Killer Doomsday cult’s sinister Aussie plot
Twenty-seven years ago this month, a group of Japanese men and under-aged girls posing as tourists from Tokyo flew into Australia carrying a suspiciously large amount of jars marked as "hand soap".
When asked at the airport by Customs officers if one of the 25 members could use the soap in front of them, they baulked.
"Oh no, no we don't want to do that," one said politely but pointedly.
So began one of Australia's first and most significant international terrorist investigations ever undertaken that would lead to sweeping counter terrorism laws Australia has in place today.
It would also expose a sect that was
Now for the first time Australian law enforcers from Operation Sea King have revealed the extent of the Japanese Aum Supreme Truth, also known as Aum Shinrikyo, sect's Sarin gas plot and their intentions for Australia.
"It was the basis of the counter terrorism legislation we take for granted today," Detective Leading Senior Constable Creighton recalled.
"It's one of the more significant investigations that I have ever taken part in. Certainly, from a worldwide 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."
The fake hand soap jars on the passengers on September 9, 1993 were found to be hydrochloric acid and two members of the group were fined $2400 for carrying dangerous goods on the aircraft.
One of the men in the group travelling on tourist visas would later be identified as sect leader Shoko Asahara.
But aside from the acid in the soap bottles, there was several odd things about the group.
"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'," Creighton recalled.
"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'.
"And it hasn't been discussed much in the years since, but the group attracted attention for other reasons. Accompanying the group were six or seven Japanese girls who were under the age of 18. Their parents weren't with them and the thing that struck us at the time was that this might have been child abuse."
Their determination of the group though was clear with them paying $20,000 in excess baggage and $15,000 in customs import duty for goods including mechanical diggers, generators, gas masks, respirators and other mining equipment.
The AFP was sufficiently concerned to reach out to the National Police Agency of Japan. "There was an officer based in Sydney we had a very good relationship with. And they replied very, very quickly to the effect that essentially, 'these people are no good'."
By October 1993 the AFP had received information about the sect including Shoko Asahara's criminal record.
It was also discovered about six months earlier a much smaller group of the sect, including second in charge Kiyohide Hayakawa and self-declared "Intelligence Minister" Yoshihiro Inoue had visited Perth, and flew with a real estate agent to view properties for sale in remote Western Australia.
Two companies were established by an Australia citizen of Japanese descent, to avoid foreign ownership laws and eight mineral exploration leases purchased.
They would also choose the remote 550,000 acre 'Banjawarn Station', about 14 hours' drive from Perth. The deal included associated mining exploration leases and a uranium deposit.
For eight days in September some of the men allowed into the country, including scientists, searched for uranium deposits, ostensibly to make nuclear weapons and tested sarin and other chemicals, sourced locally after the other samples were confiscated. A laboratory had been set up in the homestead's kitchen.
Their plot though remained unknown to authorities and while they were barred from re-entering Australia the following month, two other sect members who were not part of the original group did return and stayed at the station for six months. In August 1994 the group then sold Banjawarn with sect members leaving in October of that year.
But the full extent and purpose of their movements was not uncovered until after March 20 1995 and the terrorist attacks on the Tokyo subway involving members of the cult who released sarin on three lines of the Tokyo Metro killing 12 people and injuring more than 1000 others.
According to the Japanese National Police Agency, they uncovered documented evidence detailing a plan of mass murder and destruction, engineered to fulfil their doomsday prophecy of "the world ending in 1997".
Shoko Asahara and 12 senior followers including Hayakawa were arrested and charged with another 200 followers brought in for questioning.
Two or three days after the subway attacks and the global news about the sect's suspected involvement, the new owners of Banjawarn called local police saying "hey, we think there's something really unusual this group owned this property and we found a whole bunch of dead sheep".
After mounting Japanese evidence and the fresh tip-off of unusual finds by the new owners of Banjawarn Station, the AFP and WA Police agreed on a major investigation to look at the sect's activities at the property - and its direct links to the Japan gassings.
A significant team of AFP police investigators and forensic chemists - including Lead Investigator Jeff Penrose, Detective Leading Senior Constable Creighton, Forensic Officer Steve Olinder, Detective Superintendent Blaise O'Shaughnessy, and two other Perth-based investigators, Senior Constable Terry Dibb and Detective Constable Peter Wilkinson, flew to Banjawarn and carried out extensive searches and testing, revealing sarin nerve-agent experiments on sheep at the property.
Information was also exchanged with the FBI and the NYPD Joint Terrorist Taskforce, who were looking into the New York chapter of the sect.
The AFP investigation team joined the WA Police team, the latter also bringing a government chemist and organising troop carriers with camping equipment to drive from Kalgoorlie 350km away after investigators had flown there from Perth.
"When the new station owners moved in they saw a particular site where a lot of sheep had perished. 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 teams took samples, they took statements and they brought the samples back."
The samples included soil and wool from 29 sheep carcasses as well as a door from the homestead on which was scrawled "Toyo Laboratory' - a reference to sect member and Tokyo University physics graduate Toru Toyoda.
"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 decision was then made to engage an international expert to confirm the results, sending them to a specialist in London, a pre-eminent scientist who had proven that Saddam Hussein had murdered thousands of Kurdish people in 1988 using mustard gas and nerve agents.
"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," Creighton said.
"A lot of the members of the sect were outcasts and excluded from society. They were either so intelligent that they couldn't relate to other people or they were in their own fantasy world,"
Securing the evidence locally was the final piece in the Australian side of the puzzle.
Sergeant Olinder was taking no chances. When he drove the forensic samples back to Kalgoorlie he spent the night in a motel with the sheep skulls all around him.
In the end it was a worthy example of collaborative federal-state Australian policing that led to counter terrorism laws. "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," Creighton said.
"The AFP, Australian Customs and Department of Immigration worked together to prevent senior Aum members from returning."
Originally published as Killer Doomsday cult's sinister Aussie plot