At least 13 US service members killed in Kabul airport attack

By Rob Picheta, Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Veronica Rocha and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 12:27 AM ET, Fri August 27, 2021
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6:05 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Key things to know about ISIS-K, the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan

President Biden said Thursday that he has ordered up plans to strike ISIS-K targets following the attack near the Kabul airport.

“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 and make you pay,” Biden said.

ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, claimed that an ISIS militant carried out the suicide attack, but provided no evidence to support the claim.

US officials have been warning over the past week that a threat of a terror attack at the airport was becoming more acute. Earlier on Thursday local time, US diplomats in Kabul warned American citizens to "immediately" leave several gates into the airport, citing security threats.

But who are ISIS-K? ISIS-Khorasan is a branch of the terror group that first emerged in Syria and Iraq. While the affiliates share an ideology and tactics, the depth of their relationship with regards to organization and command and control has never been entirely established.

US intelligence officials previously told CNN the ISIS-K membership includes "a small number of veteran jihadists from Syria and other foreign terrorist fighters," saying that the US had identified 10 to 15 of their top operatives in Afghanistan. The group's name comes from its terminology for the area that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan: "Khorasan." 

The US Defense Department Inspector-General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) said in a report covering the months April to June of this year that "ISIS-Khorasan exploited the political instability and rise in violence during the quarter by attacking minority sectarian targets and infrastructure to spread fear and highlight the Afghan government's inability to provide adequate security."

ISIS-K has formed cells in Kabul which have carried out a number of devastating suicide attacks in and beyond the Afghan capital since 2016. 

The group has built up a presence in eastern Afghanistan in recent years, especially in the provinces of Nangahar and Kunar. Last August, the group attacked the main prison in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar, in an effort to free dozens of their supporters who had been captured by the Afghan army and police.

Read more about the group here.

CNN's Nikki Carvajal, Jim Sciutto and Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post.

6:06 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden stands by decision to withdraw from Afghanistan: "It was time to end a 20-year war"

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

President Joe Biden answers questions from members of the media from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden answers questions from members of the media from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Biden said he squarely stands by his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.

"I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country," Biden said.

"Our interest in going was to prevent al Qaeda from reemerging, first to get [Osama] bin Laden, wipe out al Qaeda in Afghanistan, prevent that from happening again. As I've said 100 times, terrorism has metastasized around the world. We have greater threats coming out of other countries, a heck of a lot closer to the United States," Biden said.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war," he added.

6:00 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden: US evacuation mission will continue and not be "deterred by terrorists" 

President Biden said today's attack near the Kabul airport will not stop the US' mission to evacuate American citizens and Afghan civilians from Afghanistan.

Biden said his commanders on the ground have "made it clear that we can and we must complete this mission and we will, and that's what I've ordered them to do."

"We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation," Biden said.

Biden said he's told his 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 that we choose and at the moment of our choosing," he said.

The President stressed that he is was confident in the US' completion of the mission.

"Here's what you need to know. These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans in there. We will get our Afghan allies out and our mission will go on," the President said. "America will not be intimidated, and I have the utmost confidence in our brave service members that continue to execute this mission with courage and honor to save lives and get our Americans and partners and our Afghan allies out of Afghanistan."

Some more context: US officials believe the group, ISIS-K, was likely behind today's attack but are still working to confirm its involvement, according to a senior US official and another source briefed on initial assessments. The second source told CNN it may take a few hours before US officials are able to identify the specific individuals who carried out the apparent suicide bombing.

The US believes ISIS-K, which is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, wants to create mayhem at the airport and has intelligence streams suggesting it is capable and planning to carry out multiple attacks, a defense official told CNN Wednesday.

CNN's Zachary Cohen and Natasha Bertrand contributed reporting to this post.

5:52 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden says while no one trusts the Taliban, it was not a mistake to rely on them to secure airport perimeter

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

When asked if he thought it was a mistake to depend on the Taliban to secure the perimeter of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport in the wake of deadly attacks, President Biden said, "No, I don't."

"It's not what you would call a tightly commanded regimented operation like the US military is, but they are acting in their interests ... I've asked this very same question to military on the ground whether or not it's a useful exercise," Biden said from the White House.  

"No one trusts them. We're just counting on their self-interest to continue to generate their activities, and it's in their self-interest that we leave when we said and that we get as many people out as we can," he said.

Biden said there is no evidence so far of any collusion between the Taliban and ISIS carrying out the airport attack.

During a Pentagon briefing earlier today, US Central Command head Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie was asked whether he trusts the Taliban.

"As to whether or not I trust them ... that's a word I use very carefully. You've 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. They want to reclaim the airfield. We want to get out by that day, too, if it's possible to do so. So we share a common purpose. As long as we keep that common purpose alive, they've been useful to work with. They've cut some of our security concerns down and they've been useful to work with going forward," McKenzie said.

6:02 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden: "I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that's happened of late"

President Biden took responsibility for what has recently occurred in Afghanistan during remarks made at the White House Thursday afternoon following a deadly attack that killed more than 60 people near Kabul airport, including a dozen US service members.

"I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that's happened of late. Here's the deal, you know ... that the former president made a deal with the Taliban to get all American forces out of Afghanistan by May 1," Biden said. "Imagine where we'd be if I had indicated on May 1, I was not going to renegotiate an evacuation date. We were going to stay there. I had only one alternative, for thousands of more troops back into Afghanistan to fight a war."

Biden added: "I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country."

5:49 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden says he's ordered plans to strike ISIS-K

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal

President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Biden revealed Thursday that he has ordered military commanders “to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities.”

“We will respond with force and precision in our time, in a place we choose in a manner of our choosing,” Biden said, declining to give specifics on timing.

“These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans. We will get our Afghan allies out. And our mission will go on,” the President said. “America will not be intimidated.”

 

5:42 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden says he will "grant" additional forces in Afghanistan if US military needs it

President Biden left the door open for more military assistance in Afghanistan during remarks Thursday following an attack at Kabul airport that killed more than 60 people, including 12 US service members.

"I've instructed the military with whatever they need if they need additional force, I will grant it. But the military, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Joint Chiefs, the commanders in the field, have all contacted me one way or another usually by letter saying they subscribe to the mission as designed," Biden said during remarks from White House.

Some context: Biden said Tuesday the US was on track to complete its hurried airlift in Afghanistan by Aug. 31, acknowledging he does not plan to keep American troops in the country any longer even as questions remain over who will be able to leave and when.

5:45 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden to the families of service members and Afghans who died: "My heart aches for you"

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury

President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Biden addressed the families of service members and Afghans who were killed during a terrorist attack at Kabul's airport.

"My heart aches for you," Biden said.

"Jill and I, our hearts ache like I'm sure all of you do as well, for all those Afghan families who lost loved ones including small children, or have been wounded with this vicious attack and we're outraged as well as heartbroken," Biden said from his remarks at the White House.

Biden said he could relate to the families loss, referring to his experience with losing his son Beau Biden, a military veteran who died of brain cancer after returning from serving in Iraq.

He continued, "We have some sense like many of you do, what the families of these brave heroes are feeling today. You get this feeling like you're being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. There's no way out. My heart aches for you. And I know this, we have a continuing obligation, a sacred obligation to all of you families of those heroes. That obligation is not temporary. It lasts forever."

5:46 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden holds moment of silence for Americans who gave "the last full measure of devotion"

President Joe Biden pauses for a moment of silence from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden pauses for a moment of silence from the East Room of the White House on August 26 in Washington, DC. (Evan Vucci/AP)

During remarks on the attack in Afghanistan, President Biden held a moment of silence "for all those in uniform and out of uniform, military and civilian, of giving the last full measure of devotion."

"May God bless you all and may God protect the troops and all those standing watch for America," Biden said following the moment of silence.