Delisting as virtue-signalling?
Groups delisted still viewed with revulsion and perceived as a threat
The US State Department has announced its intention to delist five terrorist organisations on the basis that they are no longer perceived as a terror threat. This includes notorious terrorist organisations such as Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, ETA and Aum Shinrikyo.
ETA waged a long terrorist campaign against the Spanish state and the Spanish populace. Worn down by the persistent efforts of Spanish governments to defeat them, in 2017 they announced they would unilaterally disarm - a rarity for such an organisation and in 2018 they disbanded for good. But the devastation they left has a deep impact on all levels of Spanish society. Similarly, Gama’a al-Islamiyya waged a campaign of terror in Egypt in the 1990s which impacted the country’s vital tourism industry. After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, they even formed a political wing and contested elections, but the ouster of Morsi two years later meant they have been suppressed as much as other radical Islamist movements are.
Because of the deep impact of these groups on Spain, Egypt, Japan and Israel, the delisting will be viewed unfavourably - even if ETA no longer exists, while groups like Gama’a and Aum Shinrikyo still do exist and are still viewed by Egypt and Japan as a threat. Critics of the Biden Administration will seize upon this to paint them as being soft on terrorism.
Japan still considers Aum Shinrikyo a threat. The group was not outlawed or dissolved but its three successor groups are subject to monitoring by the PSIA and shunned by Japanese society.
The 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack caused debate on the role of religion in Japanese society, the country’s security and intelligence capabilities, and the question of how such groups can be dealt with without trampling on much-cherished constitutional rights such as freedom of speech, religion and association. This is a sensitive topic in Japan due to its wartime experience, which they appear to deal with differently to the West.
Aum Shinrikyo differed from the plethora of Japanese religious sects in a number of important ways. Most of Japan’s religious movements - Shinto, Buddhist or Christian-based - are politically conservative and closely tied to the country’s establishment. Many are staunchly nationalist. Shoho Asahara and Aum on the other hand positioned themselves as rebelling against contemporary Japanese society and culture. They had already drawn widespread suspicions as being a cult, but were not yet considered dangerous.
When Aum failed in its election bid in 1990, the sect radicalised and hardened its attitude towards Japanese society. They also embraced anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories as part of their worldview. Their plan was to unleash terrorism and overthrow the Japanese state, and they tried to acquire and research weapons to that end. They planned an attack on the 1993 royal wedding, and also to assassinate leaders of major Japanese religions.
What followed in the aftermath of the attack? Aum was never legally dissolved nor outlawed due to the potential constitutional difficulties of such actions, but the Japanese government did pass laws to enable surveillance of the group, and compensation for victims of the attack.
Fumihiro Joyu, who was not involved in the terrorist campaign, became leader of the rebranded Aleph in 2000. As a “moderate” and “reformer” in the cult, he tried to change the cult from within and win acceptance in society - which failed to win over either cult members or wider society in general. This led to Joyu splitting from Aleph in 2007 to form Hikari no Wa, largely distancing itself from Asahara’s teachings and legacy. Aleph itself largely adheres to “traditional” Aum practices and teachings and remains in denial about the attacks. They experienced a split around 2014 over the role of Asahara family members.
The PSIA continues its surveillance of these groups, and the perception of them being a threat to Japanese society did not change since the 2018 executions of Asahara and other cult members for the attacks.
Besides legal measures, Aum successor groups continue to face strong opposition from the Japanese public and anti-Aum groups hold protests outside its facilities. There is also strong opposition from right-wing ultranationalist uyoku dantai groups who also stage protests against Aum. This is not insignificant: Japan is a highly conservative society where social stigma and taboo are powerful forces, and association with Aum continues to carry such stigma. The nationalists consider Aum an anti-Japanese group, and they express opposition to other such individuals and groups just as vigorously.
It is important to understand the social setting and cultural mores which shaped Japan’s response to Aum Shinrikyo and its ongoing threat. The virtue-signalling delisting by the State Department will do nothing to change Japanese official policy or societal attitudes. And it will be the same for Egypt and Spain.