been occurring on the property.
Our further inquiries ascertained that they had travelled to Perth and Melbourne to source the various base chemicals that were required to produce the Sarin.
We also located a woman living in Perth who had been a low level member of the Sect in Japan and was a Perth resident. She was a naïve stooge that the Cult used being as Australian citizen, to list her name as the actual Lessee.
Also, during our investigations, we found evidence of exploration around the property, apparently for Uranium sources. As such that was what the assay bags were for and it appeared, they had sent some back to Japan for analysis. We found that they had rented a large excavator from Kalgoorlie and had been digging in numerous spots around the property. We found these thanks to WAPOL who had permitted us one of the aircraft from the Police Air Wing and we did grid searches over the expanse of the property. There is uranium on the property, not at commercial levels, but I guess enough to suit their intended purpose to eventually acquire nuclear weaponry.
The reason the Cult eventually left the lease was because they did not understand that as opposed to freehold ownership, they had significant responsibilities dictated by Primary Industries as to the management of the property. It simply became all too hard and complex for them and once they had achieved production and testing of the Sarin, it was easier to go back to Japan.
We commenced exchanging information with the Japanese Authorities and the investigation was upgraded to a National Investigation and later re-visited by a joint AFP/WAPOL Major Investigation Team however no additional exhibits were located. (Ed note: In policing, in those days when a senior officer took over an investigation they were called ‘brief thief’s’, ostensibly because there was the prospect of an International trip)
Peter and I spent quite a bit of time on the property and Rosie and Sharon almost adopted us. We stayed in the house and ate together and wherever I went during the day I had young Neil beside me. It was fun. Down the track I had Rosie and Neil come stay with Fay and I in Perth and Neil got to see the ocean for the first time.
Couple of other interesting insights. Firstly, the media interest, local, national and international was overwhelming. Such that in anticipation of them flooding Banjawarn which I had by now declared a crime scene, I parked a truck in the middle of the property’s airstrip to repel unexpected visitors. I also had the concurrence of Rosie and Sharon that any visitors by road would be turned around and not allowed to enter. Interesting times.
Other observations were that the gullible sect members who were there would have daily drip-fed injections of saline solutions to apparently cleanse and purify their bodies. Also, their food was basic and sterile. Not so Shoko Asahara and his high level henchmen. Their diet was steak and seafood sourced from Kalgoorlie. We actually found hundreds of these saline solutions packs (used and unused) which had been thrown down an old mineshaft on the northern edge of the property.
A fond memory of our time at Banjawarn Station came about because I had mentioned to Rosie that a BBQ would be great for their home, but she said they didn’t have the money and/or time to buy/build one. Peter and I decided to come to the rescue. I have some building experience and with Peter as my apprentice we found heaps of old used bricks on the Station’s rubbish tip, mined sand from a creek bed, found cement in the shed and some steel plate laying around. And so, we built a brick BBQ complete with chimney. And we had a lovely family BBQ. One thing about a sheep property is that there was no shortage of lamb on the hotplate. Our way of saying thank you for looking after us and fun way to spend a rest day.
So, after the investigation was declared a National Operation, Canberra based members took the lead and I returned to my taxation investigation. Commander Jeff Penrose and team travelled to Japan to report on what had transpired in WA, but the Japanese National Police’s embarrassment that Japanese citizens had done this in another country lead to their strong desire to sweep Banjawarn under the carpet.
Australian Government Chemist Colin Campbell (retired)
Colin was contacted recently to offer his recollections to this unusual investigation and his account is detailed below:
As a forensic chemist at the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories (AGAL) I had worked closely with the AFP for some years. My main role was in the identification and analysis of illicit drugs seized by the AFP and Customs. I was also required to provide advice in this area and present evidence in court.
In March 1995 I received the request from AFP to attend at Banjawarn Station with 24 hours’ notice. At that time (and to this day) my main hobby and interest was prospecting for gold (metal detecting). A big part of that was driving to and exploring some remote areas of the goldfields. So, the opportunity for a paid trip to a remote station in gold country was very appealing.
Banjawarn was typical of most outback stations. The owners were very hospitable and there was always plenty to eat. Being a sheep station, there was always plenty of lamb on the menu.
One of the outhouse buildings was what appeared to be the ‘station hands’ kitchen’, however Japanese writing on the door later identified it as being a laboratory. I seem to recall that there was an absence of lab glassware, reagents or personal protective equipment or other bits and pieces lying about that I would have expected to see. Given that Sarin, a deadly, volatile nerve gas was suspected of being produced, or for any other experimentation, I would also have expected to see some sort of fume extraction equipment.
I was skeptical that much (if any) chemical experimentation had occurred there. Perhaps a day after our arrival, a cache of chemicals and solutions was uncovered in one of the dongas. That discovery shifted the investigation up a notch and suggested that perhaps more clandestine operations had being undertaken on the property.
The following morning, the AFP scientific officer (Keith Taylor) and I were asked to act as observers (spotters) on a flyover of the station. We were there to pick up any unusual ground activity. After a healthy breakfast of lamb chops and eggs the flyover involved quite a bit of tight circling and banking. To add to the discomfort on a full stomach, a storm in the area contributed to a fair amount of turbulence as well.
Some-time into the flight, Keith asked our pilot if there was any chance of a landing soon because he was very close to being sick, I don’t think that I ever admitted it, but I was feeling pretty much the same and Keith’s request was music to my ears!
At the conclusion of the AFP investigation, the chemicals and I were passengers on a long road trip back to Perth as it was deemed that the cache of chemicals was not permitted on the plane.
As relaxed as the time at Banjawarn had been, it was less so back at the laboratory. It became clear that the activities of the Japanese group on the station had come under the interest of International authorities and the chemical analysis of all samples was of considerable interest.
That meant that our laboratory needed to come up to speed with the chemistry of sarin fairly quickly. Fortunately, our experienced team was able to achieve that and completed a timely analysis of the chemicals found on Banjawarn.
Banjawarn Chemical/Forensic Analyses
The exhibits and evidence from the sect’s activities at Banjawarn Station was duly examined and subjected to investigative, forensic and scientific chemical analysis. In summary it was established as follows:
- A Laboratory was set up in a kitchen of an abandoned house at Banjawarn Station. The door was marked in Japanese handwriting as ‘Toyoda Laboratory’. This is clearly a reference to senior sect member Toru Toyoda, a physics graduate at Tokyo University who held a master’s degree and became a senior part of Aum Shinrikyo’s Ministry of Science and Technology. He had travelled to Australia and later allegedly admitted to producing Sarin for the Sect’s gas attacks.
- IN 1995 Toru Toyoda was one of the five (5) members who placed Sarin on the Tokyo subway attack. He was subsequently convicted and following the exhausting of appeals was executed by hanging in July 2018.
- Soil samples taken from a drain at the laboratory identified the presence of methyl phosphonic acid (MPA), a residue of the nerve agent Sarin. MPA does not occur naturally.
- Documents left at the station were translated, one of which had notations for classifying sheep as dead or injured. 29 sheep carcasses were located, the sheep were gathered in a small area and had died or were killed in unusual circumstances.
- Chemicals such as hydrochloric, perchloric and nitric acid could be used to make simple nerve agents such as Phosgene. (note the use of Phosgene in the attack at Yokohama dated 20 September 1994).
The Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly
Two days after the Tokyo subway attack, more than 1,000 Japanese police stormed the Aum headquarters. Here they discovered a huge stockpile of deadly chemical and biological warfare agents, including enough Sarin ingredients to kill four million people. Asahara, who had gone into hiding, was arrested on 16 May 1995.
Following the trial, the longest in Japanese criminal history, 12 of Asahara’s leading accomplices were sentenced to death. A lengthy appeals process was finally exhausted and Asahara with five accomplices were finally executed by hanging on 6 July 2018 with a further six accomplices executed on 26 July 2018.
From an objective viewpoint and with the benefit of considerable hindsight it is pleasing to conclude that the actions, investigations and professionalism of the investigative teams in Australia was undertaken at short notice and without the full understanding of the intelligence holdings of the Japanese Authorities.
Through the process of investigation and analyses, the strategy of denying further access to Australia resulted in their activities in this country being curtailed. For reasons outlined in this article it is sadly and tragically concluded that the sect was able to advance their collective expertise through their activities on Banjawarn Station and used this expertise with deadly intent across a number of terrorist incidents in Japan.
The Investigation Team – Where are they now
Barry Turner: From Detective Sergeant in Perth Operations, Barry was promoted to Director Operations Perth Office then to Sydney as Coordinator Crime Operations. He was then transferred to Washington for three years in the role of Senior AFP Liaison Officer. Following Washington Barry transferred to Brisbane as Director Operations and then Acting Office Manager Northern Command, Brisbane. Barry was then posted to Commander of the Enhanced Cooperation Program in Papua New Guinea and later back to Brisbane as Northern Command Manager.
Barry retired from the AFP in 2008 and between 2010-2014 was the Executive Advisor Micronesia in the AFP led Police Development Programme and finally, from 2014-2017 was a LEA Consultant for Pario Solutions Group (PNG Police and Corrections Review). Now in full time retirement Barry loves to travel with his wife Anne, having clocked up visits to 55 countries. He has four children and 10 grandchildren and occasionally paddles his kayak with the former Queensland Police Service Commissioner Ian Stewart.
Keith Taylor: Keith joined the AFP in April 1988 and as a sworn police member commenced his service in Melbourne along with current AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw. Ultimately both Reece and Keith transferred back to their native WA where Keith entered the Forensic discipline and Reece, well the rest is history. To date Keith has served as a Team Leader or Coordinator in the Perth Office providing close level forensic support for all the major investigations over a thirty year time span.
Whilst he rates the Banjawarn case as definitely one of his most interesting, he marvels at the development of the forensic disciplines noting the somewhat rudimentary protective clothing that both he and Colin Campbell had in 1995. Keith has coordinated forensic responses across the AFP for WA, NT and SA including literally hundreds of narcotic investigations, responses to the Christmas Island boat tragedy, the downing of MH17 and the mystery of MH370. In his younger days Keith was an avid cricketer and a more than handy swing bowler and had the good fortune to visit the Caribbean at AFP expense for the 2007 World Cup. Keith also served in East Timor and remains to this day Coordinator Forensic Services in Perth.
Colin Campbell: Colin is now retired and spends his time fishing in the north of WA, prospecting in the Goldfields, and playing golf, he also has his own man cave, making for a somewhat idyllic retirement. The AFP sincerely thanks Colin for the professionalism and good humour he has added to Commonwealth prosecutions over an extended period.
Marzio Da Re, APM
Retired AFP Superintendent (0868)
21 July 2020