Blueprint for NYC Subway Attack: Learning from Tokyo

Blueprint for NYC Subway Attack: Learning from Tokyo

by Matt Collins

An NYC subway attack is the stuff of nightmares.

The New York metro sees an average of 2.4 million daily riders. It's one of the world's most reliable and heavily used commuting systems–a marvel of engineering and human cooperation.

But these types of high-traffic locations are also prime targets for potential terrorist attacks.

This is precisely what happened to Tokyo's Kasumigaseki station during peak morning rush hour–7:00 AM–on March 20, 1995. On that fateful morning, a group of Aum Shinrikyo cultists spread sarin gas across three lines of the Tokyo Metro, one of the world's busiest subway lines.

In a matter of minutes, the station erupted into chaos. Thirteen civilians were killed, and another 50 suffered severe injuries. Another thousand suffered blindness due to lower levels of exposure.

Ultimately, a staggering 5,000 people would claim some form of injury from the attack.

This was one of the worst gas attacks since the end of the First World War, and it was carried out by a handful of fringe extremists in a country with one of the world's most vigilant police forces.

As such, Tokyo's subway gas attack remains a sobering reminder of how vulnerable you can be in a busy urban center. And it's a model for what a Manhattan subway attack might look like.

Fortunately, you can take a few crucial steps to ensure your safety, which we will enumerate later.

For now, let’s investigate the Tokyo subway sarin attack.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Aum Shinrikyo’s Origins

  • 02

    The Matsumoto Sarin Gas Attack: A Chilling Prelude

  • 03

    Sarin Gas and its Role in the Subway Attacks

  • 04

    Japan's Emergency Response

  • 05

    Combating Chaos and Pursuing Justice

  • 06

    The Sarin Gas Attacks in East Ghouta

  • 07

    The Sarin Gas Attacks in Khan Shaykhun

  • 8

    How to know you've been exposed to Sarin Gas

  • 09

    So What Would an NYC Subway Attack Look Like?

  • 10

    CBRN Gear to Survive a Subway Attack NYC

  • 11

    Staying Aware of Urban CBRN Threats

  • 12

    Frequently Asked Questions about NYC Subway Attack

Aum Shinrikyo’s Origins

Back in 1984, the Aum Shinrikyo cult was founded by one Shoko Asahara, a resident of Tokyo, Japan.

Asahara, born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955, was a controversial yet charismatic figure who blended elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity with his own apocalyptic visions.

At the heart of his predictions was a third world war sparked by Japan and the United States–a nuclear conflict that he claimed would culminate in Armageddon.

Accordingly, Asahara emphasized the need for purification through the practices of Aum Shinrikyo, meaning “Supreme Truth.” These practices included meditation, yoga, and intense physical training.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Like other self-styled messianic cult leaders, Asahara proclaimed himself to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ, as well as the first enlightened master since Buddha.

With time, the cult’s activities inevitably took a dark turn.

sahara's increasing paranoia and desire for power led him to orchestrate violent acts, which boiled over into the cult's first deadly operation: the Matsumoto gas attacks in June of 1994.

The Matsumoto Sarin Gas Attack: A Chilling Prelude

The Matsumoto sarin attacks served as a disturbing precursor to the infamous subway gas attacks of the following year.

On the night of June 27th, 1994, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas near a condominium complex in a quiet residential neighborhood called Nagano Prefecture. Their targets were three judges who were presiding over a lawsuit against the cult.

The cult had chosen sarin because it was the most affordable poison they could synthesize with the tools on hand.

In the end, the attack resulted in the deaths of eight individuals and caused over 200 injuries, leaving the community in shock–and raising concerns about public safety.

Following the Matsumoto attacks, authorities launched an intensive investigation to uncover the truth behind the incident.

Initially, the source of the devastation was misidentified as an outbreak of influenza, causing delays in identifying sarin gas as the lethal weapon. Evidence later emerged, however, that linked Aum Shinrikyo to the crime, revealing a disturbing pattern of violence and extremist ideology within the cult.

A sobering wake-up call for Japanese authorities, the Matsumoto sarin attacks led to increased efforts in countering domestic terrorism.

The incident also highlighted the need for improved intelligence gathering, interagency cooperation, and public awareness to prevent and respond to such heinous acts. What’s more, it laid the groundwork for subsequent investigations into Aum Shinrikyo's activities, eventually leading to the dismantling of the cult and the subsequent arrests and prosecution of its leaders.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to prevent the attacks that would come just nine months later.

Sarin Gas and its Role in the Subway Attacks

Sarin gas is a highly toxic nerve agent that was first synthesized by a group of German scientists led by Gerhard Schrader in the 1930s. Initially, it was intended for use as a pesticide.

However, its potent neurotoxic properties soon attracted military interest.

The compound gained notoriety during World War II when both Germany and later the Soviet Union produced and stockpiled it as a chemical weapon.

Sarin gas is a volatile liquid that can rapidly vaporize, making it highly dangerous when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. It targets the nervous system by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which regulates the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. When accumulated, acetylcholine overstimulates the nerves and disrupts their normal function.

Exposure to sarin gas can lead to a range of symptoms, including pinpoint pupils, blurred vision, respiratory distress, convulsions, loss of consciousness, and–in severe cases–respiratory failure and death. Even low levels of exposure can cause long-term neurological damage and chronic health problems.

During the Tokyo Subway Attacks, Aum Shinrikyo's members carried plastic bags containing liquid sarin and pierced them with sharpened umbrella tips, allowing the gas to evaporate and spread through the train cars.

The confined spaces of the subway system amplified the effects of sarin gas, causing panic and chaos. This, of course, is why the Aum Shinrikyo cult targeted the metro: to maximize casualties and heighten the disruption to society.

Though difficult to contemplate, the catastrophic effects of sarin gas in these attacks gives us a general idea of what we could see from an NYC subway attack in 2023.

To learn more about sarin gas, read our article on How to Survive a Sarin Gas Attack.

Japan's Emergency Response

In the immediate aftermath of the subway attacks, the Japanese government swiftly activated emergency response protocols.

At once, the affected subway station, Kasumigaseki, was sealed off to prevent further exposure and protect commuters. Rescue personnel–including police, firefighters, and medical teams–rushed to the scene to provide medical assistance to victims and transport them to hospitals.

Containing the spread of sarin gas was a top priority for the government.

Hazardous material response teams, equipped with protective gear, worked diligently to neutralize and control the chemical agent. They carefully identified and secured the sources of the gas, such as the discarded plastic bags, to minimize the risk of additional exposure.

To prevent further contamination, the government took measures to isolate and decontaminate affected areas. This involved carefully sealing off sections of the subway system, conducting air monitoring, and decontaminating surfaces where the gas was detected.

Specialized units used absorbent materials, decontamination solutions, and thorough cleaning procedures to eliminate residual sarin from the environment.

This meticulous process entailed scrubbing the station's surfaces–including floors, walls, handrails, and ticket machines–using a combination of detergents and decontamination agents. Ventilation systems were inspected, cleaned, and disinfected to remove any traces of sarin.

Alongside this, the government implemented rigorous testing to ensure the thoroughness of the cleansing process. Air quality and surface samples were regularly collected and analyzed to verify that contamination levels had been reduced to safe levels. Only after extensive testing and monitoring were the affected sections of the subway station deemed safe for reopening to the public.

The Japanese government's response to the subway attacks demonstrated their commitment to public safety and swift action.

By containing sarin gas and thoroughly cleansing the affected subway station, they minimized the potential long-term health risks and restored confidence in the safety of public transportation.

Combating Chaos and Pursuing Justice

The Tokyo subway attacks created a state of panic and chaos, requiring an immediate and coordinated response from the police.

Once alerted to the attack, law enforcement swiftly mobilized forces, deploying officers to affected subway stations to aid victims, secure the area, and ensure public safety. They worked alongside emergency medical teams to provide urgent medical care and transport victims to hospitals.

Additionally, the police established communication channels with other agencies and government entities to streamline the response and share critical information.

As the immediate crisis abated, the police launched a thorough investigation to identify and apprehend the individuals responsible for the attacks. Due to the scale and complexity of the incident, the scope of the investigation was immense.

The police conducted extensive intelligence gathering: interviewing witnesses, reviewing surveillance footage, and collecting evidence from the crime scenes. They collaborated with forensic experts and specialists in chemical weapons to analyze the remnants of sarin gas and other materials used in the attacks.

(Image courtesy of Britannica)

Ultimately, the investigation led to the identification and subsequent arrests of key members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, including its enigmatic leader, Shoko Asahara. The police worked diligently to build a strong case, gathering evidence and testimonies to ensure a successful prosecution.

The legal process that followed involved extensive trials, during which the police provided crucial evidence and testimony.

In the end, the perpetrators were held accountable for their actions. Asahara and several other key members of the cult were convicted, and some received the death penalty.

A similar process would likely play out in the case of an NYC attack—much like the Boston marathon bombing, where the perpetrators were doggedly tracked down by authorities and brought to justice.

Of course, by then, the damage had already been done.

And when it comes to sarin gas attacks, said damage can be catastrophic.

For further evidence of this, let's take a look at the two other major sarin gas attacks of the twenty-first century.

The Sarin Gas Attacks in East Ghouta

The sarin gas attacks in East Ghouta–a suburb of Damascus, Syria–constituted one of the most horrific instances of chemical warfare in recent history.

On August 21st, 2013, several densely populated areas in the region were subjected to a series of coordinated sarin gas attacks. The attacks targeted civilian neighborhoods, resulting in the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of men, women, and children.

The victims, many of whom were sleeping at the time, suffered from respiratory distress, convulsions, and foaming at the mouth–all characteristic symptoms of sarin gas exposure.

Like their counterparts in the Tokyo Metro, the attacks caused widespread panic and devastation, leaving communities traumatized and overwhelmed. Indeed, the local medical infrastructure struggled to cope with the influx of casualties, leading to a severe strain on resources and an inability to provide adequate treatment for all affected individuals.

(Image courtesy of Reuters)

These attacks prompted global outrage and condemnation. The international community, led by the United Nations (UN), called for immediate investigations into the use of chemical weapons and urged accountability for those responsible.

A UN investigative team was deployed to gather evidence and assess the situation on the ground. Their report confirmed that sarin gas had indeed been used and concluded that the attacks constituted a violation of international law.

The Sarin Gas Attacks in Khan Shaykhun

Five years later, on April 4th, 2017, there was another gas attack in Syria–this time in Khan Shaykhun, a town in the northwest of the country. This event shook the world and highlighted the ongoing use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.

Eighty civilians, including many children, died in the attack, which involved the release of a toxic nerve agent that caused severe respiratory distress, paralysis, and convulsions–telltale signs of sarin gas. The horrifying images of the suffering and loss of life shocked the global community, prompting an immediate international outcry and demands for accountability.

Accordingly, the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), launched investigations to determine the facts and gather evidence regarding the use of chemical weapons.

These inquiries confirmed the use of sarin gas and attributed the attacks to the Syrian government. Their findings strengthened the international community's resolve to hold the perpetrators responsible for violating international norms and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

How to know you've been exposed to Sarin Gas

By now, it should be clear that sarin gas poses a severe threat to human health and safety.

Exposure to the nerve agent can lead to a range of immediate symptoms, which may vary depending on the concentration and duration of exposure. The following signs are commonly associated with sarin gas exposure:

  • Respiratory Distress: Victims may have trouble breathing, chest tightness, and coughing. In severe cases, respiratory failure can occur.

  • Miosis: Pupillary constriction, known as miosis, is a distinctive symptom of sarin gas exposure. The pupils constrict to pinpoint size, resembling small dots.

  • Excessive Salivation and Sweating: Sarin gas exposure often triggers excessive salivation and sweating, leading to a characteristic dripping or frothing from the mouth.

  • Nausea and Vomiting: Victims may experience severe nausea, leading to vomiting.

  • Neurological Effects: Sarin gas affects the nervous system, leading to various neurological symptoms. These include headaches, dizziness, confusion, seizures, and muscle twitching.

Sarin gas exposure can also have long-term effects on the nervous system. Individuals who survive sarin gas poisoning may experience persistent neurological problems, such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and impaired motor function.

Recognizing the symptoms of sarin gas exposure is crucial for identifying and responding to incidents involving this deadly nerve agent.

By understanding the immediate and long-term effects, individuals can be better prepared to seek immediate medical assistance and mitigate the potential long-term consequences.

So What Would an NYC Subway Attack Look Like?

Aum Shinrikyo synthesized sarin gas because it was affordable and readily accessible.

They targeted crowded subway platforms because security protocols failed to keep them out.

And they spread a deadly toxic gas across one of the world's busiest subway platforms in the middle of morning rush hour.

In many ways, the attack echoes the sheer malice of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Both cases act as solemn reminders that no matter how vigilant the security systems, bad actors can devise creative new ways to bypass them and do harm.

Because it would take travelers completely off-guard, an NYC subway attack 2023 holds the potential to be even worse than a shooting. Due to a subway station's crowded and confined nature, victims may not immediately be able to find an exit.

That means that, in a matter of minutes, thousands could end up injured and dozens dead.

Authorities, of course, would respond to the attack as soon as possible—but, as the Matsumoto attack has taught us–investigators could be delayed in identifying the source of the problem. Besides, the immediate damage, at that point, would have been done.

In other words: once a New York City subway attack across one or three train stops has taken place, it's too late to count on the authorities.

Fortunately, you can take a few key measures to protect yourself from a potential terrorist attack in the subway.

CBRN Gear to Survive a Subway Attack NYC

The first step to protecting yourself from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats is detecting and understanding these threats.

The MIRA Safety DETEHIT CWD-3 Nerve Agent Detection Strips are perfect for that purpose.

These individually-packed strips emulate the function of the human nervous system to detect nerve agents (known as cholinesterase inhibitors). The strips will react to threats in air, on food, or equipment in less than two to three minutes.

CWD-3 Strips come packaged in an easy-to-carry waterproof tube for portability and protection.

So they're easy to keep on hand. That way, if you have the slightest concern about potential CBRN threats in any environment, you can swipe one of the trips.

They can also be used to check your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in order to ensure you're not still contaminated before removing your gear.

CWD-3 Strips come individually packaged, with ten in each tube.

Next up is the CM-7M full-face gas mask.

Granted, commuting on the subway with a gas mask doesn't sound ideal. So why not try something more compact like the Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator (TAPR)?

Well, the TAPR is of course a great choice. But, as always, there's nothing that compares to the protection of a full-face gas mask.

The subway attacks in Tokyo are an unfortunate example of why this is the case. A full-face gas mask could've prevented the temporary blindness that a thousand people suffered from due to sarin gas exposure. Plus, if you end up in a situation where you can't immediately reach an exit, you won't have many other options.

Finally, we strongly recommend the NBC-77 SOF gas mask filter.

This remains one of MIRA Safety's top-selling products, and easily the coolest. It offers an extremely wide range of CBRN protection with an unrivaled twenty-year shelf life, meaning you get the most out of this premium filter.

As an all-purpose gas mask filter, it’s an item that you’ll be sure to reach for in an emergency.

Staying Aware of Urban CBRN Threats

The Aum Shinrikyo cult is a chilling example of how manipulation, distorted beliefs, and unchecked fanaticism can lead to unthinkable violence.

Moreover, the cult's subway gas attacks are a stark reminder of the dangers posed by extremist organizations and the importance of protecting yourself in urban environments where authorities may not be able to provide immediate help.

While US authorities have taken extraordinary measures to preserve public safety and prevent further terrorist attacks, the threat remains an ever-present reality. This holds true not just for commuters in New York City, but also residents of major metropolitan areas from Los Angeles to Dallas, Chicago and beyond.

All in all, a subway gas attack or shooting is something you should always be prepared for.

Stay safe, America!

Frequently Asked Questions about NYC Subway Attack

What happened to the subway on 9/11?
What to do if there is a terror attack in NYC subways?