President Joe Biden raised the specter of a terrorist attack at or near the Kabul airport, which could be carried out by the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-K, as the U.S. military continues its massive evacuation in a city now controlled by the Taliban.
“I want to say again just how difficult this mission is, and the dangers it poses to our troops on the ground. The security environment is changing rapidly. There are civilians crowded at the airport — although we’ve cleared it of thousands of them,” Biden said during a Sunday speech from the White House. “We know that terrorists may seek to exploit the situation and target innocent Afghans or American troops. We are maintaining constant vigilance to monitor and disrupt threats of any source, including the likely source being ISIS-K.”
The U.S. Embassy had to be abandoned a week ago, and Hamid Karzai International Airport erupted into chaos as crowds of Afghans attempted to flee when the Taliban marched into Kabul last Sunday following an ill-planned U.S. military withdrawal.
Thousands of U.S. troops had to be sent back into the country to assist with the evacuation and to protect the airport, with the Taliban just outside the perimeter and with thousands of Americans and Afghan allies stuck outside. There have been numerous reports of the Taliban preventing U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from reaching the airport, including by beating them.
Biden added on Sunday: “We’re under no illusions about the threat. … Every day, we have troops on the ground, these troops and innocent civilians at the airport face the risk of an attack from ISIS-K from a distance.”
Biden declined to outline the specific “plans” relating to the United States’s evacuation of Afghanistan, citing “security reasons” — including terrorist threats.
The president said that 11,000 people were evacuated from Kabul this weekend, which he said brought the total to 28,000 evacuees since Aug. 14 and a total of 33,000 Americans, Afghans, and third-party nationals evacuated since July.
“It is something we’re focused on with every tool in our arsenal,” Sullivan explained during an interview on CNN. “Our commanders on the ground have a wide variety of capabilities that they’re using to defend the airfield against a potential terrorist attack. We’re working hard with our intelligence community to try to isolate and determine where an attack might come from.”
“It is something that we are placing paramount priority on stopping or disrupting, and we’ll do everything that we can as long as we’re on the ground to keep that from happening. But we are taking it absolutely deadly seriously,” Sullivan added.
“We are advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so,” the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan wrote .
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on “specific details about the threat environment” in Kabul at a Saturday briefing, only noting that “the situation in Kabul … in the whole city, is fluid and dynamic.”
“We're also keeping a close watch on any potential terrorist threat at or around the airport, including from the ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan who were released from prison when the prisons were emptied. And because they are, by the way, to make everybody understand that the ISIS in Afghanistan are the — have been the sworn enemy of the Taliban,” Biden said in his remarks to the nation on Friday.
Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS-K fighters are believed to have been among the thousands of prisoners freed from the Parwan Detention Facility when the Taliban entered Kabul last weekend. The prison is right next to Bagram Airfield, which the U.S. quietly abandoned in July.
The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan often attempts to recruit Taliban defectors and has clashed with the Taliban in the past.
When Biden said Friday that al Qaeda was “gone” from Afghanistan, he was quickly contradicted by Kirby, who said “that we know that al Qaeda is a presence, as well as ISIS, in Afghanistan, and we’ve talked about that for quite some time.” Biden officials have since tried to clean up Biden’s remark.
The lead inspector general for Operation Freedom's Sentinel released a May report warning that ISIS-K was strengthening itself in 2021, saying, “After a string of major defeats and setbacks last year, ISIS-K regained strength this quarter. According to media sources, the group has maintained a steady operational tempo and retains the ability to carry out terrorist attacks in Kabul and other major cities.”
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