Afghanistan: ISIS-K terror attack threat at Kabul airport could end evacuations in hours

For now the flights from Kabul continue - but the anti-missile flares from the departing aircraft signal a dangerous new phase of the evacuation, ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener reports

British nationals are being told to avoid Kabul airport over an "imminent" terror attack threat from Islamic State which "would be highly lethal", a defence minister has told ITV News.

Armed forces minister James Heappey said the "worsening security situation" in Afghanistan's capital means it's British forces will "probably get out fewer people" than had been hoped.

It's been reported that as many as 1,500 eligible people could be left behind in the Taliban-ruled country, but the minister told ITV News he hopes it will be less than that.

He said there will be 11 more flights out of Kabul on Thursday, with capacity to extract 3,000 people, but declined to say whether there will be more on Friday, citing the security of troops.

Large crowds remained around Kabul Airport on Thursday, even as smoke bombs and fire hoses were used to try and disperse them

Boris Johnson said the "overwhelming majority" of eligible people have now been evacuated but he admitted the time remaining for evacuations may be "quite short".

People are being discouraged from waiting outside the airport because large crowds, Mr Heappey said, because that would create a target for terrorists.

He said the result would be the "most gut-wrenching, miserable, abhorrent scenes that you could ever possibly imagine".

He said the threat is specifically from an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-K, which is a branch of the terror group in the Khorasan Province.

The threat is heaping extra pressure on the operation to help people flee the nation captured by the Taliban, with Tuesday’s deadline for foreign troops to leave fast approaching.

Mr Heappey said it is "not impossible" that the terror threat could reduce and the processing of people for evacuations could resume, "but that's not a guarantee that we can offer anybody".

He continued: “The credibility of the reporting has reached the stage where we believe there is a very imminent, a highly lethal, attack, possible within Kabul.

“And, as a consequence, we’ve had to change the travel advice to advise people not to come to the airport, indeed to move away from the airport, find a place of safety and await further instruction.”

A number of other countries, including the US and Australia have also issued alerts to their citizens and told them not to travel to the airport.

France said it would halt its evacuations on Friday, while Denmark said its last flight had already left Kabul airport.

The defence secretary is reported to have told MPs that eligible Afghans hoping to seek asylum in Britain are better off heading for Afghanistan's borders.

Speaking on Thursday morning, Mr Heappey said that with people "desperate" and "fearing for their lives" amid Taliban-rule "there is an appetite by many in the queue to take their chances" but he cautioned on BBC Radio 4 that "the reporting of this threat is very credible indeed and there is a real imminence to it".

UK ministers 'keep failing to understand' that many Afghans will have to rely on smugglers and take dangerous journeys to travel to safety because they don't have much time or choice, says Steve Valdez-Symonds from Amnesty International.

He continued that this meant the “window of opportunity to evacuate people is closing”.

“We will do our best to protect those who are there.

"There is every chance that as further reporting comes in we may be able to change the advice again and process people anew but there’s now guarantee of that...

“The window of opportunity to evacuate people is closing. It’s not as simply a case of we can pause, deal with the threat and pick up where we left off.”

British nationals and Afghan evacuees depart a flight from Afghanistan at RAF Brize Norton on Thursday. Credit: PA

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the threat from Isis-K at the airport was “real, acute” and “persistent”.

Crowding has been a challenge for troops to manage as they attempted to evacuate as many people as possible at the airport, with the large numbers of people present leading to fears there could be a major loss of life.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace held a briefing with MPs on Wednesday, where he is reported to have said it would be a “better option” for those who still need to leave the country to travel across the border.

The government has previously said it will increase diplomatic support in neighbouring countries to process refugees who escape from Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, a British Army medic spoke of the situation at the airport.

Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Caesar, a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon from 16 Medical Regiment, Royal Army Medical Corps, has been based at Kabul airport and had treated gunshot injuries, flashbang injuries, and people who have been crushed in the crowd.

“There have also been an unexpectedly high number of children being passed to us and being dealt with by the hospital,” Lt Col Caesar said.

Viral images have shown babies and young children being handed over to troops by desperate parents, often over walls topped with barbed wire.

The threat in Afghanistan is not just from the Taliban but also from a branch of so-called Islamic State, ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reported on Wednesday's News At Ten

Lt Col Caesar said: “The numbers of people coming through went probably much higher than we anticipated, I don’t think anyone foresaw the crushing sea of humanity at the gate and how they were going to be affected by the situation.”

The warning to stay away from Kabul airport is a change in tone from a week ago when Boris Johnson said the situation had been stabilising.

Latest figures from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) showed that over 11,000 people had been able to leave the country since the evacuation mission Operation Pitting began on August 13.

This includes embassy staff, British nationals, those eligible under the Afghan relocation and assistance policy (Arap) programme, as well as some evacuees from allied countries.

When will British and US forces need to start pulling out?

But the end of the operation is rapidly approaching after US President Joe Biden rejected calls from Boris Johnson and other allies to delay his August 31 withdrawal date for the remaining US troops, who are providing security at Kabul airport.

Nearly 2,000 Afghan interpreters and other staff who worked for Britain still need to be evacuated from Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told ITV News the UK would use "every hour and day remaining" to evacuate British passport holders and local allies, but would not confirm whether flights extracting civilians would end as early as Friday due to the need to wind up the operation by Tuesday.

They have been assessed as eligible under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) and have passed security checks but remain on the ground, the PA news agency understands.

An unidentified number of “special cases” may also be eligible for evacuation, such as LGBTQ+ advocates, judges and human rights activists.