13 US Troops Killed in Terrorist Attack at Kabul Airport
In a statement, Biden vows to attackers: "We will hunt you down and make you pay."
Updated: 5:54 p.m. with remarks from President Biden and news that a 13th service member has died.
Thirteen U.S. troops were killed Thursday and 18 more injured in a terror attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport as they tried to get some of the last evacuees out of Kabul, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
In a statement Thursday evening, President Joe Biden said, "To those who carried out this attack...know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay." He added, "We have some reason to believe we know where they are, and we will find ways of our choosing, without a large military operation, to get them. Wherever they are."
Two separate explosions took place in what the Pentagon called a “complex attack”: a suicide bomb just outside the airport’s Abbey Gate checkpoint and another bomb of unknown type near the Baron Hotel a short distance away.
Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, spoke to reporters in the Pentagon about the attack Thursday afternoon. After those remarks, "A thirteenth U.S. service member... died from his wounds suffered as a result of the attack on Abbey Gate,” CENTCOM spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban said in a written statement.
“The latest number of injured is now 18, all of whom are in the process of being aeromedically evacuated from Afghanistan on specially equipped C-17s with embarked surgical units. We continue to provide the best possible medical care to those injured,” Urban said.
McKenzie said the troops were helping to screen potential evacuees seeking to enter the airport when the attack occurred.
“We’re still working to calculate the total losses. We just don’t know what that is right now,” McKenzie said via videoconference.
Of those killed, 11 were Marines and another was a member of the Navy, a Senate aide confirmed. The military branch of the 13th service member was not immediately known.
McKenzie said a number of ISIS gunmen also fired during the attack. The bomber at the gate “did not get on the installation."
But McKenzie said that U.S. forces are bracing for more attacks: “Typically, the pattern is multiple attacks.”
“The threat from ISIS-K is very real, as we have seen,” McKenzie said. “We believe it is their desire to continue those attacks and we expect those attacks to continue. We’re doing everything we can to be prepared for those attacks. That includes reaching out to the Taliban who are actually providing the outer security cordon around the airfield to make sure they know what we expect them to do to protect us.”
McKenzie said his “working assumption” is that the person who detonated the bomb had made it past a Taliban checkpoint and was among those being searched by U.S. service members.
The Taliban are searching people who approach the airport, he said, and “sometimes those searches have been good, and sometimes they have not.” He said U.S. forces would continue to examine procedures and steps in an effort to improve screening.
McKenzie said U.S. forces are looking for the perpetrators of the “cowardly” attack and “are prepared” to respond.
He said that U.S. forces in Kabul have what they need to protect themselves. He cited AH-64 attack helicopters and MQ-9 drones flying from the airfield, as well as F-15s and AC-130 gunships patrolling around it. He said anti-rocket and -mortar systems are in place around it. He also said that work has been done to keep truck bombers at bay, including asking the Taliban to push out the security perimeter and close certain nearby roads.
McKenzie said some of the aircraft had been shot at.
"They have taken shots at our aircraft on occasion without effect,” he said. We think that's going to continue. As you know, military aircraft have a variety of self defense systems. What's more vulnerable are the charter aircraft and other aircraft that are coming in that do not have those systems."
He said systems are in place to protect these airlifters.
“The safety of our aircraft coming in and out is of paramount importance because obviously you have the opportunity there for 450 or more people to die,” he said. “We know that ISIS would like to get after those aircraft if they can.”
The attack came hours after the U.S. embassy put out an urgent alert to Americans who were still trying to leave the country to immediately get away from the gates, and British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey warned that crowds at the gate offered the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, “a target that is just unimaginable.”
The military is rapidly completing its evacuation operations out of Kabul, though about 5,000 soldiers and Marines were still based there as of Thursday. About 5,000 evacuees are on the ramp in Kabul now, McKenzie said, and “we are continuing to bring people onto the airfield.”
The massive airlift operation has evacuated more than 104,000 Afghans, Americans, and coalition members from Afghanistan as of Thursday morning. About 5,000 Americans have been evacuated, many with guidance or help from Joint Special Operations Command operators and other U.S. forces, he said.
An estimated 1,000 Americans remain in-country, McKenzie said. Not everyone wants to leave, he noted.
McKenzie said he still hopes to achieve the August 31 deadline “if it’s possible to do so.”
The general praised the U.S. forces helping to screen potential evacuees at the Kabul airport. “This is close-up work. The breath of the person you are searching is upon you,” he said. “Americans have got to be in danger to do these searches.”
In a written statement posted on Twitter, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “Terrorists took their lives at the very moment these troops were trying to save the lives of others. We mourn their loss. We will treat their wounds. And we will support their families in what will most assuredly be devastating grief. But we will not be dissuaded from the task at hand.”
Another Thursday explosion inside the airport itself was a “controlled detonation” by U.S. troops who are destroying equipment in preparation for departure, a defense official said late on Thursday.
Jennifer Hlad and Bradley Peniston contributed to this report.