The United States and its allies warned people crowding around Kabul airport in hopes of escaping Taliban rule to leave the area Thursday, citing the threat of a terror attack amid growing concern over ISIS’s Afghanistan offshoot.
The flurry of warnings late Wednesday came as the latest blow to the thousands of people desperately trying to make it on to evacuation flights ahead of a withdrawal deadline on the 31st of August.
The US State Department, citing unspecified “security threats,” warned that people at three gates of the airport “should leave immediately,” and only approach the airport if they had “individual instructions from a US government representative to do so.” The warning came a day after US President Joe Biden stressed the airlift would need to end soon because of the acute and growing risk of an attack" by ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s offshoot in Afghanistan.
“Every day we're on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians," Biden said.
The UK Foreign Office, too, advised people not to go to the airport, citing an “ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack,” adding that if people could leave the country safely by other means, they should “do so immediately.”
On Thursday, British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told Sky News that intelligence had gotten "ever more certain" that an attack could take place, saying it was possible within the next few hours.
"I can't stress the desperation of the situation enough,” he told BBC Radio. “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.”
The UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said earlier that Afghans could be better off “trying to get to the border” than awaiting evacuation from British troops.
Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands also issued similar warnings, with Canberra warning of a “very high threat of a terrorist attack” at the airport, while other allies in the US-led coalition – Belgium, Poland and Czech Republic – have wound up their evacuations from Kabul.
Among the scenarios floated in media reports are concerns that terrorists could launch attacks on crowds that have gathered at the airport, or even target an evacuating plane.
ISIS-K is a splinter group of Islamic State, based mainly in eastern Afghanistan, especially in the provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. A rival of the Taliban, it has been responsible for devastating attacks in recent years, including a suicide attack on a Kabul girls’ school in May that killed at least 68 people.
According to ExTrac, a conflict analytics company that tracks real-time attack and communications data, ISIS-K’s activities have recently “fallen off a cliff,” having been completely inactive since the 14th of August, the day before Kabul fell to the Taliban. The company tweeted that that suggested the group was deliberately lying low, which it did when it was either in survival mode, or planning something.
According to CNN, more than 100 ISIS-K-affiliated inmates escaped from two jails near Kabul as the Taliban advanced on the capital, adding to the concerns about the group’s activity.