13 US Troops Killed, More Injured, in Terrorist Attack at Kabul Airport
10 Marines among the dead; they were securing one of the last gates open for Afghans, Americans to escape.
Thirteen U.S. troops were killed and 18 injured in a terror attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday as they worked to get some of the last evacuees out of Kabul. The attack marked a deadly and tragic end to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan during the final days of U.S. forces serving there.
In somber remarks at the White House late Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden pledged to find those responsible, but said U.S. evacuation operations of Americans and Afghans will go on through the military’s planned Aug. 31 exit.
“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,” Biden said, adding, "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.”
Coordinated attacks—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—killed scores of Afghan civilians gathered by the airport as they waited for a chance to be allowed inside to evacuate.
Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, spoke to reporters in the Pentagon about the attack Thursday afternoon, when the total number of service members who had died was 12 but casualty information was still in flux.
“We’re still working to calculate the total losses,” McKenzie said via videoconference.
After those remarks, U.S. Central Command issued a statement confirming that "a thirteenth U.S. service member ... died from his wounds suffered as a result of the attack on Abbey Gate.”
“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,” Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in the statement. “We continue to provide the best possible medical care to those injured.”
McKenzie said the troops were helping to screen potential evacuees seeking to enter the airport.
Of those killed, 10 were Marines and another was a member of the Navy. The military branches of the remaining service members was not immediately known. Several other Marines were injured, the service said in a statement.
“These fallen heroes answered the call to go into harm’s way to do the honorable work of helping others,” said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger. “As we mourn, we also keep those who are still over there protecting Americans and our Afghan partners at the forefront of our thoughts. Our Marines will continue the mission.”
McKenzie said 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 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 the airport. 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 the 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 were on the ramp in Kabul at the time of his remarks, 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, Bradley Peniston, and Caitlin Kenney contributed to this report.