US on alert for more Isis attacks after 85 killed in Kabul airport carnage
US forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday after at least one Islamic State (Isis) suicide bomber killed 85 people, including 13 US soldiers, outside the gates at Kabul airport.
Two blasts and gunfire rocked the area outside the airport on Thursday evening, witnesses said. Video shot by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies strewn around a canal at the edge of the airport.
A health official and a Taliban official said the toll of Afghans killed had risen to 72, including 28 Taliban members, although a Taliban spokesperson later denied that any of their fighters guarding the airport perimeter had been killed.
The US military said 13 of its service members were killed and 18 wounded in what it described as a complex attack.
Isis, an enemy of the Islamist Taliban and the West, said one of its suicide bombers targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army”.
It was not clear if suicide bombers detonated both blasts or if one was a planted bomb. It was also not clear if Isis gunmen were involved in the attack or if the firing that followed the blasts was Taliban guards firing into the air to control crowds.
US officials vowed retribution. Gen Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said US commanders were watching for more attacks by Isis, including rockets or car bombs targeting the airport.
“We’re doing everything we can to be prepared,” he said, adding that some intelligence was being shared with the Taliban and he believed “some attacks have been thwarted by them”.
US forces are racing to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the August 31 deadline set by US President Joe Biden.
He said the US long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001: to root out al Qaeda militants and prevent a repeat of the September 11 attacks on the US that year.
Biden said he had ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike Isis-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said during televised comments from the White House.
Video taken after the attack showed corpses in a waste water canal at the airport fence, some being fished out and laid in heaps while wailing civilians searched for loved ones.
“I saw bodies and body parts flying in the air like a tornado blowing plastic bags,” said one Afghan witness.
“That little water flowing in the sewage canal had turned into blood.”
Taliban guards blocked access to the airport on Friday, witnesses said.
“We had a flight but the situation is very tough and the roads are blocked,” said one man on an airport approach road.
British defence secretary Ben Wallace said the threat of attacks would increase as Western troops got closer to completing the huge airlift.
“The narrative is always going to be as we leave, certain groups such as Isis will want to stake a claim that they have driven out the US or the UK,” Wallace told Sky News. He also vowed action against Isis wherever it manifests itself.
Isis-K was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan but has established a second front in the north of the country. The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point in the US said Isis-K includes Pakistanis from other militant groups and Uzbek extremists in addition to Afghans.
Western countries fear the Taliban, who once sheltered Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda before it was ousted from power by the US-led 2001 invasion, will allow Afghanistan to turn again into a haven for militants.
The Taliban has said they will not let the country be used by terrorists.
The US will press on with evacuations despite the threat of further attacks, McKenzie said, noting there were still about 1,000 US citizens in Afghanistan.
The pace of flights accelerated on Friday and American passport holders had been allowed to enter the airport compound, according to a Western security official inside the airport.
In the past 12 days, Western countries have airlifted nearly 100,000 people. But they acknowledge thousands will be left behind when the last US troops leave at the end of the month.
Worries are growing that the remaining population will face a humanitarian crisis with the coronavirus spreading and shortages of food and medical supplies looming.
The World Health Organization said it hoped to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistani authorities to get medical supplies in.