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Officials Say, U.S. Personnel Among the Wounded in Kabul Airport Attack; New Images Show Moments after Explosion at Kabul Airport. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired August 26, 2021 - 11:30   ET




They're used to carrying out attacks on civilian targets. They have attacked girls' schools. They've attacked religious ceremonies. And they carry out complex attacks, as have Nick and Peter have said. And particularly, I recall one where they waited until the media rushed to the side of one particular suicide bombing and then they sent a second suicide bomber in.

So, the modus operandi has changed since they arrived in Afghanistan -- from Iraq, pretty often (INAUDIBLE) undercover to Iran, to Afghanistan, bringing all the skills that they'd acquired in Iraq with them.

And when they arrived in Afghanistan, they really set up in the eastern provinces, way out in the mountains, Nangarhar and Kunar. But they were decimated by U.S. attacks, by the Afghan National Army and by the Taliban as well as no love whatsoever for ISIS.

So they changed strategy and they moved towards creating cells in Kabul and in Jalalabad that have really carried out these devastating suicide attacks over a period of four or five years now, Kate.


Let me go now to CNN Military Analyst, Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He's joining me now. General, what is your take on what we're looking at unfold before us?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. I want to reinforce what Tim Lister just said, Kate, because he nailed it in terms of the ISIS-K network, if that is, in fact, who this is. They have been active in Kabul for the last several years. They have conducted a multiple attacks against Afghan security forces, both army and police. They want to create carnage, confusion, intimidation, and the more death and carnage, the better. I suspect it is ISIS-K. We can talk about Haqqani or Al Qaeda, but I suspect it is ISIS-K that has done this. And it is embarrassing to the Taliban.

Now, you do we care about that? Not really. But it does certainly pose some threats to our NEO operation, our noncombatant evacuation operation. The NEO that we've been conducting for the last several days, which has spits and starts, I said the other day with you that it has different phases. We have just entered the third phase. It is a contested NEO that just got a whole lot more contested because the enemy now has a vote.

Truthfully, Kate, I expected this, didn't expect it today, truthfully. I expected it tomorrow. And the reason why I say tomorrow is because it is Friday. It is the day of prayer. And usually anyone that conducts a suicide attack, which we will find out this was, has to give blessings from their ISIS-K imams before they go out and conduct these attacks.

So I was expecting this to be some time in the afternoon on Friday. Unfortunately, for many people, it came today. But I think it is critically important that yesterday, the embassy knew of these threats, they got a majority of people out there, but still you have a lot of Afghans who were charging gates because they want to get out on one of those planes and, unfortunately, they did internal risk assessments and say, we're going to stay at this Abby Gate, at the Baron Hotel, and, unfortunately, they were caught in the suicide attack, which was horrific, but, truthfully, not unexpected.

BOLDUAN: That is heartbreaking to here. Lieutenant General, thank you very much.

We're continuing this hour to continue to cover the breaking news. There is a lot that we do not know. Here is what we do know. The important updates are as follows. The Pentagon is confirming there has been an explosion outside of Kabul's airport. The first confirmation this morning came from the Pentagon at about 9:45 this morning Eastern Time. Officials tell CNN a number of U.S. and civilian casualties, the way that the Pentagon spokesperson puts it, is a number of U.S. and civilian casualties have resulted.

There is also, the Pentagon confirms, been a second explosion. Two explosions outside of Kabul airport, injuries, the extent of the injuries and those wounds are not known.

Let's get the very latest. Let's go to the White House right now and Kaitlan Collins continues to stand by. Kaitlan, what are you hearing?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there have been a lot of understandable schedule changes here at the White House, Kate, because right now, we were supposed to be seeing President Biden in the Oval Office with the Israeli prime minister who is visiting here in Washington. That meeting has been delayed by what has happened in Afghanistan. With the reports now confirmed by the Pentagon of these two explosions, one, of course, which we know was outside a very busy gate there at the airport, where people had been trying to get in as these evacuations were winding down.

We should note, the second one that they have concerned at the Baron Hotel, that is where, if you remember last Friday, when the president was speaking to us in the east room, he did say that they have not been typically leaving the airport but the U.S. military had conducted an operation where they took helicopters outside that perimeter of the airport to the Baron Hotel to rescue about 169 people.


I think it was 169 Americans. That is the same hotel where now this explosion has happened.

And so, of course, this is a great concern here at the White House. This is something that President Biden has been warning about, what they were worried about, the fact that ISIS-k or other organizations could try to cause mayhem outside the airport.

And so right now, he is in the situation room, he is monitoring this with the defense secretary, the secretary of state, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several other top national security aides as well, Kate. And we are waiting to see if we'll get an update from the White House or from the Pentagon first to confirm more numbers. But that is what we've got so far from here at the White House.

BOLDUAN: And, Kaitlan, I know that you are asking, but is there any expectation, Kaitlan, that we'll hear from the president on this any time soon?

COLLINS: I think it is hard to see how the president doesn't address this today given that he has been giving kind of these updates regularly on what is happening in Afghanistan as the time has been ticking down for this exit, for this U.S.-led exit. Of course, it is supposed to happen on Tuesday. But I think right now they are still gathering information and we likely won't hear from the president until they have a confirmed number about the casualties, potential fatalities there on the ground.

How it has affected those thousands of U.S. troops that are still on ground, we should note, because, so far, they had only started to fly out a few hundred as they were continuing these evacuations. And so that is a number one concern for the White House, is the safety and security of these service members who were on the ground.

And so it is hard to see how we don't hear from the president at some point today on this but the schedule is still incredibly fluid. And whether or not we're going to hear from Jen Psaki in about 30 minutes when she was suppose to brief also remains to be seen. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Kaitlan, thanks so much.

Let me go to Nick Paton Walsh now. He is in DOHA. Nick, 9:45 Eastern Time this morning, this first confirmation of the first explosion, we're now at the top of this hour, at 11:00 A.M. We heard confirmation from the Pentagon that there has been at least, he said, a second explosion. Talk to me about where this is all playing out, Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes. I mean, this is occurring at sort of the moment of dusk in Kabul. Sadly, we've seen over the past decades that this is often when attacks do occur because of heightened population movements, et cetera. This is happening in one of the busiest parts around the airport. The Abby Gate, the Baron Hotel, as you were hearing, Kaitlan, talking about there.

Now, when the U.S. talked about going out to retrieve people, the Baron is not that far from the airport. Many consider it as sort of extension of the airport compound to some degree. It's been a place where private contractors have lived over the years. I've been inside it myself, fortified, heavy doors, gates, et cetera. It appears that one of the explosions was outside of that.

It is been the base for the British for I while, a kind of clearing house for some degree for many different nationalities moving through on their way to airport. Essentially, to get to the airport, you need to find a way through peril is busy crowds, Taliban checkpoints too. And so one of the safest ways has been to sort of to nip into the Baron to some degree and then try to make your way on to the airport compound proper.

To do that you have to pass through a sort of 500-meter possibly just short of about a half a mile walk through a crowded area often, sort of the usual poorly laid Kabul streets, blast walls either side and a sewage canal that runs along some parts of that road too. That since had razor wire put on it.

And we saw images yesterday, I mean, frankly, back then, it looked awful to see the volume of Afghan humans, all these different souls holding up their paperwork, trying to prove their case as to why they should be allowed away from a new Taliban, Afghanistan and into the United States or NATO allied countries to start a new life. They were so crammed together, people were walking through sewage in their clothes just to be able to move around there. I mean, remarkable in that. This appears to be where the blast struck.

And we've covered multiple attacks like there in Afghanistan. They do always seem at times the worst extremists to go for the most densely populated part of humanity that they can find. And, of course, here for those enemies of the United States, it is a large collection of Afghans who self-acclaimed say that they are pro-United States and worked for the United States. That is the part of their case to get on to the airport.

So, Abby Gate itself, like all of the gates, a large heavy metal door, a lot of pressure often against it. A lot of time, we've seen in the past security forces firing shots over the heads of people to get them to move back. People rarely listen to that. And added desperation today as well because, like yesterday, it seems the Abby Gate has been fully closed, I was told, this morning, so no SIV applicants able necessarily to get in. That would have added to the pressure.

And on top of that as well, we are at this point seeing some allied military to the United States leaving.


We know that the Australians, Canadians, Italians, Turkish and others as well have been beginning their withdrawal, if not, completed it. British, I understood, were supposed to begin their pack-up today. It may well have been, at some point, during that process, that this attack struck. I am speculating here, but the British had to get from the Baron Hotel, where they were based, into the main compound of the airport proper.

So it is unclear quite which personnel were caught in this. We understand U.S. personnel were there as well. In the video I saw yesterday, you could see U.S. personnel and I think British as well walking along the razor wire and essentially trying to control these crowds. It is an impossible task. A source familiar with the situation on the airport said to me, we are trying to get the right person out of these huge, massive, angry, desperate Afghans, but we can't do that because they're there with old parents, young children. And so this desperation has simply grown, as we've understood, that the timetable for evacuation on a large scale is massively reducing kind of by the weekend.

But the idea of an attack like this when it was originally seemed a sort of stretch of what any human would be capable of it. But, obviously, covering Afghanistan for last two decades, it's had this extraordinary ability to constantly shock and surprise you, and the fact that somebody would, it seems, possibly two people approach a crowd of this size full most likely of families. This is not a large collection of military-aged males waiting up to join the army, as you've seen attacks in the past. This is families, people desperate for a new life, as far as we know, where this blast struck, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Nick, thank you for your reporting.

I want to go now to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, bring Peter back in. Peter, I'm not sure you can see them but I want to put on the screen for our viewers some of the first images that are coming out from after these explosions. And a warning, these images are graphic. And what we can see in these images, Peter, are people being taken away. You can see them bloodied and bandaged, taken away in wheelbarrows, kind of also walking through a mass of people, but some clearly trying to get away as quickly as possible, tragic to see. You could only imagine what they've been going through as they are trying to stand at that Abby Gate to get into that airport and now this.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. Sources that I'm in contact with on the ground talk about picking -- having to step over a number of large -- a large number of dead bodies. Now, the numbers, I won't speculate on numbers, but they're talking about many fatalities, which isn't surprising because, as Nick was saying, it appears the bomb was placed, it seems, near this sewage canal and close to the Abby Gate.

Footage I've seen just 20 minutes before the explosion showed a very large number of Afghans outside of the Abby Gate. Of course, the blast wall, as Sam Kiley pointed out, were kind of -- that the Afghans were pressed up against, would kind of contain the blast and reinforce the blast when this bomb went off. So, the fact that I'm hearing reports directly from people on the ground about fatalities, and not in considerable numbers, shouldn't be surprising given where this bomb went off and how many Afghans were at that gate.

BOLDUAN: Yes. We obviously, though, from official sources have not confirmed anything yet. So we do need to be careful to not get ahead of it and not speculate because of what it all means. Peter, thank you very much.

I want to go to Sam Kiley. He's in Doha right now. Sam, just talking to Nick Paton Walsh, he was talking about where this is all taking place, laying out very clearly kind of the map of the Abby Gate, the corridor, the Baron Hotel. And I'm reminded that the Baron Hotel, which the Pentagon says that the explosion, the second explosion was near or outside of, the Baron Hotel was also the site of one of those helicopter evacs of, I believe, it was American citizens being taken from that hotel.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that was in the early days of the evacuation. 169 Americans were airlifted out of the Baron-- from the Baron into the airfield. But the Baron at the time was a benign environment. Indeed, it had been secured by British paratroopers. It was their base. That was a lift conducted because that area where the bomb blast at the Abby Gate or near where that has gone off was insecure.

Now, we don't know why it was considered insecure. Other passengers have been able to cross between the Baron and through the Abby Gate. It is a sort of run of a few hundred meters to get into the airport. But it was obviously deemed insecure at that time, insecure enough to use a big piece of airlift, like a Chinook aircraft, to hop over into Baron, pick these people up and move them back into the main airfield.


So that is just an indication of just how insecure the secure areas of this airfield are. The baron is very slightly outside the hard perimeter, if you like, of the whole airfield but it has an air gap between it, which is periodically safe and other time unsafe along the airport road in the vicinity of where this blast, or at least first, or one of the blasts was conducted and then there was another blast conducted near the Baron Hotel. This may well have been two blasts on the same stretch of road, or very similar stretches of road. That road, as Nick was saying, bound at other side by concrete blast walls, which do inevitably concentrate the blast between themselves.

And as Peter was saying, there have been videos now circulating among -- of Afghan casualties. There is no visibility at all of any coalition or American casualties, although the Pentagon has confirmed that there have been some in U.S. casualties.

What's interesting here is that sources in the British military that I've been in communication with have not indicated any kind of British military casualties, nor any direct comment on this whole process, because this was until very, very recently the British camp. When I was in the airfield, at Kabul International Airport only yesterday, it was beginning to fill pretty rapidly with British troops.

And so, clearly, they were involved in what is called collapsing down, moving their troops out of that location into the main airfield prior to conducting a complete withdrawal as part of coalition withdrawal. It is not clear as to whether or not they still had elements with inside that camp. And there has been no reporting at all about any British casualties only at the moment from the coalition side of U.S. casualties.

We've also heard from the emergency hospital in downtown Kabul, which is saying they've received 60 wounded including six patients that were dead on arrival. This is a hospital that CNN has visited many times in the past, myself included, very reliable source of information. Indeed, a hospital that historically has stayed through successive changes of government in Afghanistan and notably in the period it was one of the few hospitals still running under Taliban control back in 2001. So, some indication there of the scale of the casualties on the Afghan side.

BOLDUAN: Sam, thank you so much for your reporting.

Let bring in Nic Robertson once again. Nic, as we're watching this very fluid situation continue to unfold, no clear answer if the threat is now over to those outside of Kabul airport. In light of this, how important was that warning that was put out by the U.S. embassy last night when it said -- when it put out the alert to Americans and others who are outside the airport to leave immediately?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It was hugely important. And it spoke to the precise nature of the intelligence that have been gathered on the potential attack. We know that the British foreign ministry put out a similar warning. The Australians also followed later in the night. It was very clear that a stream of intelligence that wasn't being shared on its precise nature and where it came from, but it was deemed to be very time sensitive and very accurate and very specific that something was imminent.

I mean, now, the Taliban own this. This is theirs. They own security in that area. And they have made a very powerful point and have made it over many, many months now, and this powerful point is very simple. They've said, we made an agreement with the United States that none of their soldiers would be targeted by our forces while the drawdown was going on. They made that very clear and they have said many times recently that they've stuck to it and that is -- that is the sort of the one thing that they say we have kept our word, when people say you didn't keep your word on treating women, you didn't keep your word on many issues, it has been this thing.

So now the Taliban are going to own this under their watch, U.S. service personnel and now casualties in this attack. So that is on them.

So, the question is what they are going to do? We heard from President Biden earlier in the week speaking at the G7. We heard Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, speaking after the G7. And they made it very clear that the future relationship with the Taliban was going to depend on the continued access to the airport. By continued access, they meant safe and secure access.

This is coming at a hugely sensitive diplomatic time where there is, in effect, this change over of power in the last vestiges of NATO and international forces, and support while leaving and that the Taliban was picking up the rest.


So this is going to now dominate and set the framework for future relations with the Taliban. This is not the way that they appeared to want it to start and it certainly is not going to put it in a good frame and on a good footing going forward. But, absolutely, the Taliban own this. So, what are they going to do about it? What are they going to do in terms of providing that real security that's required now to get all those other people evacuated if the evacuations can continue?

BOLDUAN: That's a very important question, Nic. Thank you so much.

Let me bring in Tim Lister in on this. Tim, I know you heard what Nic was just talking about. What do you think about that, because we know that the commanders on the ground, as they've been talking about -- talking about de-confliction with the Taliban. They've been in constant communication, negotiating security throughout this. Where does -- where is that left now?

LISTER: I'm going to agree completely with Nic. The Taliban does own it. The Taliban is -- they're not really from Kabul. They're all from the south. Even the unit that is guarding the airport at the moment, which is part of the Haqqani Network, they came up from Kanadahar in an enormous convoy two days after the Taliban took Kabul.

So, I think you have got to realize that an effective insurgency doesn't necessarily mean an effective security force. The Taliban are learning on the job and very, very quickly and somewhat dramatically, as we've seen today. So, that's a big problem.

Another problem to deal with, when they swept through the whole of the country, taking all the provincial capitals in one week, that was the easy part, in a way. And as they did, they liberated thousands of prisoners. Now, among those prisoners were a lot of Al Qaeda people and a lot of ISIS people. Taliban don't like ISIS. But in the chaos, upwards of 100, maybe as many as several hundred ISIS prisoners, some of them quite high profile, got out of two prisons near Kabul. And they've really not been found.

There are reports that the Taliban managed to find and executed a couple of them. But, by and large, there are a lot more ISIS and Al Qaeda people running around Afghanistan now than there were two weeks ago. So, that's another problem they've got.

So I think they're really struggling at this point to be able to exercise full security over what is a chaotic environment. They're not used to dealing with things like this.

BOLDUAN: Tim, thanks for that.

Let's go back to Nick Paton Walsh in Doha. Nick, to reset what we know and when we learned it, 9:45 about Eastern Time this morning, the Pentagon confirmed the first explosion outside of the Kabul airport. Then at about 11:00 A.M., confirmation from the Pentagon of a second explosion had occurred. Now, where we are right now, do you have any assessment, any information about if the threat has passed?

WALSH: You have to assume that it is not because it's been there for sort of 20 years in various forms, but particularly with ISIS over the past four or five years. They're always the group who have been behind the attacks that leave you breathless in terms of how savage they are, attacking large processions of Hazars Shiites, particularly ethnic minority in Kabul, things that make your blood chill, frankly, and normally have their hallmark attached to them.

They have been a confusing phenomenon at times in Afghanistan because many analysts, theorists have thought possibly that, at times, they're blamed for things which are possibly carried out by other extremist groups who don't want to put their name to it. Of course, during ISIS heyday in Iraq and Syria, they sort of rose on that online popularity among sort of the mildly deranged online.

So, ISIS have been, at times, complicated group to understand inside of Afghanistan. and they've often taken the place that was previously occupied by the Haqqani Network. They used to be behind the complex attacks in Afghanistan. They were recently sort of subsumed into the Taliban a few years ago. They are the Al Qaeda affiliate.

But what we're looking at here outside the gate is the complex attack that John Kirby tweeted about. It's very much relevant of this sort of extremist groups. And as Tim was saying, I've been hearing from Afghan intelligence sources over the previous administration, their fears of prisons that were being opened. The prison run by the Afghan intelligence service, Bagram, which was a huge prison, considered it basically impregnable because of the U.S. presence right next to it on their air base. That was, quote, liberated when the Taliban took over.

Pole Charkhi as well, another major prison, a lot people who, I think, most of society would have been pleased to see behind bars, were liberated. And the big question had always been when the Taliban took over security, did they have a handle on that? Were they going to use the obvious presence of these people in society as cover for carrying out attacks that they may have wanted to do themselves?


No evidence of that right here. And they are, as we understand, still trying to work out what's really happened.

But it's also a major test, frankly, of governance for the Taliban, because they control the main roads. They are the ones who presumably we have to assist with emergency responders get getting to the scene, taking away casualties from there. Sam was talking about the emergency hospital in Kabul, six dead on arrival there, 30 injured. I hate to say this, but covering these kind of mass casualty attacks from ISIS over the years, these numbers often get bigger and sometimes a lot bigger as the hours go by.

If you can imagine how densely packed people were into that space, they were into the closing possibly 24, 36 hours in which they could imagine to be processed in large numbers, as SIV applicants on that airport, they were up against the gate. There were people who were desperately hoping their name had got onto a list and that a Marine or a consular officer would come out and say, I'm looking for you.

But even a source familiar with the airport said for people doing that task, it was virtually impossible, because they were so cramped, because if they saw any success, people would try and push themselves in the same direction. And so this scene often of infants, old people, people trying to take their whole family from their aging parents right down to their infant child, out of the country for a new life was an unimaginable target for an attack like this. And the fact that we seem to have seen one explosion and possibly another is obviously a hallmark of the sort of most awful extremism Afghanistan has gathered.

And if you are looking for an answer as to whether Afghanistan represents an extremist threat to the outside world, then you begin to get your answer with what seems to have happened here today. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Nick, stick with me, if you could. Let me go back to retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling on this.

Two explosions, General, outside of Kabul airport. We know that there are U.S. and we know there are casualties. We know that U.S. personnel are among the wounded. And we know there's been an alert that has come out this morning again from the U.S. embassy to say to all Americans, anyone near, to leave immediately. What is the impact on evacuation -- on the evacuation operation?

HERTLING: It's going to effect it significantly, Kate. If I can, for a second, though, I'd like to go back to what Nic Robertson said, because I think he nailed it. The Taliban has promised security outside the airfield. But we've got to remember, they are not in charge. I mean, everyone believes that they are now the governing rulers of Afghanistan. They are not. They're still involved in a civil war. They have not established their government processes. And the dudes they have carrying rifles around, these various gates are not security personnel. A week ago they were fighters rolling through the country side. So this is going to be very embarrassing to them. And I think we will see some repercussions between the United States and the Taliban authorities.

But getting back to your question of how this will affect the NEO, the evacuation operations, it will affect it a lot. And we've talked about this. We're in the phase where that commander on the scene is starting to think about how do I get soldiers out of here and embassy officials that have -- the consulate officials who have been driving the evacuation process? And it's a measured response of getting those individuals supporting the evacuation with still trying to get more and more evacuees out. Americans, SIV holders, special immigrants, that's going to change. Because there are going to be a lot of people who say hey, I'm not going anywhere near those gates. Even with a call forward process, the risk requirements to get into the airfield are going to be extremely high because they don't know what to expect next.

This will -- we saw a reduction in the numbers last night. They were still unbelievably large, 14,000 or so. We're going to see less and less of that. But it's going to contribute to, I think, the potential of getting out either faster or more effectively, but all of that is going to be taking place under an increased threat environment. And that's -- when you're talking about suicide bombers or any kind of bombers in a complex attack, which means a couple of bombs plus -- I mean, that's a term, a doctrinal term we use, plus the rifle firing and the shooting after the bombing, you know, there's a lot of folks with weapons now out and about Kabul. It's hard to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys.

It's going to be tough getting more evacuees in. We're probably going to see an increased reduction in the numbers that are getting out of Afghanistan, even on the chartered flights or the C-17s. But it's going to require that commander on the scene to get his act together in terms of how to flow out.

BOLDUAN: Yes. First and foremost, what exactly happened is the threat past. And who and how many people are injured in all of this?


Thank you, General.

I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you for being with us. For our continuing coverage of this breaking news out of Afghanistan, my colleague, CNN's Anderson Cooper.