Terrorists’ persistence shouldn’t be a surprise

July 30, 2011


So next time the Norwegians will arm more of their police. And next time, authorities will investigate the ranting manifestoes of any anti-Muslim extremist who claims to lead a revival of the medieval Knights Templar.

But last Friday’s attack in Oslo by Anders Behring Breivik teaches some broader lessons too: There are homicidal cults all over the world — some in Muslim countries and some in the heart of Europe. Some attackers will be found insane by courts but others will have a diabolical logic and lucidity — and the world has to be ready for all of them.

Most important, the next time the weapons of choice may not be a bomb and a semiautomatic rifle, as in the case of the Oslo attacker who killed 76 people. Lunatics and sane plotters alike may have access to chemical and biological weapons that could kill thousands.

As in so many terrorist cases — and with al-Qaida itself — this latest extremist didn’t sneak up on the world in secret. He all but announced his anti-immigrant views on the Internet.

To understand the dangers posed by these borderline extremists, I recommend a new report by Richard Danzig and his colleagues at the Center for a New American Security. It’s a 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 last 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 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.

This finding surely fits al-Qaida, the masters of trial and error. And it applies to other groups, whose names we won’t know until they burst out in bloody headlines, as with Breivik and his vision of the Knights Templar.

The Aum Shinrikyo story centers on a bearded, nearly-blind Japanese cult leader who called himself Shoko Asahara. In the beginning, the group was a peaceful proponent of yoga and a purifying “original Buddhism,” but it soon took on a political mission. Asahara tortured his wife until she complied with his vision, and he began experimenting with botulism toxin in 1989 to kill a renegade member of the order.

A common strand with Asahara, the Norwegian Breivik and al-Qaida’s Osama Bin Laden is that they all embraced grandiose schemes for imposing their political-religious order of things. Asahara literally drew his inspiration from science fiction — imagining plasma ray guns that could vaporize humans, and floating mirrors in space that could zap earthlings.

Aum Shinrikyo tried and failed repeatedly on its way to the successful 1995 subway attack. Its first big batch of nine tons of botulism toxin was so useless that when a cult member fell into the vat by accident, he was unharmed. A test effort to kill 2,000 mice failed. A plan to spray anthrax failed because of a faulty sprayer, as did an attempt to blow anthrax powder. The group tried to use VX nerve gas a half-dozen times in assassination attempts, and failed each time.

Yet they kept on coming, finally with the nerve gas sarin. The first attack was a 1994 attempt to kill judges opposing Aum Shinrikyo in a commercial case, but the nerve gas blew instead into an apartment complex, killing eight and injuring 200. The next year came the horrific Tokyo subway attack — all but advertised in advance and still unstopped.

Danzig and his co-authors make the essential point: In dealing with these extremist groups and cults, the world is playing Russian roulette: “Many chambers in the gun prove to be harmless, but some chambers are loaded.” Another bullet was fired last Friday, and we are surely clicking toward more. The surprise is that we’re still surprised.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is davidignatius@washpost.com.


cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

The underlying purpose of this column is to equate one individual nut case with the entire Al-Qaeda network, the ultimate pablum in liberal political correctness.

When the news of this tragedy was announced, one headline after another referred to this wacko as a "Christian Terrorist." One can search for similar headlines in 2009 describing a "Muslim Terrorist" after Nidal Hisan's terrorist massacre at Fort Hood, but that search will be in vain.

Corey Williams 6 years, 7 months ago

Three results on google using "nidal hasan muslim terrorist" with quote marks and all. If you search nidal hasan "muslim terrorist", it comes up with 66,900 hits Maybe it would have helped your search if you would have spelled his name right.

Oh, and "Anders Behring christian terrorist" comes up with just one result. And it's a muslim website decrying that they haven't seen any headlines listing him as a "christian terrorist". 32400 hits for Anders Behring "christian terrorist", and the first few that come up are whether or not he should even be called christian. Less than half the list for a search of Nidal Hasan.

Maybe before you start making your grand statements, you should do a little research and see if they are true.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

I wasn't talking about websites. I was talking about newspaper headlines, which is the meaning that educated people ascribe to that term. If you don't read newspapers, that's your business.

Corey Williams 6 years, 7 months ago

You neglected to say "newspaper", so maybe that says something about your education. And yes, I try to stay away from that darned liberal print media. I guess that's why I'm always on here.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

No, as I said, very few educated people use the phrase "newspaper headlines." They say "headlines," as I did.

By the way, not all print media is liberal. In fact, a good deal of it isn't. Educated people know that.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

There was an interesting report on NPR this morning about the increasing proliferation of drones. Over the next few years they'll likely become the delivery system of choice, replacing car bombs and the like, and a launch of a few dozen or more against a government building would be almost impossible to defend against. And 10-15 years from now, extremely miniature drones, gnat-sized, may be the choice for targeted assassinations.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 7 months ago

I tend to think that control of drones, especially the extremely small ones that exist only in research labs today, will be far beyond what almost all terrorist groups are capable of doing.

But if you are referring to government entities, I think that's already been done.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

The two guys interviewed said exactly the opposite-- that the technology and materials to build these are readily accessible, and becoming more so every day. Apparently, China is even looking to build these in mass quantities for export. And don't expect the Russians, N. Koreans, Americans, French, Israelis.... to miss out on a growing market for very long.

Google Saturday Weekend Edition on NPR, and you can probably find the story, if you're interested.

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