A suicide bombing at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday struck crowds that had gathered in hope of escaping the country. Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, an Afghanistan-based offshoot of ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Journalist Andrew Quilty joins Ryan Grim to talk about the history of ISIS-K and the aftermath of the attacks. Then, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar discusses the situation confronting refugees from Afghanistan looking to come to the U.S.
Afghan Bombing Survivor: [Translated.] So at least 400 or 500 people there, the explosion was really powerful. Half were hurled into the water, others on the ground outside, we carried the wounded in here on stretchers, and here, my clothes are completely bloody.
Ryan Grim: On Thursday, a suicide bomber struck a crowd of people who had gathered outside Hamid Karzai [International] Airport in Kabul.
Newscaster: Chaos outside Kabul airport became a catastrophe Thursday afternoon, when two bombings toured through the crowds.
Newscaster: Hundreds of panicked Afghans rushing to nearby streets and alleys, their ears still ringing from the blasts.
Newscaster: These are the first U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan since February of 2020, and today was the deadliest day for the United States military in a decade.
RG: Welcome to Deconstructed.
I’m Ryan Grim, and if you haven’t listened yet to last week’s episode of the podcast, I’d suggest going back and checking that one out before diving into this one to help get the context for how we got where we are in Afghanistan.
In any event, the bombings killed well over 100 Afghans, wounding many more, and took the lives of 13 U.S. service members who were there assisting with the evacuation. For once, U.S. intelligence had accurately warned of an attack, and had pinpointed the location and roughly the timing, but had been unable to prevent it. As of today, they’re warning of more attacks still to come.
U.S. Intelligence, and anybody else closely following events in Afghanistan, also immediately knew who was behind the attacks, and the group soon claimed responsibility.
Newscaster: ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, claiming responsibility.
RG: ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K for short, is an Afghanistan-based offshoot of the Islamic State. Donald Trump this week came up with his own name for them.
President Donald J. Trump: And ISIS-X — as you know, I knocked out 100 percent of the ISIS Caliphate, I knocked it out in Syria, Iraq, we knocked it out. So now they have a new ISIS called ISIS-X.
RG: When he was corrected, he added that ISIS will probably have an ISIS-X soon enough, so why bother with the details.
DJT: — and that’s the new ISIS, ISIS-X, where they broke away, or ISIS-K. They will have an ISIS-X pretty soon, which is going to be worse than ISIS-K.
RG: ISIS-K is not just at war with the U.S., they’ve also been at war with the Taliban. Partly, their differences are ideological: ISIS-K sees the Taliban as insufficiently devout and too open to compromise in negotiations with America and with the West. But it’s also just a raw struggle for supremacy in the country. The Taliban effectively smashed ISIS-K over the past year, and there’s little left of the group, though clearly there’s more than zero.
By late afternoon Eastern Time, Joe Biden went on TV to address the situation:
President Joseph R. Biden: To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.
RG: Even before Thursday’s attack, the situation in Kabul was grim. As the Taliban took the capital city, it looked doubtful that all those who wanted to leave would be able to find room on the few planes still taking off from the airport. These included Americans as well as Afghans who had assisted in the war effort, or who simply feared the return of Taliban rule.
Erik Prince, the defense contractor who founded Blackwater, said he was offering seats on a chartered plane out of Kabul for $6,500 a pop. Yet in the immediate wake of the takeover, a triumph of military logistics began evacuating thousands of people a day. More than 104,000 people had been flown out.
Securing the airport, of course, required sending in several thousand troops and exposing them to the risk of attack.
In his press conference on Thursday afternoon, Biden was asked by Fox News’ Peter Doocy if he still stood behind the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.
JB: Yes I do. Because look at it this way, folks. Imagine where we’d be if I’d indicated on May 1 I was not going to re-negotiate an evacuation date, we were gonna stay there. I’d have only one alternative: pour thousands more troops back into Afghanistan to fight a war that we had already won relative to the reason we went in the first place.
I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country, and is made up, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, made up of different tribes who have never, ever, ever gotten along with one another.
If Osama bin Laden, as well as Al Qaeda, had chosen to launch an attack when they left Saudi Arabia out of Yemen, would we have gone to Afghanistan? Even though the Taliban completely controlled Afghanistan at the time, would we have ever gone and given up thousands of lives and tens of thousands of wounded? Our interest in going was to prevent Al Qaeda from re-emerging: first to get bin Laden, wipe out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, prevent that from happening again.
As I’ve said 100 times, terrorism has has metastasized around the world, we have greater threats coming out of other countries a heck of a lot closer to the United States. We don’t have military encampments there. We don’t keep people there. We have, over there, a rising capability to keep them from going after us.
Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war. Thank you so much. [Biden leaves, and reporters immediately clamor to ask questions.]
RG: The idea that’s being pushed by the mainstream media that, OK, yes, withdrawing was a good decision, but there ought to have been an orderly and graceful way to lose this war and evacuate 100,000 people, is worse than a fantasy.
This is what retreating from a lost war looks like, and this is why every president since George W. Bush was content to let the low-key carnage grind on, as long as those dying weren’t making the front pages of American papers. The generals, armchair and otherwise, saying that they don’t oppose the withdrawal, but wanted it done in a different way, aren’t being straight with the public: They wanted the war to continue indefinitely, but they know they can’t say that.
Already, Sen. Lindsey Graham is calling on Biden to recognize a tiny band of fighters in the north of the country as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, a shockingly reckless idea to suggest while thousands of American troops are still in Kabul. Graham wants to start right back where we were 20 years ago and do the whole thing over.
If Biden’s decision to withdraw, and his willingness to stand by it in the face of the media’s assault, is a rare act of political courage from a U.S. president, the troops in Kabul have displayed extraordinary moral and physical courage, putting their lives on the line to help save those desperately attempting to leave. To honor their sacrifice, we need to make sure we take in and support as many refugees as possible.
Earlier this week, we spoke to the only former refugee elected to Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis.
But first, we’re going to speak with the journalist Andrew Quilty, who is currently in Kabul. He published an explosive investigation in The Intercept in December exposing the existence of CIA-run death squads in Afghanistan that had been massacring children. Or rather, it should have been explosive, but the media wasn’t interested in Afghanistan way back in December 2020.
Andrew, welcome to Deconstructed.
Andrew Quilty: It’s good to be here, Ryan.
RG: Can you start off by telling us what ISIS-K is and where it came from?
AQ: ISIS-K or ISKP, the Islamic State Khorasan Province, Khorasan being being the historical Islamic term for the region, was first established in the borderlands regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan in late 2014, early 2015 after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was established in the middle of 2014.
Its initial membership was made up of fighters who had been pushed over the border from Pakistan by Pakistani military operations. They’d been pushed over with their families and had initially been welcomed by the community in Afghanistan. After initially being welcomed into the community, the fighters within the ranks eventually pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader al-Baghdadi.
ISIS-K first gained notoriety in Afghanistan with a video that circulated of men who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, executing a number of tribal elders from the district of Achin in Nangarhar Province, along the border, who they claimed were spies. The video depicted these men being forced to sit on explosives, which were then detonated beneath them.
At its peak, ISIS-K controlled a large proportion of several districts in Nangarhar Province, and even established a capital in one of them.
In 2019 and 2020, operations conducted by, again, both the Americans and Afghan National Security Forces, as well as by the Taliban, almost entirely wiped out any remnants of ISIS-K, many of which ended up surrendering and were imprisoned. However, despite not having a physical footprint on the ground, ISIS-K still managed to maintain an underground footprint in the capital Kabul, where it conducted dozens of extremely bloody attacks.
Rather than focusing on political targets or those in the armed forces, ISIS-K set their sights on the Hazara minority, which has a large population in western Kabul and is predominantly Shia. For that reason, ISIS-K see the Hazara as heretics and as legitimate military targets.
RG: So what was the situation at the Kabul airport in the days leading up to the bombing? What’s the fallout been? What have you been hearing from people there and from families of victims?
AQ: Threat reporting for an imminent ISIS-K attack on the airport or on the gates used to access the airport had been circulating for several days before it occurred.
The day after the twin bombing attack on the airport in Kabul, hospitals in the city were still dealing with the aftermath. At Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in central Kabul, which is probably the largest hospital in the capital, bodies were still lying on the paved area outside the front of the hospital where families had come to collect them before burial. People at the hospital told me that they had seen as many as 80 dead bodies at this one hospital, and reporting now suggest that as many as 170 were killed in total, with another 150 or so injured.
A number of family members of victims told me that based on the injuries their family members had sustained, that they believed American soldiers — or American Marines, as it were — were responsible for the deaths of their loved ones, pointing to single bullet wounds and the angle at which they had entered the bodies of their family members, suggesting that the bullets had been fired from an elevated position, suggesting that it couldn’t have been the ISIS-K gunmen, but rather Marines stationed at an elevated position overlooking the crowd.
Eyewitnesses who survived the attack have said that the Marines would not let them leave and were firing live rounds at people’s legs to prevent them from doing so if they tried to leave.
Back at the airport today, despite the carnage of last night, crowds did begin to converge on the gates, even the one that was attacked last night. I guess this goes to show the extent to which people determined to get out of the country with a U.S.-led evacuation set to wind up in a couple of days and with it, many people believe, the last opportunity to escape the Taliban before they consolidate their power and really start to clamp down on any dissent as well as any of those they perceived to have worked against the Taliban before they came to power.
RG: And what has the Taliban’s response been?
AQ: The response from the Taliban, ironically, given the fact that they have used similar tactics for their own military offensives over the past 15 years, especially in Kabul, has been to denounce the attack. They refer to the attack as an act of terror against innocent people and have vowed to ensure the security and safety of Kabul’s population.
Ever since the Taliban began to establish a shadow government in rural parts of Afghanistan, the group has always professed to be able to provide three things that it said the Afghan government were not able to provide: one, they were able to eradicate corruption; two, they were able to provide justice; and three, they were able to provide security. So this huge attack — in fact, it appears to be, given the figures, given the death toll, appears to be the largest such attack conducted in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war — seriously undermines the Taliban’s claim to be able to provide security for the population, even though it has yet to fully consolidate power.
RG: Well, Andrew, thanks for talking to us. Stay safe over there.
AQ: Thanks very much for having me, Ryan.
RG: On Tuesday, two days before the Kabul attacks, we spoke with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. Omar is the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has been locked in a showdown with a group of dark-money backed Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.
Shortly before we spoke, Gottheimer and his crew had struck a deal with Nancy Pelosi, promising them a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package, an attempt to cleave it off from a second, complementary bill, which includes $3.5 trillion in new investments in both climate and social policy. It’s a transformational piece of legislation that the Gottheimer group is trying to block or gut. If it passes, 2021 will be the most significant year of legislation at least since 1965, and what’s amazing is that it’s getting barely any attention.
Congresswoman Omar, welcome to Deconstructed.
Rep. Ilhan Omar: Great to be back with you, Ryan.
RG: So just to start on the drama on Capitol Hill this week, the latest deal that leadership has cut with Gottheimer’s crew of rebels is that there will be a vote on September 27 on the bipartisan infrastructure package, part of Gottheimer’s effort to strip progressives of leverage.
One: Do you think that you guys will be able to get the reconciliation package done by then? And two: If not, are progressives still willing to vote as a bloc to keep the two-track strategy going — in other words, to vote down that bipartisan package until both are ready?
IO: I mean, this deal really is a sense of Congress. It’s not really binding. And that timeline is still going to be fluid. I think it’s going to be really important for us to move forward to do the work on the reconciliation package and, depending on when that gets done, I believe we will ultimately have the opportunity to move the two together and not lose that leverage.
RG: And so is there a change in the Progressive Caucus’s willingness to vote it down?
IO: The strategy for the Progressive Caucus has been to organize for these two packages to move simultaneously together. And that strategy still remains in place.
And so how do you think that the events of the last couple days affect the overall trajectory of the package? I have never seen, in all my time covering Congress, so much anger at a group of Democrats from other Democrats. How do you think that influences the process at all?
IO: I mean, I think their attempt to create distraction from our ability to actually fulfill the president’s agenda, which is largely the Democratic agenda, it’s a failed endeavor. And we will ultimately end up doing the work we set out to do, and the American people can believe in the work that we promised to do on their behalf.
RG: And so while this has been going on, much of the media — much of the world, really — has been focusing on the events in Afghanistan. And you have, too.
I wanted to talk to you about what the United States has been doing when it comes to the refugee situation and what it ought to be doing. And I wanted to start by asking you: What was the refugee process like for your family?
IO: I think the refugee process is one of the most misunderstood processes when it comes to our immigration system. You’ll hear a lot of people speak about vetting and trying to speak to refugees getting vetted, and how important that is. And they forget that it’s a process that is cumbersome — it’s long. For my family, it was nearly two years. The average processing, vetting time is 18 months. And I believe that refugees are the most vetted immigrants that come to our shores here in the United States.
There is a difference in the way that refugees are vetted and the way that asylum seekers at our borders are processed. Oftentimes the two get conflated. Political pundits will try to confuse people without providing actual facts on the differences that exist in these systems.
Right now, it is really important for us to stay laser-focused on the task at hand and the mission that the administration is carrying out in Afghanistan. I believe the president deserves credit for evacuating nearly 60,000 people in the last 10 days. The kind of international coalition that has been created to evacuate everyone who is fleeing for their lives in Afghanistan, it’s just really remarkable the kind of process that we’ve been able to make in the last 10 days and it’s unfortunate that that hasn’t really been the focus of what the media is reporting. I believe there’s a lot of time for us to dissect and re-examine the failures of the last 20 years of our war in Afghanistan — one of the longest wars we’ve been involved in as a country — but right now, I believe that there is an actual crisis. And that crisis is being attended to by this administration in a remarkable way — at least that’s my belief.
RG: How involved have you been in that process? What’s been your interaction with the efforts to get refugees out of Afghanistan and into the country in the last 10, 11 days?
IO: We’ve been really intimately engaged with the administration. As you know, Ryan, as someone who is a former refugee myself, who knows what it means to be in a host country and then to be resettled in another, trying to walk people through just how chaotic that process is and the importance of us trying to figure out ways to expedite the rigorousness of that work has been really important for my office.
I mean, our office alone has received over 5,000 requests from people trying to get their family and colleagues out of Afghanistan in the past week. This is representing tens of thousands of individuals who are afraid for their lives. Many have applied for Special Immigrant Visas or refugee status; a lot of them are waiting to get their processing paperwork. What we are hearing is that people are getting airlifted and they are going to one of 22 countries around the world who have been part of this coalition, and that vetting process begins there, and they will ultimately work their way into coming to the United States.
The biggest hurdle is going to be what do we do with people who don’t have a designated refugee status, who are going to need classification so that resettlement agencies can provide proper resources upon their arrival to get acclimated to life here in the United States.
RG: And do you put those people into an asylum system? What needs to be done to cut some of this red tape?
IO: I mean, that’s what’s being worked out at the moment. There obviously are the special visas that are designated for 21,000 individuals, and then their families, which I think amounts to about 90,000. And then there are all the other people who have been made vulnerable by our mission there who we are evacuating as well, and creating a process of classifying them, whether they’ll be classified as regular asylum seekers, which is what we normally see when people enter into host countries, or whether they will receive refugee status so that they can receive refugee resettlement is something that the administration is working through right now. And we’ve obviously offered our support.
RG: So with the level of humiliation that the U.S. war machine is feeling in the wake of the collapse of their project in Afghanistan, are you getting any sense around the world that there are any places that we’re lashing out [at] that we aren’t noticing? A cornered beast is extremely dangerous, but a humiliated beast can sometimes be even more dangerous. You’re on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Have you picked up any indications that the U.S. is kind of ratcheting up its aggression anywhere else in the world? Is that something you’re on the lookout for?
IO: No, we haven’t really seen any indications of that. We just had a classified briefing on the situation in Afghanistan and the current threats that exist, and there really wasn’t anything that would indicate that we are acting out of fear and lashing out in other places.
I mean, the truth is the tragedy in Afghanistan, right, did not begin the last couple of weeks. We’ve been at this for 20 years. It’s clear we made promises that we couldn’t keep and a prolonged war, indefinitely, would not have delivered a stable, peaceful Afghanistan.
But I want to caution all of us — and this has been my message to the administration — we have to use this as a lesson. Yes, there are threats of terrorism in other parts of the world, and there are non-military solutions that need to be explored, and strengthening of failed states or destabilized states might actually produce better results than drones in the middle of the night that result in civilian casualties or troops on the ground that create more conflict for those that we are trying to assist.
RG: So over at The Intercept, we’ve been really critical of the way that the mainstream media has covered this last week and a half. But, at the same time, the media hasn’t done it in a vacuum. And one of the reasons they’ve been able to cover it the way they have is that so many Democrats have been so eager to come forward and criticize the way that this is being done, despite all of the logistical successes that you talked about over the last 10 days.
So you’ve been one of the few Democrats who’s been outspoken, saying: No, it was right to withdraw. This was the right decision. When you’ve talked to your Democratic colleagues, what’s the sense that you get from them about why they haven’t been more vocal in this moment?
IO: I think sometimes the political discourse is driven by the questions or the narrative that the media is trying to advance. And the unfortunate result of that is we are forgetting that a majority of the country was on board with ending the war in Afghanistan, a majority of the country has been on board with that for a long time. A majority of the country also has been lied to and manipulated, for a really long time, about our activities, our mission, and what we were actually accomplishing in Afghanistan. I don’t believe a majority of people knew how much money we spent on this war for the last 20 years. A majority of the country did not get an adequate analysis of the Afghan papers of the failures of the war.
When you have a concentrated effort in trying to keep the public from fully understanding what was taking place for 20 years, and then you now have a concentrated effort in trying to bring attention to what is happening or has happened for the last two weeks, it’s really hard to not walk away with an assessment that is lopsided, that’s deprived of reality.
And, I mean, you’re a journalist. And I believe — you might disagree with me — the job of journalists in the media is to report the facts and the news and not to create news and to choose which facts should be amplified over others. And it’s really unfortunate that the concentration of every single person who has been put in front of the camera for the last week or so has been people who haven’t actually supported the end of this war, people who have personal interest in the continuation of this war, people who have not shared their anger and frustration over the women and girls that are being subjugated in so many other countries around the world. These are folks who are having selective outrage, and their selective outrage isn’t being called upon, and called out, and it’s really bizarre to actually watch. It’s the Twilight Zone.
RG: Yeah, I think that’s fair. And then I think you see this self-fulfilling cycle where they are able to slightly move the needle on some of the polling, though you still have huge numbers supporting withdrawing from Afghanistan.
So last question, I know you’ve got to run. There was a big fight earlier this year over the Biden administration’s paltry cap on refugees. Under pressure they said: Well, that’s not what we meant, here’s the actual number, and they and they increased it.
Do you think they’ve increased it enough? Are you in communication with the White House about the refugee cap?
IO: I have been in conversation with this administration, the previous administration about the refugee cap, since I first got elected to the Minnesota House. It is, and remains to be, one of the most important things I talk [about] with anyone. We don’t believe that the number is adequate. We are actually sending a letter asking for that number to be increased to 200,000. And we’ll continue to pressure the administration, continue to make the case on why we need to do more.
RG: OK. Well, thank you, Congresswoman, for joining me.
IO: Oh, thank you.
RG: That was Ilhan Omar, and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.