President Joe Biden on Thursday night promised to “hunt down” the terrorists responsible for Thursday’s suicide bombings outside the Kabul airport that killed 12 U.S. service members and injured 15 others, noting that he has already directed the Pentagon to develop operational plans to “strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities.”
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” the president said.
ISIS-K, an offshoot of the Islamic State and an enemy of the Taliban based in eastern Afghanistan, has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which they say were “martyrdom.” The group “really tracked quite closely with the evolution of al-Qaeda and developed a similar kind of decentralized model really in response to U.S. counterterrorism pressure,” Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst with security consulting firm Soufan Group, told ABC News. Clarke estimates the group’s size to be between 1,500 to 2,200 fighters. ISIS-K attacks have been on the rise in the country in 2021, according to the United Nations.
“We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, at the moment of our choosing,” Biden said on Thursday. “These ISIS terrorists will not win.”
The president also emphasized that the evacuation will continue despite the attacks. “We will not be deterred by terrorists,” he said. “We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation.”
The Kabul airport has been operating as a hub for evacuations as troops help Americans and Afghans flee to safety on flights departing the country. As many as 1,500 Americans remain in Afghanistan, as do an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 interpreters who assisted U.S. troops during the war as translators. Large groups of people, including women and children, have gathered outside the airport gates, hoping to be allowed on a flight as they try to escape the Taliban’s rule.
“These American service members who gave their lives … were heroes — heroes who’ve been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others,” Biden said on Thursday. “They’re part of an evacuation, an airlift that is like any other seen in history, with more than 100,000 American citizens, American partners, Afghans who helped us, and others taken to safety in the last 11 days.”
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby called the bombings a “complex attack.” Terrorists first set off a bomb near the Abbey Gate outside the Kabul airport before detonating a second explosive close to the nearby Baron Hotel. Full details about how many casualties occurred are not yet known, and anonymous Afghan health officials gave conflicting numbers to The New York Times, with one saying 60 were confirmed dead and 140 wounded and another saying 40 died and 120 were wounded. U.S. CENCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie confirmed on Thursday that 12 service members died, 15 other were injured, and “a number” of Afghans were killed or injured.
During the address, Biden also spoke emotionally of his son, Beau Biden, who served in the Iraq War and in Kosovo, noting the grief he suffered after Beau’s death from brain cancer following his service.
“[My wife Jill and I] have some sense, like many of you do, of what the families of those brave heroes are feeling today. It feels like you’re getting sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. There’s no way out,” Biden said. “My heart aches for you, and I know this: We have a continuing obligation, a sacred obligation to all of you families of those heroes.”
Biden called U.S. troops part of “the backbone of America, the spine of America, the best our country has to offer.”
“We’re outraged, as well as heartbroken,” the president said.
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