West Warns of Possible Attack at Kabul Airport Amid Airlift

In this satellite photo released by Planet Labs Inc., Kabul’s international airport is seen as an evacuation flight taxis to the military side of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Western nations warned Thursday of a possible attack on Kabul’s airport, where thousands have flocked as they try to flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the waning days of a massive airlift. Britain said an attack could come within hours.

Several countries urged people to avoid the airport, with Belgium saying there was a threat of a suicide bombing. But with just days left before the evacuation effort ends and American troops withdraw, few appeared to heed the call.

Over the last week, the airport has been the scene of some of the most searing images of the chaotic end of America’s longest war and the Taliban’s takeover, as flight after flight landed to pull out those who fear a return to the militants’ brutal rule.

In this image provided by the Department of Defense, two paratroopers assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division maintain security while a C-130 Hercules takes off during a evacuation operation in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Department of Defense via AP)

Already, some countries have ended their evacuations and begun to withdraw their soldiers and diplomats, likely signaling the beginning of the end of one of history’s largest airlifts. The Taliban have so far honored a pledge not to attack Western forces during the evacuation, but insist the foreign troops must be out by America’s self-imposed deadline of Aug. 31.

But overnight, new 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.

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told the BBC on Thursday there was “very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack” at the airport, possibly within “hours.”

Heappey conceded that people are desperate to leave and “there is an appetite by many in the queue to take their chances, but the reporting of this threat is very credible indeed and there is a real imminence to it.”

“There is every chance that as further reporting comes in, we may be able to change the advice again and process people anew, but there’s no guarantee of that,” he added.

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. “It’s not correct,” he wrote in a text message after being asked about the warnings. He did not elaborate.

Amid concerns about attacks, military cargo planes leaving Kabul airport already use flares to disrupt any potential missile fire. But troops also worry about the teeming crowds outside the airport.

While the Taliban and others have tried to control them, there’s no formal screening process as there was under Afghanistan’s former government. That raises the risk that someone could slip through and detonate explosives in the crowd.

Senior U.S. officials said Wednesday’s warning from the embassy was related to specific threats involving the Islamic State group and potential vehicle bombs. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing military operations.

The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan grew out of disaffected Taliban members who hold an even-more extreme view of Islam. Naming themselves after Khorasan, a historic name for the greater region, the extremists embarked on a series of brutal attacks in Afghanistan that included a 2020 assault on a maternity hospital in Kabul that saw infants and women killed.

The Taliban have fought against Islamic State militants in Afghanistan. However, their advance across the country likely saw IS fighters freed alongside the Taliban’s own. There are particular concerns that extremists may have seized heavy weapons and equipment abandoned by Afghan troops who fled the Taliban advance.

Amid the warnings and the pending American withdrawal, some European nations said they would have to end their evacuations.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex told French radio RTL said his country’s efforts would end on Friday evening due to the upcoming American withdrawal.
Danish defense minister Trine Bramsen bluntly warned: “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.


Updated Thursday, August 26, 2021 at 6:28 am .