At least 13 US service members killed in Kabul airport attack

By Rob Picheta, Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Veronica Rocha and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 0427 GMT (1227 HKT) August 27, 2021
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9:14 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Top US diplomat in Kabul: Security threat around airport "regarded as credible, as imminent, as compelling"

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

The top US diplomat in Kabul, Amb. Ross Wilson, said Thursday that he could not get into the specifics of the security threat outside the gates of the Kabul airport cited in an embassy alert, but noted that “it was clearly regarded as credible, as imminent, as compelling." 

“Our intention was to urge Americans and frankly others not to come to the airport,” Wilson said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Thursday. 

“For American citizens in particular, we are working other ways, on an individualized basis, to assist them in getting to the airport in a safe and secure manner,” he said. 

“Being part of these huge crowds that remain around the gates, entrances to the airport, is dangerous. We're obviously concerned about our own people as well,” Wilson said.

The US Embassy in Kabul on Wednesday evening ET time advised US citizens at a number of gates at the airport to “leave immediately,” noting “security threats outside the gates.”

The alert came as the administration has raised alarm about the potential of an attack by ISIS-K. ISIS-Khorasan is a branch of the terror group that first emerged in Syria and Iraq. While the affiliates share an ideology and tactics, the depth of their relationship with regards to organization and command and control has never been entirely established.

The US believes ISIS-K, which is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, wants to create mayhem at the airport and has intelligence streams suggesting it is capable and planning to carry out multiple attacks, according to the official.

9:09 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Canada completes evacuation efforts in Afghanistan

From CNN’s Paula Newton

In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Canadian coalition forces member walks through an evacuation control checkpoint during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Tuesday, August 24.
In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Canadian coalition forces member walks through an evacuation control checkpoint during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Tuesday, August 24. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/AP)

Canada has ended its evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, Canada’s acting chief of Defense Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said in a news conference Thursday.

Eyre says the United States told him this was "the largest military evacuation in history."

The US and other NATO nations are still racing to evacuate their citizens from the country.

President Biden has said he is so far sticking to his Tuesday deadline for the final exit of US troops.

The latest 24-hour period evacuation numbers from the White House show a slowing pace as the airlift effort enters what is expected to be its final days.

From 3 a.m. ET Wednesday to 3 a.m. ET Thursday, 13,400 people were evacuated from Afghanistan, with about 5,100 on US military flights and 8,300 on coalition flights.

That brings the total to more than 95,700 people evacuated since Aug. 14 and more than 101,300 since the end of July.

CNN's Betsy Klein contributed reporting to this post.

3:36 p.m. ET, August 26, 2021

The key figures in the Taliban's leadership structure

From CNN's Saleem Mehsud, Kara Fox, Natalie Croker and Henrik Pettersson and Tim Lister

The Taliban's leadership structure has long been a mystery, with little known about how it works beyond the group's most influential figures.

After seizing control of Afghanistan, the Taliban are moving to form a new government, with pledges of inclusivity and reform. But a look at the group's leadership structure suggests that the nature of the new government could very well mirror the Taliban's previous hard-line regime.

The group is led by the reclusive Haibatullah Akhundzada, a senior religious cleric in his 50s who was named chief after a US airstrike killed his predecessor in 2016. Hailing from the Taliban heartland of Spin Boldak, in southern Kandahar province, he was involved in the mujahedeen — or holy Islamic fight — against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and was appointed as the leader of jihadi matters in 2001, according to a Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid.

His deputy, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was a prominent member of the Taliban regime when it was last in power, and as the head of the group's political committee is currently one of the militants' most public facing leaders. Baradar arrived back in Afghanistan after a 20-year-exile last week.

Here's a look at what else we know about key figures and how the Taliban's power structure functions:

8:24 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Pedestrian traffic at Pakistan-Afghanistan border has "increased significantly," officials say

From CNN's Asim Khan 

A Pakistani soldier stands guard as Afghans arrive in Pakistan through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman, Pakistan, on August 26.
A Pakistani soldier stands guard as Afghans arrive in Pakistan through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman, Pakistan, on August 26. AFP/Getty Images

Traffic on the Chaman border crossing with Afghanistan in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan has “increased significantly” since the fall of Kabul, border officials tell CNN. 

"About 18,000 people are now crossing the border on a daily basis," Hameed Ullah, the head of the Coronavirus Health team at the Chaman border told CNN.

In the past, no more than 12,000 people typically crossed the border in a single day, the official told CNN. 

Abdullah Khan, a resident of a Chaman town, told CNN that he often visits the Pakistan-Afghan border, he said there is a “situation of tension at the Chaman border” at the moment and “thousands of people” are coming to Pakistan side of the border. 

The border crossing is “over occupied” right now with people fleeing Afghanistan, he said.

8:22 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

A threat from ISIS-K is hampering evacuation efforts. Here's what you need to know about the terror group.

A grave and specific ISIS-K terror threat is hanging over the frantic endgame of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with time fast running out to rescue Americans and the fate of fleeing Afghans looking darker by the hour.

In an alarming sign of the deteriorating security environment, US diplomats in Kabul early Thursday local time suddenly warned American citizens to "immediately" leave several gates into the airport, citing security threats.

The warning came hours after a US defense official had told CNN that officials were alarmed by a "very specific threat stream" about the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, which planned to attack crowds outside the airfield.

Who are ISIS-K?

ISIS-Khorasan is a branch of the terror group that first emerged in Syria and Iraq. While the affiliates share an ideology and tactics, the depth of their relationship with regards to organization and command and control has never been entirely established.

US intelligence officials previously told CNN the ISIS-K membership includes "a small number of veteran jihadists from Syria and other foreign terrorist fighters," saying that the US had identified 10 to 15 of their top operatives in Afghanistan. The group's name comes from its terminology for the area that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan: "Khorasan." 

The US Defense Department Inspector-General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) said in a report covering the months April to June of this year that "ISIS-Khorasan exploited the political instability and rise in violence during the quarter by attacking minority sectarian targets and infrastructure to spread fear and highlight the Afghan government's inability to provide adequate security."

ISIS-K has formed cells in Kabul which have carried out a number of devastating suicide attacks in and beyond the Afghan capital since 2016. 

The group has built up a presence in eastern Afghanistan in recent years, especially in the provinces of Nangahar and Kunar. Last August, the group attacked the main prison in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar, in an effort to free dozens of their supporters who had been captured by the Afghan army and police.

Read more about the group here.

8:06 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Biden will meet with governors on temporary housing for Afghan evacuees

From CNN's Allie Malloy

President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Afghanistan from the White House in Washington, DC, on August 24.
President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Afghanistan from the White House in Washington, DC, on August 24. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Joe Biden will be holding a virtual meeting Thursday with a bipartisan group of governors "who have raised their hands to temporarily house or resettle vulnerable Afghans."

The meeting is set for 3 p.m. ET.

What we know: With less than a week to go before the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, US evacuation efforts are ramping up in Afghanistan.

The US military increased flights out of Kabul yesterday to one every 39 minutes, the Pentagon says.

8:04 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

UK Prime Minister says time British troops have left in Afghanistan is "quite short"

From CNN's Sarah Dean

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen during a visit to Northwood Headquarters, the British Armed Forces Permanent Joint Headquarters, in Eastbury, England, on August 26.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen during a visit to Northwood Headquarters, the British Armed Forces Permanent Joint Headquarters, in Eastbury, England, on August 26. Adrian Dennis/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said British forces have evacuated the “overwhelming majority” of people it deems eligible from Afghanistan.

In remarks in a pool interview on Thursday, Johnson noted the time UK troops have left in the country is “quite short.”

His comments come after British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said intelligence of an ISIS-K terror attack at Kabul airport is now “much firmer.”

“There is now very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack, and hence why the Foreign Office advice was changed last night, that people should not come to Kabul Airport, they should move to a safe place and await further instructions,” he told BBC Radio Thursday morning.

Johnson said the UK would “keep going” with evacuations for “as long as we can” in Afghanistan as the Aug. 31 deadline looms and some European nations end their operations on Thursday.

The prime minister noted that the UK military has “in the last 10 days or so” airlifted 15,000 people to the UK from Afghanistan. The UK owes these people a debt and “there's a huge amount of work now going on to make sure that we find homes by ways of integrating those people into this country,” he said.

“As I stand up and talk to you now, in the time we have left, which may be, as I'm sure everybody can appreciate, quite short, we'll do everything we can to get everybody else, but I want to stress that this is just the first phase,” Johnson explained.

“So, even beyond the, the US deadline of the 31st of this month, we hope to continue to be able to say to people, well you can you can come out and one of the key things that we're saying to the to the Taliban to the government, the new authorities in in Kabul is to engage with the West – to unlock those funds – safe passage is for those who want to come out is obviously the number one condition,” he added.

8:15 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Long line of buses still waiting outside Kabul airport

 From CNN’s Tim Lister 

As the international evacuation mission winds down, there are still long queues of buses waiting outside the perimeter of Hamid Karzai International Airport.

A journalist in Kabul working with CNN filmed a long line of buses at a standstill alongside the perimeter wall and heavy traffic congestion at the roundabout that leads to the airport.

The journalist said he saw only one bus getting inside the airport compound. 

President Biden is so far sticking to his Tuesday deadline for the final exit from a 20-year war in Afghanistan, but in an alarming sign of the deteriorating security environment, US diplomats in Kabul early Thursday local time suddenly warned American citizens to "immediately" leave several gates into the airport, citing security threats.

The warning came hours after a US defense official had told CNN that officials were alarmed by a "very specific threat stream" about the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, which planned to attack crowds outside the airfield.

Inside, thousands of troops are braving testing conditions and intense heat to fill cargo aircraft with US citizens and Afghans who helped American troops and officials and fear gruesome punishment by the Taliban.

The question now is how long the Pentagon will give the evacuation operation before it transitions to a mission to extract thousands of troops and materiel, which could take several days and curtail the departures of noncombatants.

 See what it looks like:

10:41 a.m. ET, August 26, 2021

Danish evacuation operation at Kabul airport ends

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy 

A Danish coalition service member holds up a sign with a Danish flag to identify families for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 21.
A Danish coalition service member holds up a sign with a Danish flag to identify families for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 21. Handout/Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/Getty Images

The Danish evacuation operation at Kabul's airport ended following the departure of the Danish Hercules aircraft's final flight on Wednesday evening. 

The Danish Ministry of Defense told CNN Thursday that the flight to Islamabad took off close to 6 p.m. Copenhagen time on Wednesday. 

The Ministry of Defense added that this was the final flight of the evacuation operation following a government decision made based on advice from the Danish Chief of Defense.

Since Aug. 15, Denmark has evacuated more than 1,000 people out of Kabul, with the group mainly comprising interpreters, Danish embassy staff, Danish citizens, people living in Denmark and people from other European countries.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect that the flight took off at 6 p.m. Copenhagen time instead of 6 p.m. Kabul time