Two suicide bombers and gunmen attacked crowds of Afghans flocking to Kabul’s airport Thursday, killing 13 U.S. troops and 60 Afghans, according to officials.
Officials initially said that 11 Marines and a Navy medic were killed in the attacks, but another service member died hours later, bringing the death toll to 13. Eighteen service members were wounded and officials warned the toll could grow.
Two suicide bombers and gunmen attacked crowds of Afghans flocking to Kabul’s airport, transforming a scene of desperation into one of horror. An Afghan official said that at least 60 Afghans were killed in the attack, with more than 140 wounded.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the killings on its Amaq news channel.
In an emotional speech from the White House, President Joe Biden said the latest bloodshed would not drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan earlier than scheduled, and that he had instructed the U.S. military to develop plans to strike IS.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, pledged that the U.S. will continue to fulfill its mission "to evacuate U.S. citizens, third-country nationals, Special Immigrant Visa holders, US embassy staff and Afghans at risk."
"Despite this attack, we are continuing the mission," he vowed, noting there are roughly 1,000 Americans left in Afghanistan.
"As of today we have 5,000 evacuees on the ramp awaiting air left," he continued. "Since August 14, we've evacuated more than 104,000 civilians, over 66,000 by the United States and over 37,000 by our allies and partners. As the secretary of state said yesterday, we believe there are about a little more than 1,000 Americans left in Afghanistan at this point."
There is still an active threat from ISIS outside Kabul’s airport, McKenzie told reporters Thursday.
“The threat from ISIS is extremely real," General McKenzie said. "We expect those attacks to continue."
McKenzie also said the U.S. was investigating who planned the explosions and would “go after” them if they can accurately attribute the attacks.
“If we can find who's associated with this, we will go after them,” he said. “We've been clear all along that we're going to retain the right to operate against ISIS in Afghanistan.”
McKenzie said ISIS militants were actively trying to launch more explosions, including vehicle-based suicide attacks and rocket attacks.
The military was actively monitoring the threats to prevent any more attacks, the general said.
“We take the threat of these attacks very seriously. We're working very hard,” he added.
McKenzie noted that despite the "extremely real" threat from the Islamic State, evacuations will continue.
"We are continuing to bring people onto the airfield," he said. "We just brought a number of buses aboard the airfield over the last couple or three hours. We'll continue to process and flow people out."
"The plan is designed to operate under stress and under attack," he continued. "And we will coordinate to make sure it's safe for American citizens to come to the airfield. If it's not, we'll tell them to hold and work other ways to get them to the airport. We'll continue to flow them out until the end of the month."
"We can confirm that a number of U.S. service members were killed in today’s complex attack at Kabul airport," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said earlier Thursday. "A number of others are being treated for wounds. We also know that a number of Afghans fell victim to this heinous attack."
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones and teammates of all those killed and injured," he added.
U.S. officials have said that information is still coming in and they are trying to determine exact numbers of casualties.
In a previous statement, Kirby confirmed "at least one other explosion at or near the Baron hotel," which is "a short distance from" the Abbey gate.
A U.S. official told the AP that the complex attack was believed to have been carried out by the Islamic State group. The IS affiliate in Afghanistan is far more radical than the Taliban, who recently took control of the country in a lightning blitz and condemned the attack.
The official says members of the U.S. military were wounded in Thursday’s attack, which involved two suicide bombers and gunmen.
The Islamic State group is more radical than the Taliban and has carried out a wave of attacks targeting civilians.
In a statement, a Taliban spokesperson condemned the attack at Kabul's airport in Afghanistan.
"I confirm two explosions in the assembly of people in the area managed by U.S. forces have occurred," the spokesperson said, adding: We strongly condemn this gruesome incident and will take every step to bring the culprits to justice."
The explosion went off in a crowd of people waiting to enter the airport, Adam Khan, an Afghan waiting nearby, told The Associated Press. He said several people appeared to have been killed or wounded, including some who lost body parts.
President Joe Biden met with his national security team Thursday morning following the attack.
"The President met with his national security team this morning, including Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin, Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark] Milley, and commanders on the ground," the White House said in a statement. "He will continue to be briefed on updates on the evolving situation throughout the day."
Biden spent much of the morning in the secure White House Situation Room where he was briefed on the explosions and conferred with his national security team and commanders on the ground in Kabul.
A number of the president's events scheduled for Thursday have been postponed or canceled, including a virtual meeting with governors about Afghanistan.
Overnight, warnings emerged from Western capitals about a threat from Afghanistan’s Islamic State group affiliate, which likely has seen its ranks boosted by the Taliban’s freeing of prisoners during their blitz across the country.
Late Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy warned citizens at three airport gates to leave immediately due to an unspecified security threat. Australia, Britain and New Zealand also advised their citizens Thursday not to go to the airport, with Australia’s foreign minister saying there was a “very high threat of a terrorist attack.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied that any attack was imminent in the wake of those warnings.
British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told the BBC early Thursday there was ”very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack” at the airport, possibly within “hours.” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said his country had received information from the U.S. and other countries about the “threat of suicide attacks on the mass of people.”
The acting U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ross Wilson, said the security threat at the Kabul airport overnight was “clearly regarded as credible, as imminent, as compelling.” But in an interview with ABC News, he would not give details and did not say whether the threat remained.
Hours later, the blast was reported.
"There has been a large explosion at the airport, and there are reports of gunfire," the U.S. Embassy in Kabul wrote in a security alert following the attack.
"U.S. citizens should avoid traveling to the airport and avoid airport gates at this time," the alert continued. "U.S. citizens who are at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately."
Even as the area was hit, evacuation flights continued to take off from Kabul airport.
Adam Khan was waiting nearby when he saw the first explosion outside what’s known as the Abbey gate. He said several people appeared to have been killed or wounded, including some who were maimed.
The second blast was at or near Baron Hotel, where many people, including Afghans, Britons and Americans, were told to gather in recent days before heading to the airport for evacuation.
A former Royal Marine who runs an animal shelter in Afghanistan says he and his staff were caught up in the aftermath of the blast near the airport.
“All of a sudden we heard gunshots and our vehicle was targeted, had our driver not turned around he would have been shot in the head by a man with an AK-47,” Paul “Pen” Farthing told Britain’s Press Association news agency.
Already, some countries have ended their evacuations and begun to withdraw their soldiers and diplomats, signaling the beginning of the end of one of history’s largest airlifts. The Taliban have insisted foreign troops must be out by America’s self-imposed deadline of Aug. 31 — and the evacuations must end then, too.
Canada ended its evacuations, and European nations halted or prepared to stop their own operations.
“The reality on the ground is the perimeter of the airport is closed. The Taliban have tightened the noose. It’s very, very difficult for anybody to get through at this point,” Canadian General Wayne Eyre, the country’s acting Chief of Defense Staff, said ahead of the attack.
Lt. Col. Georges Eiden, Luxembourg’s army representative in neighboring Pakistan, said that Friday would mark the official end for U.S. allies. But two Biden administration officials denied that was the case.
A third official told the AP that the U.S. worked with its allies to coordinate each country’s departure, and some nations asked for more time and were granted it.
“Most depart later in the week,” he said, while adding that some were stopping operations Thursday. All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the information publicly.
Danish Defense Minister Trine Bramsen bluntly warned earlier: “It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul.”
Denmark’s last flight has already departed, and Poland and Belgium have also announced the end of their evacuations. The Dutch government said it had been told by the U.S. to leave Thursday.
But Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said some planes would continue to fly.
“Evacuation operations in Kabul will not be wrapping up in 36 hours. We will continue to evacuate as many people as we can until the end of the mission,” he said in a tweet.
The Taliban have said they’ll allow Afghans to leave via commercial flights after the deadline next week, but it remains unclear which airlines would return to an airport controlled by the militants. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said talks were underway between his country and the Taliban about allowing Turkish civilian experts to help run the facility.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.