Adam Khan was waiting near the Abbey Gate of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport when he saw an explosion near the crowded entrance. Several people appeared to have been killed or wounded in the blast, including some who were maimed, he recalled.
Warning: Graphic content throughout
Another man named Milad described what he called “total panic,” following the explosion.
“The Taliban then started firing in the air to disperse the crowd,” he said. “I saw a man rushing with an injured baby in his hands.”
Within minutes, another explosion would rock the area, and an already chaotic scene would be transformed into a bloodbath.
Eyewitness accounts and graphic footage have laid bare the death and destruction visited upon Kabul’s airport Thursday, showing how attackers apparently affiliated with the Islamic State blew up Afghan civilians desperately trying to find a way out of the country and US troops guarding an already precarious evacuation from Taliban rule.
The number of dead was unknown as of Friday morning, but Afghan officials speaking on condition of anonymity have put the civilian toll at 60 people or more, with over 100 injured. US military officials said 13 troops were killed, including 10 Marines, and another 18 servicemembers were wounded. The Taliban said 28 of its members were among the dead.
The Italian NGO Emergency said the hospital it operates in Kabul had been overwhelmed by a “massive influx” of more than 60 casualties, 16 of whom were pronounced dead on arrival.
The attack was the deadliest on American troops since 2011, and a reminder of dangers faced by Afghans who remain in the country after the US completes its withdrawal at the end of the month, bringing a 20-year democracy-building experiment to a close.
Hours before the attack, the US government and its allies had raised the alarm with a series of advisories warning their citizens to avoid the airport. The US Embassy warned citizens at three airport gates to leave immediately due to an unspecified security threat.
The acting US ambassador to Kabul, Ross Wilson, later sharpened the warning, saying the security threat at the Kabul airport overnight was “clearly regarded as credible, as imminent, as compelling.” In an interview with ABC News, he would not give details.
But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied that any attack was imminent at the airport, where the group’s fighters have deployed and occasionally used heavy-handed tactics to control the crowds.
As crowds surged at one of the airport gates where thousands have gathered to find a way onto a plane out of the country, the Taliban sprayed a water cannon to try to push people away. Elsewhere along the fortified perimeter, someone launched tear gas canisters.
A video apparently taken about an hour before the attack showed masses fleeing gunfire, reportedly from Taliban fighters shooting into the air.
▶️About an hour before two blasts in the Afghan capital on Thursday, crowds were seen fleeing from gunfire apparently fired into the air by Taliban forces near Kabul international airport.
— The Voice of America (@VOANews) August 27, 2021
At one Taliban checkpoint, though, a suicide bomber apparently got the go-ahead to enter and approached the Abbey Gate, guarded by US service members. It was there that he detonated.
The bomb struck people standing knee-deep in a wastewater canal under the sweltering sun, throwing bodies into the fetid water. Those who moments earlier had hoped to get on flights out could be seen carrying the wounded to ambulances in a daze, their own clothes darkened with blood.
— Supa Media (@Supa_Media_) August 26, 2021
Stunned survivors are seen pulled themselves to their feet, while others desperately shouted for help in searching the carnage for loved ones.
A video taken nearby sometime earlier showed that large amounts of people had been in the area.
— Reporte Ya (@ReporteYa) August 26, 2021
Moments later, a second blast struck the Baron Hotel, where many people, including Afghans, Britons and Americans, were told to gather in recent days before heading to the airport for evacuation.
A video showed what appeared to be the moment of the blast, with smoke rising into the air as gunfire rings out.
Video appears to show the moment of the second blast outside Kabul airport in Afghanistan as gunshots are heard.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) August 26, 2021
Additional explosions could be heard later, but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said some blasts were carried out by US forces to destroy their equipment.
A former Royal Marine who runs an animal shelter in Afghanistan says he and his staff were caught up in the aftermath of one of the blasts.
“All of a sudden we heard gunshots and our vehicle was targeted, had our driver not turned around he would have been shot in the head by a man with an AK-47,” Paul “Pen” Farthing told Britain’s Press Association news agency.
— ????Animal Watch???? (@Animal_Watch) August 26, 2021
Another video shared on social media showed a tangle of dead of wounded piled on the ground as a man cries out in anguish.
Warning this images are VERY graphic. We were in the Afghanistan Embassy in Wash DC when the bombs exploded in Kabul and these videos were sent to diplomates from the Afghan people. #Afghanistan #AfghanistanBombing @mercedesschlapp @mschlapp #PrayForAfghanistan pic.twitter.com/QIRQrAWozB
— Rev. Patrick Mahoney (@revmahoney) August 26, 2021
Images posted on social media showed men ferrying wounded people to safety in wheelbarrows.
— EsfandRoberts (@EsfandRoberts) August 26, 2021
In another picture, a boy was seen clutching the arm of a man whose clothes were soaked in blood.
The injured “could not speak, many were terrified, their eyes totally lost in emptiness, their gaze blank”, the Italian hospital’s medical coordinator Alberto Zanin said in a post on the group’s Twitter account.
“Surgeons will be working into the night,” said Marco Puntin, the charity’s manager in Afghanistan. The wounded overflowed the triage zone into the physiotherapy area and more beds were being added, he said.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden spent much of the morning in the secure White House Situation Room where he was briefed on the explosions and conferred with his national security team and commanders on the ground in Kabul. A scheduled meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was called off and rescheduled for Friday.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the killings on its Amaq news channel. The IS affiliate in Afghanistan is far more radical than the Taliban, who recently took control of the country in a lightning blitz. The Taliban were not believed to have been involved in the attacks and condemned the blasts.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said there was no indication that the Taliban deliberately allowed Thursday’s attacks to happen. He said the US has asked Taliban commanders to tighten security around the airport’s perimeter.
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 took off carrying those who fear a return to the militants’ brutal rule. When the Taliban were last in power, they confined women largely to their home and widely imposed draconian restrictions.
The airlift continued Thursday, though the number of evacuees fell for a second day as the terror attack and further threats kept people away.. From 3 a.m. to 3 p.m., Washington time, about 7,500 people were evacuated, a White House official said. Fourteen US military flights carried about 5,100, and 39 coalition flights carried 2,400.
The total compared to 19,000 in one 24-hour period toward the start of the week.
A witness to one of the bombings told AFP he had applied for a visa to the United States, but in the confusion dropped the documents he hoped would help him board a flight with his wife and three children.
“I will never, ever want to go [to the airport] again,” he said. “Death to America, its evacuation and visas.”