After eight years I’ve just submitted the final talk for my PhD thesis at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences:
Causal Mechanisms for Strategic Subcultures: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo
On 20th March 1995, the Japanese new religious
movement Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) mobilised a sarin nerve gas attack
on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people and injured several thousand.
Why did Aum Shinrikyo carry out this attack, and how did it expect to survive?
This presentation critically interrogates this question by using (qualitative)
process tracing to examine three interlinked causal mechanisms: (1) the cultural transmission of a religious
knowledge base that informed the decision preference for terrorist violence;
(2) social learning that led to differential
outcomes in terms of social reproduction for the senior leadership (the
decision elite) and the religious members (renunciates) who were unaware of Aum
Shinrikyo’s covert research program for biological and chemical weapons
development; and (3) the cultic milieu folklore
which functioned to spread Aum Shinrikyo’s ideas in a crowded marketplace for
Japanese new religions, and which was a gatekeeping mechanism for potential
members. Further research is also identified.
Keywords: Aum Shinrikyo, causal mechanisms, cultic milieu, process tracing, terrorism, strategic subcultures
Update: Talk PowerPoint slides and recorded audio (30th October 2019) are now available.
My PhD Pre-Submission Seminar / Final Review documentation can be accessed here. My thanks to the Monash University committee in the School of Political and Social Inquiry: Associate Professor Steven Roberts, Associate Professor Ben MacQueen, and Dr Bill Flanik, and to my PhD Supervisors, Dr Luke Howie and Dr Zareh Ghazarian. This PhD milestone was passed on 14th November 2018.
Here are my New Years resolutions for my academic research:
- PhD Completion. 22nd July 2019 is my deadline for PhD submission. I have 27,500 words to write, editing, and references to sort out. I’m adding a new chapter on theory-building insights about strategic subcultures and Aum Shinrikyo. I’m also combing through over 250,000 words of working notes for relevant material.
- Use the Bullet Journal system. I’ll be experimenting with Ryder Carroll’s self and time management system (book) for PhD and other projects.
- Work on my next solo authored academic publication. I last published in 2014 – I’ve been focused on PhD research since then. I have several academic publications planned. I will be revisiting Wendy Laura Belcher’s system (book) for deveoping academic journal articles.
- Review for academic journals. I am getting regular invitations to review for leading academic journals including Contemporary Security Policy. I hope to continue this review work in 2019.
Tomorrow, I’m giving a talk at Monash University’s SPS HDR Symposium 2018 about my on-going PhD research:
Room: H2.38, Caulfield campus
Time: 2pm-3pm timeslot
You can read the talk’s abstract here. The talk’s slides are here.
Update: You can download the talk’s audio here. There was also a great Q&A later in the session: thanks to everyone who attended for their helpful feedback.
Presentation title: The Ethical Collapse of Aum Shinrikyo
Name: Alexander (Alex) George Burns
Discipline: Terrorism Studies
Key words: Aum Shinrikyo, Shambhala Plan, strategic culture, coercion practices, ethical collapse
Abstract: On 6th July 2018 the Japanese Government executed Aum Shinrikyo’s founder Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto) and six senior members of the Buddhist Tantra Vajrayana and Hindu-influenced religious cult. Six further members were executed on 26th July 2018. Aum Shinrikyo achieved notoriety for its sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway on 20th March 1995, which killed 13 people and injured 6000 others. This presentation synthesises relevant insights from the sub-fields of strategic culture and terrorism studies to examine Aum Shinrikyo from a new perspective: its initial rise, its ethical collapse, and its subsequent descent into terrorist violence (via its secretive development of chemical and biological weapons development that was compartmentalised to the upper echelons of the organisation). The specific coercion practices which occurred in Aum Shinrikyo that bound together its leadership and renunciate followers are identified and summarised. The religious cult’s utopian Shambhala Plan is reinterpreted in terms of: (i) fulfilling Asahara’s adverse experiences, career ambitions, and life chances, and (ii) facilitating both elite circulation and social mobility of its senior members at the expense of its renunciate followers, and in the broader socio-economic context of Japan’s ‘lost decades’ of deflationary growth. The combination of coercion practices and ethical collapse means that Aum Shinrikyo now has a greater significance beyond terrorism studies: the religious cult can be related to other potential case studies such as Enron, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Theranos, and the Madoff Ponzi scheme fraud.
During the late Cold War period, strategic culture emerged as a comparative analytical framework in strategic studies and nuclear deterrence policymaking. Strategic culture examines the collective, long-term shared understandings on why adversaries may use violence to achieve strategic objectives. An under-theorised aspect is the possible existence of strategic subcultures: organisational or institutional coalitions that prioritise and shape the pathway into violence, and the specific operational contexts in which violence may be used.
Terrorist organisations are a national security threat for Australia. This thesis advances a new causal theory of strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. It draws on current debates in two sub-fields: the fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building, and the terrorism studies analysis of terrorist organisations. Responding to these current debates this thesis focuses on how terrorist leaders formulate strategic objectives, allocate resources, and recruit and mobilise followers for campaigns.
A modified form of process tracing is used to examine two qualitative case studies: Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Three causal mechanisms are examined: the cultural transmission of religiously motivated belief systems for violence; the social learning that occurs between terrorist organisation leaders and followers; and folklore myths and narratives that shape internal worldviews. Combining these three causal mechanisms provides a rationale for strategic subcultures: it develops organisational counter-power to enhance the long-term survivability of terrorist leaders and their ideologies.
Both terrorist organisations were unsuccessful in achieving their long-term strategic objectives. Aum Shinrikyo used Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist cosmology to influence its renunciates whilst also hiding a covert, compartmentalised research program into biological and chemical weapons. ISIL used insurgent warfare to capture – and then lose – territory, people, and resources in Iraq and Syria. Both were motivated by apocalyptic worldviews that failed translationally in practice. Understanding these failure sources may help develop effective counter-terrorism policies and strategies.
A few research notes from my PhD thesis draft:
- The journal International Affairs may be a source for Russian perspectives on Jack Snyder’s original conceptualisation of strategic culture, and the SALT nuclear arms reduction talks. In particular, a comparative US-Russia historical perspective is needed.
- Robert Jay Lifton and Haruki Murakami’s interviews with Aum Shinrikyo renunciates provide possible secondary data to identify possible hypnotisibility. The APA Division 30 definition of hypnotisibility (2014): “An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.”
- Coercive persuasion sequelae in Aum Shinrikyo and Islamic State would be coded as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder in DSM V (following the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar Schein).
- A social psychological perspective suggests that the renunciates were sensitised to Aum Shinrikyo’s leader Shoko Asahara from Aum propaganda such as media reports, books, and short anime films. Haruki Murakami documents how Aum renunciates often provided the labour for this media to be produced and disseminated.
A summary of my in-progress thesis from my mid-candidature review documentation:
Terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State pose a national security threat to Australia. Terrorist organisations that are able to grow in members and resources, and consolidate their power over a longer period of time require different policymaking responses from counterterrorism, defence, and national security experts. This thesis contributes to: (i) a new understanding of how such terrorist organisations formulate their strategies, allocate resources, and engage in decision-making to plan and conduct terrorist operations; and (b) the development of a new strategic cultures framework using case studies of Islamic State and Japan’ s Aum Shinrikyo.
I spent today analysing the Haruki Murakami Underground interview with former Aum Shinrikyo member Hajume Masutani. Some insights:
1. Masutani experienced early alienation from his family, initial career aspirations, and university studies.
2. Masutani encountered and joined Aum after seeing an Aum book and visiting a dojo. He spent seven years in Aum including working on animation about Aum’s leader Shoko Asahara which now enjoys an afterlife on YouTube.
3. Masutani engaged in cycles of work and meditation but did not really progress in Aum. He became suspicious of Asahara after meeting him. His experiences reflected parallel research that psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton did on Aum.
4. In 1993, Masutani noted that Aum adopted a more proto-militant outlook and a greater emphasis on Tibetan Vajrayana teachings.
5. Masutani grew more alienated from Aum after leaving and learning of the 20th March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. His views to Murakami were similar to United States cultic scholars like Margaret Thaler Singer.
Each year I do a 20-minute presentation to the SPS Symposium in Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry on my in-progress PhD research. Below is the outline for this year’s proposed presentation due to occur in October:
Aum Shinrikyo’s Failed Strategic Subculture
Alex Burns (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Key Words: Aum Shinrikyo; strategic culture; terrorist groups
In 1977, RAND’s Jack Snyder proposed strategic subcultures as a unit of analysis to understand distinct beliefs, analytical traditions, institutions, and socialisation norms in a strategic community. Recently, the so-called fourth generation of strategic culture scholarship has – via Alan Bloomfield, David Haglund, Jeffrey Lantis, and others – applied Snyder’s unit of analysis to examine new foreign policy actors. This presentation applies Snyder’s strategic subcultures to advance a new understanding of the militant Japanese religious sect Aum Shinrikyo, and its 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system. I use narrative analysis and qualitative thematic coding to re-examine two theory-building explanations about Aum Shinrikyo’s decision-making: Robert Jay Lifton’s psychohistory (Destroying the World to Save It) and Haruki Murakami’s oral history interviews (Underground). I also develop a new strategic subculture explanation of Aum Shinrikyo’s failure that builds on Frederick M. Smith’s research into South Asian deity and spirit possession experiences (The Self Possessed).
Paper Type: Full Paper
Working Title: Terrorist Groups as Strategic Subcultures
Supervisor: Luke Howie