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Tokyo escaped devastating anthrax attack

July 1993
Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday sect that killed 12 people by releasing sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995, had the knowledge and skills to wreak even greater devastation with anthrax. New research in the US shows that Aum not only had the ability to release anthrax, it even did so-though it used a non-virulent strain.

The sect cultured the bacteria in large drums of liquid in the basement of its eight-storey headquarters in the Tokyo suburb of Kameido, says Hiroshi Takahashi of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Then, in July 1993, Aum members pumped the liquid to the roof and sprayed it into the air for 24 hours

The police investigated when neighbours complained about the smell, but Japan's religious protection laws prevented them from searching the building. But they did manage to take samples of a fluid leaking from a pipe on the outside of the building.

Medical records show that no one reported any anthrax symptoms in the area after the spraying, Takahashi told an anthrax conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in June. The fact that Aum was unable to infect people with anthrax is cited by many terrorism experts as evidence that bioweapons are too complex for such extremists.

But now scientists at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff have analysed the fluid sample and found it contains plenty of healthy anthrax bacilli. DNA analysis shows they belong to the Sterne strain, which is used in live anthrax vaccines for animals. Sterne anthrax lacks a fragment of DNA necessary for the bacteria to cause disease, and is easily purchased in the vaccine form. "It wouldn't have made anyone sick," says Kimothy Smith, a member of the team.

Why would terrorists spray harmless bacteria? They may have been practising, says Smith. Police attention could have discouraged them from moving on to virulent bacteria. Worryingly, the results show that Aum had got around the main difficulties with bioweapons-dead cultures and inadequate spraying. "I have no doubt people would have been sick, and probably died, if they had used a virulent strain," says Smith.

Terrorist Organisations
Abu Nidal Organization (ANO)
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)
* al-Qa'ida (Al-Qaeda)
Armed Islamic Group (GIA)
Aum Shinrikyo
Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA)
Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group, IG)
Harakat ul-Mujahidin (HUM)
* Hizballah
Japanese Red Army (JRA)
Kach and Kahane Chai
Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE)
Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK, MKO)
National Liberation Army (ELN)
Palestine Islamic Jihad-Shaqaqi Faction (PIJ)
Palestine Liberation Front-Abu Abbas Faction (PLF)
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC)
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
Revolutionary Organization 17 November (17 November)
Revolutionary People's Liberation Army/Front (DHKP/C)
Revolutionary People's Struggle (ELA)
Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso, SL)
Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA)
Usama Bin Laden
Ramzi Yousef
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