The August 2021 attack at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 civilians was the result of a single bomber and was not a “complex” event that involved any other accomplices, U.S. investigators now say.
Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. general in the Middle East, on Friday unveiled the findings of the military’s investigation into the bombing at the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the hectic evacuation from Afghanistan that signaled the end of America’s 20-year war there.
In a briefing to reporters at the Pentagon, Gen. McKenzie acknowledged that the inquiry did not support the information he initially provided that gunmen with ISIS-K, Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch, also opened fire into the crowd after the bomb detonated.
“The fact that this investigation has contradicted what I originally said demonstrates to me that the team went into this investigation with an open mind in search of the truth,” Gen. McKenzie said.
A post-bomb analysis by military experts determined that it had been packed with ball bearings that caused wounds resembling gunshots. Combined with a small number of warning shots, it led many people to assume that a more coordinated attack had occurred, Gen. McKenzie said.
Lead investigator Army Brig. Gen. Lance Curtis said his team interviewed more than 130 people spanning five countries over the period of three and a half months to piece together the events of the day, which provided a bloody final chapter to a chaotic pullout by U.S. and allied forces even as the insurgent Taliban were consolidating control of the Afghan capital.
“I find the volume of the evidence collected, the testimony of more than 100 people, the analysis of experts, the finding of fact and the conclusions of the team based upon that evidence a compelling and truthful examination of the event,” Gen. McKenzie said.
The bomber likely reached the Abbey Gate through an alternate route that allowed him to bypass checkpoints manned by the Taliban, who had become de facto partners of the U.S. in facilitating the massive airlift for U.S. nationals and Afghan allies.
Friday’s briefing also included the only-known video footage of the blast itself. A flash of light is visible as Marines at the scene suddenly drop to take cover. Drone footage then showed Marines rushing toward the gate and several bodies on the ground.
The investigators concluded that U.S. military commanders at the scene were “appropriately engaged” on force protection measures even as the situation grew dire. They identified at least four “imminent threat streams” in the days leading up to the bombing, officials said.
“Leaders took the appropriate measures tied to these imminent threat streams. They would lower their profiles, seek cover, and at times they would even cease operations at the gate for periods of time,” Gen. Curtis said. “Leaders were keeping their fingers on the pulse of the situation on the ground.”
ISIS-K, the Afghan-based offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for the attack and has kept up strikes against the new Taliban rulers now that the Americans have gone.
“While nothing can bring back the 11 Marines, one soldier and sailor that we tragically lost in the attack, it is important that we fully understand what happened,” Gen. McKenzie said.
Less than a week after the bombing, a drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians — including seven children — and an aid worker with no ties to any anti-U.S. extremist groups. Pentagon officials initially defended the action, saying it was necessary to prevent another Abbey Gate-type attack on American personnel in Afghanistan. Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even called it a “righteous strike.”
But Pentagon officials later admitted the strike had been a tragic mistake, based on a faulty interpretation of intelligence on the target, an Afghan worker for an American-based aid organization. They blamed it on a breakdown in process and procedures rather than negligence or criminal intent.