Pentagon Reviews Events Before Attack That Killed 13 U.S. Troops in Kabul

A new Pentagon review of the events leading up to the bombing that killed 13 American service members at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021, has reaffirmed earlier findings that U.S. troops could not have prevented the deadly violence.

The review’s conclusions focus on the final days and hours at Abbey Gate before the attack, which also killed as many as 170 civilians. The review provides new details about the Islamic State bomber who carried out the suicide mission, including how he slipped into the crowds trying to evacuate the capital’s airport just moments before detonating explosives.

Some Marines who were at the gate have said they identified the suspected bomber — who became known to investigators as “Bald Man in Black” — in the crowds hours before the attack but were twice denied permission by their superiors to shoot him. But the review, building on a previous investigation made public in February 2022, rejected those accusations.

The narrative of missed opportunities to avert tragedy has gained momentum over the past year among conservatives and has contributed to broader Republican criticisms of the Biden administration’s troop withdrawal and evacuation from Kabul in August 2021.

The bombing was a searing experience for the military after 20 years of war in Afghanistan. Thirteen flag-draped coffins were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and a succession of funerals were held across the country for the service members, most of them under the age of 25.

Military officials had stood by the conclusions of the earlier inquiry that a lone Islamic State suicide bomber carried out the attack and was not joined by accomplices firing into the crowd.

But under mounting political pressure to address disparities in the earlier review and the accounts of the Marines at the gate — which also included reports that the Islamic State had conducted a test run of the bombing — a team of Army and Marine Corps officers interviewed more than 50 people who were not interviewed the first time around.

One of the main issues was the identity of the bomber. Almost immediately after the attack, the Islamic State identified him as Abdul Rahman Al-Logari. U.S. and other Western intelligence analysts later pieced together evidence that led them to the same conclusion.

American officials at the time said that Mr. Logari was a former engineering student who was one of several thousand militants freed from at least two high-security prisons after the Taliban seized control of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021. The Taliban emptied the facilities indiscriminately, releasing not only their own imprisoned members but also fighters from ISIS Khorasan or ISIS-K, the terrorist organization’s Afghanistan branch and the Taliban’s nemesis.

Mr. Logari was not unknown to the Americans. In 2017, the C.I.A. tipped off Indian intelligence agents that he was plotting a suicide bombing in New Delhi, U.S. officials said. Indian authorities foiled the attack and turned Mr. Logari over to the C.I.A., which sent him to Afghanistan to serve time at the Parwan prison at Bagram Air Base. He remained there until he was freed amid the chaos after Kabul fell.

At the airport, investigators said, the bomber detonated a 20-pound explosive, probably carried in a backpack or vest, spraying 5-millimeter ball bearings in a tremendous blast that was captured in grainy video images shown to Pentagon reporters.

All this was known to the Marine and Army officials as they started their supplemental review last September. But they were assigned to address the lingering questions.

On the day of the bombing, Marines at the gate were given intelligence to be on the lookout for a man with groomed hair, wearing loose clothes and carrying a black bag of explosives. The review team determined, after additional interviews and assessing security camera footage and other photographs of the chaotic scene, that the description was not specific enough to meaningfully narrow the search.

But Marines at the gate came forward later to say that at about 7 a.m., they saw an individual matching the suicide bomber’s description. The Marines said that the man had engaged in suspicious behavior and that they had sent urgent warnings to leaders asking for permission to shoot. Twice their request was denied, they said.

The review team concluded that the Marines had conflated the intelligence reports with an earlier spotting of a man wearing beige clothes and carrying a black bag. The team also reviewed a photo taken of the suspect from one of the sniper team’s cameras.

The man in question did not actually match the description, the review team concluded. He was bald, wore black clothes and was not carrying a black bag. Moreover, photographs taken of Mr. Logari when he was in American custody did not match the photographs of the suspect, even after facial recognition software was used.

“Al-Logari and ‘Bald Man in Black’ received the strongest negative result,” concluded a slide from the supplemental review team’s findings that was briefed to reporters.

Moreover, the review team concluded, Mr. Logari did not arrive at Abbey Gate on Aug. 26 until “immediately before” the attack, minimizing his chances of being detected by the Marines.

The review team went through a similar process to discount the sightings of specific individuals whom Marines had suspected of carrying out a dry run of the eventual attack.

Members of the review team did not challenge the motives or dedication of the Marines who raised the vexing questions. But in the end, the review team concluded, the Marines were mistaken.

As traumatic as the bombing was, perhaps it is not surprising that the recollections and conclusions of Marines and soldiers that day, however sincere, were not supported by subsequent inquiries.

The findings of the original Army-led investigation in February 2022 contradicted initial reports by senior U.S. commanders that militants had fired into the crowd of people at the airport seeking to flee the Afghan capital and had caused some of the casualties.

The accounts of what unfolded immediately after the attack — from the Pentagon and people on the ground — changed several times. Defense Department officials initially said that nearby fighters from Islamic State Khorasan began firing weapons. That turned out not to be true.

Some people near the scene said the Marines had shot indiscriminately into the crowd, apparently believing they were under fire. That, too, according to the accounting by the military’s Central Command, turned out not to be true, although investigators said that British and American forces had fired warning shots in the air.

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