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 a 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.

1996 Atlanta Bombing
Dimitri Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
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 bombing. The false theory that Jewell had planted the bomb to make himself seem like a hero made the bombing seem like an isolated incident, rather than one in a series of terrorist bombings.

The real bomber didn’t become a suspect until 1998. In January of that year, a pre-med student named Jermaine Hughes witnessed Rudolph’s bombing at the Birmingham abortion clinic, and noticed that as people ran toward the scene to help, there was one man—Rudolph—who was walking away. Hughes and a lawyer named Jeff Tickal both followed Rudolph and helped identify his appearance and license plate.

Rudolph Enters Hiding—and the Ten Most Wanted List

Soon after his identification, Rudolph fled into the woods of North Carolina. The Federal Bureau of Investigation put Rudolph on its Ten Most Wanted list that May; and in October, authorities formally charged him with the bombings at the Olympics, the Atlanta abortion clinic and the gay nightclub. But Rudolph continued to evade capture for nearly five years, living in the woods and relying on the help of friends sympathetic to his extremist ideology.

To catch Rudolph required a new type of collaboration between local law enforcement and federal bureaus like the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. This began in earnest after the attacks on September 11, 2001, when federal officials started to share information with local law enforcement about extremist ideology and the whereabouts and behaviors of people they were looking for. The search for Rudolph was one example of why this collaboration was needed.

“I think that this is the beginning of the basis for Joint Terrorism Task Forces,” Nance says. “I believe that this created the symbiosis that exists today in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, where now local law enforcement is an integral part of anything that the FBI does.”

Eric Rudolph, 1996 Atlanta Bombing
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Eric Robert Rudolph being escorted from the Cherokee County Jail for a hearing in federal court in 2003 after being on the run for five years.

It was because of this collaboration that a rookie cop named Jeff Postell was able to identify Rudolph in May 2003, when he noticed him digging through a trash can in Murphy, North Carolina. The cop who picked him up “knew from briefings that [Rudolph] was somewhere in the mountains out there and knew that he would be scavenging,” Nance says.

Lessons From the Atlanta Bombing Case

The need for federal and local collaboration was not the only lesson learned from the Atlanta bombing. “I think it made us also look at the targeting of high profile events and athletic events” when considering terrorist threats, says Anthony Lemieux, lead researcher of the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Program at Georgia State University. 

It was also a lesson in the dangers of rushing to identify a suspect and ignoring signs of domestic terrorism. Nance notes that the bombs Rudolph planted were similar to those that other far-right domestic terrorists had used. 

Upon announcing Rudolph's arrest, Attorney General John Ashcroft highlighted the collaboration between federal and local investigators that finally led to Rudolph's capture. "I want to especially congratulate the local authorities in Murphy, N.C., who with the FBI and other local and state law enforcement throughout the country were able to apprehend this suspect," Ashcroft said. "The American people, mostly importantly the victims of these terrorist attacks, can rest easier knowing that another alleged killer is no longer a threat."