How Isaac Asimov Influenced A Murderous Terrorist Group

In 1995 members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released deadly sarin gas on five Tokyo subway trains; 12 people were killed, hundreds more injured. And that was just the start of their plan - a police raid of their HQ found Ebola cultures. Aum Shinrikyo believed that the apocalypse was coming, and that they would be the only survivors, and be tasked with rebuilding the world. Their structure for this belief came from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

This isn’t news, but I learned it tonight while eating dinner with Mark Sageman, former CIA officer and terrorism expert. I’m on tour with Chris Morris’ terrorism comedy Four Lions and Sageman had hooked up with Chris after really enjoying the film (and finding it very, very realistic). Over dinner in a Washington DC restaurant, Sageman regaled us with stories of terrorism plots both sinister and surreal. And he told us about the connection between Foundation and Aum Shinrikyo.

In Foundation psychohistorian Hari Seldon foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire and humanity’s descent into barbarism. He creates the Foundation, where scientists work creating an encyclopedia of all knowledge. Aum Shinrikyo’s leader, the half-blind Shoko Asahara, had the same goals, recruiting intelligent and ambitious college graduates into his cult. Asahara, an anime and scifi fan, saw himself as something of a Seldon, and prepared his people for humanity’s coming downfall.

But apparently it wasn’t coming fast enough, so Aum Shinrikyo decided to hasten it along. They had big plans, and there are stories that they might have done big things. In 1994 an explosion that measured 3.9 on the Richter scale rocked part of Australia near an Aum Shinrikyo property (where they happened to be testing sarin gas on sheep). Some claim that the cult detonated a nuke there (they had two ex-Soviet nuclear scientists in the group, so it’s not the most implausible thing ever). Others claim that they created a working version of Tesla’s legendary (and possibly apocryphal) earthquake machine, the resonator. It doesn’t seem out of the question that such a science fiction oriented group would pursue such a thing.

Aum Shinrikyo was shattered by the authorities after the 1995 attack (which was just one of their crimes, by the way). Asahara awaits execution (still). In 2000 the cult renamed itself Aleph (after the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet) and claimed to have changed its ways. But remember - there was a Foundation… and a secret, hidden Second Foundation. Could Aum Shinrikyo have moved on to its next phase of existence?

By the way, it’s worth noting that Al-Qaeda is translated in a number of ways, most commonly as “The Base.” But it’s also translated as “The Foundation,” and unsupported rumors insist that Osama bin Laden, in his days as a wild Western-style youth, read an impossible to verify Arabic translation of the trilogy*. Maybe we should all be thankful that Asimov died in 1992 and never lived to see any of this.

*I tend to really, really doubt the veracity of this, by the way