Further complicating the Afghanistan evacuation effort is the threat of an ISIS attack at the Kabul airport that has served as a hub for Western nations airlifting citizens and allies out of the country. That threat appeared to materialize Thursday evening in Kabul with reports of an explosion near the airport. Afghanistan’s already tenuous security situation was roiled by the Taliban takeover of the capital city nearly two weeks ago, but after days of a negotiated exit process that allowed evacuees to get to the airport. The new threat is in the form of terror attacks at the hands of ISIS’ Afghan affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
The ISIS threat has been deemed significant enough that the U.S. embassy warned American citizens Wednesday night against traveling to the Kabul airport or congregating at the gates leading into the complex. Australia and the U.K. have both issued warnings that there was now a “high threat” of a terrorist attack. The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan has already carried out dozens of attacks in the country this year and U.S. intelligence says the potential threats now include suicide bombers mixing in among the throngs of people trying to get into the airport and even mortar attacks against the airfield itself.
The Taliban and the ISIS affiliate are rivals in Afghanistan, each looking to assert control in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. “The threats lay bare a complicated dynamic between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, and their bitter rival, ISIS-K, in what analysts say portends a bloody struggle involving thousands of foreign fighters on both sides,” the New York Times reports. “An attack on the airport, current and former American officials said, would be a strategic blow to both the United States and the Taliban leadership, which is trying to demonstrate that it can control the country. Such a strike would bolster ISIS-K’s stature in the jihadist world, but that opportunity greatly diminishes after the last American Marine or soldier pulls out.”
*Update, Aug. 26, 2021, 10 a.m.: This post has been updated with new information about the explosion near the Kabul airport.