Untold story of how a deadly Japanese doomsday cult bought 400,000 hectares in the Australian Outback to test a Nazi nerve agent on sheep – before they poisoned 5,500 commuters in Tokyo’s subway
- The Aum Supreme Truth cult was founded by Shoko Asahara in Japan in 1984
- The sect purchased the remote Banjawarn Station in Western Australian in 1993
- Cult members used the property to test the deadly nerve agent sarin on sheep
- In 1995 they released sarin into the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 commuters
- The story is featured in the Australian Federal Police’s latest Platypus magazine
Banjawarn Station takes up a million acres of shrub and grassland on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert in the middle of Western Australia.
It is marginal land to graze livestock but about as isolated as any habitable place that exists on the planet and the perfect location to do things without being watched.
In April 1993 two senior members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Supreme Truth flew from Tokyo to Perth on a fact-finding mission looking for just such a spot.
The group’s second-in-charge and its ‘intelligence minister’ chartered a plane with a local real estate agent and inspected properties for sale across the Outback.
The sect planned to stage terrorist attacks its leader believed would start a nuclear war between superpowers, and remote Australia seemed a safe place to seek refuge in the fallout.
More immediately, they were in search of a hideout to plan and prepare for what has been described as the first use of a weapon of mass destruction by terrorists.
Banjawarn Station was bought by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Supreme Truth in 1993 and used to manufacture and test the nerve agent sarin. Two years later the cult used sarin in a fatal attack on Tokyo’s subway system. The Banjawarn homestead is pictured
Aum Supreme Truth cult members tested sarin on sheep and their carcasses were found by its next owners. Australian Federal Police visited the station after the 1995 Tokyo terrorist attack and tested the skeletons of the animals (pictured)
On the morning of March 20, 1995, members of the Aum Supreme Truth sect released the nerve agent sarin on five train stations in Tokyo, then the busiest subway network in the world. The attack (pictured) killed 12 commuters and poisoned 5,500, seriously injuring more than 50
Forward scouts Kiyohide Hayakawa and Yoshihiro Inoue eventually settled on Banjawarn Station, 4,047 square kilometres of mulga and saltbush, about 14 hours’ drive north-east of Perth.
The sect paid less than $500,000 for the land, avoiding foreign ownership rules by starting up two companies through an Australian citizen of Japanese decent.
Over the next 18 months the sect – also known as Aum Shinrikyo – would use this property to conduct experiments with the nerve agent sarin, a chemical weapon developed in Nazi Germany.
What the group learnt about sarin on the station would culminate in an attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 which would kill 12 innocent people and poison 5,500 other commuters.
Events at Banjawarn Station would become a focus of the Australian Federal Police’s Operation Sea King and inform the crime-fighting body’s future response to international terrorist threats.
On September 9, 1993, a party of 25 sect members including their charismatic blind guru Shoko Asahara arrived in Perth on tourist visas issued in Tokyo, immediately attracting the attention of Customs.
On September 9, 1993, a party of 25 sect members including their blind leader Shoko Asahara (pictured) arrived in Perth on tourist visas issued in Tokyo, immediately attracting the attention of Customs. The group later travelled to Banjawarn Station
Aum Supreme Truth members carried mining equipment and chemicals including hydrochloric acid to Perth in sake bottles and glass jars marked ‘hand soap’. Pictured are chemicals left behind by members of the Aum Supreme Truth sect at Banjawarn Station
Banjawarn Station is 4,047 square kilometres of mulga and saltbush 14 hours’ drive from Perth
The group had brought with them mining equipment and chemicals including hydrochloric acid contained in sake bottles and glass jars marked ‘hand soap’.
Their arrival and what they would later do at Banjawarn Station is covered in a feature article in the latest issue of the Australian Federal Police magazine Platypus.
Detective Leading Senior Constable Mark Creighton told the magazine an AFP officer noted the amount of excess baggage the group was carrying and the jars of acid they claimed were soap.
‘Customs invited them to put their hands underneath the bottles and pour it out and they said, “Oh, no, no, we don’t want to do that”,’ Leading Senior Constable Mark Creighton said.
‘Then, apparently one of the Customs officers accidentally brushed against leader Shoko Asahara and were set upon by other sect members because they’d touched their “god”.
‘They could not have done anything more to draw attention to themselves. Customs basically said, “Right, we’re going to go through you like a dose of salts.”
The AFP removed the Aum Supreme Truth sect’s ‘Laboratory Door’ from Banjawarn Station as evidence (pictured). ‘Toyo Laboratory’ was written in Japanese – a reference to sect member and Tokyo University physics graduate Toru Toyoda
Following the Tokyo terrorist attack police flew to Banjawarn station. They are pictured digging for evidence in 1996. Some of the evidence they gathered was sent to London for testing
Customs officers found ammonium chloride, sodium sulphate, perchloric acid and ammonium water, all of which was seized along with some laboratory equipment.
The group claimed to be ignorant of local laws and said they were simply planning to do some gold mining.
They paid $30,000 in excess baggage fees to cover equipment including a mechanical ditch digger, picks, petrol generators, gas masks, respirators and shovels.
Leading Senior Constable Mark Creighton said the group attracted the attention of the AFP for another even more sinister reason.
‘Accompanying the group were six or seven Japanese girls who were under the age of 18,’ he said.
‘Their parents weren’t with them and the thing that struck us at the time was that this might have been child abuse because Banjawarn Station is miles from anywhere.’
Customs charged two members of the group, including ‘head scientist’ Seiichi Endo, with carrying dangerous goods on an aircraft and fined them $2,400 each but did not stop them proceeding.
‘When the new station owners moved in they saw a particular site where a lot of sheep had perished,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton told Platypus. ‘They thought, “Well, that’s a bit unusual” because the sheep hadn’t been shorn’. Sheep skeletons on the station are pictured
Shinrikyo Aum was founded by Shoko Asahara (pictured) in Tokyo 1984 as a belief system drawing upon elements of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Hinduism, Christianity, yoga, and the writings of Nostradamus
That same day the sect members travelled by air and road to Banjawarn Station, where they would set up a laboratory in the homestead’s kitchen.
The lab would eventually be fitted with evaporators, bunsen burners, beakers, a rock crushing machine and its own generator but eight days after the sect’s arrival in Australia most of the group had flown home.
SARIN IN THE SUBWAY
On the morning of March 20, 1995, members of the Aum Supreme Truth sect released the nerve agent sarin on five train stations in Tokyo, then the busiest subway network in the world.
The terrorists used the tips of their umbrellas to pierce plastic bags of sarin before disembarking and escaping in getaway vehicles.
The coordinated attacks killed 12 commuters and poisoned 5,500, seriously injuring more than 50.
Japanese prosecutors suggested cult leader Shoko Asahara knew about planned police raids on Aum Supreme Truth facilities and ordered the attacks to divert police attention away from the group.
At the cult’s headquarters in Kamikuishiki police found explosives, a Russian military helicopter and a stockpile of chemicals that could be used for producing enough sarin to kill four million people.
They also located cells containing prisoners and a safe holding millions of US dollars in cash and gold.
Over the next six weeks more than 150 cult members were arrested. Asahara was eventually found hiding within a wall of a cult building on May 16.
A subsequent trial found Asahara guilty of masterminding the Tokyo subway attack and he was sentenced to death.
Asahara and 12 other cult members were executed in Tokyo in July 2018.
A month later Asahara and several other sect members unsuccessfully applied for visas to return to Australia.
In coming weeks and months those who had remained at Banjawarn would source local chemicals to replace what was confiscated in Perth and buy earth moving equipment from Kalgoorlie, 350km south of the station.
The group bought eight mineral exploration leases from the Western Australian Government, believing that would prevent outsiders coming onto the station without their approval.
‘They had the mining leases and they thought they could do what they liked,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton told Platypus.
Phyliss Thomas, an elder in the nearest Aboriginal community, would later report having seen about five people wearing ‘space suits’ at the property in August.
The group was standing by a twin-engine airplane while others were in the aircraft.
Bill Leaver, who delivered mail and groceries to sheep stations in the region, told the ABC he found the new occupants of Banjawarn stand-offish.
Mr Leaver, who once delivered barrels of hydrochloric acid to the station, said he witnessed a man cutting the lawn with scissors and heard strange repetitive tapes playing in the background.
Even more bizarrely, he spoke to a woman who said she was purging demons from her body by drinking mustard and salt water.
Mr Leaver told the ABC he saw no evidence the new owners had any knowledge of grazing or interest in running a sheep station.
Sect members may have thought their presence had gone largely unnoticed but by October the AFP had contacted the National Police Agency of Japan and received information including Shoko Asahara’s criminal record.
‘There was an officer based in Sydney we had a very good relationship with,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton said. ‘And they replied very, very quickly to the effect that essentially, “these people are no good”.’
Australian Federal Police travelled to Banjawarn Station in troop carriers from Kalgoorlie. Detective Superintendent Blaise O’Shaughnessy is pictured right putting on a protective mask before undertaking a search at the property
Aum Supreme Truth bought eight mineral exploration leases from the Western Australian Government, believing that would prevent outsiders coming onto the station without their approval. Police are pictured searching the property after the Tokyo subway attacks
The sect was suspected in Japan of conducting illegal activities but was classified as a religious organisation and police were wary of conducting overt investigations.
Shinrikyo Aum, founded by Asahara in Tokyo 1984, was a belief system drawing upon elements of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Hinduism, Christianity, yoga and the writings of Nostradamus.
At its height the sect claimed tens of thousands of members.
In 1992 Asahara declared himself to be Christ and Japan’s only fully enlightened master, identifying himself as the ‘Lamb of God’.
Aum Supreme Truth sect members held unwavering beliefs in Asahara who encouraged them to drink 30ml bottles of his bathwater, which they bought for $300.
Headsets were rented to members with the promise of mimicking Asahara’s brain waves and he offered his blood to drink as a way of achieving enlightenment.
Asahara’s stated mission was to take the sins of the world upon himself, claiming he could transfer spiritual power to his followers. He prophesied a third world war instigated by the United States which only Aum members would survive.
Members of the Australian Federal Police and Western Australian Police are pictured around a campfire at Banjawarn Station as they searched the property in 1995
The Tokyo subway deaths brought international attention to Banjawarn Station in 1995. Japanese reporters are pictured at the property after news of the sarin attack broke
‘A lot of the members of the sect were outcasts and excluded from society,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton told Platypus. ‘They were either so intelligent that they couldn’t relate to other people or they were in their own fantasy world.’
Among the information Japanese police had received about the sect was its possible link to the 1989 murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who had been preparing a class action lawsuit against them.
WHAT IS SARIN GAS?
Sarin is a colourless, odorless liquid used as a chemical weapon due to its extreme potency as a nerve agent.
Exposure is lethal even at very low concentrations and death can occur within one to ten minutes after direct inhalation.
It causes suffocation from lung muscle paralysis unless antidotes are quickly administered.
Sarin is discovered in 1938 and developed in Nazi Germany. Its production is internationally outlawed.
‘We had a pretty good handle on the membership of the group and we worked closely with the Department of Immigration and Customs,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton said.
‘The special police liaison officer in Tokyo made sure that their further applications for visas would be “politely refused”.
‘The fact that two of the group had been convicted of a really, really dangerous offence of carrying these dangerous goods on aircraft helped – in addition to all the other intelligence that we and other agencies collected.’
While authorities rejected further visa applications of known sect members, in November two adherents were granted travel documents from the Australian consulate in Osaka and went to Banjawarn where they stayed for six months.
In June the sect staged a sarin attack on the Japanese city Matsumoto, releasing gas it had tested at Banajwarn from a refrigeration truck, killing eight people and injuring more than 500.
In August it sold Banjawarn Station at a loss of $200,000 and in October the last of the group flew out of Perth and returned to Japan.
Soldiers are pictured cleaning out Kasumigaseki subway station in Tokyo after the Aum Supreme Truth attack in March 1995. The rush-hour poisoning killed 12 commuters
The little-known sect gained international attention when on March 20, 1995 it released sarin in five Tokyo train stations on what was then the busiest subway system in the world.
The new owners of Banjawarn contacted local police several days after the attacks when news broke of Aum Supreme Truth’s involvement.
‘When the new station owners moved in they saw a particular site where a lot of sheep had perished,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton told Platypus.
‘They thought, “Well, that’s a bit unusual” because the sheep hadn’t been shorn – it looked like they’d been bludgeoned to death rather than shot.’
The new owners had also found laboratory equipment and containers of chemicals in the homestead.
An AFP team flew to Perth and joined local Western Australian police, then along with a government chemist drove from Kalgoorlie to Banjawarn in troop carriers laden with camping equipment.
Rescue workers are pictured carrying survivors of the Tokyo subway attacks to emergency tents on March 20, 1995. The five attacks were timed to take place simultaneously
Tokyo Fire Department officers are pictured leaving Kasumigaseki station on March 20, 1995 in Tokyo after decontaminating the subway
Investigators carried out extensive searches and testing at the site, uncovering evidence of sarin experiments that had been conducted on sheep at the property.
Forensic Officer Steve Olinder took samples from the dead animals back to Kalgoorlie where he spent a night in a motel with sheep skulls around him.
The laboratory door taken by police from Banjawarn Station is at the AFP Museum
There was also evidence the sect had plans to build nuclear weapons and had dug up uranium with an excavator.
‘The teams took samples, they took statements and they brought the samples back,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton said.
‘The government chemist ran the checks… and they came back positive for sarin.
‘My understanding is that the chemist fell off his chair – like he’d done something wrong. But he checked it again and come back with exactly the same result.’
The samples were sent to a scientist in London who had previously found that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein killed thousands of Kurds in 1988 using mustard gas and nerve agents.
Information obtained by the AFP was also exchanged with the FBI and the NYPD Joint Terrorist Taskforce, which were investigating a New York chapter of Aum Supreme Truth.
Leading Senior Constable Creighton said the Tokyo sarin attacks and events at Banjawarn marked a new era of crime fighting for the AFP and sparked one of its first investigations into international terrorism.
‘It was the basis of the counter terrorism legislation we take for granted today,’ he told Platypus. ‘It’s one of the more significant investigations that I have ever taken part in.
DID AUM SUPREME TRUTH TEST A NUCLEAR BOMB AT BANJAWARN?
On the night of 28 May 1993 a seismic disturbance was detected south of Banjawarn Station. It was a month after the property had been bought by the Aum Supreme Truth cult.
The event sent shock waves through hundreds of kilometres of desert but was witnessed only by a few long-distance truck drivers and gold prospectors.
They reported seeing a fireball in the sky and hearing a protracted low-frequency sound. No large asteroid impact was found and a mining explosion was discounted.
The Urban Geoscience Division of the Australian Geological Survey Organisation determined the event ‘showed similar characteristics consistent with typical seismic activity for Western Australia,’ and was most likely an earthquake.
Following the revelation that Banjawarn had been owned by the sect there was speculation the disturbance might have been the result of a test explosion of a nuclear device.
An Australian Federal Police investigation found no evidence to support the suggestion and cult members were not believed to in Australia at the time of the event.
‘Certainly, from a world-wide perspective, probably the highest one. It’s been 27 years since this and we’re still talking about it.
‘Not only were we speaking with the Japanese authorities, we were speaking with the FBI and preparing our submissions which eventually went to the US Senate as part of their Permanent Committee on Investigations.
‘When the AFP investigations team came to their conclusions they didn’t have any of the legislative tools that we take for granted now.
‘There was no counter terrorism legislation. The [sect’s] idea was that their actions would kick off a nuclear war between the Americans and the Russians – and that Australia would be a safe haven after this.’
Police work done before the Tokyo attack had stopped Aum Supreme Truth from establishing anything more than a small, short-lived base in Australia.
The graziers who bought Banjawarn Station alerted police to suspicious finds they had made when they learnt of the Tokyo attacks. Troop carriers are pictured taking police and supplies to the property
‘At the time the Aum sect were prevented from establishing a foothold in Australia by some very determined and proactive work by Federal and Western Australian agencies,’ Leading Senior Constable Creighton said.
‘The AFP, Australian Customs and Department of Immigration worked together to prevent senior Aum members from returning.’
Asahara was executed with Kiyohide Hayakawa and Yoshihiro Inoue, the pair who had scouted Banjawarn, as well as Seiichi Endo, the so-called head scientist, and nine other sect members in July 2018.
Aum Shinrikyo was classified as a terrorist organisation and still exists under the name Aleph.
Cattle have replaced sheep at their one-time Australian base and there is little trace left of the cult at Banjawarn Station.
A brick barbecue built by police who searched the property remains on the site and writing on the wall of a machinery shed provides instructions in Japanese on how to start up the generator.
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