The U.S. and Britain have warned citizens not to go to Kabul’s airport, citing a terror threat to the sprawling facility outside of which thousands of desperate people have gathered since the Taliban’s retaking of Afghanistan. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent out an alert on Wednesday evening advising U.S. citizens in Afghanistan to avoid traveling to the airport, citing an unspecified security threat amid frantic efforts to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans.
“Because of security threats outside the gates of Kabul airport, we are advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so,” the security alert read. “U.S. citizens who are at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately.”
A U.S. defense official told CBS News national security correspondent David Martin on Thursday that the threat was not to planes taking off or landing, but of an explosive device being detonated outside the airport gates. The same official, and others in Washington, denied reports that evacuation efforts from Kabul — which have been enabled entirely by American forces controlling the Kabul airport — were set to end within 36 hours.
It wasn’t immediately clear what specific intelligence prompted the U.S. embassy’s advisory, but President Biden warned this week of the ongoing threat posed by the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS Khorosan or ISIS-K. A senior British official did indicate that ISIS-K was behind the latest, urgent threat in Kabul. The Taliban has vowed not to allow ISIS-K, which has fought the much larger group for years in Afghanistan, to continue operating inside the country.
Britain urged its nationals and everyone else to avoid the airport on Thursday, with the head of the army citing “very, very credible” intelligence that terrorists were planning an imminent attack on the thousands of people who have gathered just outside the airport walls.
“There is now very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack, and hence why the Foreign Office advice was changed last night, that people should not come to Kabul Airport, they should move to a safe place and await further instructions,” British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told BBC radio. “I can’t stress the desperation of the situation enough. The threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal. We wouldn’t be saying this if we weren’t genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target that is just unimaginable.”
Heappey told Britain’s Sky News on Thursday that the terror group was, “acutely aware of the fact that there is a closing window for people to leave [Kabul]. That is concentrating people in towards the airport, and that is giving them an opportunity to do something that they would regard as spectacular — we would regard as absolutely abhorrent.”
He said he knew the warning to avoid the airport would cause “real desperation for many of the people who are yet to be brought out of the country, but we’re not being overly cautious: The threat, whilst I can’t give you the detail, is very imminent, very credible, very lethal.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned Americans to be aware of their surroundings at all times, follow the instructions of local authorities, have contingency plans in case of emergencies, monitor local media and follow the State Department on social media.
The Biden administration has ramped up the pace of evacuations of U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans from Kabul in recent days. The U.S. government said on Thursday that more than 95,000 people had been airlifted out of Afghanistan over the past two weeks.
But there were still more than 10,000 people gathered outside Kabul’s airport, hoping to get onto one of the flights out of the country, Army Major General Hank Taylor said Wednesday.
BBC News correspondent Secunder Kermani, who has been reporting daily from amid the throngs of desperate Afghans outside the airport, said on Thursday that information like the dire warning of a possible imminent attack from Western authorities, “is not going to filter down to those people on the ground there. They’re so desperate they don’t even know what documentation they need to bring, what he process is — so it’s not going to make a difference to the crowds that are turning up.”
President Biden on Tuesday said that contingency plans to meet his August 31 deadline for withdrawing all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which will bring an end to the two-decade war there, were being developed. However, that deadline does not signal an end to America’s “involvement” in the country, according to Ross Wilson, the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
“We would like for all those who wish to get out of this country to do so and to be able to do so by August 31, especially American citizens,” Wilson told “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell in an exclusive interview Wednesday.
“Our commitment in this country and our involvement in this country doesn’t end on that date. We believe that there will be possibilities for Americans to be able to get out of this country,” he continued. “America’s commitment to American citizens, in particular to our staff, to those who served our country, that isn’t going to end.”
CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported on Thursday that some European countries had already declared an end to their evacuation efforts with the U.S. military withdrawal deadline looming.
“It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul,” declared Denmark’s defense chief.
Canada announced an end to its evacuation flights on Thursday, too, citing the fast-approaching deadline for U.S. troops to leave.