At least 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans were killed in a pair of suicide bombings outside the Kabul airport on Thursday.
ISIS-K, an offshoot of the Islamic State that opposes the Taliban, has claimed responsibility for the attack, which came as the U.S. works to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghan civilians from the nation following the Taliban’s takeover less than two weeks ago. The devastation on Thursday has not deterred desperate Afghans from attempting to flee, as thousands returned to the Hamid Karzai Airport on Friday looking for a way out ahead of the August 31st pullout deadline for U.S. forces.
Reports have varied as to the number of Afghans who died in the attack. NBC News reported Friday morning that the total was 113, citing an unnamed Health Ministry official. This would bring the total number of people who died in the attack to at least 125. NBC News also reported that at least 180 others had been injured.
The deaths of the 13 American service members are the first U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan since February of 2020, and the most who have died in a single day since August of 2011.
U.S. Central Command Commander General Kenneth McKenzie briefed the media on the attacks on Thursday, confirming reports that the explosions took place near the Abbey Gate, a main entrance to the Hamid Karzai Airport, and in the vicinity of the nearby Baron Hotel, and that they were followed by gunmen opening fire on civilian and military forces.
Gen. McKenzie added that the U.S. believes the suicide bombings took place as American troops were screening Afghans before allowing them into the airport. “This is close up work,” he said. “The breath of the person you are searching is upon you. While we have overwatch in place, we still have to touch the clothes of the person that’s coming in. I think you all can appreciate the courage and dedication that is necessary to do this job.”
He closed by emphasizing that the evacuation mission will continue. “ISIS will not deter us from accomplishing the mission, I can assure you of that,” he said.
Gen. McKenzie: ISIS will not deter us from accomplishing the mission, I can assure you of that. pic.twitter.com/2sahi8gHGY
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) August 26, 2021
President Biden made similar assurances while addressing the nation hours later, adding that he had already directed the Pentagon to put together an operational plan to attack ISIS-K. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” the president said.
President @JoeBiden: "To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone wishing America harm, know this — we will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay." pic.twitter.com/uDLdbZv69X
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) August 26, 2021
The Hamid Karzai Airport has been swarmed with people desperate to leave Afghanistan since the Taliban’s took control of the nation earlier this month. The frantic push to evacuate as many people as possible before next Tuesday has led to security threats around the airport. Officials pointed to the potential of an attack by ISIS-K. The bombings on Thursday came a day after the U.S. embassy warned Americans to stay away from the airport, citing an unspecific threat.
The evacuations have continued despite the threats and now the attack. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced on Wednesday that there may be 1,500 Americans left in Afghanistan as the August 31st pullout deadline draws near. It was announced on Thursday that 500 of the 1,500 had since been evacuated. The State Department was able to contact the remaining 1,000 Americans, who had previously been unreachable, but not all of them wished to leave Afghanistan.
More than 105,000 people have been evacuated since the Taliban’s takeover was imminent, according to the White House.
This story has been updated.