WASHINGTON — The suicide bomber waited until the last possible moment, US officials said.
A crowd straining to enter Hamid Karzai International Airport had gathered at Abbey Gate, a main entrance manned by Marines and other military personnel. The troops knew they could be the target of an attack; the day before, the State Department had warned of a “credible” threat at three gates at the airport, where more than 5,000 US troops had helped evacuate more than 100,000 people in less than two weeks. Abbey Gate was on the list.
Airport security had closed two of the gates but decided to leave the Abbey Gate open, US officials said. They believed that earlier in the day, Taliban commanders and fighters manning checkpoints along the airport route had thwarted two possible attempts by militants to reach the airport.
But the third came through.
At 5:48 p.m., the bomber, wearing a 25-pound explosive vest under his clothing, approached the group of Americans who were frisking people hoping to enter the complex. He waited, officials said, until just before being searched by US troops. And then he detonated the bomb, which was unusually large for a suicide vest, committing suicide and setting off an attack that would kill dozens of people, including 13 U.S. servicemen.
“This is war at close quarters — the breath of the person you seek is upon you,” General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of United States Central Command, said Thursday after the attack, describing the face-to-face — face contact between Marines at the airport gate and Afghans who have to search them before they are allowed to enter.
Pentagon officials said they were still putting together the sequence of events that took place at Abbey Gate on Thursday. There will be after-action reviews and storyboards detailing what led up to that point. There will be questions: Why were so many service members grouped so closely together? How did the bomber dodge the Taliban checkpoints? Did someone let him through?
As the extent of the damage became clearer, health officials in Kabul increased the death toll and said at least 170 people had died. Afghans trying to escape the Taliban rule continued to flock to the airport on Friday, but the crowd was estimated to be hundreds, fewer than the thousands present when the blast happened. The airport remained largely closed, although evacuation flights continued.
Just after 2 p.m. Friday, as another American gray-tail plane took off from the airport, this one carrying the flag-draped coffins of the 13 Americans, fear of Thursday’s bombing spread from Kabul to Kansas. In the morgue at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, soldiers braced for the ritual of dressing and preparing yet another group of American troops who had fallen in Afghanistan.
“I’ve never been one for politics and I’m not going to start now,” Marilyn Soviak, sister of Maxton Soviak, an Ohio naval corpsman who was among the dead, posted on Instagram. “What I’m saying is that my beautiful, intelligent, annoying, charming little brother, beaten to the sound of his own drum, was killed yesterday to save lives.”
Shortly after the bomb went off, Defense Department officials said, nearby fighters began firing weapons. The officials said some Americans and Afghans at Abbey Gate may have been hit by that gunfire. There was so much confusion in the aftermath of the explosion that the military initially reported a second suicide bombing at the nearby Baron Hotel. That turned out not to be true, according to Major General Hank Taylor, the Joint Staff’s deputy director for regional operations.
Weighing in at 25 pounds, the vest worn by the suicide bomber caused untold damage. According to army manuals, suicide bombers usually wear a belt with 10 pounds or less of explosives, or a vest with 10 to 20 pounds of explosives. Using a 25-pound vest with bits of metal that acted as deadly shrapnel, the bomber also injured dozens of Afghans, as well as 14 additional US troops, who were transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
From last month when Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a Marine Expeditionary Unit from the USS Iwo Jima to disembark in Kuwait and stand by to assist with evacuations in the event that Kabul fell by an emerging Taliban, it has been clear to US troops that they could once again find themselves on the front lines of a war in Afghanistan that has been ended by a succession of presidents.
Before long, Hamid Karzai International Airport transformed from a commercial hub to the last defensive position for the US military, which had once sent tens of thousands of troops to far-flung corners of Afghanistan. Apache gunships circled overhead and Navy rapid response troops circled the perimeter. In the command center, feeds from drones and surveillance cameras showed infrared images of crowds gathering at the gates.
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The Marines manning Abbey Gate on Thursday had arrived in Kabul about a week earlier. They were fresh and connected to their British paratrooper counterparts with one goal in mind: to get as many people through as possible. That meant using an interpreter and loudspeaker to get a swelling crowd to turn back, an arduous task that allowed the Marines to open two entry points.
The fall of Kabul had unleashed a tsunami of phone calls, emails and desperate texts from the foreign organizations that had worked in Afghanistan for the past 20 years, all begging the Pentagon to help evacuate their Afghan workers and allies. Other people who worked with Afghans, including teachers attending schools in Afghanistan, joined US senators, media chiefs and the heads of global organizations to ask for help for their former partners, who are at risk of retaliation from the Taliban.
The requests reached US troops at Kabul airport. “The Marines who died were the ones who helped our team,” said Cori Shepherd, a filmmaker who once helped Afghan girls go to school in the United States. “These men literally went into the crowd and pulled our women to safety, while coordinating with our man to find them. The men who worked on Abbey Gate were exceptionally brave.”
Rear Admiral Peter G. Vasely, a former member of the Navy SEALs leading the airport operation, asked Taliban commanders to more closely monitor people heading toward Abbey Gate, officials said. The Taliban, General McKenzie told reporters on Thursday, may have “thwarted” other attempts.
But ultimately “there is no substitute for a young man or woman — a young man or woman from the United States — standing there to search that person before we let him in,” General McKenzie said.
Efforts to get vulnerable people out of Afghanistan will continue, he said. “Because that’s what we’re here for.”
John Ismay reporting contributed.