The United States and its allies warned people to avoid travelling to Kabul airport on Thursday as fears of a potential terror attack threatened evacuation efforts.
The threat of an “imminent, lethal attack” was the latest setback for the massive airlift ahead of President Joe Biden’s fast-approaching deadline for all U.S. forces to withdraw from the country.
As thousands continued to crowd the airport in an effort to flee in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, other Western nations also raised the alarm and some said they would have to end their evacuations.
In an alert issued on Wednesday evening, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul urged Americans not to travel to the airport without individual instructions from a government representative, citing security threats outside.
It urged citizens at three specific gates to “leave immediately.”
A State Department spokesperson called it a dynamic and volatile security situation on the ground.
Allies who have joined Washington in the rush to evacuate their citizens and vulnerable Afghans ahead of Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline issued similar warnings about the security situation.
“There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attack,” the British foreign office said in updated travel advice late Wednesday, telling people to avoid the airport and “move away to a safe location.”
On Thursday, U.K. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told NBC News’ U.K. partner Sky News that an “imminent, lethal attack” could happen at Kabul airport in a matter of hours.
Australia also urged its citizens to stay away from the airport, warning of a “very high threat of a terrorist attack” at the airport.
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Kabul airport has been a flashpoint for chaotic scenes and security fears since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital on Aug.15.
Over the weekend, U.S. defense officials warned about specific threats from ISIS against those trying to leave Afghanistan.
Biden has also warned about the risk of attack from the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and Allied forces and innocent civilians,” he said on Tuesday.
The president has stuck to his deadline the U.S. mission to end in spite of criticism at home and abroad.
The Taliban have warned that any delay of the U.S. exit would be crossing a “red line” that will have consequences, but they have so far kept up their promise not to attack any western forces as they evacuate.
Two decades after a U.S.-led invasion toppled their regime in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the militants’ takeover has raised concerns that Afghanistan might once again provide a breeding ground for terrorism.
But the Taliban, whose fighters guard the perimeter outside the airport, are enemies of ISIS-K.
A senior Taliban commander told NBC News on Thursday that they had issued an alert to their top leadership on the threat posed by ISIS-K.
The group arrested an ISIS terrorist at the airport a few days ago who told them about the network and their plans, he said speaking on condition of anonymity and without elaborating.
Publicly the Taliban said otherwise, with the Associated Press reporting that spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied any attack on the airport was imminent.
The group’s fighters are in control of the roads and multiple checkpoints leading to the airport, where they have used force to control crowds since seizing control.
Although the crowds appear to have grown more organized in the last couple of days, there are concerns about the lack of a formal screening process and the possibility of a suicide bomber mixing in with the thousands desperately waiting for a chance to escape.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said his country had been warned about just that kind of attack.
“We received information at the military level from the United States, but also from other countries, that there were indications that there was a threat of suicide attacks on the mass of people,” he said.
Around 1,500 Americans still remain in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, with just days left to complete the airlift. The U.S. has now evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 95,700 people since Aug. 14, according to a White House official.
After a chaotic start, the pace of evacuations has increased in recent days, but officials and U.S. allies have expressed skepticism that everyone seeking to leave will be out by the deadline.
And amid growing security fears, some European countries have already signaled they are wrapping up.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex told French radio RTL Thursday that France will completely end its evacuations from the Afghan capital Friday night.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also said Wednesday the time window for evacuations from Kabul is closing due to the worsening security situation, according to German broadcaster ZDF.
“It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul,” Danish defense minister Trine Bramsen was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Denmark’s last flight has already departed, and Poland and Belgium have also announced the end of their evacuations. The Dutch government said it had been told by the U.S. to leave Thursday.