Afghans told to avoid Kabul airport as Islamic State threat emerges

Amid Western troops' scurry to evacuate as many people as possible before an Aug 31 deadline


Reuters August 26, 2021
US Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load passengers aboard a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 24, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

The United States and allies urged people to move away from Kabul airport on Thursday due to the threat of a terror attack by Islamic State militants as Western troops hurry to evacuate as many people as possible before an Aug 31 deadline.

Pressure to complete the evacuations of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban has intensified, with all US and allied troops due to leave the airport next week.

In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the US embassy in Kabul advised citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified "security threats".

In a similar advisory, Britain told people in the airport area to "move away to a safe location".

"There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack", the British Foreign Office said in a statement.

Australia also urged its citizens and visa holders to leave the area, warning of a "very high threat of a terrorist attack" at the airport.

The warnings came against a chaotic backdrop in the capital, Kabul, and its airport, where a massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been underway since the Taliban captured the city on Aug. 15.

While Western troops in the airport worked feverishly to move the evacuation as fast as possible, Taliban fighters guarded the perimeter outside, thronged by thousands of people trying to flee rather than stay in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Ahmedullah Rafiqzai, an Afghan civil aviation official working at the airport, said people continued to crowd around the gates despite the attack warnings.

"It's very easy for a suicide bomber to attack the corridors filled with people and warnings have been issued repeatedly," he told Reuters.

"But people don't want to move, it's their determination to leave this country that they are not scared to even die, everyone is risking their lives."

Crowds of people wait outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 25, 2021 in this picture obtained from social media. PHOTO: REUTERS

Crowds of people wait outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 25, 2021 in this picture obtained from social media. PHOTO: REUTERS

Risking lives

A NATO country diplomat in Kabul said that although the Taliban were responsible for security outside the airport, threats from Islamic State could not be ignored.

"Western forces, under no circumstances, want to be in a position to launch an offensive or a defensive attack against anyone," the diplomat added. "Our mandate is to ensure evacuations end on Aug 31."

The Taliban are enemies with the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.

"Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group," said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another Western official said flight operations had slowed on Wednesday but the pace of evacuations would hasten on Thursday.

It was unclear how many eligible people hoping to travel were left but one Western official said an estimated 1,500 US passport and visa holders were trying to get to the airport.

The White House said President Joe Biden was briefed on Wednesday about the threat from the ISIS-K group as well as contingency plans for the evacuation.

Biden has ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month, to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, despite European allies saying they needed more time to get people out.

In the 11 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 on Tuesday. The US military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.

Evacuees board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 23, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Evacuees board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 23, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Threats, looting

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.

The US military said it would shift its focus to evacuating its troops in the final two days before the Aug 31 deadline.

The Taliban have said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume after the foreign troops go.

The United Nations is leaving some 3,000 Afghan staff at its mission. A UN security document reviewed by Reuters described dozens of incidents of threats, the looting of UN offices and physical abuse of staff since Aug 10.

The Taliban's 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. Women were barred from school or work.

The Taliban have said they will respect human rights and not allow terrorists to operate from the country

But, with the twentieth anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States looming, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told NBC News there was "no proof" that Al Qaeda's late leader Osama bin Laden was responsible.

US-backed forced ousted the Taliban from power weeks after those attacks as their leadership had refused to cave in to US demands to make bin Laden leave his base in Afghanistan.

"There is no evidence even after 20 years of war ... There was no justification for this war," Mujahid said.

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 23, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 23, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

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