“We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties,” tweeted Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, referring to the entrance to the airport, where four sources tell POLITICO that U.S. personnel until recently welcomed American citizens to board evacuation flights.
Kirby also confirmed a second explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, roughly 300 meters from the site of the first detonation. British troops had been using the hotel as a base for evacuating UK personnel.
An ISIS militant wearing a suicide vest was responsible for the first bombing, two U.S. officials and a person familiar with the situation told POLITICO, detonating around 5 p.m. local time just outside Abbey gate. Three sources said the U.S. troops returned fire soon after.
NATO troops have been ordered to leave the airport gates immediately, two people said.
The news comes just hours after defense officials began warning about an increased terrorist threat from the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan. Defense officials briefed lawmakers on Tuesday about the new threat targeting airport gates and military commercial aircraft evacuating people from Kabul,POLITICO first reported.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), who served in Afghanistan, told reporters today that lawmakers were briefing on this threat during a classified Wednesday session. “So it was a credible and real threat,” he said.
On Wednesday evening local time in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an alert warning Americans to avoid the area “[b]ecause of security threats outside the gates of Kabul airport.”
Less than an hour before confirming the explosion, Kirby said the evacuation was continuing and committed to relocating “as many people as we can until the end of the mission.”
As of early Thursday morning, the White House said the total number of people evacuated from Kabul since the operation began on Aug. 14 was 95,700, including 13,400 in the last 24 hours.
“This [attack] is a nightmare,” said Stacia George, director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, who has worked to get vulnerable people out of Afghanistan. “It took incredible courage and strength to get to those gates which are the door to the last reliable way to safety. Although this is happening, people will still keep trying to go back once or if the gates open again because what other choice do they have?”
Before the Taliban takeover, Afghan security forces had long formed a so-called ring of steel around the capital city, with multiple checkpoints operating along main roads and a U.S.-led intelligence system tracking extremists. There have been a series of spectacular Taliban and ISIS attacks in Kabul over the years, but that old system has evaporated since the city’s fall to the Taliban, replaced by chaos and uncertainty, opening the city to attack.
No individual or group has yet taken responsibility for the attack. But President Joe Biden this week warned that ISIS wanted to strike the airport. U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence detailed some of its specifics to POLITICO, such as ISIS’s plans to detonate a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device and launch shoulder-fired rockets.
ISIS has moved fighters and materials for the bombs from Nangarhar and Kunar provinces to areas around the airport, a U.S. official said. On Thursday morning, that U.S. official added that an IED attack to breach the outer perimeter wall of the airport might come within six hours. Afterward, ISIS fighters would shoot into the crowd with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades “in hopes of reaching processing centers” at the airport, the official said.
In the last day, the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, had denied that an airport attack had been imminent, telling The Associated Press about the warnings: “It’s not correct.”