British officials told Afghans to go to an entrance of Kabul Airport hours before a suicide bomber struck killing almost 200 people including two Britons and 13 US marines, leaked emails have revealed today.
An Afghan interpreter was saved because he was told by the UK authorities to head to the Abbey Gate but decided it was ‘madness to go there’ given warnings of an imminent terrorist attack.
The revelation emerged as the Special Relationship came under renewed strain and Whitehall sources accused the Pentagon of trying to ‘shift the blame’ from Washington and London over the Kabul airport terror attack.
US leaks suggesting that the airport’s gate was left open at the time of the deadly bomb attack to help the British evacuation. The claim angered ministers, who said they would have been happy for the gate to be closed as the scale of the terror threat became clear.
Thousands of people gathered in the area on Thursday before the blast killed almost 200 and maimed hundreds. In the chaotic aftermath panicked US troops have been accused of adding to the death toll by firing on the terrified survivors running at them. Two British citizens, Musa Popal and Mohamed Niazi were also killed, along with Mr Niazi’s wife and two daughters.
And emails seen by BBC’s Newsnight show that despite security services warning an attack on airport was imminent, the British embassy told people in writing to ‘use the Abbey Gate [near] to the Baron Hotel’. Another email asking if an Afghan interpreter was in the right place said: ‘Please advise that you are at the correct gate? Abbey Gate.’
He said today: ‘If I had followed their advice, I would be no more. I said I won’t because I don’t feel safe as the situation was getting worse. It would be madness to go there and that saved my life. It was our own judgement that saved our lives.’
Initially the Pentagon said that there had been two suicide attacks, including at the Baron Hotel where the British were processing people. The following day the US changed its account and confirmed there had been only one, blaming ‘garbled’ intelligence from the scene
The brother of British Afghan Muhammad Niazi (pictured) who was killed following a suicide bomb attack on Kabul airport says he was shot dead by panicked western troops. Muhammad’s youngest child and eldest daughter (pictured but not named) are still believed to be missing
Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin warned of a potential ‘mass casualty event’ just 24 hours before a suicide bomber set off a bomb that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 200 Afghans last week. Leaked notes on calls between Defense officials reveal struggles to protect the Kabul airport
Dominic Raab yesterday hit back at the Pentagon after they tried to shift the blame for the high death toll from last week’s suicide attack in Kabul on to the UK.
With the ‘special relationship’ under further strain, Britain’s Foreign Secretary insisted it is ‘simply not true’ to suggest UK pushed to keep Kabul airport gate open against the wishes of their US allies.
And he revealed that Britain had already moved its own staff from a nearby hotel because of the growing threat of a terror attack.
Mr Raab told Sky News: ‘We co-ordinated very closely with the US, in particular around the Isis-K threat which we anticipated, although tragically were not able to prevent, but it is certainly right to say we got our civilians out of the processing centre by Abbey Gate, but it is just not true to suggest that other than securing our civilians inside the airport that we were pushing to leave the gate open.
‘In fact, and let me just be clear about this, we were issuing changes of travel advice before the bomb attack took place and saying to people in the crowd, about which I was particularly concerned, that certainly UK nationals and anyone else should leave because of the risk.’
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith also questioned the American account, telling LBC today: ‘If the American military were serious about shutting the gates they would have shut the gates’.
A senior British diplomatic source hit back at the US’s accusations, pointing out that a number of foreign ministers at a G7 meeting yesterday ‘heaped praise’ on the UK’s actions at the airport during the evacuation. One source told The Times: ‘We understood the severity of the situation; we changed the travel advice. If they had closed Abbey Gate we would have been totally supportive.’
Defence select committee chairman Tobias Ellwood told the Telegraph: ‘It does not add up. If the U.S. was anticipating a mass casualty event why did they still continue processing themselves? There is an underlying current of blame which is unhelpful. It’s a distraction from the main effort of what is happening on the ground’.
Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said: ‘No blame should be put on the British here and I do not believe the evidence as presented goes anywhere near any level of UK culpability. The US had very good intelligence on this attack. One could ask why they did not conduct a pre-emptive strike to neutralise the threat? If the suicide bomber had not detonated his device at Abbey Gate it would have been somewhere else close by.’
What really happened at the Abbey gate? The Pentagon’s changing story of the Kabul terror attack
Thursday, August 26
8.59 AM: Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby tweets about the evacuation efforts, before the first blast.
He wrote: ‘Evacuation operations in Kabul will not be wrapping up in 36 hours. We will continue to evacuate as many people as we can until the end of the mission’.
10:30 AM: Pentagon briefing is pushed back following reports of the first blast in Kabul.
Around that time sources in Kabul and journalists start to report there has been a second explosion near the Baron Hotel outside Hamid Karzai international airport.
France’s ambassador to Afghanistan David Martinon tweeted that a second explosion ‘is possible’. There was no official confirmation of the explosion, but there were reports from US officials that US troops had been injured.
10:34 AM: The Pentagon confirms the first explosion.
John Kirby tweets: ‘We can confirm that the explosion near the Abbey Gate of the Kabul airport has resulted in an unknown number of casualties. We will continue to update.’
10:57 AM: The Pentagon confirms there is a second explosion.
John Kirby tweets: ‘We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties. We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate. We will continue to update.’
3:00 PM: Pentagon holds their delayed briefing on the Kabul suicide attack.
General McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, told the press: ‘So, we think one suicide bomb at Abbey gate. Don’t know if it’s male or female just don’t have that information. Don’t know much about the second bomb. Except one went off in the vicinity of the Baron Hotel. Which as you’re aware is a deeply bunker structure. And as far as I know, no, there were no UK military casualties. As a result of that.’
There were multiple reports on the ground of multiple explosions on the ground at the time amid the chaos.
Some suggested there could have been as many as six or seven and others believed American forces were destroying weapons and equipment in controlled explosions.
6:30 PM: Media accounts also post information that proves inaccurate. The Reuters news agency reports at least two blasts rocked the area, citing witnesses. The Associated Press also reported on two attacks, citing U.S. and Afghan officials.
Friday, August 27
10:30 AM: Pentagon officials said there was only one suicide bomber at Kabul airport on Thursday and not two, as was previously claimed, adding to confusion over the attack and fears for the ongoing operation on the ground.
Speaking at a briefing on Friday, Army General Hank Taylor said: ‘I can confirm that we do not believe there was a second explosion at or near the Baron hotel. It was one suicide bomber. In the confusion of very dynamic events can cause information to get confused,’ he said.
I can confirm for you that we do not believe that there was a second explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, that it was one suicide bomber. We’re not sure how that report was provided incorrectly.’
US President Joe Biden vows retribution for the deaths of the 13 marines killed in the attack but will not delay or stop withdrawal from Afghanistan beyond August 31.
Sunday, August 28
WITNESSES DISPUTE ISIS GUNMAN
Survivors of the bomb blast say American and Turkish soldiers guarding the Abbey Gate opened fire on the crowds running towards them in the aftermath of the suicide bomb.
One witness said: ‘The bullet went inside his head, right here near to his ear’
Monday, August 29
US intelligence sources tell Politico that the Americans wanted the Abbey Gate closed because it was the likely target of a terror attack – but it was kept open to allow the British to keep using it.
It comes as the last US flights left Kabul just after midnight local time last night – 23 hours inside the deadline for international troops to leave. The Taliban said they were now in control of the airport.
Leaked transcripts from top-secret US calls show that military chiefs were desperate to close a gate at Kabul airport hours before it was hit by an Isis-K suicide bomber last Thursday. But they say British forces wanted it kept open so they could continue evacuating Afghans.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told top Pentagon leaders to prepare for a potential ‘mass casualty event’ 24 hours before the Kabul suicide attack and said Britain wanted to keep the airport gate at the center of the blast open for longer to allow more evacuees through, internal DOD documents reveal.
The documents, which the Pentagon condemned as a leak of classified information and urged the media not to report, detail top military officials trying to sort out security in a situation they already deemed a major risk.
‘I don’t believe people get the incredible amount of risk on the ground,’ Austin said on the call.
Austin told more than a dozen leaders who joined a conference call to prepare for a ‘mass casualty event,’ according to notes on military conference calls obtained by Politico, and warned that the Abbey Gate was the ‘highest risk’ in a meeting just 24 hours before 170 people and 13 US Marines were killed.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned of ‘significant’ intel that ISIS-K was planning a ‘complex’ attack – military jargon for an attack involving multiple players designed to boost casualties.
Officials even identified the airport’s Abbey Gate, where U.S. troops conducted security sweeps, as a high risk target.
In a second conference call at 12pm last Thursday, American commanders set out plans to close the gate by that afternoon. However, the decision was taken to allow Britain, based at the nearby Baron Hotel, to continue evacuating people through it.
Six hours later, an ISIS-K terrorist armed with a suicide vest killed himself and almost 200 others.
Survivors have claimed that frightened soldiers protecting the airport may have opened fire in the aftermath, inadvertently adding to the death toll, which included two Britons and the child of a UK national.
According notes on the security calls among leaders provided to the publication by an unnamed source, officials warned about exactly the type of attack the U.S. now says transpired: a brazen suicide attack by ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate in the region that has repeatedly clashed with the Taliban.
It all took place in a fraught situation where Taliban members are providing security at checkpoints around a packed Kabul airport as the U.S. tries to fly out Americans and desperate Afghans while evacuating U.S. troops.
The rare view of back-and-forth inside the Pentagon came as survivors of the deadly blast claimed panicked US troops opened fire on the crowds of evacuees in the bloody aftermath, killing their loved-ones including a British father-of-two.
US officials said immediately after the attack that there had been two blasts, including at the Baron Hotel where the British were processing people, later revising that assessment to say there was only one.
The British Ministry of Defense declined to respond to allegations they were to blame for keeping the gate open, but said in a statement: ‘Throughout Operation Pitting we have worked closely with the US to ensure the safe evacuation of thousands of people.
‘We send our deepest condolences to the families of the US victims of the senseless attacks in Kabul & continue to offer our full support to our closest ally’.
The terrorist attack happened on Thursday at about 6pm local time at the Abbey Gate to the airport, where thousands had gathered at the perimeter hoping to get on to a leaving cargo plane.
And survivors have claimed that frightened soldiers protecting the airport may have opened fire in the aftermath, inadvertently adding to the death toll, which included two Britons and the child of a UK national.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby would not confirm the report when asked about it at Monday’s Pentagon briefing.
‘We have been monitoring as close as we can intelligence that led us to believe that we were in a very dynamic and in some cases specific threat environment,’ he said when asked about it.
‘We’re going to investigate, we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened last Thursday. Thirteen precious lives are lost. We’re going to take that seriously … And we’re not going to investigate it in public,’ he continued.
‘I am absolutely not going to speak to a press story that was informed by the unlawful disclosure of classified information and sensitive deliberations here at the Pentagon. Just not going to do it,’ he said.
Lord David Richards, former chief of the defence staff, criticised the UK and US response to the situation in Afghanistan.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘A lot of lives have been lost, not just British service lives, also many Afghans, and hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives are now facing ruin when they had some hope.
‘Low hundreds of Brits left in Afghanistan’, says Foreign Secretary Raab
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the number of UK nationals left behind in Afghanistan is in the ‘low hundreds’ after the western military presence came to an end in the country.
The Cabinet minister said on Tuesday he was unable to give a ‘definitive’ figure on how many Afghans the UK failed to airlift to safety after the Taliban seized power.
Mr Raab was also forced to deny a Pentagon leak suggesting the US wanted to close a gate to Kabul airport ahead of the deadly bombing, but kept it open to assist the British evacuation.
And he did not rule out the RAF taking part in air strikes to target the so-called Islamic State terror group in Afghanistan.
The US ended a deployment which began in the wake of the September 11 attacks two decades ago when it withdrew its remaining forces from Afghanistan on Monday.
Mr Raab did not rule out the possibility that thousands of Afghans and UK nationals could have been left behind following the departure of British troops ahead of their American counterparts.
Instead, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It’s very difficult to give you a firm figure. I can tell you that for UK nationals we’ve secured since April over 5,000, and we’re in the low hundreds (remaining).’
‘I’m afraid our political leadership, and in particular President Biden over the last six months, have let those people down, us and the Afghans.’
He added that anybody who believes the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was a success, ‘should start writing novels, because, quite clearly, it is not what we all intended’.
However, Lord Richards added that the agreed date for all evacuations from the country should not have been extended.
He said: ‘The fact is, we’ve been defeated by the Taliban and the Taliban had agreed August 31 with the Americans, and, while I don’t for one moment take sides with the Taliban, I can see why they said enough is enough.’
President Joe Biden had already warned publicly of the high security risk during the evacuation. He warned again Saturday, following the attack, that the chance of another such attempt was ‘highly likely.’ Biden on Sunday took part in a dignified transfer as the bodies of U.S. servicemen and women killed in the attack last week were returned home at Dover Air Force Base.
Austin during the call did not dismiss the warnings being transmitted by Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top commander in Afghanistan.
‘We probably ought to listen when you have a former [Joint Special Operations Command] and SEAL commander on the ground saying it’s high risk,’ Austin said in a subsequent teleconference meeting.
The Pentagon, which has sought to hold back information about security specifics including precise number of U.S. troops, Americans seeking to leave, and precise efforts to fortify the airport, blasted the leak.
‘This story is based on the unlawful disclosure of classified information and internal deliberations of a sensitive nature,’ fumed Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
He told the publication: ‘As soon as we became aware of the material divulged to the reporter, we engaged Politico at the highest levels to prevent the publication of information that would put our troops and our operations at the airport at greater risk.’
‘We condemn the unlawful disclosure of classified information and oppose the publication of a story based on it while a dangerous operation is ongoing,’ he added.
The publication said the notes on three calls were authenticated by a Defense official. It said it said it held back some information that might impact the security situation amid the risky efforts to withdraw remaining troops, Afghan allies and their families, and remaining U.S. citizens.
One unexplained notation comes from Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, in an exchange that also involved Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl.
‘We’re not going to get everyone out. We’ll get 90-95 percent,’ he said, according to a notation, although it was not clear if he was referring to Americans, allies, or Afghans seeking to evacuate. He had also observed that Taliban ability to provide security would ‘decay’ over time.
A destroyed vehicle is seen inside a house after a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, this afternoon
The strike destroyed a vehicle carrying ‘multiple suicide bombers’ from Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate on Sunday
His brother Abdul Hamid, who survived the blast, told the BBC that his brother was shot dead by western troops – not killed by the suicide bomb
Among the dead was Muhammad Niazi, a taxi driver from London who had travelled back to Afghanistan to get his family out of Kabul. His wife was killed in the blast, and his youngest child and eldest daughter are still believed to be missing.
His brother Abdul Hamid, who survived the blast, made the claims about bullets from western guard posts killing people and told the BBC: ‘The fire came from the bridges… the towers… from the soldiers’.
He added: I saw some small children in the river, it was so bad. It was doomsday for us.’
The second British victim, Musa Popal, 60, was pushing through the crowd trying to attract the attention of soldiers by waving his UK passport when he was killed by the suicide bomber, it was reported last night.
Other witnesses to the suicide bomb attack also say that their relatives weren’t killed in the blast but by fire in the confusion afterwards. Abdul says he saw American and Turkish soldiers amid the chaotic scenes as gunfire reined over the crowds of people.
Another man claimed his friend who had helped US forces during the war had been killed by a gunfire from Western troops.
‘This guy served the US Army for years,’ he told the BBC. ‘And the reason he lost his life wasn’t because of Taliban, he wasn’t killed by ISIS…’
When asked why he was so sure, the man added: ‘Because of the bullet, the bullet went inside his head, right here near to his ear,’ suggesting a troop guarding the airport may have hit him by mistake. He added that his friend had not suffered any other injuries in the blast.