The deadly ISIS-K attack at the Kabul airport on Thursday has upended U.S. evacuation efforts and confirmed widespread fears a terrorist group would seek to capitalize on the chaos as thousands scramble to leave Afghanistan’s capital before next week.
The Biden administration for weeks had warned of such an ambush, which involved a suicide bombing just outside the gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), followed by a number of ISIS gunmen who opened fire on civilians and military forces. The attack killed 13 U.S. service members, more than 170 Afghans, two British nationals, and the child of a British national.
The terrorist strike — the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a decade — sent shockwaves across Kabul and rattled global leaders. It came amid an already tense evacuation that has gripped the U.S. as the administration races to complete its withdrawal by the Tuesday deadline maintained by President Biden.
The attack put a dent in evacuation numbers out of the airport Thursday, with about 12,500 people evacuated between early Thursday morning and early Friday morning, a significant drop from the roughly 20,000-person daily average in the week prior.
Now, with other western nations hastily wrapping up their evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, lawmakers, administration officials and defense experts warn impending attacks by the Islamic extremist group could further threaten U.S. forces on the ground and hamper evacuation operations.
“We still believe there are credible threats. In fact, I’d say specific, credible threats, and we want to make sure we’re prepared for those,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Friday when discussing efforts to increase protections at the airport.
Kirby said defense officials “have additional information” on such threats and recent efforts to expand the perimeter around the Kabul airport and close additional roads “is based on information that we have.”
Pressed on whether another attack is imminent, Kirby said, “we certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts, absolutely.”
That sentiment was echoed later Friday, when Biden and Vice President Harris were briefed by their national security team “that another terror attack in Kabul is likely,” a White House official said.
“The next few days of this mission will be the most dangerous period to date,” the official said. “The president reaffirmed with the commanders his approval of all authorities they need to conduct the operation and protect our troops, and all reported back that they have the resources they believe they need to do so effectively.”
The Kabul airport has made a particularly attractive target for ISIS-K and other terrorist groups, with thousands of people desperately clamoring to make it past the gates and into the airfield before U.S. forces completely leave the country before the end of the month.
“For them, having a large number of civilians densely congregated in a very insecure environment, including a number of Americans and other western nationals, presents about the most tempting possible target for a terrorist attack,” said William Wechsler, the former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combatting terrorism, now with the Atlantic Council.
A day after the blast, the United Kingdom announced it would wrap up its evacuation efforts, and only the individuals already inside the Kabul airport would be flown out.
Troops are beginning the final stage of leaving the country and will be gone “in a few days,” British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said Friday.
“It is with deep regret that not everyone has been able to be evacuated during this process,” Wallace said, including 800 to 1,100 Afghan allies who had been eligible to leave the country who did not make it, as well as 100 to 150 British nationals who were still in the country.
And Germany on Thursday announced that its military had evacuated Kabul after the explosions.
In a Twitter statement, the country’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said no German soldiers were injured in the blasts and an emergency departure had occurred.
“An extension of the operation in Kabul was not possible. The worsening security situation on site and the unequivocal decision of the Taliban made this impossible,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
In the days prior to the attack — which also injured 20 service members and at least 200 Afghans — officials had been increasingly blunt about terrorist threats as the U.S. wound down its operations.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said ISIS-K threats against the airport were “very real and very substantial.”
And Biden several times over several days pointed to the possibility of attacks in explaining his plan to withdraw U.S. forces by his deadline, despite calls to extend the mission.
“There are real and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration,” Biden said Tuesday. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians.”
Though not widely known to the Western world until Thursday’s attack, defense officials in the last several years have warned of the growing strength and threat of ISIS-K, a rival to the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani networks.
Formed six years ago by Pakistani Taliban, ISIS-K is believed to have killed hundreds of people in dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year alone, including 90 killed in a Kabul school bombing in May.
In February 2019, then-Vice Director for Operation of the Joint Staff Air Force Lt. Gen. James Hecker and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Owen West told the House Armed Services Committee that ISIS-K numbers were growing.
“Their tactics are pretty ruthless,” Heckler said. “We see some of the things they do. They like high-profile attacks. They like to go to downtown Kabul and take a suicide bomber, get as many civilians around them as they can, and blow themselves up.”
Asked whether he believes that ISIS-K potentially poses a threat to the United States, West replied: “The intelligence community believes that, yes.”
West also warned a “significant or sudden drawdown of our counterterror ability or footprint” in Afghanistan would risk ISIS-K growing and becoming a larger threat to the U.S. homeland.
Looking forward, the group “will continue to pose an external counterterrorism challenge in the years ahead,” according to Wechsler.
For his part, Biden has vowed to strike ISIS-K facilities “at the place we choose, in a moment of our choosing” in a targeted response to the attack.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said in a speech Thursday addressing those responsible for the Kabul bombing.
Psaki said Friday that the president does not want the perpetrators “to live on the Earth anymore.”