Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told top Pentagon leaders to prepare for a potential ‘mass casualty event’ 24 hours before a suicide bomb rocked the hurried U.S. evacuation at the Kabul airport, new internal DOD documents reveal.
The documents, which the Pentagon condemned as a leak of classified information and urged the media not to report, detail top military officials trying to sort out security in a situation they already deemed a major risk.
‘I don’t believe people get the incredible amount of risk on the ground,’ Austin said on the call.
Austin told more than a dozen leaders who joined a conference call to prepare for a ‘mass casualty event,’ according to notes on military conference calls obtained by Politico.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned of ‘significant’ intel that ISIS-K was planning a ‘complex’ attack – military jargon for an attack involving multiple players designed to boost casualties.
Officials even identified the airport’s Abbey Gate, where U.S. troops conducted security sweeps, as a high risk target.
According to the report, during a separate call last Thursday, commanders spoke to a plan to close the Abbey Gate. However, U.S. forces kept it open in order despite misgivings to allow British allies to keep up evacuations being staged at the Baron Hotel, located near the gate.
Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin warned of a potential ‘mass casualty event’ just 24 hours before a suicide bomber set off a bomb that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 200 Afghans last week. Leaked notes on calls between Defense officials reveal struggles to protect the Kabul airport
According notes on the security calls among leaders provided to the publication by an unnamed source, officials warned about exactly the type of attack the U.S. now says transpired: a brazen suicide attack by ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate in the region that has repeatedly clashed with the Taliban.
It all took place in a fraught situation where Taliban members are providing security at checkpoints around a packed Kabul airport as the U.S. tries to fly out Americans and desperate Afghans while evacuating U.S. troops.
Initially the Pentagon said that there had been two suicide attacks, including at the Baron Hotel where the British were processing people. The following day the US changed its account and confirmed there had been only one, blaming ‘garbled’ intelligence from the scene
‘I don’t believe people get the incredible amount of risk on the ground,’ Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin said on the call
A view from the scene after at least five rockets were fired at the Afghan capital Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30, 2021
In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command, takes care of a young girl awaiting processing at an evacuation control checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021
How the Kabul airport terror attack unfolded and the ‘garbled’ intelligence on the ground that has caused confusion ever since
Thursday, August 26
6.20pm: A ISIS-K suicide bomb is detonated outside Abbey Gate and blamed for the deaths of 13 US soldiers and 170 Afghan evacuees.
7pm: The Pentagon claimed there had been two militants involved and that an explosion had taken place at the British-run Baron Hotel.
There were also incorrect claims that one of the bombs was set off inside a car.
Friday, August 27
US security sources said there was no blast at the Baron Hotel and that there was a sole suicide bomber.
US President Joe Biden vows retribution for the deaths of the 13 marines killed in the attack but will not delay or stop withdrawal from Afghanistan beyond August 31.
Sunday, August 28
Survivors of the bomb blast say American and Turkish soldiers guarding the Abbey Gate opened fire on the crowds running towards them in the aftermath of the suicide bomb.
One witness said: ‘The bullet went inside his head, right here near to his ear’
Monday, August 29
US intelligence sources tell Politico that the Americans wanted the Abbey Gate closed because it was the likely target of a terror attack – but it was kept open to allow the British to keep using it.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby would not confirm the report when asked about it at Monday’s Pentagon briefing.
‘We have been monitoring as close as we can intelligence that led us to believe that we were in a very dynamic and in some cases specific threat environment,’ he said when asked about it.
‘We’re going to investigate, we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened last Thursday. Thirteen precious lives are lost. We’re going to take that seriously … And we’re not going to investigate it in public,’ he continued.
‘I am absolutely not going to speak to a press story that was informed by the unlawful disclosure of classified information and sensitive deliberations here at the Pentagon. Just not going to do it,’ he said.
President Joe Biden had already warned publicly of the high security risk during the evacuation. He warned again Saturday, following the attack, that the chance of another such attempt was ‘highly likely.’ Biden on Sunday took part in a dignified transfer as the bodies of U.S. servicemen and women killed in the attack last week were returned home at Dover Air Force Base.
Austin during the call did not dismiss the warnings being transmitted by Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top commander in Afghanistan.
‘We probably ought to listen when you have a former [Joint Special Operations Command] and SEAL commander on the ground saying it’s high risk,’ Austin said in a subsequent teleconference meeting.
The Pentagon, which has sought to hold back information about security specifics including precise number of U.S. troops, Americans seeking to leave, and precise efforts to fortify the airport, blasted the leak.
‘This story is based on the unlawful disclosure of classified information and internal deliberations of a sensitive nature,’ fumed Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
He told the publication: ‘As soon as we became aware of the material divulged to the reporter, we engaged Politico at the highest levels to prevent the publication of information that would put our troops and our operations at the airport at greater risk.’
‘We condemn the unlawful disclosure of classified information and oppose the publication of a story based on it while a dangerous operation is ongoing,’ he added.
The publication said the notes on three calls were authenticated by a Defense official. It said it said it held back some information that might impact the security situation amid the risky efforts to withdraw remaining troops, Afghan allies and their families, and remaining U.S. citizens.
One unexplained notation comes from Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, in an exchange that also involved Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl.
‘We’re not going to get everyone out. We’ll get 90-95 percent,’ he said, according to a notation, although it was not clear if he was referring to Americans, allies, or Afghans seeking to evacuate. He had also observed that Taliban ability to provide security would ‘decay’ over time.
The rare view of back-and-forth inside the Pentagon came as survivors of the deadly blast claimed panicked US troops opened fire on the crowds of evacuees in the bloody aftermath, killing their loved-ones including a British father-of-two.
US officials said immediately after the attack that there had been two blasts, including at the Baron Hotel where the British were processing people, later revising that assessment to say there was only one.
The British Ministry of Defense declined to respond to allegations they were to blame for keeping the gate open, but said in a statement: ‘Throughout Operation Pitting we have worked closely with the US to ensure the safe evacuation of thousands of people.
Two US officials speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters that American forces launched a strike in the Afghan capital targeting a possible suicide car bomb that was aiming to attack Hamid Karzai International Airport
A US Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit carrying a baby as the family processes through the Evacuation Control Center today
A destroyed vehicle is seen inside a house after this afternoon’s drone strike, which vapourised several suicide bombers, according to officials
A destroyed vehicle is seen inside a house after a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, this afternoon
The strike destroyed a vehicle carrying ‘multiple suicide bombers’ from Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate on Sunday
His brother Abdul Hamid, who survived the blast, told the BBC that his brother was shot dead by western troops – not killed by the suicide bomb
The brother of British Afghan Muhammad Niazi (pictured) who was killed following a suicide bomb attack on Kabul airport says he was shot dead by panicked western troops. Muhammad’s youngest child and eldest daughter (pictured but not named) are still believed to be missing
‘We send our deepest condolences to the families of the US victims of the senseless attacks in Kabul & continue to offer our full support to our closest ally’.
The terrorist attack happened on Thursday at about 6pm local time at the Abbey Gate to the airport, where thousands had gathered at the perimeter hoping to get on to a leaving cargo plane.
And survivors have claimed that frightened soldiers protecting the airport may have opened fire in the aftermath, inadvertently adding to the death toll, which included two Britons and the child of a UK national.
Among the dead was Muhammad Niazi, a taxi driver from London who had travelled back to Afghanistan to get his family out of Kabul. His wife was killed in the blast, and his youngest child and eldest daughter are still believed to be missing.
His brother Abdul Hamid, who survived the blast, made the claims about bullets from western guard posts killing people and told the BBC: ‘The fire came from the bridges… the towers… from the soldiers’.
He added: I saw some small children in the river, it was so bad. It was doomsday for us.’
The second British victim, Musa Popal, 60, was pushing through the crowd trying to attract the attention of soldiers by waving his UK passport when he was killed by the suicide bomber, it was reported last night.
Other witnesses to the suicide bomb attack also say that their relatives weren’t killed in the blast but by fire in the confusion afterwards. Abdul says he saw American and Turkish soldiers amid the chaotic scenes as gunfire reined over the crowds of people.
Another man claimed his friend who had helped US forces during the war had been killed by a gunfire from Western troops.
‘This guy served the US Army for years,’ he told the BBC. ‘And the reason he lost his life wasn’t because of Taliban, he wasn’t killed by ISIS…’
When asked why he was so sure, the man added: ‘Because of the bullet, the bullet went inside his head, right here near to his ear,’ suggesting a troop guarding the airport may have hit him by mistake. He added that his friend had not suffered any other injuries in the blast.