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Bizarre brush with Japanese sect marked early AFP foray into international counter terrorism

By Platypus Editor Dom Byrne

Travelling from Tokyo, members of the relatively unknown Japanese 'Aum Supreme Truth Sect' — and its leader Shoko Asahara — touch down at Perth International Airport. If they're attempting to 'fly under the radar' after disembarking, they're making some very odd moves.

It's 9 September 1993 and 25 members of the sect have arrived in Australia on tourist visas. They approach Customs.

Among other items in their luggage, Customs Officers discover generators, mining equipment and chemicals — including hydrochloric acid in glass jars marked 'hand soap'. Customs move on the group, charging two members for carrying dangerous goods on an aircraft. They are fined $2,400 each ($4,500 AUD 2020).

About six months earlier a much smaller group of the sect had visited Perth, with two Japanese citizens flying with a real estate agent to view properties for sale in remote Western Australia. Eventually, they choose 550,000 acre 'Banjawarn Station', about 14 hours' drive from Perth. The deal included associated mining exploration leases and a uranium deposit.

An old house made of wood and tin, with an overgrown yard
The homestead at Banjawarn Station. Photo: AFP Museum.

But it didn't take long for the AFP and others to investigate the sect's activities. By October 1993 the AFP — including Detective Leading Senior Constable Mark Creighton — had already made contact with the National Police Agency of Japan, receiving information including Shoko Asahara's criminal record.

In the end it was a worthy example of collaborative Federal-State Australian policing. "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," Detective Leading Senior Constable Creighton said.

"The AFP, Australian Customs and Department of Immigration worked together to prevent senior Aum members from returning."

A Japanese man speaks into multiple microphones, flanked by two men and a woman
Earlier times: Aum Supreme Truth Sect leader Shoko Asahara conducts a media conference in Japan. Photo: japanforward.com

Looking back on what evolved into 'AFP Operation Sea King', he recalled the 'unique' behaviour of a group eventually linked to the deaths of 12 people and the injury of about 5,500 others during the sarin gas (nerve agent) terrorist attacks in the Tokyo Subway on March 20, 1995.

Multiple people laying on a street being attended to by emergency services
Emergency services respond to the Tokyo Subway attack.

Of the injured that day, some convulsed on subway platforms. Others could not speak. Some were blinded. At the time, the Tokyo subway was the busiest in the world. 

The attacks marked a new era of crime for law enforcement agencies to consider — and drew the AFP into one of its earlier investigations of international terrorism.

"It was the basis of the counter terrorism legislation we take for granted today," Detective Leading Senior Constable Creighton said.

After mounting Japanese evidence and a 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.

Eight men sitting around a camp fire
March 1995 - Members of the AFP and Western Australian Police arrive at Banjawarn Station for searches and testing. Photo: AFP Musuem.
Two men putting on gas masks
On right, AFP Detective Superintendent Blaise O'Shaughnessy puts on a protective mask before undertaking a search at Banjawarn Station. Photo: AFP Museum.

Aum Supreme Truth's 'visit' to Australia

APRIL 1993: Two senior members of the Aum Supreme Sect — 'Second in Charge' Kiyohide Hayakawa and 'Intelligence Minister' Yoshihiro Inoue — travel to Perth from Toyko on a fact finding mission. On landing, they fly with a local real estate agent to properties in remote WA — including Banjawarn Station.

APRIL 1993: While in WA the sect set up two companies through Australian citizen of Japanese descent Yashuko Shimada — skirting around foreign ownership rules — and purchase Banjawarn Station.

9 SEPTEMBER 1993: Leader Shoko Asahara and 24 members of the sect, including scientists, arrive in Perth from Tokyo. Australian Customs find generators, mining equipment and an array of chemicals in their luggage and fine the group.

9 SEPTEMBER 1993: Aum Supreme Truth Sect members travel by air and road to Banjawarn Station, setting up a laboratory in the homestead's kitchen. They source local chemicals to replace those confiscated on arrival and earth moving equipment from Kalgoorlie.

A white door with visible Japanese characters
The AFP removed the Aum Sect's 'Laboratory Door' from Banjawarn station as evidence. Written in Japanese handwriting it read 'Toyo Laboratory' — a reference to sect member and Tokyo University physics graduate Toru Toyoda. Photo: AFP Museum.

17 SEPTEMBER 1993: After staying at Banjawarn station for a week, a majority of the group leave Perth.

OCTOBER 1993: On returning to Japan Shoko Asahara and several other sect members apply for visas to return to Australia.

OCTOBER 1993: The AFP contacts the National Police Agency of Japan, and receives information about the sect, including Aum Supreme Truth's possible link to the 1989 murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who was working on a class action lawsuit against the group. Australian authorities reject the visa applications of the known sect members.

OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 1993: Two unknown sect members — not part of the original group — obtain visas at the Australian consulate in Osaka, Japan and travel to Banjawarn Station, staying for six months.

AUGUST 1994: Shortly after a separate gas attack on Japanese city Matsumoto, Banjawarn Station is sold at a loss of $200,000.

OCTOBER 1994: The last of the Japanese group leave Perth.

MARCH 1995: After the Sect's involvement in the larger Tokyo sarin subway attacks (March 20, 1995), which killed 12 and injured 5,500 others, mounting local evidence and a fresh tip-off from the new owners of Banjawarn Station, the AFP and WA Police fly to Banjawarn for extensive searches and testing. Among other items, they find an odd and closely scattered bunch of 29 sheep carcasses — with soil and wool samples showing positive for sarin residue.

Multiple carcases of sheep on the ground in the bush
Sheep carcasses found at Banjawarn. Photo: AFP Sergeant Keith Taylor.

APRIL 1995: The Japanese National Police Agency arrest Aum Supreme Sect 'Second in Charge' Kiyohide Hayakawa and find documents detailing a plan of mass murder and destruction, engineered to fulfil their 'doomsday' prophecy of the 'world ending in 1997'.

JULY 2018: On 6 July 2018, after exhausting all appeals, Shoko Asahara and six followers were executed as punishment for the 1995 attacks and other crimes. A remaining six on death row were executed on 26 July of the same year.

Without doubt

Is this investigation a career highlight? "Without doubt", says Detective Leading Senior Constable Creighton.

"It's one of the more significant investigations that I have ever taken part in. Certainly, from a world-wide perspective, probably the highest one. It's been 27 years since this and we're still talking about it," he told Platypus Magazine.

"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."

Aum Supreme Sect members had many 'unwavering' beliefs, including that drinking their leader's bathwater had valuable benefits. Shoko Asahara had total control of his followers — who he encouraged to purchase bottles of his bath water for about $300 an ounce. His blood was also offered as drink to achieve 'enlightenment'. Special headsets were rented to members with the promise of mimicking Asahara's brain waves.

"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,"
Detective Leading Senior Constable Creighton said.

At Banjawarn Station, the group eventually bought eight mineral exploration leases from the WA Government, which basically prevented anybody entering onto the station without approved access.

"They had the mining leases and they thought they could 'do what they liked'."

The 'performance' of members of the Aum Supreme Sect on 9 September 1993 at Perth Airport was odd and strangely memorable. An AFP member saw they had a lot of excess baggage and the jars of hydrochloric acid marked 'hand 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!'"

"Then, apparently one of the Customs officers accidently 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'.

A large number of containers of chemicals
Chemicals left behind by members of the Aum Supreme Truth sect at the WA property. Photo: AFP Sergeant Keith Taylor.
A large group of people dressed in white and wearing masks, marching in a street
Aum Supreme Truth sect members in Shoko Asahara masks during a 1990 campaign to elect the 'guru' and others to the Japanese Parliament. Photo: unseenjapan.com

"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 — because Banjawarn Station is miles from anywhere."

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'."

Starting to unravel

Back in Japan there was quite a cloud over the Aum Supreme Truth sect. They were suspected of illegal activities — but because they classified themselves as a 'religious organisation' their police were very, very wary of conducting overt investigations into them.

In the 1930s many religious groups were repressed by the Japanese Government and after WW2 religious groups were 'liberalised' — with very little scrutiny. They took full advantage.

"In 1995 we had a pretty good handle on the membership of the group — and we worked closely with the Department of Immigration and Customs," Detective 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."

A man setting up a camera with a reporter preparing to speak
Japanese reporters arrive at Banjawarn Station after news of the Tokyo Subway attacks. Photo: AFP Museum.

'Taskforce' Banjawarn

Two or three days after the 1995 Tokyo Subway attacks, news broke of the sect's suspected involvement — prompting the new owners of Banjawarn to call the 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".

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 after investigators had flown there from Perth.

Two four wheel drives driving in the bush
Troop carriers with supplies make their way to the site.

"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 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.

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."