The attack occurred just outside Abbey gate, where U.S. personnel until recently welcomed American citizens to board evacuation flights, according to four sources with knowledge of the situation.
The news comes just hours after defense officials began warning about an increased terrorist threat from the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan. Defense officials briefed lawmakers on Tuesday about the new threat targeting airport gates and military commercial aircraft evacuating people from Kabul, POLITICO first reported.
On Wednesday evening local time in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an alert warning Americans to avoid the area “[b]ecause of security threats outside the gates of Kabul airport.”
Less than an hour before confirming the explosion, Kirby said the evacuation was continuing and committed to relocating “as many people as we can until the end of the mission.”
As of early Thursday morning, the White House said the total number of people evacuated from Kabul since the operation began on Aug. 14 was 95,700, including 13,400 in the last 24 hours.
“This [attack] is a nightmare,” said Stacia George, director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, who has worked to get vulnerable people out of Afghanistan. “It took incredible courage and strength to get to those gates which are the door to the last reliable way to safety. Although this is happening, people will still keep trying to go back once or if the gates open again because what other choice do they have?”
Before the Taliban takeover, Afghan security forces had long formed a so-called ring of steel around the capital city, with multiple checkpoints operating along main roads and a U.S.-led intelligence system tracking extremists. There have been a series of spectacular Taliban and ISIS attacks in Kabul over the years, but that old system has evaporated since the city’s fall to the Taliban, replaced by chaos and uncertainty, opening the city to attack.
No individual or group has yet taken responsibility for the attack. But President Joe Biden this week warned that ISIS wanted to strike the airport. U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence detailed some of its specifics to POLITICO, such as ISIS’s plans to detonate a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device and launch shoulder-fired rockets.
ISIS has moved fighters and materials for the bombs from Nangarhar and Kunar provinces to areas around the airport, a U.S. official said. On Thursday morning, that U.S. official added that an IED attack to breach the outer perimeter wall of the airport might come within six hours. Afterward, ISIS fighters would shoot into the crowd with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades “in hopes of reaching processing centers” at the airport, the official said.
In the last day, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, had denied that an airport attack had been imminent, telling The Associated Press about the warnings: “It’s not correct.”