Shoko Asahara, mastermind of the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, has lost his final appeal.

If there are terrorist playing cards, one of the aces in the deck surely ought to bear the face of Shoko Asahara, the fanatic, half-blind guru of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo sect. Aum, you may recall, blazed to world notoriety in March 1995 with its rush-hour nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. The New Age cult made real the nightmare scenario that a handful of terrorism experts had warned about for years – that an independent group, not backed by any state, could obtain weapons of mass destruction and use them indiscriminately against civilian targets. Aum was years ahead of al Qaeda in its quest for WMD, and its record on this is the stuff of nightmares.

Last Friday, after a decade in the courts, Asahara had his final appeal rejected by Japan’s Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence for the murder of 26 people. I doubt Asahara is long for our world. Japan not only still has capital punishment, folks – it still has hanging, and Japan’s plump, sadistic guru could face the gallows at any time.

Asahara’s cult was a prolific criminal enterprise long before the Kasumigaseki attack:

Aum remains a case study in what not to do in fighting terrorism. The system failed at every level – police and prosecutors failed to investigate or share information, intelligence and security officials failed to heed warning signs, health officials and social workers failed to intervene, the news media failed to aggressively report. (Sound familiar?) Here was a group with chem and bio labs, conventional weapons plants, and paramilitary training just 70 miles outside Tokyo – virtually unnoticed and unbothered for years. To appreciate what Aum got away with, consider the scope of crimes by its members between 1989 and 1995:

narcotics manufacture and sales
arms smuggling
firearms violations
explosives violations
chemical weapons use
medical fraud and malpractice
child abuse
forgery
copyright infringement
consumer fraud
land fraud
obstruction of justice
perjury
harboring fugitives
intimidation
extortion
burglary
assault
kidnapping
attempted murder
murder

Japan isn’t a large country; it’s about the size of California. That Aum could operate for so long with impunity in a country as small as Japan is astounding. Aum operated within 70 miles of the capital, for years.

I happened to live in Japan during the Aum manhunts, though I happened to be in the US on the day of the attack itself. After returing to Japan we would hear on the news every evening that this or that Aum figure had been sighted, or suspected of leaving for North Korea, or had been nabbed. It was always particulary interesting to hear that an Aum person of interest had been seen in our town or the one next door. The whole thing played out for months, like a crime drama that was all too real. As for the subway station that Aum attacked, it was one I passed through often if I went downtown, which I did often on days off. The fear of another attack lingered for a year or so, until all of the cult’s major figures were captured.

Aum Shinrikyo’s nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s mass transit system at rush hour was the world’s first WMD terrorist attack. It wasn’t a huge strike–12 dead and about 1,000 injured–but it shattered Japan’s belief in its security. The attack won’t be the last of its kind. Countries like Japan and the US are doing all they can to prevent it, an effort that helps explain why the Koizumi and Bush administrations have been such solid allies over the last few years, but countries like Iran and North Korea are doing what they can to make it happen. They only have to get lucky one time, and they or their surrogates eventually will. And our own courts are actually making it easier for them to strike.