In this stranger-than-fiction page-turner, investigative reporter Kaplan (Fires of the Dragon, 1992) and Andrews, Asia correspondent for British Esquire, pursue the apocalyptic Aum cult from its bizarre genesis and gestation to its notorious 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 11 and wounded 5,500. The authors have done their homework in researching the breadth of the hidden activities of this strange cult, though they play on readers' fears by sensationalizing, for instance, Aum's attempts to acquire Russian nukes, based on rather skimpy evidence. Nevertheless, Aum Shinri Kyo (Aum Supreme Truth) has found its place in history as the first civilian-engineered chemical terrorism. The group's partially blind guru, Shoko Asahara began more as a megalomaniacal con artist, but his perverted mix of Buddhism, pseudoscience, and millennialism lured 40,000 from Japan, Russia, and elsewhere. Aum's beliefs entail rituals involving electrode caps, truth serum, and barbiturates, and methods akin to those of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and the Mafia. Although Aum's financial structure resembled a Japanese keiretsu (corporate family), with 37 companies internationally under its control and a boasted $1 billion in assets, it also had interests in land and insurance fraud, medical scams, harassment, kidnapping, and murder. From their Mount Fuji stronghold, they experimented clumsily and unsuccessfully with botulism, anthrax, and various toxins until they hit on sarin, a Nazi-developed nerve gas. Their first sarin attack targeted some unsympathetic judges in a night assault that killed seven people, but it went unsolved by the police until Aum struck Tokyo's subways. Kaplan and Andrews dub Asahara ``the prophet of hi-tech terrorism,'' but aside from an afterword glossing the Senate's investigations on chemical weapons proliferation, their sensational account lacks a true object lesson. At the end of the Cold War and on the eve of the millennium, this docu-thriller about Aum's preparations for the end of the world makes for a fascinating, grim, near-unbelievable read.
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