In the last days of the Kabul non-combatant evacuation operation in August 2021 thousands of Afghans were crowding the entry gates of the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in an attempt to gain access to the Kabul airport and then on an evacuation flight out of Afghanistan. One of these entry points was Abbey Gate located on the south side of the airport. On August 26th the gate was targeted by an Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) suicide bomber. Thirteen U.S. servicemembers died and forty-five were wounded. At least 170 Afghans on the outside of the entry point died as a result of the blast.
Investigation. Central Command conducted an investigation on the bombing and presented a briefing on the results on Friday, February 4, 2022 at the Pentagon. The investigation briefing featured opening remarks by General Kenneth McKenzie, the current commander of U.S. Central Command. Afghanistan is in the area of operations for CENTCOM. The investigation team was “. . . focused on data operations, force protection, force posture, leadership, unit readiness, and all other relevant actions before, during and after the attack.” The investigation team consisted of seven members of the U.S. military. They conducted 70 interviews of 139 people in five different countries and examined over 250 exhibits.
Image: The map above depicts the location of the airport (upper right outlined in red) in relation to the city of Kabul. The proximity of the airport to the capital city was one of the factors of the airport being swarmed by Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban.
A Crowded Entry Point. Towards the end of the evacuation the various access points around the airport were becoming more crowded. President Biden had announced an end date of August 31st as the last day for U.S. troops at the Kabul airport. By August 26th, with just a few days left to the non-combatant evacuation operation, Afghans became more and more desperate to find a way onto the airport. Thousands of Afghans were in the immediate vicinity of Abbey Gate. At this time, other gates around the airport were closed; so Abbey Gate was extremely crowded.
Single Bomber. There were some reports that two explosions took place at or near Abbey Gate. Initial statements by the U.S. military immediately after the attack indicated that there were two bombers and some gunmen. However, the investigation by CENTCOM concluded that there was just one explosion and one suicide bomber. The bombing was conducted by a lone terrorist wearing a suicide vest consisting of 5 mm ball bearings and explosives. It is believed the bomber was wearing about 20 pounds of explosives strapped to his chest.
Complex Attack? No. There was some speculation that a complex attack – a combination of an IED and small arms fire took place. The results of the investigation concluded that there was only one explosion and that small arms fire did not come from the Taliban or any IS-KP fighters. There was a lot of chaos in the initial moments of the attack that contributed to the belief that a complex attack had occurred.
Return Fire. There were some reports that Afghans were injured or killed by return fire from U.S. and British military personnel. The investigation found that very few rounds were fired and those were warning shots. Some social media accounts based in Afghanistan differ saying that many Afghans were wounded or killed by return fire.
Photo: A Danish coalition service member holds up a Danish flag to identify families during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla)
How Did the Bomber Get Close? The bomber is thought to have skirted Taliban checkpoints in order to get close to the entry point. He did not pass through any U.S. or friendly coalition military checkpoints, but did get close to the entry access gate. Although the Taliban provided an ‘outer security cordon’ around the airport and at the airports’ entry access points, these efforts were many times ineffective. Many of the Afghans seeking a flight out of Kabul took alternate routes to avoid Taliban checkpoints and the beatings and shootings they would be subjected to by the Taliban. In addition, the Taliban, at times, would not allow anyone through the checkpoints who had the proper documents (SIV paperwork, U.S. passports, green cards). Some of the alternate routes were provided by volunteers working with veterans groups who were in touch with Afghans via cell phone, WhatsApp, or Signal.
“We also learned during the investigation that in order to maximize the number of evacuees U.S. servicemembers and government officials worked directly with human intelligence personnel on the ground at HKIA as well as a number of private organizations to talk evacuees onto routes they could use to bypass the Taliban checkpoints.”Briefing by CENTCOM, DOD, February 4, 2022.
Could the Bombing Have Been Prevented? The investigation found that the bombing attack was not preventable. Adequate security precautions were in place but the effort to find American citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs with green cards), and at-risk Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas involved a level of risk.
U.S. Casualties. Eleven Marines, one Navy sailor, and one Army soldier were killed in the attack. The wounded personnel, 45 total, of the U.S. military suffered minor to very severe injuries. A few of the wounded spent months in U.S. medical facilities in the United States and are still recovering. Medical services and assets on the ground were determined to be sufficient and adequate. Those U.S. military personnel that died had wounds that were extremely severe. All service members were wearing helmets and body armor.
Summary. The briefing provided a detailed account of the IS-KP attack by the sole suicide bomber that killed 13 U.S. service members and almost 200 Afghans. The attack seriously disrupted the evacuation process resulting in the closure of a number of access points to the airfield. Many aspects of the Kabul non-combatant evacuation operation were summarized in this briefing. In addition, the dangerous work of U.S. military service members on the ground during the Kabul NEO attempting to evacuate American citizens, lawful permanent residents, and at-risk Afghans with special immigrant visas is highlighted once again.
“U.S. Central Command Releases Report on August Abbey Gate Attack”, DOD News, February 4, 2022.
Abbey Gate Investigation Press Briefing Transcript, Department of Defense, February 4, 2022.
Video, DoD briefing on Abbey Gate HKIA Bombing, Department of Defense, February 4, 2022, DVIDS.