Photos: A Doomsday Cult Bought This Farm to Build Weapons of Mass Destruction

Here's what Australian police found on a property used by a Japanese cult to test nerve gas and mine uranium.
The cult's leader on left, Shoko Asahara. A pile of sheep bones on right. All images courtesy of the AFP

This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. You can listen to the full story here.

On May 14, 1995, investigators with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) flew to an outback sheep station in the nation’s interior. There they found a large pile of dead sheep contaminated with traces of a nerve agent called sarin, along with a deep pit that was found to be slightly radioactive. Investigators concluded that this had been an attempt to mine the property’s deposit of uranium—although it was hard to know how much had been found, or what it had been used for. Given the property’s previous owners, the evidence was ominous.


The whole thing had come about two months earlier. On March 20, 1995, a formerly unknown terrorist group had released nerve gas onto a series of busy morning trains in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring hundreds. In the ensuing weeks, Japanese officials pinned the attack on an obscure religious sect called Aum Shinrikyo, led by a 40-year-old guru named Shoko Asahara. Shoko had allegedly instructed his followers to attempt to initiate armageddon.


The story of the Tokyo attacks was all over the news, both locally and abroad—and when the proud new owners of a Western Australian sheep station saw it they had a strange thought. They’d bought their property in October the previous year for an absolute bargain. The previous owners had sold it for about $150K less than what it was worth, but wanted to get rid of it in a hurry and didn’t seem to care about the price. Those owners were Japanese, and they’d left several empty sake bottles around the property along with containers of highly toxic chemicals. Concerned, the station’s new owners called the local police, who, to their astonishment, discovered the property had indeed been owned by the cult on the news. The AFP organised a visit.


This is a farm house on Banjawarn Station, which sits about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Perth. When the AFP flew in from the nation’s capital, they brought along a cameraman to document whatever they found. The following images of their investigation have been taken from that video.


According to records, the cult had sold the property after being reported to the Western Australian Pastoral Board for neglecting the property’s livestock. But as you can see from the above image, they’d also let many of the buildings fall into disrepair. At first, there was little to suggest to investigators that the place had actually been connected to the attack in Tokyo, aside from a few Japanese newspapers and a door that had “laboratory” scrawled over it in both Japanese and English.


In reality, the cult’s time at Banjawarn was an important stepping stone on their road to violence. As a former member, Naruhito Noda, told VICE for our podcast Extremes, the group bought the property expressly to build and test weapons of mass destruction.

“In 1993, we started talking about building nuclear weapons,” he said. “The first problem was that Japan has hardly any uranium but in Australia, we were told there was much, much more… So we bought a farm, and then traveled to Australia.”

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You can see in the below image the evidence of the group’s mining exercises, as discovered by the AFP. A large pit, excavated with a hydraulic backhoe. Noda says they only managed to extract a small sample of uranium—but investigators in 1995 didn’t know this. At the time it seemed possible that the group had somehow managed to cobble together a nuclear bomb.


Those fears subsided through 1995, however, as Aum Shinrikyo’s upper management were rounded up and arrested. By the end of the year the cult had been almost entirely dismantled.


The evidence that most compellingly connected the farm to the subway attack, however, was a large pile of sheep bones and decomposing wool.


Samples from these bones and wool were sent off for analysis, and later came back with a positive result for sarin, which was the same colourless, odourless nerve agent that was used in the subway attacks. This chemical was developed in Nazi Germany, and causes death by seizing up the muscles associated with breathing. Apparently while one group of cult members had spent their time at Banjawarn mining for uranium, another group had been refining their recipe for chemical weapons and testing the prototype on the livestock.


This was the final piece of evidence found on the farm: several sake bottles, and mostly empty containers of perchloric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, chloroform, and potassium dichromate. Presumably these were used in the refinement of uranium and production of sarin.

It’s now been almost 26 years since the attack on the Tokyo Subway. Aum Shinrikyo’s guru, Shoko Asahara, was executed in 2018 by hanging, along with many of the cult’s other leaders. The former member we spoke to for our podcast, Naruhito Noda, served only a year in prison for his involvement, but was ultimately released. He has since written two books in Japanese, describing his process of post-cult deprogramming and his general regret at being a member of such a malignant organisation. As he said to us:

“It was certainly defined as brainwashing… I got swept up in this concept of his, then suddenly we were making weapons.”

This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes. You can listen to the full story here, free, only on Spotify.