The U.S. Embassy in Kabul changed course and issued a travel warning Saturday after an apparent threat from Islamic State terrorists, telling Americans not to go to the Afghanistan capital’s airport unless advised by an official government representative.
In its official notice, the embassy cited “potential security threats” outside the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport as Afghanistan faces a tumultuous and dangerous situation on the ground prompted by a forced takeover by the Taliban. The Associated Press reported Saturday afternoon that the Islamic State, which has fighters in Afghanistan, has issued threats against Americans hoping to escape Afghanistan.
Neither State Department nor Pentagon officials have publicly elaborated on those threats.
“Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so,” the Embassy said in a warning posted on its official website.
The new guidance from the State Department is a sharp reversal from the approach earlier this week. Until Saturday, the Embassy in Kabul had been recommending that American citizens and their families try to make their way to the airport and board flights out of Afghanistan, though the State Department had maintained that it couldn’t guarantee safe passage to the facility.
The latest guidance also conflicts with the stance taken by President Biden, who insisted Friday that Americans were having no difficulty making it to the airport.
The new directive comes after Taliban fighters set up checkpoints outside the perimeter and amid some reports that Taliban insurgents have beaten American citizens traveling to the airport. On Friday, U.S. officials confirmed that American troops recently went outside the gates of the Kabul airport to rescue more than 160 citizens, confirming that safe travel to the facility is by no means guaranteed and suggesting that the area is becoming more dangerous by the day.
Threats from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, could greatly complicate the already daunting task of getting thousands of Americans and allies onto planes and out of Kabul. The Associated Press reported that officials are developing new plans, including the possibility of having Americans meet at predetermined transit points where military personnel can meet and escort them to the airport.
Defense Department officials on Saturday morning said they were not immediately aware of the new State Department guidance and had no information about why the instructions to American citizens have changed.
Pressed on whether there were new credible threats from the Taliban or terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or ISIS, officials offered little clarity but suggested there’s no imminent threat to U.S. personnel.
“You can understand … why we’re not going to get into specific details about the threat environment or what our intelligence has given us,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “What you’re seeing out of our State Department colleagues, I think, is prudent notification to make sure whatever movement there is to the gates outside the airport is done as safely as possible, and that people have the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves going forward.”
“The situation in Kabul, the whole city, is fluid and dynamic,” Mr. Kirby said.
Army Maj. Gen. William D. Taylor, deputy director for regional operations, told reporters Saturday that American citizens who do make it to the airport are still being processed.
“We are continuing to process people throughout the last 24 hours,” he said. “The commanders were metering how many people come in and out of the gate … There has been no reported change to the current enemy situation in and around the airport at this time.”
Over the past 24 hours, six U.S. military flights and additional charter planes have left the Kabul airport, Gen. Taylor said, with a passenger count of about 3,800. At least three flights landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, he said. Some of the Afghans on board those planes will now travel to Fort Bliss in Texas for additional processing.
The Embassy’s warning, which comes as the United States continues its mission of evacuating Americans on the ground, also urged U.S. citizens who are in need of assistance getting out of the country not to call the embassy for details or updates about flights.
Those in need of help are encouraged to fill out Repatriation Assistance Request forms through the embassy as soon as possible.
Mr. Biden said the U.S. is still trying to reach its goal of evacuating military personnel out of the country before his Aug. 31 deadline.
Even if the date passes, the president said he would work to continue getting all Americans out of the country, as well as Afghans who helped assist U.S. soldiers.