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Why the Hunt for the Real Atlanta Bomber Took Nearly 7 Years

December 13, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

While Richard Jewell was an initial suspect, it took collaboration between federal and local investigators to zero-in on the actual bomber, Eric Rudolph.

Midway through the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, three pipe bombs went off in the Centennial Olympic Park, killing two people and injuring 111. The man behind the bombing was 29-year-old Eric Rudolph, a terrorist who went on to carry out three more bombings over the next year and a half. But in order to catch him, the federal government and local law enforcement had to change how they worked. It wasn’t until they increased collaboration on domestic terrorism that Rudolph was finally captured—nearly seven years later.

Like Timothy McVeigh, who bombed Oklahoma City in 1995, Rudolph was former military member and far-right extremist who turned to violence. Rudolph bombed the Olympics because, as he later said in a statement, he wanted to embarrass the United States on the world stage for legalizing abortion. In January and February 1997, he bombed an abortion clinic and a gay nightclub in the Atlanta area, injuring 11 people. In January 1998, he bombed another abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, seriously injuring a nurse and killing a police officer—making it the first deadly abortion clinic bombing in U.S. history.

Although Rudolph acted alone, he was part of a growing trend of violent far-right extremism in the 1980s and ‘90s. This type of extremism was on the federal government’s radar, but at the time, local law enforcement didn’t necessarily see attacks on abortion clinics and a major sporting event as part of a larger picture of domestic terrorism.

US soldiers inspect a vehicle on July 28, 1996 in downtown Atlanta. Security checks increased following the bomb blast at Centennial Park which killed two people and injured 111.

“The entire mindset in the United States was terrorism was not terrorism unless it was foreign,” says Malcolm Nance, who has spent decades training local law enforcement in counterterrorism and is the executive director of TAPSTRI. “It was just sort of like domestic terrorism in the United States was so anecdotal that it was to be ignored.”

Richard Jewell Initially Labeled as Suspect

One of the tragedies of the Atlanta bombing is that security guard Richard Jewell, who discovered Rudolph’s bomb and saved lives by starting an evacuation, became the main suspect for the first three months after the …read more


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