Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo August 26, 2021

Biden Vows To ‘Hunt’ ISIS-K As Evacuations Continue Amid Kabul Blast Chaos


photo of Kabul

Several young Afghans are fighting for their own survival and that of their country as the Americans...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors

Thursday was an awful and bloody day in Kabul as multiple suicide bombings at the airport killed at least 11 U.S. Marines, a navy corpsman and at least 90 Afghan civilians. Hundreds were injured, many critically. It was the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan since 2012. President Joe Biden promised reprisals against ISIS-K, who claimed responsibility. Jane Ferguson and Lisa Desjardins report.

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!


Amna Nawaz: An awful and bloody day in Kabul today, as multiple suicide bombings at the airport killed 12 American service members, 11 U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman, and at least 90 Afghan civilians. Many more were injured, many critically so. It was one of the deadliest days for American forces in the country since 2011. An affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed that attack, all this as the U.S. has now evacuated over 100,000 people from Afghanistan, a mission that a top American general said will continue. At the White House, meanwhile, President Biden promised reprisals against ISIS, and said the United States would — quote — "make them pay." Again with the support of the Pulitzer Center, our Jane Ferguson reports tonight from Doha, Qatar.

And a warning: This report contains graphic images that will upset some viewers.

Jane Ferguson: Bodies lay in a sewage canal running now with blood just outside the Kabul Airport following the bombings. Plumes of smoke could be seen as planes took off, the evacuation continuing throughout the carnage. And sirens could be heard as night fell. Chaos in the streets quickly ensued, as people tried to help those injured from the blasts. Bloodied victims were rushed to hospitals. Witnesses described what they saw.

Man (through translator): People were standing at the airport gate for evacuation when the blast happened. The ambulances are carrying injured and dead. My cousin was also wounded in the leg, so we brought him to the hospital.

Ashraf, Eyewitness (through translator): It was time for the evening prayer when an explosion happened near the airport. I saw about 70 vehicles carry around 150 injured to the hospital.

Jane Ferguson: An affiliate of the Islamic State, the so-called ISIS-K, claimed responsibility. U.S. officials believe that more attacks are possible. K stands for Khorasan, a historic name for a region including Afghanistan and parts of Iran. President Biden canceled his virtual meetings with governors who volunteered to temporarily house Afghan refugees. The Biden administration said they've been sounding the alarm about the risks involved for days. At the Pentagon, the commanding general for U.S. operations in the region spoke by remote from his headquarters in Tampa. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie was asked whether he trusted the Taliban to help secure the airport, an insurgency that the U.S. was bombing less than two weeks prior.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie: You have heard me say before, it's not what they say; it's what they do. They have a practical reason for wanting us to get out of here by the 31st of August. And that's that they want to reclaim — they want to reclaim the airfield. We want to get out by that date too, if it's going to be possible to do so. So we share a common purpose to — as long as we have kept that common purpose aligned, they have been useful to work with.

Jane Ferguson: The Taliban condemned the attack and said the U.S. was responsible for the security where it occurred.

Abdul Qahar Balkh, Taliban Official: It is because of foreign forces, the presence of foreign forces, that such attacks take place.

Jane Ferguson: The first explosion occurred near the Abbey Gate, where a mix of British and American soldiers were stationed. We filmed around the area just a couple of days ago. Before images show swells of crowds around the compound just days before the blast, despite previous warnings from the U.S. and allies about possible complex attacks. The second blast happened near the Baron Hotel, also close to the airport.

Najibullah Quraishi: An explosion just happened. Everybody is running.

Jane Ferguson: Najibullah Quraishi, a reporter working with "PBS Frontline," was near the airport when the first explosion happened.

Najibullah Quraishi: Even the Taliban was warning people to not go near by the airport. But the people were still trying to flee the country. So, this is what happened. And this is, I can say, the first explosion after the Taliban took over Kabul.

Michael Weiss: Wherever ISIS sees an opportunity to inflict harm and unleash carnage against anybody who does not subscribe to their obscurantist ideology and theocratic doctrine, they will do so.

Jane Ferguson: Michael Weiss is a senior editor at "Newslines" magazine. He says his greatest national security concern is how the remaining Americans will now escape.

Michael Weiss: And now, as we can see, ISIS-K with the ability to penetrate deep into the heart of the capital of the country, what happens if one or more of these actors, particularly ISIS-K, goes around taking American hostages? You know, are we going to see videos of Americans on their knees in front of a black flag, like we did in 2014 and 2015? And are we going to see it on the anniversary of 9/11, no less? These, unfortunately, are contingencies that we have to now entertain.

Jane Ferguson: Allies involved in the evacuation reacted to the attack. While in Ireland, French President Emmanuel Macron said the situation is — quote — "profoundly deteriorating."

Emmanuel Macron: I think de facto all of us are put in a situation where we cannot protect all the Afghan people we wanted to protect. What we want to do with the Americans, work hard and well until the very last minute to do the maximum operations and to be sure about the security and safety of our own people.

Jane Ferguson: Some countries announced today that they have ceased evacuations. Others pledged to continue operations.

Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister: Clearly, what this attack shows is the importance of continuing that work in as fast and efficient a manner as possible in the hours that remain to us. And that's what we're going to do.

Jane Ferguson:The United Nations is planning a joint meeting on the Afghanistan crisis on Monday.

Amna Nawaz: We will talk to Jane in just a moment. But first, this evening, President Biden spoke from the East Room of the White House, responding to today's terrorist attack in Kabul and defending his plan for full U.S. withdrawal.

President Joe Biden: To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down to make you pay. I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command. Over the past few weeks — I know you're — many of you are probably tired of hearing me say it — we've been made aware, our intelligence community that the ISIS-K, an archenemy of the Taliban, people who were freed when both those prisons were opened, has been planning a complex set of attacks on United States personnel and others. This is why, from the outset, I repeatedly said this mission was extraordinarily dangerous and why I have been so determined to limit the duration of this mission. As General McKenzie said, this is why our mission was designed — it was the way it was designed to operate, operate under severe stress and attack. We have known that from the beginning. And as I have been in constant contact with our senior military leaders — and I mean constant, around the clock — and our commanders on the ground throughout the day, they made it clear that we can and we must complete this mission. And we will. And that's what I have ordered them to do. We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation. I have also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership, and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, in the moment of our choosing. Here is what you need to know: These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans. We will get our Afghan allies out. And our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated. And I have the utmost confidence in our brave service members who continue to execute this mission with courage and honor to save lives and get Americans, our partners, our Afghan allies out of Afghanistan.

Amna Nawaz: And "NewsHour" special correspondent Jane Ferguson joins me now from Doha. Jane, good to see you. Thanks for the time. This area where the explosions took place today, you know it well. You were there in — just a day or so ago. Just tell us a little more about this area and describe it for us.

Jane Ferguson: It was always an extraordinary scene. You had — basically, it was initially a road surrounding the airport, or towards the entrance of the airport. And on one side of the road, you had a compound that had been a hotel. It was called the Baron Hotel. But it was really a hotel run by a security firm, so it was a specialist, secure hotel. And it had come to actually host the British forces when they had come in. And so, outside the Abbey Gate, which was the main gate to that hotel on the street, that's where we saw swarms of people. That's where we had been filming all week. Massive amounts of civilians were showing up. Just down the street, maybe 30, 50 yards, there was that deep canal that was basically surrounded by razor wire and that American forces had been using to try to sort through people as they were trying to get into the airport. As a scene, I had never really seen anything like it before, because you saw service members from many different militaries there mingling with the public, the public who were obviously very stressed and very panicked to get out of the country, but not belligerent, very cooperative with soldiers. So, you had — I saw soldiers from Canada, from France, Italy, Germany, as well as the main ones being from the United States and the U.K. forces. On the outer perimeter, you also had Taliban fighters who were somehow trying to control the crowds. But they were largely just a little bit further down. There was no checkpoints as such for people coming in that would have necessarily stopped and frisked them or searched them. There were no dogs, no metal detectors, nothing like that. It was a much more chaotic scene.

Amna Nawaz: And, Jane, we know now ISIS-K, K for Khorasan, which is the Central Asian faction of the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility. What do they gain from an attack like this at this time?

Jane Ferguson: This is an attack that is a win-win from their perspective. They are the archenemy of the Taliban. They have been fighting them for several years now. They fight over territory, fighters and money, and, essentially, resources. So they have been fighting them for a long time. This makes them — this helps them make the Taliban look like they are less in control of the capital. And it also means that they get these incredibly high-value targets by hitting American soldiers. So, for them, this is something that probably — an opportunity that wouldn't have presented itself quite so easily before. This is a huge victory from that perspective for them. Now, in terms of trying to make the Taliban look like they have less control over the city, it's important to remember the Taliban themselves have even sort of hinted that they did not expect to take Kabul so quickly. Since they have taken it, they haven't yet formed a government. Things in the city seem relatively calm. The airport is chaotic. But, that being said, it's important to remember that any opposition that they could have faced actually melted away. The Taliban didn't win the city. They didn't fight for it. Their control over the city is not necessarily secure. It's not necessarily guaranteed. And this is a message from ISIS to the Taliban as much as it is to America that they can't take anything for granted in terms of territory and the capital city of Kabul.

Amna Nawaz: Jane, briefly, before I let you go, is there any way to even know, does this mean more chaos in these final days before the U.S. withdrawal?

Jane Ferguson: It's certainly not looking good. The president, President Biden, has committed to trying to continue bringing Americans out of Afghanistan. How they're going to do that is going to become even more of a logistical challenge. It's already been one. They're going to have to get the crowds away from the airport somehow. And all the while, in the background, there's fear that growing conflict between ISIS and the Taliban could escalate in the city. We have seen so far not the urban warfare scenes that were predicted whenever the Taliban might enter Kabul city. But that's not guaranteed. And there's a fear of open fighting between the two groups, which could lead to incredible insecurity across Afghanistan.

Amna Nawaz: That is special correspondent Jane Ferguson, who just evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, herself in the last couple of days, reporting from Doha, Qatar. Thank you, Jane.

Jane Ferguson: Thanks, Amna.

Amna Nawaz: And our Lisa Desjardins joins me now to talk about the president's remarks, the first time we have heard from him since these attacks today. Lisa, you have covered him for years. What did you make of what the president had to say?

Lisa Desjardins: I think this was a real insight into his thinking, something that a lot of us have been wanting to see for days, as his decisions were being questioned. This was Senator Joe Biden who was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. This is an area that he has a great amount of depth on. However, one thing I noticed, he was very blunt about where his thinking is coming from. A lot of people wonder, where is this coming from? His military commanders. He said again and again they were unanimous, he said, in how they should do this. Should we have stayed longer? No, they were unanimous it shouldn't be. Should we send more troops now? No, the military commanders, he said, tell me we should not send more troops now. He also stressed that it's the — this sort of strange dance with the Taliban that is under way right now that is part of his thinking, that, in fact, they are — he wants to leave by August 31 because the Taliban, in his words, that coordination has allowed people to flow to the airport in an important way. I also think it was notable that you have that Joe Biden who was reaching out as the mourner in chief, and it felt palpable, to me, what he was saying about the loss of a dozen American service members. But at the same time, he was also saying, we will not forgive, we will not forget. A lot of questions remain about what that means, what exactly his response will be to whomever carried out this attack.

Amna Nawaz: This is clearly, so far, one of the biggest days of his presidency, and we say so far. But what does it mean politically moving forward? This was not necessarily what they expect it to be dealing with at this stage.

Lisa Desjardins: The stakes on every level are so high for people's lives and also politically for this country. Republicans see this as an opportunity to say President Biden is not the man you thought you were elected, he's not competent, you cannot trust him. He's saying things that may not be the same as what those on the ground are saying. Democrats right now are sort of holding their breath. Many of them privately are saying, we're worried. They're advising the president, some of them publicly, to extend the deadline, even though he hasn't. And that's remarkable for Democrats to come out and say, we think you're making a mistake here on this major decision. There's a lot of nervousness among them because margins in the House and Senate are very close. And if President Biden wants to get through his very ambitious agenda, even in the next couple of months, he needs public momentum behind him. And there's a lot of questions about how this affects that precisely. When Congress comes back — it's on recess right now — we will have hearings. We will have a lot of discussion about this, a lot of questions for him, for his administration. Right now, it's still a real-time disaster, and a lot of lives are still at stake. And that's what you heard from the president.

Amna Nawaz: It's a lot on this president's agenda, but, clearly, a devastating day for a very personally invested president as well …

Lisa Desjardins: That's right.

Amna Nawaz: I think it's fair to say. Lisa Desjardins, covering President Biden for us, thank you.

Lisa Desjardins: You're welcome.


war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict
a pink halftone illustration of a woman speaking a microphone while raising a fist


Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues