KABUL — At least 12 American soldiers died and another 15 were wounded in the two blasts at Kabul airport on Thursday, General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, confirmed at a news conference. According to McKenzie, preliminary information indicates that the attack was carried out by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, known by its acronym in English, Isis-K and a common enemy of Washington and the Taliban, which took power in Afghanistan on 15 August.
The terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the attack, reported the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors communications from Islamic extremist groups.
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The death toll among US military personnel made this incident the deadliest incident for US forces in Afghanistan in a decade and one of the most violent in all 20 years of war. In 2011, a helicopter crash in Wardak province left 38 dead, including 31 US military personnel, seven Afghan security forces and an interpreter. The last time the US recorded casualties among its combat forces, which is approaching a total of 2,400 dead, was in February 2020. The deaths occur five days before the deadline for the Americans and their NATO allies (Organization of the North Atlantic Treaty) remove their fighters from Afghan soil.
McKenzie also confirmed that there are several Afghan citizens dead and injured, but the exact number is still unknown. The New York Times, Afghan health officials said there would be between 40 and 60 dead, between Afghans and foreigners, and at least 120 wounded. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who “vehemently” condemned the attack, told AFP earlier that there were between 13 and 20 dead and 52 wounded.
“If we find out who’s responsible for this, we’ll go after them,” McKenzie said, answering a reporter’s question who asked whether the US intends to retaliate against Isis-K. “We’re finding out who was responsible for this cowardly attack and we will. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we’re looking for them.
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The attack on this farm only accentuates an already chaotic situation at the airport, which is controlled by the Americans. With civilian flights disrupted, few Afghans are able to leave, as the removal priority is for foreign nationals and Afghans who worked for NATO forces and received visas from Western military alliance countries.
Some 104,000 people have been removed from the country since the Taliban returned to power on Aug. 15, but thousands were still waiting outside the airport when the explosions took place. Rescue operations, McKenzie said, are expected to continue until “they are closed at the end of the month” and will go ahead even in the face of security risks.
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The first explosion took place outside Abbey Gate, the main access point to the airport, and was followed by an exchange of fire. The second detonation, a few meters from the first, took place near the Hotel Baron, a building widely used by American and British diplomats. The current situation is volatile, warned the Pentagon, and new attacks are expected, as is common in Isis-K’s modus operandi.
The most likely theory, McKenzie said, is that one of the suicide bombers self-detonated while passing through the US military security checkpoint, but that it never entered the airport’s perimeter. Previous attempts at attacks, the general said, may have been blocked by the Taliban, responsible for security around the airport.
The Taliban, he said, is responsible for carrying out a pre-check before allowing people to arrive in the region where foreign troops are located, but there is no evidence that fundamentalists have intentionally let the suicide bombers pass. Before the attack, he recalled, “100,000 people passed through” safely.
Established in mid-2014, Isis-K is based on former members of an equally radical group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, or Student Movement, from Pakistan, present in border areas between the two countries. It follows a model similar to that of other Islamic State cells — called provinces — around the world: a relative independence from the group’s leadership, based in Syria and Iraq.
For days, Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, had pointed out the risk of attacks at the airport, but the warnings took on a new dimension on Wednesday night. Several countries and the Taliban itself highlighted that there were “very credible” threats from Isis-K and issued warnings for civilians to leave the airport. Faced with the risks, several European countries had already suspended the withdrawal of people from Afghanistan.