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Officials: U.S. Personnel Among the Wounded in Kabul Airport Attack. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 26, 2021 - 11:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

We're continuing this follow the major breaking news out of Afghanistan. The Pentagon confirming that there has been an explosion outside of Kabul's airport. First confirmation of that came from the Pentagon at about 9:45 Eastern.

Officials telling CNN a number of U.S. personnel are among the wounded, though no further details has yet been offered about the extent of those injuries. Officials also say this appears to be a suicide attack.

Let's be clear. This is still unfolding and there are many questions and things are still very fluid right now. We don't know who is behind the explosion. But the U.S. officials have been warning about a credible imminent and compelling, that is how they put it, threat from ISIS-K for days now.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul just 30 minutes ago issued a new warning to U.S. citizens near the airport. Essentially the message is very clear. Leave immediately.

Let's get to it. Barbara Starr is live for us at Pentagon.

Barbara, what are you hearing right now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, just a few moments ago, the Pentagon confirmed there has been a second explosion. We don't know yet if any potential fatalities or wounded. Either among U.S. personnel or Afghans were there are a result of the first or second explosion.

Let me say separately, defense official with knowledge of the situation tells me that they are bracing for more and that is exactly what you would expect from the U.S. military in a situation like this. They will take all measures to protect themselves anticipating there could be more attacks. That is just common sense.

We know from several officials also, there are some U.S. personnel who have been injured in this attack. That is the only details about that we have at this point. The Pentagon has not said where they are military and what branch and whether they may be State Department or personnel working for other parts of the U.S. government.

We know very much that there are U.S. families out there watching this, Afghan families watching this who are going to be very concerned about their loved ones. Also, no claim of responsible just yet, that we are aware of. As you said, ISIS in Afghanistan has been threatening an attack, the U.S. believes there has been very strong stream of intelligence suggesting that they would conduct some kind of attack and these types of suicide attacks are, in fact, the hallmark of any number of terrorist groups that operate in the region.

So, very early word about all of this. The Pentagon, the Defense Department, the intelligence community, the White House trying to put all of the pieces together, to try to determine what has happened and trying to move very quickly to take care of those who may be injured -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: And, Barbara, just as you were reporting and just as you're reporting we have a new statement from the Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. I'll read it for all of you.

We could confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that results in a number of U.S. and civilian casualties. Kirby also say w can also confirm at least one other explosions at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate. We will continue to update, confirming what you were just reporting, Barbara.

STARR: Right. There had been some very early word of multiple explosions, and complex attack. This can -- we don't know but this is often the beginning of the language you see from the U.S. government that suggest a suicide vest potentially a car bomb, a sniper.

These are the hallmarks of the groups for so many years. They stage the complex attacks, if you will, sometimes there are very tragically a first explosion that gets people running, and then they set off something else. That's kind of a hallmark of what happens. So I want to emphasize, we don't have the specific information here.

But this kind of complex attack is exactly what has been worrying the Biden administration for the last several days. And is exactly the reason that the U.S. forces at the airport, some 5,000 plus of them will very much be in a mode of protection for themselves and for each other doing whatever they can to protect the Afghans on the airfield trying to continue flights if they can. Not at all clear what the pace of activity may be.

They still have, by their own calculations, a significant number of American citizens, passport holders, that they will try and bring in. They try and bring in any Afghans if they are able to.


But the priority now in these final days has been to bring Americans into the gate, get them on flights and get them out of there and then very quickly the U.S. military has to shift to packing itself up and being ready to go. It is Tuesday, just -- we're beginning to move from counting the days to counting the hours, aren't we, before the U.S. has to be packed up and gone -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Barbara, with the latest breaking information now. A second explosion as confirmed from the Pentagon press secretary. Barbara, please stick close.

Nick Paton Walsh is live in Doha, Qatar.

Nick, you hear -- we see in this. I want to get what your -- the latest that you're learning. But as you -- you were talking about last hour that the explosion -- the second explosion according to the Pentagon is at or near the Baron Hotel?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: This is essentially the same place. And so, we are talking about as they said a complex attack. So, not just two explosions. There are witness reports of gunfire at the same time. Frankly, the ordinary response two security guards hearing something like that.

The Abbey Gates, this is the main gates over the past few days into which people limited as they were, have been trying to get into the airport. It has been often secured by U.S. military personnel but outside, there are intense crowds. I saw a video yesterday of a mix of U.K. and U.S. servicemen walking up and down razor war and below that -- below them, in the sewage ducts, a long part of that road were Afghans walking, Afghans on the bank, holding up pieces of paper, holding a proof they had to make their case, that they thought, that they should be allowed to be part of the SIV program, and packed together and that increases in density, and extraordinary matter, very desperate people trying to get in.

Now, it is, I have to say, given what we're hearing about this, quite likely that a dense crowd like that may have been in fact the target. Quite how U.S. personnel who we hear from the important were also injured too ended up into that is unclear.

Did an initial part of the attack draw them out, were they trying to assist people who were caught in the first explosion, and then another one came. We simply don't know at this stage. But certainly, the scene there means certainly judging from some of the pictures you've been playing as well over the past half hour or so, we're dealing with a densely packed area, different casualties who could be behind this in Afghanistan you can't count on a claim of responsibility.

ISIS often do step forward and say it was them, but there's often be an awful lot of confusion as to ever it really was this group. They're sworn enemies of the Taliban and then there's al Qaeda too, often affiliated with the Taliban in the mix, and many other extremist groups there too.

So that is all I'm sure something they're working feverishly on now to see how sustained the threat may be. But the notion of a secondary explosion at the Barron Hotel will be, of course, troubling, and suggest possibly a list of culprits able to pull something like that off. The Barron was where the British were based. They were reducing their presence if not departing today and of course the security risk to troops and situations like that is always during the withdrawal phase, often more when they are stable position able to defend themselves.

Quite if that played into this, we simply don't know. But I hate to say it, with this evacuation still hoping to go on some pace, our understanding until the weekend, but reporting from the Pentagon, they hope to carry on even longer than that if we wanted in this security environment which is already restricting what they felt they were able to do. I'm sure that we'll have to be a reassessment as to how the gate can function. It was fully closed as far as I understood for much of the day and what other operations they are able to do in this now frankly massively changed security environment.

There were warnings. There were fears this would happen. The humanitarian job they were doing was so desperate, so urgent and the, frankly, soldiers standing there in front of crowds with desperate people brandishing of proof they've been of use over the last 20 years and what some warned have happened has actually occurred and it will strike fear in the hearts of anybody who had previously been trying to get into the airport and remind many Afghans too of the dozens of previous attacks like this we've reported on over the last 10, 20 years.

Random, awful, indiscriminate terrorist violence against civilian masses of people is not daily, but a weekly reality for so many Afghans. And here, we have this awful scene which appears to have injured U.S. personnel as well and it will I'm sure have an impact on quite how these next few days the closing chapter of America's longest war plays out.

[11: 10:01]

But it is horrifying to have this incident so warned of come to fruition -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. It is a true nightmare scenario.

Nick, we've been showing as you've been talking a map that's quite helpful of the lay out of the airport, and the airfield and as well as kind of what really is a corridor, an alleyway, the road that becomes as we've seen in pictures, just a choke point into the airport as you're kind of getting to, a prime target for a terror attack, as has been warned and warned over and over again in the last couple of days.

WALSH: Yes, I mean, you know, it's obviously is awful to start thinking about precisely where a target site could have been. But it is this thin corridor of humanity that we've seen people crushed in together, and a difficult job for the British soldiers to orchestrate the crowd. There have been crushes there when the U.S. military said claimed seven lives five or six days ago now.

It's been awful scenes. And this Baron Hotel was the filtration point before people got on to the airport proper. I've known of many Afghans who have through there, you know, it is very hard to get into the airport compound because of the intense security, the vetting. U.S. marines often left to fire in the air at times over my head at one point to get the crowd to come down and move back. In fact, one source I spoke to said so much more process would be possible but had the crowd been calmer.

But it's the real desperation that you feel as you're sort of pushed up against this very high ten foot tall metal gates as people are all trying to surge forward and make their case.

Abbey Gate, a tight corridor, certainly, also at risk was the northeast gate. That is where I was at one point briefly too. Very tight crowds then there and then elsewhere, along the perimeter, too, an area in which Afghan security forces have allowed some of their friends and colleagues basically sort of sneak in unofficially.

Abbey Gate, though, because of the dense series of walls that go along the side of it and the limitations put in place by the sewage canal that run as long part of it, too, a very terrifying target and one where simply the crowd put people at risk and now it appears we have into that two separate explosions.

Unclear if this is two bombs, unclear quite how the attack unfolded, reports of gunfire at the same time. As we just saw from a important spokesperson John Kirby, this is a referred to as a complex attack and that makes the list of potential suspects smaller. But it is Afghanistan and there are many extremists potentially go to go around.

The threat stream as U.S. officials have said was from ISIS-K and we'll have to see how they sort of calculate and grind that in the day as head. But I have to say, so many Afghans I have spoken to terrified this could happen, sort of their desperation to get on to the airport. Kind of overrid the daily threat with terrorism in their daily lives and have done for a decade, particularly in Kabul. But it strikes a chill for me frankly hearing that this is happened.

BOLDUAN: I want to reset. Nick, thank you and please stick with me. I want to reset and just bring everyone up to speed with the latest update we've received from Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. More information, more questions.

The pentagon spokesperson saying that: we can confirm that the explosion at the abbey gate which we first heard around 9:45 this morning was a result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of U.S. and civilian casualties. Kirby also says that they could confirm one other explosion as we've been discussing with Nick Paton Walsh at or near the Baron Hotel which is close to the Abbey Gate.

We're waiting, John Kirby is updating via twitter. There is supposed to be a Pentagon briefing at 10:30. As with everything on the ground has changed and what is going on with the administration right now has changed.

Let's go over to Kylie Atwood. She's at the State Department for us on this.

Kylie, what are you hearing from there?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I mean, two bits of new news in the tweet from spokesperson John Kirby. First of all, this is a complex, in his words, attack. That demonstrates this wasn't just a one-off but many multiple parts to it. And saying there were two at least two explosions. There could have been more. This is clearly an unfolding situation.

We're talking to the sources closely monitoring it but it is significant to note that the State Department put out an alert to all American citizens saying there was an explosion and saying there were reports of gunfire. So, clearly, this isn't just the explosions but there are gunfire happening.

Also, Pentagon spokesperson said that one of the explosions happening at the Abbey Gate. It is significant because that is one of the main gates, the main artery into the airport, where a tremendous number of Afghans had been growing in crowds trying to get into that airport, trying to get on these flights.


And as we've seen from these early images of what unfolded there, there are Afghans who were hurt. We are reporting that there are Afghans who died as a result of this explosion.

Now, Abbey Gate is one of the gates that the State Department said just yesterday that American citizens should not go to. They reported that there were some imminent threats in the area, told Americans not to go to the airport specifically listing Abbey Gate as one of those.

And as we're watching what is unfolding, questions are going to arise about how does the evacuation continue? We know that there are still Americans on the ground in Afghanistan as of yesterday, there were between 500 and 1,500, presumably some got out overnight. But what does this marine for the Americans on ground.

And we are looking to learn more information about these casualties that John Kirby said include both Americans and civilians on the ground there. But a tremendously sad, really awful situation for these Afghans who have been putting their lives on the line to try and get through these gates, to try and get on these evacuation flights.

And we know that the U.S. government had been monitoring these terrorist threats in the region, specifically against those who were in those crowds outside of the airport. We're seeing this now come to fruition. But this is a quick developing story and a lot more details to figure out, specifically about who was among those casualties and Americans and Afghans.

BOLDUAN: Kylie, thank you so much.

I want to go over to Kaitlan Collins now. She's live at White House.

Kaitlan, where is the president? What are you hearing about this?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right now, Kate, he is in the Situation Room, monitoring this like the rest of us. Of course, getting intelligence about who was involved in the attacks and who was been injured and what are the potential fatalities? And those are still information -- that's still information that the White House is getting as the president is huddling with his defense secretary and his secretary of state and the chairman of the join chiefs of staff who were all here at the White House this morning briefing President Biden around 9:15 in the Situation Room.

And that is where they have stayed, monitoring this attack that has happened -- an attack that the president has been warning was possible since last Friday, and saying that this was a fear that they had, that the longer the United States military was in Kabul, the higher the risk of an attack would become. And this is already causing some several changes here to this schedule at the White House because there was supposed to be a COVID update by that team around 10:30. They have delays that.

And in about 15 minutes, we're to see President Biden meeting with the Israeli prime minister in the Oval Office and that is been delayed and there is supposed to be a noon briefing with Jen Psaki. I'm guessing that is going to be delayed given they're monitoring all of the developments. The question about what changes with the withdrawal is a big one. That is what the White House is still figuring out right now because that is one of the main reasons that President Biden did not want to extend the deadline past August 31st, because they were worried about the security situation on the ground. They have been monitoring these threats.

And, clearly, they had seen enough concerning intelligence that they updated the security warning to United States citizens at Kabul telling them to get away from the gates at the airport. And these are the crowded gates we've seen on television. President Biden is continuing to monitor this. I assume we'll hear from him.

But a lot is fluid over in the West Wing, Kate, as they are continuing to monitor this and find out what is happened on the ground and, of course, what the result of this is and of main concern for the president is what and how this effected the U.S. service members who were still there on the ground by the thousands.

BOLDUAN: Most importantly that, what this does, how this changes the evacuation now on the ground at that airport, Kaitlan is going to bring us all the updates from there.

I want to get back to Doha. Sam Kiley with me now.

Sam, you just left Kabul airport just yesterday and we have learned that there are U.S. and civilian casualties as the Pentagon has confirmed and announced. What type of medical capabilities are there at the airport?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are the expeditionary U.S. and coalition medical capabilities. The U.S. has 5,800 troops, and the Brits have come in with a thousand. They all travel with their airborne medical facilities. But also, there is the Norwegian military hospital structured on the base that has four ICU beds. It's got four operating theaters, it's got ward, it's got cat scanners and almost all of the modern technology that you would need in a major hospital but on a smaller scale. So in terms of the treatment of any possible casualties, notably,

military casualties, they're pretty well set up.


Most of the casualties I think clearly from the images we've been seeing on social media are on the ground outside of the camp, deliberately targeted in this terrorist attack which has been flagged for sometime, Kate. And indeed, we were on the camp last Sunday when the first attack against the camp was conducted. That was a sniper who opened fire, killing a member of the Afghan national army, part of the inner perimeter of the coalition.

And then there was an ex change of fire in which four more were accidentally wounded by coalition troops. Seen in the context of this later attack, that was clearly some sort of probing attack to see what is called TTP's, the standard procedures used in reaction to violence. And this clearly has been the combination.

Now we have two bombs at least now confirmed by the Pentagon. One in a very narrow street up towards the Abbey Gate. There is a canal and then there is a street and then a long wall of blast walls, which if the blast was on the road, in all probability it might have been.

But either way, these blast walls actually protect what is on the other side of it and magnify the blast closer in so the level of casualties likely to be very high and then a second blast near the baron hotel which is the British base of their operations and one of the main routes for refugees and particularly Afghans and large numbers of foreigners to get out. So, clearly, a carefully recognizance target, ISIS-K members were picked up by the Taliban filming potential targets around Kabul. So, this has been well trailed.

But I think the ultimate failure here in terms of security is down to the Taliban because they've been screening people coming to the airport. Preventing ordinary Afghans from escaping and not able to stop the attackers, according to a United Nations source, I spoke to in Kabul there is concern, there maybe more among the United Nations security there that there is more than one attacker and this is a much more complex series of events and they are deeply concerned there yet be more attacks -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Sam, your reporting has been so important. Thank you so much for that.

Let's bring everyone up to speed. What we know at this hour. There have been to explosions at least confirmed by the Pentagon outside of the Kabul airport in Afghanistan. The Pentagon confirms there are U.S. and civilian casualties. Though no word on the extent of those casualties, how many and how bad it is.

There is a alert that came out about an hour ago at this point, the latest alert from the U.S. embassy telling American citizens near the airport very simply and urgently to leave immediately. The situation continues and is unfolding waiting for more updates as we speak. Kaitlan Collins is reporting that the president is meeting with his

advisers. He's been in the Situation Room dealing with this all this morning.

CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, he is joining me now with some more perspective on this.

This -- part of the big questions at moment are now, Peter, why -- who it is and who is behind this and why? What do you think?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, let me start, Kate, by saying something about the fatalities. I'm talking to sources on the ground, they're talking about a large number of fatalities on the ground.

BOLDUAN: Not just injuries, but fatalities is what you're hearing?

BERGEN: Not just injuries, fatalities, obviously, casualties as well, but large number of fatalities.

BOLDUAN: And we're waiting -- we expect that -- that the Pentagon is very careful about putting out those types of numbers and estimates. We're continuing to seek more information about that. To get the number of casualties, if there are fatalities, of course, because announcing that is extremely important when people are watching this breaking news unfold. Continue, please.

BERGEN: So Sam was describing to you the Abbey Gate which is kind of the main gate and there is a canal or sewage duct that runs sort of parallel or near the gate and I saw video of a very large group of Afghans 20 minutes before the blast who were all sort of piled up against the blast walls near the gate. Clearly, there were a lot of Afghans who were there waiting. The sources on the ground say there were many fatalities and many dead bodies. They don't have a precise number.

And the Baron Hotel where is the other explosion happened has been a processing center for Brits and Europeans trying to evacuate. Clearly, you ask the question who? We don't know. Obviously ISIS-K is top of the list of suspects.

But H.R. McMaster had an interesting interview with Jim Sciutto just now had made I think a very interesting point, which is ISIS-K could well be a cut-out for elements of that known as the Haqqani Network, they've done multiple complex attacks in Kabul in the past. They're part of the Taliban but they're more extreme part of the Taliban. They're normally in charge of security in Kabul. So, they will be able to let people in to do this kind of attack.

Why now? I mean, we've given that we've had about ten days of an evacuation going on here. So there has been plenty of time to plan for this. And we've seen complex attacks from all sorts of groups in Kabul against civilians in the past. These group of suspects were the ISIS- K, al Qaeda and some elements of the Haqqani network are the three groups I would be looking at.

BOLDUAN: Peter, thank you so much for that.

To reinforce what we know in this moment, we do know there are have been two explosions outside of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. We know from the Pentagon, John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson specifically saying it has resulted in a number of U.S. and civilian casualties, extent of which we do not know. We just don't, to reinforce that point. We continue to seek more information.

Let me get over to Nick Paton Walsh, our senior diplomatic editor for more on -- apologies, Nic Robertson, our senior diplomatic editor joining me now.

Nic, what are you picking up?


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: This is clearly going to set and has set the alarm bells of what would could come near. We're here analyzed and the threat from the French president saying he's concerned about the situation that exists around the airport. We know that people have been advised to leave the vicinity of the airport very clearly because there is a concern of a follow on attack in the same vicinity. It is been a signature of complex attacks that people that first attack happens, maybe a second attack and then while people are gathered or first responders go in, then another attack comes on that.

But the reality of the situation here right now is that, and this seems to be the concern, that another follow on could be a third attack would happen. But moving beyond this point, and this is been expressed to me a concern, a concern expressed over recent weeks actually, as a drawdown has been going on, even before we got into the civilian phase of the drawdown and the evacuations before the Taliban got to Kabul was the possibility and this we could only say at moment that this is a possibility and a concern, not something that has been confirmed.

But one of the these terrorist groups and if it is as Peter very rightly suggest, potentially it could be ISIS-K, used as a cutout by the Haqqani network, do they have surface to air capability, what is known by the military as MANPADS. This is something that's literally fire from your soldier and it's fired an aircraft.

Will they choose to escalate the situation? We know the typical M.O. of attacks in Afghanistan has been the vehicle suicide bomb, the walk up human suicide bomb with a follow on gun attacks but we also know that go back to the 90s when the major haddine were fighting the associates providing with stinger missiles. Those were wrapped up and collected in the past but is there and has there come into circulation during the taliban times, has the Haqqani network from bases been able to go out and try to procure or have this kind of armament in its arsenal. It is not clear. This sort of devices that not -- has not been used seen or reported in Afghanistan and the Taliban have had a lot of time to go after Afghan helicopters, the U.S. military aircraft and this type of surface-to-air missile has not been used. But going forward, that will become it has to be part of the evaluation and I will stress again that there is no evidence to support that they exist. But the concern by security experts, western security experts about the situation in Afghanistan, that has been expressed to me over recent months, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Nick, thank you for your reporting.

Let me bring in now CNN's Tim Lister.

Tim, you have done extensive reporting on the intelligence and the threat stream that is existed that you've been hearing from officials, the threat stream from ISIS-k targeting people outside of the airport. Talk to us through your reporting.

TIM LISTER, CNN PRODUCER: I think, Kate, the big worry is that ISIS-K had this capability. They have the motivation and it is their moat modus operandi. They tick all those boxes. They have presence in Kabul for five years.

They are used to carrying out attacks on civilian targets.