Liquid terrorism

Andrew Sullivan says that the most interesting thing about the recently foiled terror plot is that the terrorists were planning on using “liquids” of some kind in the attack. Since the authorities are still being tight-lipped about the actual details of the attack we have no idea what exactly that liquid was, but there are a number of possibilities. Andrew’s pet theory seems to be that they were using a device that combines liquids from two different chambers to create hydrogen-cyanide gas. According to this BBC article, it was in fact liquid explosives, with electronic detonators hidden inside portable devices, which presumably would be dis and reassembled within the plane.

Whatever the exact nature of the liquid being used in this particular attack was, there is one major past terrorist attack perpetrated through the release of liquids inside a vehicle. I am of course talking about the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway sarin gas attack of March 20, 1995.

Earlier this year I had a large translation project in which I translated a couple of hundred pages of Aum Shinrikyo related material, including a large portion of Aum and I by Ikuo Hayashi, a medical doctor and member of the cult, who participated in the sarin release. Below are some excerpts describing the preparation for, and actual release of the sarin inside the subway.

Murai stood in the doorway as if he were on guard duty, and guided us into the building. Murai made up bags of 600cc or so of sarin each, and showed us how to scatter the sarin by poking holes in the bags using the tips of pre-sharpened umbrellas. He told us to practice with bags just like the sarin sacks, but filled with water instead.
I told Niimi that I wanted to buy some ordinary woolen gloves, so he pulled over at a convenience store.

After going in the convenience store, I bought cellophane tape, a paper cutter (because it was cheaper than scissors), and some sandals to change into in case sarin got on my shoes. There were no newspapers on the rack except for the sports papers, so I didn’t buy one. I looked for gloves, but all they had were thick work gloves, so I didn’t buy those either. I had Niimi stop at some other store and thought I would buy some woolen gloves.

With the time of the crime being 8am, I watched out for the train arriving in Shin-Ochanomizu Station at 7:59am and decided to board that one. I had to wait about ten minutes until that time. I had decided to board the train from the door as close to the front of the train as possible, as I had been directed. I went and sat on an empty bench by the edge of the platform and waited for the train to arrive.


Because the time when the train was supposed to arrive was drawing near, I lined up by the door to the front car. Looking at it from the direction of advancement, it was the second door.

The train stopped. The door opened. I entered as if I were being pushed along by the wave of people. Since it wasn’t the terminal stop, there were already a lot of people riding the train.


As the train neared the destination station, I dropped the two sarin bags that I held wrapped in a newspaper onto the floor. I decided to stab them just at the moment the door opened, and then get off the train.

While I was doing that, the train approached Shin-Ochanomizu Station and I heard the voice of the announcer saying so. The train decelerated, and I acted like I was being dragged. In an instant I let the two sarin-filled bags I had bundled up in the newspaper parcel slip to the floor.


When I checked that I had dropped the newspaper-wrapped package on the floor, there were the shoes of woman wearing a white coat right there next to it.

It was already Shin-Ochanomizu Station. The women’s legs did not change their orientation. I am going to kill this person, I thought. I recalled Asahara’s face. “I’m sorry. I am protecting the Truth. This is war. Please use Poa to send her into a higher plane,” I called out within my heart.

The train stopped, and passengers moved like they were readying to depart. With the tip of the umbrella, I stabbed the wrapped bags. The first time I felt some elasticity, the feeling of resistance passed away, and a feeling of “push” passed through the handle of the umbrella. The door opened, and people started to move. I had intended to stab the second bag, but I got off the train, being pushed along by the crowd.

While I was walking along the platform, that train left as if nothing at all had happened. “There was no commotion. I wonder what happened, did I really pierce open the bag with the umbrella?” I wondered.

I halted, standing apart from the wave of people, looking at the tip of the umbrella. It was a new umbrella, so the end was wrapped in cellophane.


Inside that cellophane on the tip of the umbrella I could see some kind of liquid. So, I had pierced open the bag after all. My feelings at that time were complicated. If I venture to put it into words, I think that “Well, so I really did it,” would be the closest expression.

9 thoughts on “Liquid terrorism”

  1. Thanks, I very much appreciate reading more of your translations of Hayashi’s book.

    For a long time, I’ve said the sarin attack was a turning point in history, the first urban bioterrorist attack. But recently, I discovered I was mistaken. It turns out that the first bioterrorist attack was in 1984, 750 people were poisoned by followers of Rajneesh, in Dalles, Oregon. I am convinced that AUM modeled their early research after the Rajneesh attacks, since they first experimented with similar bacterial agents just like the Rajneesh cultists used.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it. You do seem a bit confused though. Sarin is not biological in nature, but a highly toxic chemical nerve agent. There are some similarities in the means by which chemical and biological weapons can be delivered, but you still shouldn’t conflate the two.

  3. Also, didn’t Aum release anthrax over Tokyo before the sarin attacks? If so, that would qualify as a bioterrorist attack, although it was unsuccessful.


    The fact that the doctor didn’t puncture one of the bags and only opened one hole in the other probably saved many lives, including his own. Effective dispersion might have caused a lot more damage.

    Thanks for posting this passage. Scary, but somehow fascinating.

  4. Of course, this would be a pretty stupid terror strategy, since the pilots could just de-pressurize the aircraft, which would cause all the gas to escape, and then put everyone on bottled oxygen.

  5. Justin:
    They did have an anthrax lab going as well. The early samples that they tested were completely ineffective, but they had newer untested cultures that according to investigators were approaching usable quality. It’s possible that given enough time they would have been able to weaponize it.

    There were actually several men releasing sarin on different trains at the same time. Some of them had better success than others, but none of them were very effective given the almost comically primitive methods they were using to attempt to aerate the sarin. Dr. Hayashi writes about some experiments with different methods of spreading sarin, which I will post some time.

    Joe, is there a pilot-controllable system that can de-pressurive the aircraft quickly? How long does it take? I think that even if they have this ability it is highly possible that by the time the pilot knows something is wrong, it could already be too late to save some or even all of the passengers.

  6. Air marshalls are of course pretty rare. Israel’s El Al is the only airline that has one on every flight. I’m pretty sure that the fuselage of a plane would stop a 9mm bullet, although it could penetrate the window. However, having seen that episode of Mythbusters where they tested explosive decompression of an airplane by shooting a window from the inside I very much doubt that such a tiny hole would have a significant impact on cabin pressure.

  7. Maybe not, but I’ll bet opening a door midflight would create enough of a depressurization to suck an alien out of a bullet hole in a window.

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