Report

Biden Vows to Respond After Deadly Kabul Terrorist Attack

U.S. officials had repeatedly warned of threats from the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan this week.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on August 26, 2021 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on August 26, 2021 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

A complex attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday killed 13 U.S. service members and wounded 18 more, marking the highest single-day death toll of the war in Afghanistan for the U.S. military in over a decade, just as the United States scrambles to complete its final withdrawal.

U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking at the White House on Thursday evening, vowed that efforts to evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies from the country would continue and not be “deterred by terrorists.” He also vowed revenge on the terrorists who orchestrated the attack, saying “we will hunt you down and make you pay.”

Members of the Islamic State group’s local branch, known as Islamic State-Khorasan, detonated a suicide vest at the airport’s Abbey Gate, according to senior U.S. military officials. Local reports citing the Taliban indicate that the blast left over 50 Afghans dead and more than 200 injured.

A complex attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday killed 13 U.S. service members and wounded 18 more, marking the highest single-day death toll of the war in Afghanistan for the U.S. military in over a decade, just as the United States scrambles to complete its final withdrawal.

U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking at the White House on Thursday evening, vowed that efforts to evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies from the country would continue and not be “deterred by terrorists.” He also vowed revenge on the terrorists who orchestrated the attack, saying “we will hunt you down and make you pay.”

Members of the Islamic State group’s local branch, known as Islamic State-Khorasan, detonated a suicide vest at the airport’s Abbey Gate, according to senior U.S. military officials. Local reports citing the Taliban indicate that the blast left over 50 Afghans dead and more than 200 injured.

“We believe it is their desire to continue those attacks, and we expect those attacks to continue,” McKenzie told reporters on Thursday. While officials initially said a suicide blast also occurred at the Baron Hotel near the Kabul Airport, the Pentagon said on Friday that those reports were inaccurate.

The blast occurred just after 5 p.m. local time, according to a State Department alert obtained by Foreign Policy, after U.S. and British officials had repeatedly warned of threats from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups against the airport throughout the week.

The blast was followed by a firefight on the ground prompted by Islamic State members, McKenzie said. It wasn’t immediately clear to officials how members of the terrorist group managed to get to the airport’s gate, but the United States remains worried that the militant group could also launch rockets or vehicle-borne suicide attacks.

In a message sent through an affiliated news agency and verified by experts, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack.

All U.S. diplomatic personnel have been safely accounted for, according to one U.S. official familiar with the matter, who said the U.S. diplomatic post reported it had “100 percent accountability of chief of mission personnel.” This count does not include U.S. military personnel.

The explosion highlights the precarious security situation at the Kabul airport, an escape of last resort for the estimated hundreds of American citizens still left in Afghanistan and the thousands of Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort and now face reprisals from the Taliban.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the attack on Thursday morning, a White House official told CNN.

The blast came one day after the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a security alert warning U.S. citizens to “immediately” leave the vicinity of three gates to the airport due to “security threats outside the gates of Kabul airport.”

Biden has warned about the growing threat of a potential terrorist attack from Islamic State-Khorasan for nearly a week. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and Allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday.

During closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, administration officials told U.S. lawmakers that terrorist threats from the Islamic State could jeopardize U.S. evacuation efforts, according to several congressional sources familiar with the matter.

The attack comes as the Taliban have bolstered security checkpoints near Kabul airport in recent days, U.S. officials said, making it more difficult for Afghans to get close. Thousands more Americans and former Afghan interpreters applying for special immigrant visas, known as SIVs, for helping U.S. service members during the 20-year war are still awaiting evacuation.

As the United States has stuck to an Aug. 31 deadline for shutting down operations in Afghanistan, Canada and other U.S. allies began halting evacuations early Thursday, while more than 5,200 American troops will spend most of the next week clearing out of the war-torn country.

A White House official said on Thursday morning that 101,300 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan since the end of July by the United States and its allies, one of the largest airlifts in history, but the attack appeared to seriously impede evacuation efforts. A source familiar with events on the ground said that U.S. troops began welding all of the gates at the airport shut after the blast.

But Western officials insisted evacuations would continue despite the attack. “Our priority remains to evacuate as many people to safety as quickly as possible,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted on Thursday.

Sen. Mark Warner, Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the United States “must do everything we can to stabilize the situation outside the airport so that we can resume evacuations of American citizens, SIVs, and the Afghans most in danger as soon as possible.”

the airport so that we can resume evacuations of American citizens, SIVs, and the Afghans most in danger as soon as possible.”

Update, Aug. 26, 2021: This article has been updated throughout the day with new details about the explosions in Kabul.

Update, Aug. 27, 2021: This article was updated after the Department of Defense clarified that there was only one suicide bombing near Kabul Airport, not two, as previously reported.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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