The suicide bombing killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. troops in the final days of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
A single Islamic State suicide bomber carried out the attack at Kabul’s international airport in August that killed 13 U.S. troops and as many as 170 civilians, and was not joined by accomplices firing into the crowd, according to a Pentagon report released on Friday.
The findings by a team of Army-led investigators contradict initial reports by senior U.S. commanders that militants fired into the crowd of people at the airport seeking to flee the Afghan capital and caused some of the casualties.
The report also absolved Marines of firing lethal shots into the crowd at the Abbey Gate entrance to the airport as some officials had suspected because of the large amount of ammunition the Marines fired after the attack, which took place on Aug. 26.
“The investigation found no definitive proof that anyone was ever hit or killed by gunfire, either U.S. or Afghan,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Central Command, told reporters in a video conference from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
But the U.S. military’s assessment of what transpired highlights only a portion of what happened that day: Investigators did not speak to any Afghan witnesses and the chaos of the withdrawal left officials relying heavily on drone footage to reach their conclusions.
The bombing capped 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 U.S. service members, most of them under the age of 25.
“I’ve never been one for politics and I’m not going to start now,” Marilyn Soviak, the sister of Maxton Soviak, a Navy corpsman from Ohio who was among the dead, posted on Instagram after the attack. “What I will say is that my beautiful, intelligent, beat-to-the-sound of his own drum, annoying, charming baby brother was killed yesterday helping to save lives.”
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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, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s Afghan branch, began firing weapons. That turned out not to be true.
Some people near the scene said the Marines shot indiscriminately into the crowd, apparently believing they were under fire. That too, according to the accounting presented on Friday by Central Command, turned out not to be true, although investigators said British and American forces fired warning shots in the air.
But perhaps the biggest error after the Abbey Gate bombing would come just three days later. On Aug. 29, American officials, fearful that another suicide bomber would attack Hamid Karzai International Airport, launched a drone strike, hitting a white Toyota loaded with what turned out to be water canisters, not explosives. The officials who called in the strike had not noticed video footage that showed the presence of a child some two minutes before the strike.
In the end, 10 civilians, including seven children, were killed.
General McKenzie acknowledged on Friday that the Abbey Gate investigation reversed commanders’ initial assessments, noting “the battlefield is a confusing and contradictory place, and it gets more confusing the closer you are to the actual act.”
He said, for example, that “ball bearings caused wounds that looked like gunshots,” referring to the projectiles unleashed in the blast. In their monthslong inquiry, investigators relied on eyewitness testimony, medical examiners’ findings, and video footage from an MQ-9 drone flying overheard minutes after the blast.
The investigation also found that military leaders took appropriate measures to protect their forces throughout the operation at Abbey Gate, and that the medical services that were available and ready saved every life they possibly could have.
And the investigators said the decision to keep the Abbey Gate open late that afternoon — until the explosion at 5:36 p.m. — despite increasing threats of an ISIS attack, was understandable given that many Afghans with valid travel documents were still trying to evacuate and foreign allies were rushing to get their citizens out. Officials wanted to prevent throngs of Afghans overrunning the airfield, investigators said, as happened on Aug. 16 after the Afghan government fell to the Taliban.
“This was not preventable,” Brig. Gen. Lance Clark of the Army, a senior investigators, said of the bombing.
The investigation did not focus on the bomber himself, other than to note that it was “highly likely” that he circumvented Taliban checkpoints and used an alternate route to the airfield, bringing him within feet of the Abbey Gate checkpoint. Investigators found no evidence that the Taliban were complicit or negligent in the attack.
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 that were shown to reporters during a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. and foreign intelligence officials have pieced together a profile of the assailant, and a separate F.B.I. investigation is underway.
The Islamic State identified the suicide bomber as Abdul Rahman Al-Logari. American officials say he 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. The Taliban emptied the facilities indiscriminately, releasing not only their own imprisoned members but also fighters from ISIS-K, 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.
Mr. Logari was the son of an Afghan merchant who frequently visited India and Pakistan for business. He moved to India in 2017 to study engineering, according to American and Indian authorities.
Recruited by ISIS-K, Mr. Logari was arrested in relation to the New Delhi plot and handed over to the C.I.A. by India’s foreign spy service in September 2017, according to Indian media reports that were confirmed by American and Indian officials.
Mr. Logari spent time in both the Pul-e-Charki and Parwan prisons, American officials said, but it is unclear how he linked up with the ISIS-K attack cell in Kabul.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.