Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is essential to not only remember that fateful day, but to highlight the events that precipitated it, examine lessons learned and policies established, and consider programs and policies needed to sustain prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery capabilities in the U.S. and its territories. Although historical analysis and synthesis of past events often lead to relevant details about current incidents, communities often fail to implement or accept the recommended changes. The 9/11 Commission Report cited, “The most important failure was one of imagination.” The 1995 Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway sarin gas attack has unique characteristics in the history of acquiring, proliferation, and distributing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the chemical and biological domains, with significant influence in WMD policies and consequence management platforms.
At the Kasumigaseki train station on 20 March 1995, the Japanese-based religious cult Aum Shinrikyo disseminated the highly toxic nerve agent isopropyl-methylphosphonofluoridate (Sarin). The Germans initially formulated this chemical in 1938 as an insecticide later intended to be used as a WMD. Aum Shinrikyo, led by charismatic leader Shoko Asahara, chose this agent due to its relative ease of production and highly volatile chemical properties.
The road to that morning’s attack is not absent of rich history. The deep history of proliferation by Asahara and his disciples raises the question of how many homegrown adversarial organizations are currently trying to plan the next attack. Aum Shinrikyo specifically selected the Kasumigaseki train station as the target location of the attack after emergency response planners identified it in Tokyo. Due to the location being known as a prime shelter-in-place location for other types of emergencies, Asahara wrote of this selected location just months before the attacks in his monthly writings to his followers, which were presented as evidence at his 1999 trial. Choosing the location during the morning rush hour commute was meant to inflict the maximum number of casualties exponentially due to the large numbers of daily riders and the architectural design. Although the potency of the Sarin disseminated by Aum Shinrikyo was only believed to be around 30%, the incident left 12 Japanese citizens dead and resulted in over 1,000 casualties.
Aum Shinrikyo officially started in 1984 and, according to the Public Security Examination Commission (an independent administrative board of the Ministry of Justice), the cult had an estimated 40,000 followers worldwide in 1995 with over one billion dollars in assets, including a relatively unknown New York City chapter.
Chosen Leadership & Selective Followers
Asahara carefully orchestrated and engineered selected educational profiles in the sciences and engineering domains to strategically select his disciples in order to carry out his plan to attack the internal Japanese government with a WMD. After the political failure in 1990, Asahara ordered the production of Clostridium Botulinum, with the first attack planned for mid-April 1990. However, they never successfully disseminated the toxin. The technical difficulty and dynamic expertise that the biological weapons demanded led Asahara to shift focus from biological to chemical WMDs. Although deficient in the scientific proliferation of the chosen agent, they ultimately made up for it in their desire to carry out the attack.
Leadership in the Japanese Response & Lessons Learned
Aum Shinrikyo gave Japanese authorities numerous perceptive incidents that warranted investigation through exigent circumstances and a history of producing WMDs. Nevertheless, the Japanese government failed to stop the cult in its desire to produce and disseminate these WMDs on numerous occasions.
As early as the spring of 1993, Aum Shinrikyo gave authorities the best pre-emptive strike clue. For example, on 27 June 1994, Aum Shinrikyo produced 20 kilograms of Sarin from their chemical plant, which led to the death of 7 citizens targeted for their involvement in a land dispute in the Japanese village of Matsumoto, Japan. In early 1995, Asahara publicly published a newsletter before the Tokyo incident declaring that the Japanese government was intending to use Sarin by government to “end the world” and attack was Kasumigaseki train station, the exact location where Aum Shinrikyo members disseminated the sarin gas inside the train.
In the 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment, government security experts specifically mention the growing insider threat and homegrown violent extremist capabilities as one of the single most significant threats to U.S. national security. Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo provide a classic case study in this rapidly expanding threat to national security.
WMD Response Complexity & Lack of Competent Strategic Platform
At the time of the Tokyo subway sarin attack, personal protective equipment had been distributed to sections of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, police, and fire department. However, a strategic platform that included threat assessments and response plans to deal with these types of WMD incidents was lacking. Approximately one hour after the attack, the Tokyo Fire Department issued a notification indicating that the attack agent was acetonitrile. Inadequate training in rapid identification and qualification methodologies led to misidentification. Subsequently, inadequate and absent decontamination measures led to 23% of the hospital staff experiencing secondary exposures at St. Luke’s International Hospital. Inadequate space to treat the mass casualties forced hospital staff to delay decontamination measures, which exacerbated secondary exposures and long-term effects for the victims and medical staff.
Today, many decontamination methodologies taught and trained on by first responders worldwide originated from the Tokyo incident. For example, trainers know that cutting and removing clothing in non-ambulatory and ambulatory mass casualty WMD incidents can remove 80-90% of the contaminant. A decontamination study funded by BARDA and National Institutes of Health (NIH) and presented in 2019 by Dr. Robert Chilcott of the University of Hertfordshire has resulted in the release of the now supported PRISM decontamination methodology, which presents dry decontamination measures as the initial and best practice in chemical mass casualty decontamination.
The data from the PRISM study resulted in a better outcome-based treatment methodology of casualties and less cross-contamination to responders. Although accepted by NIH as a best practice, the dry PRISM decontamination method associated with chemical warfare agents has yet to be widely trained and practiced. Today, research is currently needed to apply the PRISM decontamination methods in radiological and biological particulate mass casualty decontamination.
The commonly accepted practice of utilizing large-caliber master streams to decontaminate mass casualties could have tragic results depending on the agent selected. The late Dr. Bill Patrick, pioneer WMD trainer and former head of the United States Biological Weapons Program at Fort Dietrich, Maryland, frequently informed hazardous materials teams of the complications that wet mass casualty decontamination efforts presented due to the natural hydrophobic properties of specific agents. As the ability to rapidly identify the threat agents continues with advanced in-field detection, the need for advanced offensive decontamination as a medical countermeasure is needed to save lives in the future.
Protecting the Future & Matching Technological Complexity
Strategic platforms that include adequate and recent threat assessments are needed to combine rehearsed, and known response plans to defeat low-frequency WMD incidents. Complexity and ambiguity are leading metrics in cascading events such as the Tokyo sarin attack. Only through strategic platforms combined with supportive leadership can response organizations and emergency managers attempt to overcome the catastrophic effects of these incidents. Japanese culture prevented establishing the strategic platform needed to prevent, respond to, mitigate, and isolate the Tokyo incident. The current politicized culture in the U.S. is a serious hindrance in the creation of a strategic platform that could prevent the next attack.
Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo strategically manipulated this cultural phenomenon in Japan to his success, knowing that the government did not want to be perceived as targeting religious organizations after World War II; one defining metric of incidents such as the Tokyo sarin subway attack is that terrorist groups target and manipulate any weakness in the law or emergency response modality in the designated targeted area.
A defining metric of WMD incidents is that terrorist groups target and manipulate any weakness in the targeted area’s law or emergency response modality.
Strategic platforms that include robust intelligence analysts trained in WMD and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) proliferation, as well as mitigation, are increasingly warranted. There is a dire need for cross-pollinated emergency response and law enforcement teams at the local level in major cities to receive the sustainment and competency training to respond to low-frequency, high-volume events. These teams need to be formulated and implemented based on competency and psychological team dynamics, with members of all emergency response domains. Toxicological medics – including tactically trained members that can eliminate the human kinetic threat, mitigate the asymmetric threat, and treat and reverse the toxic effects of CBRNE agents in the hot zone – will be a significant move forward in the response arena. Allowing technically trained rapid response teams to reverse the intended adverse physiological effects on the human body in the hot zone involving a CBRNE agent is rapidly becoming the next emergency management platform implemented at the local level meant to save lives.
Aum Shinrikyo Crisis Communications Plan: Crisis Exacerbated
One of the critical aspects of dealing with low-frequency, high-impact events such as WMD mass casualty incidents is emergency management organizations’ ability to establish a crisis communications plan early in the incident. The ability to stabilize and re-establish authority in the incident away from the adversary is a crucial metric in the overall success of mitigating WMD incidents.
In Tokyo, information initially disseminated by media and television agencies on the scene led to more confusion and panic across the city, causing dispatch to send identical units to multiple areas and delay response to those in critical need. The lack of a designated WMD crisis communication plan and a codified WMD-CBRNE emergency response plan led the Tokyo Fire Department and Police Department units to respond to multiple locations involving simultaneous incidents. These actions ultimately increased the casualty rate of the incident. Since the purity of the Sarin disseminated by Aum Shinrikyo was only around 30%, the casualty and fatality rate would likely have been much higher with a more pure and potent substance.
History shows that, when presented with complex low-frequency high-volume events, the success of the incident is predicated on the lack of planning and preparation of the response community more than it is on the efficacy of the chosen agents or the chosen method of dissemination by the adversary.
Competent WMD crisis communications and response operations plans in major U.S. cities need to be formulated for the local level, starting with a more thorough collaboration of planning and training involving NORTHCOM and Title 32 assets such as the Civil Support Teams. The 2021 UASI city allocations report showed an estimated $615,000,000 in congressionally allocated funds to protect major urban areas in the United States. Certain cities, such as Las Vegas, were only awarded $5,250,000. Considering that, from 2014 to 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic), Las Vegas greeted over 40 million visitors each year combined with more than 51 million deplaned visitors at McCarren International Airport in 2019, these allocated funds fall considerably short to support the mission that responders in Las Vegas are sworn to implement.
Due to the potential of mass casualty incidents involving CBRNE agents, it is even more critical for strategic platforms to be constructed, trained on, and sustained based on the below objectives in order to match the complexity needed to mitigate the incident rapidly:
- Rapidly characterize and presumptively identify the causal agent by providing the technical equipment and financial sustainment. Sustainment and support of this critical node in the CBRNE response matrix should be supported by a nationally codified certification for first responders in the United States. NFPA 472 and 473 WMD competency-based training standards for first responders is the current platform that federal certification standards should be predicated and naturally aligned with to further support the successful prevention and mitigation of future CBRNE attacks on United States soil.
- Immediately isolate the initial impacted area of operation from initial arriving units and provide rapid hot zone medical countermeasures to save lives, much like the rapid advanced cardiac life support methods taught around the country. In 2018, one major city left unnamed for operations security purposes had taken the DuoDote® nerve agent response kits off the advanced life support emergency medical services (EMS) units, leaving the city unable to respond to a nerve agent incident such as Tokyo and Syria. Rapid identification of CBRNE agents has come a long way, but the toxicology medicine areas of the EMS world are still lacking. As a result of the Tokyo incident, millions of dollars were given to cities around the country to stockpile DuoDote® kits in an Aum Shinrikyo type incident. However, due to the lack of sustainment from the local level and no incidents to justify the cost, many cities today have not replaced these countermeasures in the front-line apparatus. Many of today’s emergency response dollars are spent on the 90% of incidents that only affect 10% of the population. Cities would be wise to implement plans that mitigate and answer for the 10% of the incidents yet affect 90% of the population.
- Initiate rapid decontamination as a medical countermeasure to save lives derived from these principles:
- Decontaminate as soon as possible.
- Decontaminate by priority.
- Decontaminate only what is necessary.
- Decontaminate as far forward as possible.
- Provide coordinated and unified responses to include collaborative crisis communication plans that solidify efforts to further limit damage and exposure by overcoming outside sources’ disinformation. This would include synergistic plans with cybersecurity to protect response information and protect the emergency action messages for the public. Disinformation has been a primary factor in the recently seen rise in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cybersecurity experts have warned for years that this would only worsen and be a significant issue in future asymmetric terrorist attacks. Synergistic cybersecurity response plans must be combined with the mitigation plans of the incident to be successful in future CBRNE WMD attacks. Information about the 1995 Tokyo sarin attack to the hospitals was initially received by media and television agencies broadcasting live feeds from the scene, which led to more confusion and panic. The lack of a coordinated and timely public information campaign left Tokyo crippled. In contrast, Aum Shinrikyo exhibited a coordinated and robust communications platform that included both print and broadcast mediums to members all over the world before, during, and after the attack.
Future U.S. Asymmetric Homeland Attack Response Plan
Aum Shinrikyo and the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas incident provide a great example of how the adversary’s intent must be met with equal or greater response and crisis communication plans to overcome the destructive ability of the organization. A fundamental lesson learned when studying this incident is that, although procuring and disseminating mass destruction agents is very difficult, the pursuit and will of using these weapons is a strong warning of activity that eventually will succeed. Aum Shinrikyo specifically targeted and recruited 40 active-duty members of the Self Defense Force of the Japanese Military, who enlisted in Asahara’s army. These members included a first lieutenant in Japan’s second Antitank Helicopter Unit, known for distributing classified data to the cult.
WMD incidents exhibit prolific complexities that hide vulnerabilities in emergency management organizations and cultivate new and often more complicated problems due to society’s systemic and cascading effects. Strategic platform analysis must be conducted often, with all stakeholders offering the maximum preventative and response mechanism to the country.
Since the 1995 Tokyo attacks, major CBRNE attacks have been conducted around the world. These attacks have a commonality in their dissemination methodologies. They are tactically formulated and strategically disseminated to circumvent the OPCW international laws to avoid attribution and possible prosecution. The binary attacks in Salisbury (England) and the 13 February 2017 assassination of North Korean political figure Kim Jong Nam at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport provide two of the most recent examples. A recent 2019 report from the Global Public Policy Institute cataloged the chemical attacks in Syria and is a great reminder that the threat of mass casualty CBRNE dissemination is as imminent a threat today as ever.
Honoring the Lives Lost on 9-11-01
The current geopolitical landscape combined with the synergistic intent of the adversary to carry out asymmetric attacks targeting both individuals and critical infrastructure are more reason than ever to be vigilant in the CBRNE consequence management domain. Adversaries continue to strategically select agents that target blocking the physiological actions of acetylcholinesterase, such as Sarin in the body resulting in cholinergic syndrome, with new and complex delivery systems specifically intended to circumvent the OPCW and delay and or deny attribution to any one source. Scientific, technical expertise combined with the internet of things and world connectivity allows those with malicious intent a more robust and complex platform to successfully carry out these attacks more than ever before.
Current advanced technological and engineering capabilities, a vulnerable geopolitical landscape, and a willingness to ignore the rule of law increase the need to learn from groups like Aum Shinrikyo, Syria, Salisbury, and the Malaysia incidents. Recently, as a result of Syria, Salisbury, and Berlin, it is ever more critical that local decision-makers understand that these incidents can happen in any place and at any time. All responders from public safety, law enforcement, and EMS need the training and tools to classify, isolate, and rapidly counter the effects of the intended consequences to save lives in the future.
With reflection on and remembrance of those who gave their lives on 9-11-01 in New York, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, one of the most impactful and lasting ways a responsible community can honor and carry their memory is to provide current and future responders the tools and training necessary to rapidly respond and decisively make a difference by saving lives in these types of incidents.
In DomPrep’s October edition, Baker will reflect on the October 2001 Amerithrax incident. He will share lessons learned and highlight needed areas to further elucidate areas of concern to strengthen CBRNE response capabilities.
None of the statements presented are representative or reflective of the Counter-Terrorism operations support (CTOS), MSTS, and or the Department of Energy or the United States Government. All information in the presentation is representative of Capt. Baker (Ret) and his affiliation as an editorial board member of Domestic Preparedness.