Atlanta Bombings Usher In New Form of US Terrorism
Targeting of emergency crews prompts caution, calls for training
ATLANTA AND BOSTON — The bombing of a gay nightclub in Atlanta this past weekend - and a blast in January at a family-planning clinic here - mark a new chapter in domestic terrorism that is forcing law enforcement and emergency personnel to reevaluate how they respond to such events.
In both instances, a second bomb packed with nails was strategically planted nearby. Its target: emergency personnel responding to the first bomb. This so-called sucker punch is a terrorist tactic used frequently in Europe and the Middle East. But the use of secondary bombs on American soil has been rare. Now, fire departments, police, and emergency management workers are being forced to act with more caution and to work more closely to understand the nature of this new threat.
The secondary bomb at the abortion clinic was "the landmark one," says Michael Forgy of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "It woke up a lot of people in Atlanta and all over the US."
A letter sent to local media outlets claimed responsibility for both Atlanta bombings. It said that the "Army of God" was launching a "total war" against the US government. It said the secondary device at the abortion clinic "was aimed at agents of the so-called federal government." It has promised future attacks.
"We're taking it seriously. We're looking into the validity of the letter and the claims that they're making," said Pamela Swanson, spokeswoman of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Although federal agents are careful not to link the two recent bombings here, they say similarities exist. The bombs at each site contained large nails, and experts suggest they may be hate crimes.
The first occurred Jan. 16 at a clinic where abortions are performed. After law-enforcement and fire crews responded to the first blast, a second bomb exploded an hour later, causing minor injuries to seven people - mostly emergency personnel. It was located 100 feet from the clinic but only 20 feet from where the fire and law-enforcement officials set up a command post.
In Friday's bombing, the Atlanta Police Department found and safely detonated a second bomb after a first exploded at a gay nightclub, injuring five people. Last July's explosion at Centennial Olympic Park appears to have more differences than similarities to the recent two, federal officials say, though they have not ruled out a connection.
While fire and police personnel are trained to secure an area and set up a perimeter after a bomb explosion or threat, looking for secondary devices has not been a focus because it's been decades since such an incident has occurred in the US.
"Most [fire] departments have the procedures, but it's been sort of a 'it's not going to happen' thing," Mr. Forgy says. "Now it has happened.... Atlanta is atypical because the Olympics were there, and people got a lot of that training, but other fire departments are going to have to get more training."
With some $3 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Fire Academy is developing several new courses for emergency personnel responding to terrorist acts. And under antiterrorism legislation passed last year by Congress, there is a new and growing level of interagency cooperation.
"We ... and other agencies are going to have to take a look at how we do business on the streets," agrees Winston Minor, fire chief for the City of Atlanta.
Underscoring the heightened alertness was an unusual "terrorist threat advisory" issued by the FBI earlier this week over a suspicious rental truck in Texas carrying fertilizer and fuel oil - the same components suspected in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was later found to be driven by an individual whose intentions were "harmless," said the FBI Tuesday.