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U.S. Embassy Warns Americans at Kabul Airport Gates to "Leave Immediately"; U.S. Military Conducts Airstrike against ISIS-K Planner; Several Groups Vying for Power in Afghanistan; COVID-19 Cases Climbing as Sydney Ends Ninth Week in Lockdown. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired August 28, 2021 - 00:00   ET




MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello and welcome to our viewers all around the world. I'm Michael Holmes. We appreciate your company.

Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, President Biden vowed revenge for the Kabul airport bombing and, in the last few hours, the U.S. military began doing just that.

How COVID originated: the report from the U.S. intel community that China is calling fabricated.

Plus, another weekend, another Atlantic hurricane; after roaring over Cuba, Ida now setting her sights on the U.S. Gulf Coast.


HOLMES: The U.S. beginning to make good on its promise to strike back against the terror group believed responsible for the Kabul airport attack. It launched a drone strike against the terror group, ISIS-K in Nangarhar province.

A U.S. Central Command spokesman saying quote, "U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner. The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties."

This, of course, comes as the U.S. embassy in Kabul assured a fresh security alert, once again telling Americans to avoid going to the airport and warning if they are already waiting at the gates to, quote, "leave immediately."

That was just a few hours ago now, the White House says the national security team has determined another terror attack in Kabul is likely.

Thirteen American troops, two British citizens and at least 170 Afghans were killed in the Kabul bombing at the airport there. Senior international correspondent Ivan Watson joins me now from Hong Kong.

Also, White House reporter Jasmine Wright is in Washington.

Let's begin with you, Ivan. Joe Biden vowed to strike ISIS-K and it seems he has, 36 hours later after the attack.

What is your take on it militarily?

Effective or symbolic?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think some of that will have to depend on what information the U.S. military later shares about the strike, about the individual that they say that they have targeted and killed.

I do think we need a little bit of broader context. The U.S. has been bombing targets, suspected terrorist targets in Nangarhar province as well as other provinces in Afghanistan for 20 years.

They've been using much larger ammunition, not drones but B-52s and other types of laser guided projectiles. They've dropped a Daisy cutter in the mountains of Tora Bora when Osama bin Laden and many forces of Al Qaeda were believed to be fleeing to neighboring Pakistan some 20 years ago.

Whether or not this was an effective strike will depend on the quality of the intelligence that led to the attack. And that has been compromised. We no longer have an Afghan government that is allied with U.S. forces. You no longer have U.S. forces on the ground directing these strikes.

So, we still need to learn more about this. But in the broader context, the U.S. has dropped tremendous amounts of munitions on Afghanistan and have hurt its enemies on the ground.

But certainly, have not succeeded in completely neutralizing them, as we have seen with the dramatic collapse the U.S.-backed government and the fact that the Taliban is now effectively in control of the country.

HOLMES: Absolutely.

Let's turn to you, Jasmine Wright. Joe Biden by all accounts true to his promise. That might calm the critics politically that he moved so quickly.

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's the question. President Biden fulfilled his pledge by more than 24 hours after he issued it. Now, of course, as Ivan was saying, we don't know yet if the target of this attack was directly related to the attack that killed those 13 service members yesterday.

But we can also say that it's probably likely that there will be more attacks as the U.S. looks to really disrupt this acute but very real threat that ISIS poses on the ground, leading up to this August 31st deadline.

But you're right, President Biden is really getting criticisms from the Right and the Left, his own party in some cases, about the actions of the last few days and the withdrawal.

Now remember, President Biden and the vice president today said they were warned that there would be a chance likely that there would be another attack in Kabul. A statement today said, for the next few days, the mission will be the most dangerous period to date.


WRIGHT: The U.S. is taking maximum force protection measures. President Biden yesterday foreshadowed this, saying he pledged not only to take them out but also saying they had credible information, potentially of who these people were.

And so now we are seeing the attack today. So, we will be looking forward to seeing what happens in the next few days as the U.S. steps up their drawdown efforts in that period.


HOLMES: I was going to ask you about that, Jasmine.

What are the concerns about how the airstrike and any possible retaliations for it might impact the safety of the troops still on the ground at the airport as they wind down?

And what is the process that many believe makes the forces more vulnerable?

WRIGHT: That's right, there was always the question in this last 24 plus hours of whether or not a strike would make things on the ground more precarious as the administration looks to start pulling out more and more troops.

Earlier today, the Pentagon said there was still about 5,000 though they warned that they would stop advertising how many troops were actually there, because of the situation.

And today White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that this becomes a really dangerous part of the mission, because of that drawdown, because of their retrograde phase, where they're not only taking out troops but they're also taking out equipment, making sure that it does not fall into the wrong hands.

So they are really juggling, both try to speed up the evacuations in the next few days or -- excuse me -- make sure the evacuations flow well in the next few days, as they also look to get more troops.

So there is still a question out there as they face that real and acute threat that they continue to advertize from ISIS-K on the grounds as to what happens.

HOLMES: Ivan Watson, back to you for a moment. You touched on something that I think is interesting -- and you spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. The intel that -- there obviously was intel in this case -- to find a target and bomb it, once the U.S. is out -- and also given the fact that there might not be the trust level on the ground that there was, given the wartime allies being left behind, that will be a problem going forward, isn't it?

Eyes on the ground?

WATSON: Absolutely, the U.S. has demonstrated here that it reserves the right to continue to carry out airstrikes in Afghanistan. So, there is a symbolic measure here.

But can you gather intelligence, can you identify your targets?

Can you tell the difference between an ISIS convoy and a wedding party, a wedding convoy, which has tragically been the case in the past in Afghanistan, even when the U.S. had ample boots on the ground?

That's going to be a big question going forward.

And one of my big questions is what kind of rule will the Taliban have going forward?

There are parts of the movement that are trying to present themselves as more polished and able to conduct responsible, serious negotiations with neighboring countries.

And there are other sides that seem much more retrograde and reminiscent of the kind of Taliban 20 years ago that would beat people if their beards were not long enough and arrest people if they were caught playing chess.

So, what is going to be the identity of the Taliban going forward, I suspect there is a lot to work out within the organization itself. Not to mention with how it treats people who worked with the former government and with the former regime.

Will they be punished or allowed to continue to function and live as ordinary Afghan citizens?

So many questions as Afghanistan goes through this bloody new chapter of its history.

HOLMES: Absolutely. Thank you, Ivan Watson in Hong Kong.

Also, you, Jasmine Wright in Washington, D.C., appreciate it.


HOLMES: Bill Roggio is the managing editor for the excellent "Long War Journal" and he joins me now from Pennsylvania.

Good to see you again, Bill. Let's talk about the battlefield, if you like, you've got the Taliban ostensibly in control and ISIS-K already flexing muscle. The nascent resistance movement in the Panjshir that you and I have discussed before. They you've got other militant and ethnic groups and associated divisions.

What do you see going forward?

When is the chance of a civil war, a fracturing? BILL ROGGIO, MANAGING EDITOR, "LONG WAR JOURNAL": Right now, the Taliban is dominant. They control 32 of the 34 provinces. The nascent resistance in Panjshir is really the only viable resistance to the Taliban.

The Panjshir province is a very difficult province to get into. The acting president of Afghanistan is organizing forces but he has a long climb ahead of him. He has to reach out to a lot of Afghans.


ROGGIO: The Islamic State, when it comes to them, they are an opponent to the Taliban. There's some evidence that occasionally they'll work with the Taliban to conduct its specific attacks.

But in the end the two are enemies because the Islamic State challenges the primacy of the Taliban's jihad. So I think if the Taliban does turn its sights on the Islamic State, that problem will be quick (ph) and you'll be down to the resistance versus the Taliban.

HOLMES: Of course, when it comes to ISIS-K, the case stands for Khorasan, which is a region that encompasses more than Afghanistan -- Iran, parts of China, Pakistan -- whose intel service has been heavily involved with the Taliban.

Do you worry about regional instability if ISIS-K gets a foothold?

ROGGIO: Yes, ISIS-K is definitely more of a regional threat, in my opinion, than a fractious (ph) Afghanistan. It has sprung up from this disparate elements, disaffected elements from the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and some members of Al Qaeda and some other jihadist groups after the Taliban lied about Mullah Omar's (ph) death in 2013 to 2015.

They hid it. It's estimated to have several thousand members; that number might be a little higher. But it's, compared to the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus, the Taliban -- and particularly Al Qaeda and allied groups, the ones operating in Pakistan, Islamic State, Khorasan province is a lesser threat.

But its threat level is upgraded a little bit, because it is the one willing to conduct attacks on soft targets like mosques, schools and things of that nature; whereas Al Qaeda and its allies have been more tactical.

HOLMES: Yes, they killed dozens of girls at a girls' school, shot mothers giving birth in a maternity hospital, ISIS-K did.

Obviously the U.S. hitting this ISIS planner in the last few hours was the result of intelligence.

But I'm curious what you think going forward, how damaged will the U.S.' ability to gather intelligence on the ground be?

Especially given the thousands of wartime allies who have been left behind, who on the ground would want to help the Americans and trust them? ROGGIO: Michael, that's exactly the right point. I mean after the United -- after the U.S. President abandoned Afghanistan in its time of need and told Afghan soldiers, accused them of not fighting for their country when more than 66,000 have died fighting over the years, it is very, very difficult to find allies.

Ultimately, intelligence operations require intelligence on the ground, require human intelligence. And the U.S. may have been able to strike an Islamic State Khorasan Province facilitator today.

But the ability to do that tomorrow and the days moving forward is going to diminish. There's no Afghan army to assist us. There's no national director to secure the Afghanistan CIA around anymore. The U.S. is going to be -- you know, intelligence is going to have to be gathered via signals. And those can be fooled.

HOLMES: A few people have defined (ph) the Taliban literally the way you have over the years. There are many who doubt Taliban 2.0 is in any way a kinder, gentler version.

What do you expect Afghanistan will look like in 6 to 12 months?

ROGGIO: Yes, in 6 to 12 months, let's put it this way, meet the new Taliban, it's the same as the old Taliban. We will see a return to the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. We're already seeing evidence of. This The pictures we see in Kabul seem much more tame although we're starting to see reports of increased arrests and searches.

But from what I'm hearing that's happening outside the province it's back to the old school Taliban way of rule.

The one thing the Taliban is new -- is the new improved Taliban aren't ways that help us, its alliance with Al Qaeda's improved. Its propaganda operations have improved. Its ability to use the internet to recruit and to get its message across.

It is a far more sophisticated organization with an army that is armed with U.S. weapons. None of those things are good for the United States or the West.

HOLMES: Yes, indeed. Bill, thank you. Bill Roggio with the "Long War Journal."

ROGGIO: Thank you, sir.


HOLMES: Tens of thousands of people have fled Afghanistan in the last 2 weeks but many remain trapped, fearing for their lives. That is the reality for an Afghan we will be calling "Ahmad" to protect his identity.

He spent a decade as an interpreter for U.S. Defense contractors. He has not been able to get to Kabul's airport, despite trying several times. He spoke earlier with CNN's Erin Burnett.


"AHMAD," FORMER AFGHAN INTERPRETER FOR U.S.: So if the Taliban catch me or any other interpreter or person who worked for the U.S., you will be dead. You will be died. You will be died.


And the worst thing, you know, after killing the person, they take the wife or sister with them and take them with them, actually.

That is really bad. That is what makes me uncomfortable, actually and really disappointed about this.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Ahmad, do you feel abandoned by the American troops knowing you may be left behind?

AHMAD: I'm left behind I'm sure and, you know, in the organization around 80 people and we are all left behind. Instead of help, the people who didn't work for the U.S. even for a day, some of those people got out. I don't how they got out.

How they boarded on the flight and they are in Qatar and U.S. But the people who worked and put their life in danger on the line, they're still here.


HOLMES: August 31st is, of course, the deadline for U.S. withdrawal and the end of U.S. evacuations. Thousands of Afghans who want to leave will have to look for other ways out.

The U.N. asked Afghanistan's neighbors on Friday to keep their borders open, amid worries that more than a half million refugees may flee to surrounding countries, by the end of the year. Let's take a closer look.


HOLMES (voice-over): Carrying all they have left, weary Afghans walk across the border into neighboring Pakistan.

"We went to the Kabul airport," says one refugee, who had hoped to leave in the U.S.-led airlift out of the Afghan capital.

"We stayed there for 2, 3 days but the situation worsened," he says.

Finally, he left in search of another way out, before Thursday's twin bombings added to the panic, while evacuations draw to a close.

As the security situation deteriorates, more Afghan refugees are fleeing to the country's main border crossings since the Taliban takeover. Soon, their numbers may swell.

KELLY CLEMENTS, DEPUTY, U.N. HIGH COMMISIONER FOR REFUGEES: UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: While we have not seen large outflows of Afghans, at this point, the situation inside of Afghanistan has evolved, more rapidly, than anyone expected.

In terms of numbers, we are preparing for 500,000 new refugees in the region. This is a worst-case scenario.

HOLMES (voice-over): So far, the U.S. and allies, have evacuated more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan, since August 14. But as they scramble to help those desperate to leave, an August 31 deadline is fast approaching.

In the months that follow, the UNHCR predicts that refugees will flow into neighboring Iran, Pakistan and other nations in central Asia. The refugee agency urging them to keep borders open.

But some may have little bandwidth for the influx, in particular Pakistan, where and estimated 2.4 million Afghan refugees, already, reside, according to the Center for Global Development. Thousands more may soon arrive, desperately, searching for safety as the crisis in Afghanistan continues to unfold.


HOLMES: The rising number of new COVID patients, overwhelming some hospitals in the U.S., When we come back, we will take a look and see how the unvaccinated are, still, fueling that surge.

Also, the U.S. releases key findings of its report on the origins of COVID. We will see what it says and what China has to say about it. We will be right back.





HOLMES: Let's take a look at this COVID situation around the world.

Norway is seeing a dramatic spike in cases in recent weeks. For the third day in a row, the country reported more than 1,000 cases. They have been surging there since mid July, when Norway was only reporting about 200 per day.

Canadian health officials have authorized the use of the Moderna shot in children, ages 12, to 17. The vaccine was previously authorized, only for adults.

And, in Australia, New South Wales, reporting more than 1,000 new community cases in the state's highest caseload so far in the pandemic and it comes as Sydney has spent 9 weeks in lockdown.

Vaccinations in the U.S., slowly, inching higher, with 52 percent of the total population, now, fully vaccinated. That is according to the CDC. But even as vaccinations increase, cases and hospitalizations, are

skyrocketing. The U.S. state of Florida, reporting more cases in the past week than during any other 7-day period since the pandemic began.

Health officials, attributing those recent spikes to, yes, unvaccinated Americans. CNN's Miguel Marquez, taking a look at how they are overwhelming one Mississippi hospital.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dolly Monceaux is being moved from the COVID ICU to a regular COVID bed. The 82-year old thinks she got the virus from a family member.

DOLLY MONCEAUX, COVID-19 PATIENT: You don't know you're going to get it and then you get it and you're sick. And you don't know if you are going to live or die.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Unvaccinated, she says she was on the fence about getting vaccinated. Today, her mind is made up.

MONCEAUX: All my family wasn't going to get the shot. But now we are.

MARQUEZ: All of your family?

MONCEAUX: All my family.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Fifty-seven-year-old Ronnie Terrell has been in the hospital for more than two weeks. Breathing, still a chore. Also unvaccinated, he just didn't think he needed it.

RONNIE TERRELL, COVID-19 PATIENT: I just never got around to it. I've been healthy for 40 years and I hadn't had a cold in 40 years.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): He thinks he got the virus at an outside event.

MARQUEZ: Did you think COVID was not a serious illness?

TERRELL: I didn't give it that much thought because at the time it wasn't that big a deal, you know, when it first started, you know.

MARQUEZ: And what's your thought on it now?

TERRELL: It's a big deal. It's a big deal.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Mississippi suffering its biggest spike in cases, yet. Hospitalizations, more than ever. So many cases so quickly, the trend line nearly vertical. The vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, all among the unvaccinated.

DR. IJLAL BABER, DIRECTOR, PULMONARY AND CRITICAL CARE, SINGING RIVER HEALTH SYSTEM: I think what's most interesting is the detachment, the complete lack of connection in what you see out in the community with what's happening in this -- in these hospitals.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Pascagoula's Singing River Hospital can't expand COVID capacity fast enough. It's cleared beds to serve more COVID patients but doesn't have the staff to open it. The beds sit empty.

BABER: It's exhausting, both mentally and emotionally.

I think the most difficult thing emotionally that we are having to deal with now is what do we do with these people who have been on the ventilator for weeks and weeks and weeks and aren't getting better?

MARQUEZ (voice-over): There is a small ray of hope. The vaccination clinic here is seeing an uptick in those getting shots into arms.

EDNA BARIA, VACCINE RECIPIENT: We were still just -- started to ease in to our normal life and then, the Delta variant, and then we're like, OK.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Edna and Thomas Baria were most concerned about the Delta variant in making his already complicated health situation even worse.

THOMAS BARIA, VACCINE RECIPIENT: It would be wonderful to get back to normal.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Nineteen-year-old Isabelle Smith got such a bad case, she could barely get out of bed.


MARQUEZ: So, when you got sick, how sick did you get?

ISABELLE SMITH, COVID-19 PATIENT: On a scale from 1 to 10, probably an 8.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): She, now, wants to get vaccinated as soon as she can. Her mom, who is vaccinated, thought her daughter, who has asthma, might die.

ROBIN WALLS, ISABELLE'S MOTHER: Whether or not I was going to have to have her on a ventilator, when I begged her to get the shot, and I told her, I'm backing off, I've done all I can do.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Singing River Hospital also has a monoclonal antibody treatment site for outpatients, who have the virus, but don't, yet, need a bed.

MARQUEZ: What is the level of demand for this treatment right now?

CHRIS AYERS, LEAD CLINICAL PHARMACIST, SINGING RIVER HEALTH SYSTEM: Literally, the phone is ringing off the hook. Again, we are doing -- we're trying to do 200 per day; we could probably do 400 with the demand we have right now.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): The hospital, expanding the treatment site into what was once a waiting room. The treatment, while good, it isn't as good as being vaccinated and preventing the disease from taking root.

AYERS: This is not a replacement of a vaccination. That is the way -- that's the most effective way that we will get through this pandemic is through an effective vaccination campaign. Regeneron is strictly for those who are already positive.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Amanda Dunning, 35, was unvaccinated, thinks she got it from a friend while shopping. Now she'll get vaccinated as soon as possible.

AMANDA DUNNING, COVID-19 PATIENT: I'm convinced. Please, just get the vaccine.

MARQUEZ: You have gone 180 on this.

DUNNING: Absolutely. I did a 180 and it is because of getting COVID.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): While not a cure, the antibody treatment is keeping the sick from being admitted to the hospital but it has to be administered by health care professionals.

Edith Jordan, 64 and unvaccinated, thinks she got the virus at a family event. OK with an IV drip for an antibody treatment, she still doesn't trust the vaccine.

EDITH JORDAN, COVID-19 PATIENT: I'm just not trustful of the data.

MARQUEZ: Which data?

JORDAN: I'd rather not say.


JORDAN: It was just a personal choice.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Vaccine refusal sickening people throughout the South, ripping through South Mississippi.

MARQUEZ: What is COVID doing to your community?

JENNIFER MCDAVID, EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT RN, SINGING RIVER HEALTH SYSTEM: It's killing us. It's killing our residents. It's killing our demographics. It's killing the staff, emotionally. It's a complete overwhelming situation.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): The emergency department so overwhelmed here, patients sometimes wait days for a bed to open up in the hospital, a deepening crisis with no end in sight -- Miguel Marquez, CNN, Pascagoula, Mississippi.


HOLMES: A long awaited report from the U.S. intelligence community is shedding little light on the origins of the coronavirus. CNN's Alex Marquardt, with more, on the unclassified findings, that were just released.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. intelligence community, saying that it has not come to a conclusion about the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a brief summary of the key findings of a classified report that was ordered back in May by President Biden.

The intelligence community had 90 days to pore over all the intelligence they could find, as well as work with outside experts and foreign partners to try to answer the vital question of where the virus originated.

But they came to no conclusion, instead saying only that they all agreed that there are two possibilities: that the virus leaked from the lab in Wuhan, China, or that it naturally jumped from an animal to a human in the wild.

Four U.S. agencies supporting the hypothesis, with a low level of confidence, that it was naturally occurring in the wild; while one intelligence agency had a moderate level of confidence that it leaked from the lab.

Other agencies felt they didn't have enough information. What we got on Friday from the intelligence community was barely two pages of an unclassified summary of those key findings of the classified report.

One thing they did assess was that the virus was not a Chinese bioweapon and that most of the U.S. intelligence agencies agree that the virus had not been genetically modified.

But, they said, without more cooperation from China and without more information from Beijing, the intelligence community says it won't be able to provide a more definitive explanation -- Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.


HOLMES: And we should note, China has dismissed the report as, quote, "fabricated" by the intelligence community and not scientifically credible.

The Chinese embassy in, Washington, said that the U.S. was trying to stigmatize China, by accusing it of not being transparent about the origins of the disease.

Quick break here on the program. When we come back, the divide between the Taliban and ISIS-K, just days before the Kabul airport attack. Clarissa Ward, speaking with a commander of the terror group. That exclusive interview, after the break.




(MUSIC PLAYING) HOLMES: Returning now to Afghanistan and a swift response by the U.S.

to Thursday's deadly attack at Kabul's airport. A few short hours ago, the U.S. announced it had conducted an airstrike against ISIS-K in an area east of Kabul.

The terror group claimed responsibility for that horrific bombing that killed at least 170 people as well as 13 U.S. service members. Central Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban issuing a statement and we will read it for you now.

"U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner. The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties."

Now that comes as the U.S. embassy in Kabul is once again warning its citizens to stay away from the airport and all its gates. All of this playing out as the U.S. evacuation effort is its final phase before troops are set to leave by Tuesday. Sam Kiley with more.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Crowd control, Taliban style. A day after 13 American service members, two British citizens, and at least 170 Afghans were killed by a suicide bomber, Afghans are still trying to get to Kabul's airport and to freedom.

Just over the blast walls, the mission continues. Nearly 13,000 people flown out in 24 hours. The wounded American service members have been transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany.

Now, there is a second mission. Hunting down the ISIS-K terrorists behind Thursday's attack. To accomplish that, America will need continued cooperation from the Taliban, which still controls checkpoints like this one in Kabul filmed today.

They're implementing a harder ring around the airport and crowds have thinned. Abbey Gate, where the attack occurred, remains closed.

ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: We still believe there are credible threats. In fact, I'd say specific, credible threats, and we want to make sure we're prepared for those.

KILEY: The Pentagon warning that these could be rockets or vehicle bombs.

In Kabul, families collect the bodies of their loved ones, and survivors come to terms with what has happened. This man says that he was an interpreter for the British and was among the hundreds of Afghans wounded.

"I fell into the stream and thought I was the only one still alive. I saw all the other people were dead. More than 5000 evacuees are waiting for flights at Kabul's airport. And I realize like Italy and Spain have already ended their missions in Afghanistan." [00:35:00]

MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, U.S. JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: We have the ability to include evacuees on U.S. military airlift out of Afghanistan, until the very end.

KILEY: The walls of Kabul's airport are now stained with blood, as Afghanistan counts down the final days of America's longest war -- Sam Kiley, CNN, Doha.


HOLMES: ISIS-K was quick to claim responsibilities for Thursday's deadly attack and the U.S. warns they could cause more violence in the days to come. CNN's Clarissa Ward spoke with the commander of the terror group days before the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban. Here now her exclusive report. We must warn you, some of the images are graphic.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two weeks before the attack, just days before Kabul fell to the Taliban, we were in touch with a senior ISIS-K commander who said the group was lying low and waiting for its moment to strike, words that turned out to be eerily prophetic.

(on-camera): So this commander has said that he'll do an interview with us at a hotel here in Kabul and he says it's no problem for him to get through checkpoints and come right into the capital.

(voice-over): To prove his point, he let us film his arrival into the city. Abdul Munir (ph), as he asked to be called, is an ISIS-K commander from Kunar, the heart of the terrorist groups operations. He agreed to talk on the condition that we disguise his identity.

In a Kabul hotel, he told us he's had up to 600 men under his command, among them Indians, Pakistanis and Central Asians. Like many of his foot soldiers, he used to fight with the Taliban but says they've fallen under the influence of foreign powers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translation): We were operating intelligence ranks; however, these people were not aligned with us in terms of belief. So we went to ISIS.

WARD (on-camera): Do you think they're not strict enough with their implementation of sharia?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translation): You see, they can't present one example where they have enforced fixed Islamic law punishments, where they have cut off a thief's hand, have stoned to death an adulterer, have stoned to death a murderer.

They cannot enforce fixed Islamic law punishments, because they are under other people's control and they implement their plans. So we do not want to implement someone else's plans and we only want to enforce sharia.

If anyone gets along with us on this, he is our brother. Otherwise, we declare war with him, whether he's Talib or anyone else.

WARD (on-camera): So have you carried out public executions, suicide bombings, things of this nature?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translation): Yes, I have too many memories where I was present myself at the scene. One memory is that the Pakistani Taliban had come to the (INAUDIBLE) district. And during the fighting, we captured five people. Our fighters became overexcited and we struck them with excess.

WARD (voice-over): It's that chilling brutality that made ISIS-K a primary target for U.S. forces. In recent years, airstrikes and Special Forces operations have ruthlessly targeted the group in Kunar and Nangarhar.

(on-camera): Has your group engaged in any fighting with U.S. Special Forces?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translation): Yes, we have faced them on many occasions. We had close combat with them, too. They used to land in ancient (ph) and Kunar they carried out airstrikes, we have faced them a lot in firefights.

WARD (on-camera): Are you interested ultimately in carrying out international attacks?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translation): This point is higher than my level, I can only give you information about Afghanistan.

WARD (on-camera): With U.S. forces out of the country and the Taliban potentially in control, do you think that will make it easier for you to expand?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translation): Yes, this exists in our plan. Instead of currently operating, we have turned to recruiting only to utilize the opportunity and to do our recruitment. But when the foreigners and people in the world leave Afghanistan, we can restart our operations.

WARD (voice-over): That moment has now come as the world saw all too clearly on Thursday, a brutal attack on an already battered country. And the threat that is not going away as U.S. forces complete their withdrawal.

WARD: He would not comment on whether the group was interested in pursuing transnational attacks but he said that he hopes that, with the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they potentially will be able to establish a caliphate like the one that was established in Syria and Iraq.

Now most terrorism analysts says that ISIS-K is about five years away from potentially being able to launch international attacks. But this bloody attack on the airport certainly raises very real questions about the Taliban's ability to control groups like ISIS-K and whether Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for terrorists -- Clarissa Ward, CNN, Doha.




HOLMES: Jason Blazakis is a former State Department official and terrorism expert at the Soufan Center. He joins me now from Monterey, California.

Good to see you. Let's start with this. The Afghan war began 20 years ago to fight terror. Now the Americans are leaving after another terror attack. You said that you see the beginnings of, quote, "a massive relocation" of radical Islamists to Afghanistan.

What could that look like and what would be the likely impact in the months ahead?

JASON BLAZAKIS, SOUFAN CENTER: What that could look like as the United States and Western governments leave. You're going to have an intelligence vacuum.

You're going to have a vacuum in which counter-terrorism, practitioners who have been fighting the last 20-year war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, will not have the eyes and ears they need to get an idea about what is happening in Afghanistan.

That could create a scenario in which jihadists can travel to Afghanistan in a free and easy manner. And that is a great concern.

In fact, it was this past June where the United Nations actually issued a report, talking about how that flow of fighters was already making their way into Afghanistan. With the United States' departure and the chaos that we are seeing now, I do believe we are going to see individuals from all stripes of jihadist groups going into Afghanistan.


BLAZAKIS: And the consequences --

HOLMES: Yes, I was just going to say, I think you are going to say this as well, your assessment of the eventual risks to the West, in terms of that, organizing terror attacks from within?

BLAZAKIS: Absolutely, so one of the primary concerns I have is about a resurgent Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has been on the ropes for more than a decade. It has essentially been a shelter -- a shell of itself. It is an organization that does not have the reach that it once did.

It obviously struck the United States on 9/11. It struck the United Kingdom in 2005 but it has not been able to replicate that success. My concern is, there is still a relationship between the Taliban and

Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda can grow, become resurgent and can use Afghanistan again as a potential launching pad for attacks against the West and European interests.

There's also, of course, the concern relating to the so-called Islamic State province known as the Khorasan province, that is the organization that struck just 2 days ago at the Kabul airport.

It's an organization that has a footprint in the Afghanistan, Pakistan region. It has about 1,000 fighters, according to the State Department. It's an organization that could see more individuals go to Afghanistan in these next few months. That is a great concern to me.

HOLMES: One of the disturbing things, I mean you've got a resurgent Al Qaeda. You've got the Taliban who do their own nasty things. ISIS-K. In the Panjshir valley you've got a resistance that is starting to form.

What are the chances that -- they don't all get along, obviously -- what are the chances of it fracturing into a civil war again?

BLAZAKIS: I think what we are seeing now is just the beginning of a civil war. The Taliban and the Khorasan province of ISIS do not have any love for one another. ISIS and Al Qaeda despise each other. They see each other as rivals. ISIS and the Islamic State and Khorasan look at the Taliban as being too parochial and locally focused, not sufficiently thinking about the growing of a global caliphate, which, of course, is ISIS' objective.

So we're going to see them at loggerheads. They're going to carry out attacks against one another. The strike recently just 2 days ago was not just a strike against the United States and Western interests. It was also a strike by the Khorasan component of the Islamic State against the Taliban, to embarrass them and to show Afghanistan that the Taliban is not going to be able to govern.

HOLMES: I wanted to ask you as well, because you've looked at it from the 20,000-foot view as well.

The broader picture of the so-called war on terror and Afghanistan's role in it, was this a war that, in many ways, lost its way?

The U.S. went into fight terror. It's leaving, as other groups have reformed there.

Was it a war that was effective?

What was done right and what was done wrong?

BLAZAKIS: I lived in Afghanistan for much of 2004 myself and went back in 2012 when I was in the U.S. government. There are a number of missteps that were made.

The first misstep was made when the United States went into Iraq a second time, distracting ourselves from the mission in Afghanistan, taking away vitally important resources that were crucial to tackling the Taliban and uprooting Al Qaeda.

And I think that is the first and most important misstep. And there's been a number of other missteps throughout the years, of course.


BLAZAKIS: Providing support to the Karzai regime, the corruption that was running rampant throughout Afghanistan; terrible intelligence being providing to policy makers, related to how capable the Afghan government was and the Afghan security services.

So a number of missteps. And I think, in the end, the Biden decision actually to leave, is the right one. It's been 20 years; we've been there for a long time and, really, the underlying mission to, essentially, ensure that Al Qaeda cannot become resurgent was successful.

It is just unfortunate that things have gone the way they have the last few months.

HOLMES: Jason Blazakis, thank you so much, fascinating stuff.

BLAZAKIS: My pleasure, thank you for having me.


HOLMES: Hurricane Ida, heading to the Gulf of Mexico and getting stronger. When we come back, the damage it has already caused, and the devastation it is threatening bring to America's Gulf Coast. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM, we will be right back.




HOLMES: Welcome back.

An increasingly powerful hurricane is barreling into the Gulf of Mexico at this hour. Forecasters are saying it will likely slam into New Orleans on, guess what, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Now hurricane Ida is expected to strengthen into a category 4 storm, as it makes its landfall during the weekend. Hurricane warnings are posted for much of Louisiana, including metropolitan New Orleans.

The hurricane had already hit in Cuba in 2 different spots. The latest, the province of Pinar del Rio on Friday evening, where it roared in with 130 kilometers per hour winds.

CNN's Patrick, Oppmann was in Havana, when the storm first began coming ashore.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hurricane Ida, slamming into Cuba, as a category one hurricane it made landfall, on the isle of Juventud, continuing into the Cuban mainland.

Here in Havana, we just saw some rain squalls, some wind gusts but we're expected to be spared the worst of this hurricane, as it passes well to the west of Havana. Cuban officials are warning people, though, that live in the western part of the island in particular, that this hurricane could bring down tree limbs.

It could bring down power lines, it could cause flooding and storm surge. And of course, there is the issue of the coronavirus pandemic, of people being in close quarters and having to seek shelter during the storm.

And that could lead to a further increase of infection here on this island, that, recently, has seen some of the highest numbers of cases and deaths. So that is, of course, the other issue that people are going to have to deal, with as the storm passes by.

Officials say, they expect the storm to come through Cuba, to remain as a category one hurricane.


OPPMANN: And then as it emerges into the Gulf of Mexico, to strengthen before it heads to the United States -- Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.


HOLMES: Ida's likely, to be a much more powerful storm when it reaches the U.S.


HOLMES: We will take a quick break, when we come, back the Israeli prime minister moves to reboot his country's relationship with the U.S. Coming up, Naftali Bennett meets the U.S. President, Joe Biden and pushes for a clean slate in their country's relationship. We will be right back.




HOLMES: Reset, was the operative word, as the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, headed to the White House on Friday. He had his first meeting with the U.S. President, Joe Biden, 2.5 months after Mr. Bennett was sworn in.

The White House, concerned that its relationship with Israel would have soured, if Bennett's opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, had stayed in power. But as Hadas Gold reports for us now, the 2 administrations are hoping for a fresh start. [00:55:00]


HADAS GOLD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: After their scheduled meeting was postponed because of the attack in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden and the Israeli prime minister, Naftali, Bennett met for the first time on Friday, at the White House.

The 2, trying to reset the tone between the 2 countries, after 12 years, of former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and to really open a clear line of communication, between the 2 leaders.

The prime minister, telling reporters after the meeting, that he felt that it went well. They received a warm welcome and a clear show of support, despite what is a very stressful time for this White House.

One of the prime ministers' main goals of this meeting, trying to push President Biden, off of a return, to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Presenting the president with what they're calling a new strategy on Iran, one that addresses not only their nuclear ambitions but also Iranian aggression.

Their activities in places, like Syria, Lebanon and the incidents at sea such as the attack on the Mercer Street cargo ship. Both Israel and the United States, have both attributed to Iran.

Now while President Biden didn't immediately drop on the idea of returning to the Iranian nuclear deal, he did do something new. He did say that if diplomacy fails, when it comes to Iran, they will consider other options.


BIDEN: But if diplomacy fails, we are ready to turn to other options. We'll support Israel and developing deeper ties, as well, with the Arab and Muslim neighbors and globally. That's a trend, that I think, should encourage, not discourage and we'll do all we can to be (INAUDIBLE).


GOLD: One issue that did not appear to be a major focus of this meeting, was relations with the Palestinians. Although, it was brought up. This really is a reflection of the political reality that the prime minister faces, back in Israel.

He leads a fragile and diverse coalition, of political parties, that really, run the spectrum when it comes to views on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The Israeli and American officials, both recognizing that under this current government, they will not have any sort of major moves, when it comes to peace talks or any sort of discussion around a Tuesday solution.

President Biden, only saying that they will work toward peace and prosperity, for both Israelis and Palestinians -- Hadas Gold, CNN, Washington.


HOLMES: Thanks for spending part of your day with, me I am Michael, Holmes you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, @HolmesCNN. Don't go away, I'll be back with another hour of CNN NEWSROOM, after the break.