One man's interviews with doomsday cult

Until 1995, most of the world hadn’t heard of Aum Shinrikyo. They were known in Japan as a secretive and concerningly popular cult, but it wasn’t until March 20 that it became clear just how concerning they were. On a Monday morning, during rush hour in the Tokyo subway, five Aum members punctured plastic bags filled with sarin—an odourless nerve gas that causes suffocation by paralysing lung tissue. Thirteen people died and six thousand others needed hospital treatment for a range of injuries. In the fallout, Aum Shinriko members everywhere were rounded up, including their self-proclaimed “Jesus” leader Shoko Asahara (who was on the title photo), and thrown in jail. In Australia, it was even discovered the cult had built a laboratory at an ultra-remote sheep station in Western Australia, and as a guy in Melbourne, I’ve always wanted to know more.

Dr Richard Danzig is a guy who knows more. As the Secretary of the Navy under Bill Clinton, he had an obvious interest in US national security, and in 2008 managed to interview the incarcerated members of Aum about their weapons program. That's Richard above, posing with his interpreter. I wanted to speak to him about his interviews and find out more about what a Japanese doomsday cult was doing in Australia.

VICE: Hi Richard, can you tell me how these interviews came about?

Dr Richard Danzig: Well after 9/11 there was a lot of discussion on whether terrorists could build weapons of mass destruction. It occurred to me that while the discussion was hypothetical, there was a group that had actually already tried. This was Aum Shinrikyo, who spent the early 90s building biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs. I hoped that because I’d been involved with US national security, the Japanese officials might pass on my request for interviews. They did and some of the incarcerated members agreed.

So how was that?

Well, from my perception they’re doing fine. It’s striking just how young they are even now. They’ve aged but they're sort of stuck in a period that I associate with secondary school or college, in their demeanour and their attire. The prison itself is just in Tokyo and is accessible via metro. The prison is clean and precise but the worst part for them is living under a death sentence.

Did any of them express any remorse for what they did?

I got some of that from Tomomasa Nakagawa, who I was closest with. He was an ex-doctor and was involved in their bio-weapons program. There was one event, early in the cult’s movement towards violence, when they visited a lawyer who was very critical of them. In the most horrible way they used hammers to bludgeon him to death along with his wife and children. It was a very horrific, tangible crime—not nearly so remote as floating some chemical in the air. Nakagawa participated in this and I asked about remorse and he said he was very anguished about that. Apparently he went to the leader about it, who responded by having him imprisoned in a small cell where he watched videos of Shoko Asahara preaching for a month. He said after that, he just never looked back or thought further about it. I asked if he felt remorse about the subway attack and he said unfortunately no.

But the word “unfortunately” indicates that he wishes he did?

That’s true. I think after his time in prison, that is, after he’d gone through contact with a larger society he did feel remorse. But once he was in the cult his only regret was not feeling remorse. I think it shows how an organisation like that creates an all-consuming world in which the isolation from the outside world encourages you to follow the messiah, while the feedback from your contemporaries leaves you without any independent reference.

So on to their time in Western Australia. I’ve read they were potentially here to build and test a nuclear bomb?

I think that’s extremely improbable. We talked about their nuclear weapons program but none of them talked about the program reaching any point of fruition or reality. In fact their ideas about nuclear weapons were somewhat fantastical.

So what do you think they were they doing here?

Well, we were investigating the claim that they were testing their chemical weapons on sheep. What we know is that when some Aum members flew to Australia in 1993, they were stopped at customs with a variety of chemicals in their baggage. They had a lot of sulphuric acid in big glass bottles marked as hand soap and customs confiscated two crates of this material and let them go. Apparently Aum just bought more of it once they were in the country. Later the Australian police found 29 dead sheep at this facility and they tested positive for some acid that was consistent with sarin. Having said this though, we weren’t able to get access to the Australian Police report so I put it in the unknown category. I can believe they were in Australia to test sarin but I would discount the idea of a nuclear weapons test.

So through all of this do you feel you better understand cult psychology?

Yes, but I also think there have been many attempts to understand this total environment. There’s a book I recommend frequently. It’s one of the best books about terrorism that isn’t actually about terrorism. It’s about British football violence and it’s called Among the Thugs. It’s about all these people who are violent on weekends, but spend their weeks in perfectly respectable ways. In some ways I think violence cements a group’s commitment. In some ways it’s like sex, you just live in the moment and bond very quickly, you think of nothing else and it’s complete escape and release. In some ways, I think that was what made Aum so powerful but then ultimately brought them down.