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A Mysterious Explosion in the Outback, Conspiracies, and a Japanese Doomsday Cult

Lying out on the edge of the vast, arid moonscape that is the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia is a remote 500,000-acre ranch and cattle station called Banjawarn Station. It is barely a speck on the map, a forsaken realm of punishing sun and cracked earth, a place that most people could drive right past without even noticing it at all, perhaps even glad to be on there way from this uninhabitable wilderness. Yet on the evening of May 28, 1993, this isolated, forgotten place made a name for itself when it was rocked by an enormous seismic shock that rattled hundreds of square miles of desert wastelands and created a huge boom that reverberated through the night. Those few souls who were out in this forbidding place at the time, mostly truckers, Aborigines, and gold prospectors, would also variously report seeing a blinding flash of light, a massive ball of fire, a streaking light, and a “huge red colored flare” that shot up straight into the sky. Those who were close enough even reported being knocked down by the violent lurching of the earth under their feet. It was an extremely anomalous event, and would kick off a bizarre mystery that would include talk of secret experiments, nuclear weapons, conspiracies, and a Japanese doomsday cult.

Geoscience Australia, who recorded the tremors, at first thought it was nothing more than an earthquake, which while rare in the region were not totally unheard of, but the witness reports of bright flashes and fireballs caused speculation to turn to the possibility that it had been a meteor strike. However, there was no sign of any impact crater or even evidence that a meteor had exploded in the air. There was also the idea that it could have been caused by a mine explosion, but it would later be deemed to have been far more intense than any known mine explosion up to that point. The Arlington, Virginia based Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) would estimate that the explosion would have been 170 times larger than any known mine explosion, and more like the magnitude of a small nuclear blast, “perhaps equal to up to 2,000 tons of high explosives.”

Australian desert

It remained an unsolved mystery for years, and since no one had been injured and it had happened in a forsaken wasteland far from civilization people just shrugged their shoulders and it was quickly just sort of forgotten about. That is, until March 20 of 1995, when the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo shocked the world with its bold sarin gas attack on a commuter train on the crowded Tokyo subway system. It was a sinister terrorist act that left 12 people dead and thousands more injured or permanently plagued with health problems, and it would inevitably lead to the downfall of leader Shoko Asahara and his followers, but it also cast the mystery of the Banjawarn Station in a new light.

It would turn out that the cult had been up to all manner of nefarious dealings in the years leading up to the sarin attacks. They had been secretly producing sarin and VX gas, and also stockpiling anthrax and other biological agents in order to purge the earth of nonbelievers in preparation for the end of days. It is all pretty ominous stuff, and it would culminate in that horrific subway attack, meant to be just a taste of what was meant to lead to other, more widespread and deadlier attacks on the populace. Yet before the sarin attack showed just how breathtakingly dangerous the Aum Shinrikyo cult actually was, they had mostly been just considered a bunch of religious kooks, and were not really on anyone’s radar as a serious threat. Indeed, many outside of Japan had never even heard of them at all. About now you might be wondering what any of this has to do with a mysterious explosion half a world away from Japan, but you see the thing is, in 1993 the Banjawarn Station just happens to have been owned by the Aum Shinrikyo.

The ranch had been purchased by the cult in April of that very year, and although it is not exactly known what their reasoning was behind buying a remote ranch in the middle of nowhere on another continent, it is fairly easy to guess. After all, this was a place far from prying eyes, surrounded by desert and well-removed from civilization, a perfect place to get up to things one didn’t want anyone snooping into. Whatever it was the cult was up to out there, it is a safe bet it wasn’t just hanging out raising sheep and cattle, and when looking back in retrospect it seems awfully coincidental that this seismic event just happened to have occurred while the Aum Shinrikyo owned that ranch. It is known that the cult was very interested for many years in the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons or radioactive dirty bombs for their terror campaign, and it would be learned they had even recruited two nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union, so the idea here is that they had actually succeeded, and that the Banjawarn Station incident was no meteor, mine explosion, or earthquake, but rather some sort of nuclear test carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo.

Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara

This idea would be supported by some unusual sightings and Aum shenanigans in the days leading up to the incident. There were several members of the Aborigine community in the area who claimed to have seen Aum members in full length, helmeted suits similar to hazmat suits on the property, and a twin engine airplane was frequently seen to land and offload mysterious large containers. It was also found that Aum Shinrikyo’s construction minister and one of its top masterminds, Kiyohide Hayakawa, had made a trip to the ranch on his way back from Russia. There were also several incidents in which Aum members had been caught trying to sneak mislabeled chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, ammonium chloride, sodium sulphate, perchloric acid, as well as sophisticated laboratory and mining equipment into Australia, as well as glass tubing, glass evaporators, beakers, Bunsen burners, mixing bowls, generators, ditch diggers, and a rock-crushing machine. At this time before the Tokyo attacks Aum wasn’t really on anyone’s radar as a true terrorist threat, and although much of this equipment and chemicals were seized, they were more or less let off with a slap on the wrist and it didn’t really raise any major red flags at the time. However, looking back it all seems in retrospect like they might have been trying to mine the uranium deposits known to exist in the area, and develop chemical and nuclear weapons. Could it be that they managed to succeed?

As sinister as it all sounds, there are several problems with the notion that Aum Shinrikyo actually developed, built, and tested a nuclear weapon in the Australian Outback. One of the main strikes against it is that when the seismic signature of the Banjawarn Station incident was carefully analyzed by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, it was found to not match the signature of a nuclear blast. There is also the fact that authorities believe that there were no actual Aum Shinrikyo members actually on the property or even in the country at the time of the blast. Although the cult sold the ranch in October of 1994, when the property was raided in the aftermath of the sarin attacks, it was found that they had left a lot of stuff behind, including lab equipment and paraphernalia for making chemical weapons, and while it was found that while they had indeed been working on and testing sarin gas on the ranch, there was no evidence at all of any radiation or equipment for fashioning a nuclear weapon.

The Aum Shinrikyo compound at Banjawarn Station

Another wild conspiracy theory with regards to Aum Shinrikyo and its connection to the explosion is that it wasn’t nuclear weapons at all, but rather some sort of seismic weapon, an “earthquake machine,” or possibly an electromagnetic weapon of some sort. This notion is helped along by a 1997 article in The New York Times that claimed Aum Shinrikyo members had been studying the work of Nikola Tesla’s electromagnetic earthquake-inducing weapons technology, and the article would state:

The cult apparently sent a party of its members to the former Yugoslavia to study the work of Nikola Tesla, the discoverer of alternating current who toyed with the theory of seismic weapons before he died in 1943. At the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, the members seem to have reviewed Tesla’s thesis and other research papers concerning such [electromagnetic] weapons.

The problem is, there was no such equipment found on the property, and earthquake inducing technology is not believed to be possible with current technology, perhaps out of the realm of possibility entirely, making it seem unlikely this rogue cult could have successfully developed it, no matter how well-funded and connected they were. In the end, the official reason for the Banjawarn Station incident is that it was most likely the result of a bolide, which is a type of very bright meteor that explodes in the atmosphere, therefore leaving no crater, possibly coincidentally at the time of an earthquake, and a senate subcommittee on the matter would state that “’the meteorite scenario is consistent with the eyewitness observations and with the energy levels derived from seismic records.” Case closed, or is it? A lot of people don’t seem to think so, and the theories still fly, with some even suggesting it might have been a UFO crash. What happened out there in that desert on that strange evening? Was it just a meteor, or something more nefarious? If so, what connection did it have to the Japanese cult? Were they testing some sort of weapon, or is this all just coincidence? Whatever the answers may be, it certainly seems to be a peculiar, obscure case that will likely generate some amount of discussion for some time to come.