Olympic Park Bombing

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Olympic Park Bombing

"FBI Takes Lead in Developing Counterterrorism Effort"

Magazine article

By: Lois R. Ember

Date: November 4, 1996

Source: Chemical & Engineering News, November 4, 1996.

About the Author: Lois R. Ember, a senior correspondent for Chemical & Engineering News, regularly writes about issues involving chemical and biological warfare and U.S. national security.


In 1996, the Summer Olympic Games were held at the Centennial Olympic Park near downtown Atlanta, Georgia. At 12:30 on the morning of July 27, the tenth day of the games, security guard Richard Jewell noticed a green military-style backpack beneath a sound tower used for a rock concert that was just winding down from the evening before. Suspicious that the unattended backpack may have contained a bomb, Jewell pointed it out to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent. Federal explosives experts rushed to the scene and observed that wires protruded from the backpack. They in turn called in a bomb disposal crew.

At 12:58 a.m., an anonymous 911 caller was warned that a bomb would explode in Centennial Olympic Park in a half hour. As the authorities attempted to clear the area and Jewell evacuated the sound tower, they met with resistance from many people in the area who had been drinking, so the evacuation efforts were only partially successful.

Any doubts about what was inside the backpack were dispelled at 1:20 when it exploded. The pipe bomb sent nails, screws, and metal shrapnel flying in all directions. One woman, Alice Hawthorne, was killed by the blast, a Turkish television cameraman named Melih Uzunyol died of a heart attack as he ran to cover the explosion, and 111 people were wounded, including Uzunyol's young daughter.

Initially, Jewell was regarded as a hero for his prompt action. Just three days later, however, an Atlanta newspaper ran a story revealing that he was a suspect in the bombing and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) considered that he may have planted the bomb just so he could win acclaim by finding it. Jewell vigorously denied the allegations, but for nearly three months he lived under a cloud of suspicion. In 1997, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno issued a public apology to Jewell for the FBI leak that led to the news story, and Jewell was cleared of any suspicion.

Initially, the authorities believed that the bomb may have been the work of foreign or domestic terrorists intent on disrupting the Olympic Games. Of particular concern was the possibility that the bomb dispersed some type of chemical or biological agent. Accordingly, the FBI sent samples from the blast debris to the Science and Technology (SciTech) Center Laboratory, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The following article, excerpted from Chemical & Engineering News, outlines the activities of the lab and the reasons for its formation.

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The investigation by the SciTech Center was a first step in the investigation of the crime. The center discovered no chemical or biological agents, but the fact that the lab was called on to participate in the investigation suggests the extent to which fears of terrorism have come to influence criminal investigations.

Further, it suggests that the ongoing threat of terrorism has affected the nature and extent of security procedures at public events: major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the Olympic Games, New Year's Eve on New York City's Times Square, political conventions—any venue at which large numbers of people gather and that would provide a high-profile target for a terrorist bent on making a dramatic statement.

The investigation of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing eventually produced results, but only after the crime was linked with others. On January 16, 1997, two bombs exploded at the Northside Family Planning Clinic in Sandy Springs, a suburb of Atlanta. On February 21, 1997, a bomb exploded on the patio area of a lesbian nightclub in Atlanta; police defused a second bomb outside. Like the bomb at Centennial Olympic Park, each of these bombs was contained in a backpack and nails were used as shrapnel.

Then on January 29, 1998, a bomb exploded at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama—and investigators obtained their first real break when a witness saw a man drive away in a pickup truck. Investigators eventually traced the truck to Eric Robert Rudolph, a domestic terrorist, anti-government extremist, and member of the loosely knit anti-abortion group the Army of God. After eluding law enforcement officials for five years, he was arrested on March 31, 2003. On April 13, 2005, Rudolph, to avoid the death penalty, pled guilty to the two-year string of bombings.



CSIS Homeland Defense Project. Combating Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Terrorism: A Comprehensive Strategy: A Report of the Crisis Homeland Defense Project. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2001.

Web sites

CNN.com. "Atlanta Olympic Bombing Suspect Arrested." March 31, 2003. <http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/05/31/rudolph.main/> (accessed June 17, 2005).

TKB.org. "Terrorism Knowledge Base: Terrorist Group Profile: Army of God." Available from <http://www.tkb.org/Group.jsp?groupID=28> (accessed on June 17, 2005).

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