US military airstrike targets Islamic State members in Afghanistan after Kabul attack

The names and faces of the Americans who died in the Kabul airport attacks were made public - some of them were not even born when the war began, ITV News US Correspondent Emma Murphy reports

The US military has said it used a drone strike to kill two members of the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate - ISIS-K - on Saturday after the deadly suicide bombing at Kabul airport on Thursday, which killed more than 170 people, including 13 US troops.

One other ISIS target was wounded, US Army Maj. Gen. William "Hank" Taylor said in a Pentagon press conference on Saturday. He said there were no civilian casualties.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby declined to release names of the ISIS members when asked, but said the United States knew who they were.

Central Command said the drone strike was conducted in Nangahar province against IS members believed to be involved in planning attacks against the United States in Kabul airport.

US intelligence is warning of an 'imminent attack' at Kabul airport in the next few days, US Correspondent Emma Murphy says

It wasn’t clear if the targeted individuals were involved directly in the Thursday suicide blast outside the gates of the Kabul airport, where crowds of Afghans were desperately trying to get in as part of the ongoing evacuation.

Although it was initially reported that one person was killed in the air strike, the Pentagon clarified later on Saturday that two ISIS members were killed.

“It was a single mission to get these targets and as the assessments and information flowed over time, we were able to recognize that another was killed as well and one wounded,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a Defense Department briefing on Saturday.

"They were ISIS-K planners and facilitators and that’s enough reason there alone. I won’t speak to the details of these individuals and what their specific roles might be," Mr Kirby said.

He added: "We have the ability and the means to carry over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities and we’re going to defend ourselves.’’

'We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay'

US President Joe Biden promised to retaliate for the attack and vowed to strike back against the so-called Islamic State group in a speech on Thursday.

The strike came amid what the White House called indications that IS planned to strike again as the US-led evacuation from Kabul airport moved into its final days. Mr Biden has set Tuesday as his deadline for completing the exit.

Mr Biden authorised the drone strike and it was ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet publicly announced.

The ISIS-K attack at Kabul airport left 13 US troops dead, including marine Rylee McCollum - who was expecting to become a father in three weeks, young medic Maxton Soviak - his sister says he died helping to save lives, Daegan Page a 23-year-old US Marine Corporal and David Lee Espinoza, a 20-year-old marine.

Maxton Soviak, Daegan Page, David Lee Espinoza and Rylee McCollum were among the 13 US troops killed in the Kabul terror attack.

The speed with which the US military retaliated reflected its close monitoring of IS and years of experience in targeting extremists in remote parts of the world. But it also shows the limits of US power to eliminate extremist threats, which some believe will have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan now that the Taliban is in power.

The airstrike came after Biden declared Thursday that perpetrators of the attack would not be able to hide. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said. Pentagon leaders told reporters Friday that they were prepared for whatever retaliatory action the president ordered.

“We have options there right now,” said Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

The president was warned Friday to expect another lethal attack in the closing days of a frantic US-led evacuation. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden's national security team offered a grim outlook.

"They advised the president and vice president that another terror attack in Kabul is likely, but that they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul airport,” Ms Psaki said, echoing what the Pentagon has been saying since the bombing Thursday at Kabul airport.

Late Friday, the State Department again urged Americans to stay away from airport gates, including “the New Ministry of Interior gate”.

Few new details about the airport attack emerged a day later, but the Pentagon corrected its initial report that there had been suicide bombings at two locations. It said there was just one — at or near the Abbey Gate — followed by gunfire. The initial report of a second bombing at the nearby Baron Hotel proved to be false, said Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor of the Pentagon's Joint Staff; he attributed the mistake to initial confusion.

Based on a preliminary assessment, US officials believe the suicide vest used in the attack, which killed at least 169 Afghans in addition to the 13 Americans, carried about 25 pounds of explosives and was loaded with shrapnel, a US official said Friday. A suicide bomb typically carries five to 10 pounds of explosives, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary assessments of the bombing.

The Islamic State attack on Kabul airport killed over 90 people, mostly Afghan civilians, including 13 US troops. Credit: AP

Mr Biden still faces the problem over the longer term of containing an array of potential extremist threats based in Afghanistan, which will be harder with fewer US intelligence assets and no military presence in the nation.

Ms Psaki said the next few days of the mission to evacuate Americans and others, including vulnerable Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, “will be the most dangerous period to date”.

The White House said that as of Saturday morning, about 6,800 people were airlifted from Kabul in the past 24 hours on US and coalition aircraft. Nearly 112,000 people have been airlifted over the last two weeks. 

Mr Kirby told reporters on Friday the US military is monitoring credible, specific Islamic State threats “in real time”.

“We certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts,” Mr Kirby said.

He declined to describe details of any additional security measures being taken, including those implemented by the Taliban, around the airport gates and perimeter. He said there were fewer people in and around the gates on Friday.