Germany jails Islamic State member for life over role in Yazidi genocide

FRANKFURT (Reuters) -A German court on Tuesday jailed a former Islamic State militant for life for involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity against minority Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, including the murder of a five-year-old girl.

It was the first genocide verdict against a member of Islamic State, an offshoot of al Qaeda that seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014 before being ousted by U.S.-backed counter-offensives, losing its last territorial redoubt in 2019.

In a landmark ruling, the court in Frankfurt found Taha al-Jumailly, 29, an Iraqi national, guilty of involvement in the slaughter of more than 3,000 Yazidis and enslavement of 7,000 women and girls by IS jihadists in 2014-15.

This, the court ruled, included the murder of a five-year-old girl the defendant had enslaved and chained to a window, leaving her to die in scorching heat in 2015 in Iraq.

Al-Jumailly, who entered the court covering his face with a file folder, was arrested in Greece in 2019 and extradited to Germany where relatives of slain Yazidis acted as plaintiffs supporting the prosecution.

“Today’s ruling marks the first ever worldwide confirmation by a court that the crimes of Islamic State against the Yazidi religious group are genocide,” said Meike Olszak of Amnesty International’s branch in Germany.

The defendant’s German wife, identified only as Jennifer W., was used as a prosecution witness at his trial. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month for involvement in the enslavement of the Yazidi girl and her mother.

The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority in eastern Syria and northwest Iraq that Islamic State viewed as supposed devil worshippers for their faith that combines Zoroastrian, Christian, Manichean, Jewish and Muslim beliefs.

Islamic State’s depredations also displaced most of the 550,000-strong Yazidi community.

(Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Islamic State in Afghanistan could be able to attack U.S. in 6 months-Pentagon official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Islamic State in Afghanistan could have the capability to attack the United States in as little as six months, and has the intention to do so, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday.

The remarks by Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy, are the latest reminder that Afghanistan could still pose serious national security concerns for the United States even after it ended its two-decade-old war in defeat in August.

The Taliban, which won the war, are enemies of Islamic State and have seen its attempts to impose law and order after the U.S. pullout thwarted by suicide bombings and other attacks claimed by Islamic State.

They include bombings targeting the minority Shi’ite sect and even an Islamic State beheading of a member of a Taliban militia force in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kahl said it was still unclear whether the Taliban has the ability to fight Islamic State effectively following the U.S. withdrawal in August. The United States fought the Taliban as well as striking groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda.

“It is our assessment that the Taliban and ISIS-K are mortal enemies. So the Taliban is highly motivated to go after ISIS-K. Their ability to do so, I think, is to be determined,” Kahl said, using an acronym for Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Kahl estimated Islamic State had a “cadre of a few thousand” fighters. Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi of the new Taliban government has said the threat from Islamic State militants will be addressed. He also said Afghanistan would not become a base for attacks on other countries.

Kahl suggested al Qaeda in Afghanistan posed a more complex problem, given its ties to the Taliban. It was those ties that triggered the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 following al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The Taliban had harbored al Qaeda leaders.

Kahl said it could take al Qaeda “a year or two” to regenerate the capability to carry out attacks outside of Afghanistan against the United States.

Democratic President Joe Biden, whose supervision of the chaotic end to the war last summer has damaged his approval ratings, has said the United States will continue to be vigilant against threats emanating from Afghanistan by carrying out intelligence-gathering operations in the country that would identify threats from groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Kahl said the goal was to disrupt those groups so that Islamic State and al Qaeda don’t become capable of striking the United States.

“We need to be vigilant in disrupting that,” he said.

Still, U.S. officials privately warn that identifying and disrupting groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State is extremely difficult without any troops in the country. Drones capable of striking Islamic State and al Qaeda targets are being flown in from the Gulf.

Kahl said the United States did not yet have any agreement with countries neighboring Afghanistan to host troops for counterterrorism efforts.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Soldiers, prisoners, displaced people vote early ahead of Iraq election

By John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Soldiers, prisoners and displaced people voted in special early polls in Iraq on Friday as the country prepared for a Sunday general election where turnout will show how much faith voters have left in a still young democratic system.

Many Iraqis say they will not vote, having watched established parties they do not trust sweep successive elections and bring little improvement to their lives.

Groups drawn from the Shi’ite Muslim majority are expected to remain in the driving seat, as has been the case since Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led government was ousted in 2003.

Iraq is safer than it has been for years and violent sectarianism is less of a feature than ever since Iraq vanquished Islamic State in 2017 with the help of an international military coalition and Iran.

But endemic corruption and mismanagement has meant many people in the country of about 40 million are without work, and lack healthcare, education and electricity.

Friday’s early ballot included voting among the population of more than one million people who are still displaced from the battle against Islamic State.

Some said they were either unable or unwilling to vote.

“I got married in the displacement camp where I live, and neither I nor my husband will vote,” said a 45-year-old woman who gave her name as Umm Amir. She spoke by phone and did not want to disclose her exact location.

“Politicians visited us before the last election (in 2018) and promised to help us return to our towns. That never materialized. We’ve been forgotten.”

Most of Iraq’s displaced live in the majority Sunni north of the country.

The south, the heartlands of the Shi’ite parties, was spared the destruction wrought by Islamic State but infrastructure and services are in a poor state.

2019 PROTESTS

In 2019, mass anti-government protests swept across Baghdad and the south, toppled a government and forced the current government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to hold this election six months early.

The government also introduced a new voting law that it says will bring more independent voices into parliament and can help reform. It has been trying to encourage a greater turnout.

The reality, according to many Iraqis, Western diplomats and analysts, is that the bigger, more established parties will sweep the vote once again.

Dozens of activists who oppose those parties have been threatened and killed since the 2019 protests, scaring many reformists into not participating in the vote. Iraqi officials blame armed groups with links to Iran for the killings, a charge those groups deny.

(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed, Baghdad newsroom; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Suicide bomber kills 46 at Afghanistan mosque – state news agency

KABUL (Reuters) -A suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Afghanistan’s northeastern Kunduz province on Friday, killing 46 people and wounding more than 140, the state-run Bakhtar news agency said.

Video footage showed bodies surrounded by debris inside the mosque that is used by people from the minority Shi’ite Muslim community.

No group immediately claimed responsibility. The blast follows several attacks, including one at a mosque in Kabul, in recent weeks, some of which have been claimed by the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State.

The attacks have underscored security challenges for the Taliban, which took over the country in August and have since carried out operations against Islamic State cells in Kabul.

“This afternoon, an explosion took place in a mosque of our Shiite compatriots … as a result of which a number of our compatriots were martyred and wounded,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.

Bakhtar news agency, run by the ministry of information, said 46 people were killed and 143 wounded in the blast.

(Reporting by Kabul and Islamabad newsrooms; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Alasdair Pal; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Andrew Heavens)

Taliban say forces destroy Islamic State cell hours after Kabul blast

By Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

KABUL (Reuters) -Taliban government forces destroyed an Islamic State cell in the north of Kabul late on Sunday in a prolonged assault that broke the calm of a normally quiet area of the capital with hours of explosions and gunfire, officials and local residents said.

With Afghanistan’s economy close to collapse and large areas of the country in danger of famine, the presence of an apparently well-armed militant cell in Kabul underlined the daunting scale of the challenge facing the new government.

The Taliban operation came after a bomb attack near a mosque in Kabul earlier on Sunday that was later claimed by Islamic State. That blast killed and wounded a number of civilians in what appeared to be the worst attack in the Afghan capital since the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of August.

The local affiliate of Islamic State, known as ISIS-Khorasan after an ancient name for the region, has already claimed to have carried out attacks on Taliban targets and remains unreconciled to the Afghan Islamist movement.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said a special Taliban unit carried out an operation against ISIS elements in Kabul’s 17th district, in the city’s north, destroying their base and killing all those in it.

Local residents said the Taliban forces cordoned off the area before beginning their assault at around 7.30 p.m., before a firefight that lasted several hours, interrupted by at least two blasts as the suspected ISIS fighters detonated explosives.

“For about three hours the clashes were very intense and several powerful explosions also took place,” said Hashmatullah, a local shopkeeper.

One local resident, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said a final blast occurred at around 11.30 p.m. when an explosives-packed car blew up, apparently killing all the ISIS fighters in the building where they were holed up.

He said sporadic gunfire could be heard late into the night and early morning near the compound.

As pickup trucks carried furniture and other items out of the partially destroyed compound on Monday, Taliban soldiers sealed off the area, ushering away bystanders.

LINGERING SECURITY THREATS

The Taliban, who are also fighting the remnants of forces loyal to Ahmad Massoud, an opposition leader from the Panjshir region north of Kabul, have said they have almost complete control of the country.

But Sunday’s violence, and a string of smaller incidents in recent days in areas including Nangarhar on the border with Pakistan and Parwan north of Kabul, have shown that security threats have not disappeared.

Islamic State’s Amaq news agency said on Telegram the group carried out the mosque bombing.

IS has also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad as well as a suicide attack in late August that killed 13 U.S. soldiers and scores of Afghan civilians who were crowded outside the Kabul airport gates, desperate to secure seats on evacuation flights.

Samiullah, a resident of Kabul who runs a street vendor cart near the mosque, said that, initially, even if the economic situation had worsened since the Taliban takeover, the improved security situation was a consolation.

“We regret that the situation has gone from bad to worse,” he told Reuters close to the mosque premises after being ordered to move away from his usual spot. “The situation is not normal yet. No one is allowed in this area except for the Taliban.”

(Editing by James Mackenzie and Mark Heinrich)

Islamic State uses Taliban’s own tactics to attack Afghanistan’s new rulers

By Alasdair Pal and Jibran Ahmed

(Reuters) – A little more than a month after toppling the Western-backed government in Kabul, Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers are facing internal enemies who have adopted many of the tactics of urban warfare that marked their own successful guerrilla campaign.

A deadly attack on Kabul airport last month and a series of bomb blasts in the eastern city of Jalalabad, all claimed by the local affiliate of Islamic State, have underlined the threat to stability from violent militant groups who remain unreconciled to the Taliban.

While the movement’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has downplayed the threat, saying this week that Islamic State had no effective presence in Afghanistan, commanders on the ground do not dismiss the threat so lightly.

Two members of the movement’s intelligence services who investigated some of the recent attacks in Jalalabad said the tactics showed the group remained a danger, even if it did not have enough fighters and resources to seize territory.

Using sticky bombs – magnetic bombs usually stuck to the underside of cars – the attacks targeted Taliban members in exactly the same way the Taliban itself used to hit officials and civil society figures to destabilize the former government.

“We are worried about these sticky bombs that once we used to apply to target our enemies in Kabul. We are concerned about our leadership as they could target them if not controlled them successfully,” said one of the Taliban intelligence officials.

Islamic State in Khorasan, the name taken from the ancient name for the region that includes modern Afghanistan, first emerged in late 2014 but has declined from its peak around 2018 following a series of heavy losses inflicted by both the Taliban and U.S. forces.

Taliban security forces in Nangarhar said they had killed three members of the movement on Wednesday night and the intelligence officials said the movement still retains the ability to cause trouble through small-scale attacks.

“Their main structure is broken and they are now divided in small groups to carry out attacks,” one of them said.

FUNDING DRIED UP

The Taliban have said repeatedly that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on other countries. But some Western analysts believe the return of the Islamist group to power has invigorated groups like ISIS-K and al Qaeda, which had made Afghanistan their base when the Taliban last ruled the country.

“In Afghanistan, the return of Taliban is a huge victory for the Islamists,” said Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “They have celebrated the return of the Taliban, so I think that Afghanistan is the new theatre.”

ISIS-K is believed to draw many of its fighters from the ranks of the Taliban or the Pakistani version of the Taliban, known as the TTP, but much of the way it operates remains little understood.

It has fought the Taliban over smuggling routes and other economic interests but it also supports a global Caliphate under Islamic law, in contrast with the Taliban which insists it has no interest in anywhere outside Afghanistan.

Most analysts, as well as the United Nations, peg ISIS-K’s strength at under 2,000 fighters, compared to as many as 100,000 at the Taliban’s disposal. The ranks of ISIS-K were swollen with prisoners released when Afghanistan’s jails were opened by the Taliban as they swept through the country.

According to a June report by the UN security council, ISIS-K’s financial and logistic ties to its parent organization in Syria have weakened, though it does retain some channels of communication.

“Funding support to the Khorasan branch from the core is believed to have effectively dried up,” the report said.

However, the report said signs of divisions within the Taliban, which have already started to emerge, could encourage more fighters to defect as the wartime insurgency tries to reshape itself into a peacetime administration.

“It remains active and dangerous, particularly if it is able, by positioning itself as the sole pure rejectionist group in Afghanistan, to recruit disaffected Taliban and other militants to swell its ranks,” the UN said.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed, Alasdair Pal and James Mackenzie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Taliban hail victory with gunfire after last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan

(Reuters) – Celebratory gunfire resounded across the Afghan capital on Tuesday as the Taliban took control of the airport following the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, marking the end of a 20-year war that left the Islamist group stronger than it was in 2001.

Shaky video footage distributed by the Taliban showed fighters entering the airport after the last U.S. troops flew out on a C-17 aircraft a minute before midnight, ending a hasty and humiliating exit for Washington and its NATO allies.

“It is a historical day and a historical moment,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference at the airport after the departure. “We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power.”

An image from the Pentagon taken with night-vision optics showed the last U.S. soldier to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul – Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

America’s longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion.

Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan being used by al Qaeda as a base to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline militants controlling more territory than when they last ruled.

The Taliban brutally enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, not least by oppressing women, and the world is watching now to see if the movement will form a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.

Long lines formed in Kabul on Tuesday outside banks shuttered since the fall of the capital as people tried to get money to pay for increasingly expensive food.

There was a mixture of triumph and elation on the one side as the Taliban celebrated their victory, and fear on the other.

“I had to go to the bank with my mother but when I went, the Taliban (were) beating women with sticks,” said a 22-year-old woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.

She said the attack occurred among a crowd outside a branch of the Azizi Bank next to the Kabul Star Hotel in the center of the capital.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that and it really frightened me.”

Thousands of Afghans have already fled the country, fearing Taliban reprisals.

More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the United States and its allies over the past two weeks, but many of those who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.

A contingent of Americans, estimated by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab put the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan in the low hundreds, following the evacuation of some 5,000.

‘LOT OF HEARTBREAK’

General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie told reporters. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out.”

The departing U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft and dozens of armored vehicles. They also disabled air defenses that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.

As the Taliban watched U.S. troops leave Kabul on Monday night, at least seven of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, two members of the main anti-Taliban opposition group said.

Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, from local militias as well as remnants of army and special forces units, have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. military was not concerned with images of Taliban members walking through Kabul airport holding weapons and sizing up U.S. helicopters.

“They can inspect all they want,” he told CNN. “They can look at them. They can walk around. They can’t fly. They can’t operate them…”

But he said that “the threat environment” remains high.

“We’re obviously concerned about the potential for Taliban retribution going forward and we certainly, we saw it ourselves, are mindful of the threat that ISIS-K continues to pose inside Afghanistan.”

ISIS-K is the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside Kabul airport on Thursday that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians.

U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to stick to Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline. He said the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those wanting to leave Afghanistan.

Biden has said the United States long ago achieved the objectives it set in 2001, when it ousted the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks.

But he has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some fellow Democrats for his actions since the Taliban took over Kabul this month after a lightning advance and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

Blinken said the United States was prepared to work with the new Taliban government if it did not carry out reprisals against opponents.

Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the group wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the United States, despite the two decades of hostility. “The Islamic Emirate wants to have good diplomatic relations with the whole world,” he said.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Steven Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie; Editing by Kevin Liffey/Mark Heinrich)

Rockets target US troops as core diplomats fly out of Kabul

(Reuters) -U.S. anti-missile defenses intercepted rockets fired at Kabul’s airport on Monday as the United States flew its core diplomats out of Afghanistan in the final hours of its chaotic withdrawal.

The last U.S. troops are due to pull out of Kabul by Tuesday, after they and their allies mounted the biggest air evacuation in history, which brought out 114,000 of their own citizens and Afghans who helped them over 20 years of war.

Two U.S. officials said the “core” diplomatic staff had withdrawn by Monday morning. They did not say whether this included top envoy Ross Wilson, expected to be among the last to leave before the final troops themselves.

A U.S. official said initial reports did not indicate any U.S. casualties from as many as five missiles fired on the airport. Islamic State – enemies of both the West and the Taliban – claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.

The rockets followed a massive Islamic State suicide bombing outside the teeming airport gates on Thursday, which killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.

In recent days Washington has warned of more attacks, while carrying out two air strikes. It said both hit Islamic State targets, including one on Sunday it said thwarted an attempted suicide bombing by blowing up a car packed with explosives in Kabul, but which Afghans said had struck civilians.

Tuesday’s deadline for troops to leave was set by President Joe Biden, fulfilling an agreement reached with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump to end Washington’s longest war.

But having failed to anticipate that the Taliban would so quickly conquer the country, Washington and its NATO allies were forced into a hasty evacuation. They will leave behind thousands of Afghans who helped Western countries and might have qualified for evacuation but did not make it out in time.

The Taliban, who carried out public executions and banned girls and women from school or work when last in power 20 years ago, have said they will safeguard rights and not pursue vendettas. They say once the Americans leave, the country will at last be at peace for the first time in more than 40 years.

But countless Afghans, especially in the cities, fear for their futures. And the United Nations said the entire country now faces a dire humanitarian crisis, cut off from foreign aid amid a drought, mass displacement and COVID-19.

“The evacuation effort has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy,” said UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi.

“But when the airlift and the media frenzy are over, the overwhelming majority of Afghans, some 39 million, will remain inside Afghanistan. They need us – governments, humanitarians, ordinary citizens – to stay with them and stay the course.”

A Pakistani plane flew 12.5 tonnes of World Health Organization medical emergency and trauma kits on Monday to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the WHO’s first supplies to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.

Afghanistan’s healthcare system is at risk of collapse, two aid agencies told Reuters, after foreign donors including the World Bank and European Union stopped providing aid following the Taliban’s victory.

Outside the airport in Kabul, people described themselves as forsaken by the departing foreign troops.

“We are in danger,” said one woman. “They must show us a way to be saved. We must leave Afghanistan or they must provide a safe place for us.”

TERRIFIED

Afghan media said Monday’s rocket attack was launched from the back of a vehicle. The Pajhwok news agency said several rockets struck different parts of the Afghan capital.

“People are terrified and worried about the future, worried that the rocket launching might continue,” said Farogh Danish, a Kabul resident near the wreckage of the car from which the rockets were launched.

On Sunday, Pentagon officials said a U.S. drone strike killed an Islamic State suicide car bomber preparing to attack the airport. The Taliban condemned the strike and said seven people died. The New York Times quoted family members as saying it killed 10 people, including seven children, an aid worker for an American charity and a contractor with the U.S. military.

U.S. Central Command said it was investigating reports that civilians were killed.

“We know there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties,” it said.

Two U.S. officials told Reuters evacuations would continue on Monday, prioritizing people deemed at extreme risk. Other countries have also put in last-minute requests to bring out people in that category, the officials said.

Britain urged other countries to work together to provide safe passage out for eligible Afghans still in the country.

The Taliban will take full control of Kabul airport after the U.S. withdrawal on Tuesday, Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network cited an unidentified Taliban source as saying.

PRESIDENT MOURNS U.S. DEAD

Biden attended a ceremony on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to honor members of the U.S. military killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing, the deadliest incident for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in more than a decade.

As the flag-draped transfer caskets carrying the remains emerged from a military plane, the president, who has vowed to avenge the Islamic State attack, shut his eyes and tilted his head back.

Five of the fallen service members were just 20, as old as the war itself.

The departure of the last troops will end the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan that began in late 2001, after the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

U.S.-backed forces ousted a Taliban government that had provided safe haven for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and have engaged in a counter-insurgency war against the Islamist militants for the past two decades.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus and Idrees Ali and Rupam Jain; Writing by Clarence Fernandez and Peter Graff; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Angus MacSwan)

Blast outside Kabul airport kills at least 13, including children, Taliban official says

(Reuters) – A suspected suicide bomb exploded outside Kabul airport on Thursday, killing at least 13 people including children, a Taliban official said, after the United States and allies urged Afghans to leave the area because of a threat by Islamic State.

The official said many Taliban guards were wounded.

A U.S. official said U.S. service members were among the wounded, adding he was citing an initial report and cautioning that it could change. He said there were casualties but did not know how many or of what nationality.

Thousands of people have been gathering outside the airport in recent days. Western troops are racing to evacuate foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban, and to get out themselves by an Aug. 31 deadline.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said there had been an explosion and it was unclear if there were any casualties. A Western diplomat in Kabul earlier said areas outside the airport gates were “incredibly crowded” again despite the warnings of a potential attack.

There were few details yet of the attack, but Western countries have been warning of a potential attack by Islamic State militants.

The Taliban, whose fighters are guarding the perimeter outside the airport, are enemies of the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.

“Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and before the reports of the explosion.

U.S. President Joe Biden has been briefed on the explosion, according to a White House official. Biden was in a meeting with security officials about the situation in Afghanistan when the explosion was first reported, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The concerns about an attack came against a chaotic backdrop in Kabul, where the massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been under way since the day before the Taliban captured the city on Aug. 15, capping a lightning advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.

CANADIAN HALT

Canadian forces halted their evacuations of around 3,700 Canadian and Afghan citizens on Thursday, saying they had stayed as long as they could before the deadline lapses. U.S. and allied troops also have to plan the logistics of their own withdrawal.

“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” the acting chief of Canada’s defense staff, General Wayne Eyre, told reporters.

Biden ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, despite European allies saying they needed more time.

In an alert on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul advised citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified “security threats”.

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said intelligence about a possible suicide bomb attack by IS militants had become “much firmer”.

“The threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal. We wouldn’t be saying this if we weren’t genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target that is just unimaginable,” Heappey told BBC radio.

Australia also issued a warning for people to stay away from the airport while Belgium ended its evacuation operations because of the danger of an attack. The Netherlands said it expected to carry out its last evacuation flight on Thursday.

ISIS-K

Fighters claiming allegiance to ISIS-K first began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014 but the ultra-radical Sunni movement soon expanded from the area near the border with Pakistan where it first appeared.

Daesh, as it is widely known in Afghanistan, established a reputation for extreme brutality as it fought the Taliban both for ideological reasons and for control of local smuggling and narcotics routes, according to Western intelligence services.

It also claimed a series of suicide attacks in cities like Kabul, where as well as government and civilian institutions, it particularly attacked targets associated with the Shi’ite religious minority.

The U.S. military has said it would prioritize evacuating its troops, numbering about 5,200, in the two days before the deadline to leave..

Since the day before the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.

The Taliban have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. Women were barred from school or work. The group was overthrown two decades ago by U.S.-led forces for hosting the al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban have said they will respect human rights and will not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

Planes, guns, night-vision goggles: The Taliban’s new U.S.-made war chest

By Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – About a month ago, Afghanistan’s ministry of defense posted on social media photographs of seven brand new helicopters arriving in Kabul delivered by the United States.

“They’ll continue to see a steady drumbeat of that kind of support, going forward,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters a few days later at the Pentagon.

In a matter of weeks, however, the Taliban had seized most of the country, as well as any weapons and equipment left behind by fleeing Afghan forces.

Video showed the advancing insurgents inspecting long lines of vehicles and opening crates of new firearms, communications gear and even military drones.

“Everything that hasn’t been destroyed is the Taliban’s now,” one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Current and former U.S. officials say there is concern those weapons could be used to kill civilians, be seized by other militant groups such as Islamic State to attack U.S.-interests in the region, or even potentially be handed over to adversaries including China and Russia.

President Joe Biden’s administration is so concerned about the weapons that it is considering a number of options to pursue.

The officials said launching airstrikes against the larger equipment, such as helicopters, has not been ruled out, but there is concern that would antagonize the Taliban at a time the United States’ main goal is evacuating people.

Another official said that while there are no definitive numbers yet, the current intelligence assessment was that the Taliban are believed to control more than 2,000 armored vehicles, including U.S. Humvees, and up to 40 aircraft potentially including UH-60 Black Hawks, scout attack helicopters, and ScanEagle military drones.

“We have already seen Taliban fighters armed with U.S.-made weapons they seized from the Afghan forces. This poses a significant threat to the United States and our allies,” Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, told Reuters in an email.

‘MORE LIKE TROPHIES’

The speed with which the Taliban swept across Afghanistan is reminiscent of Islamic State militants taking weapons from U.S.-supplied Iraqi forces who offered little resistance in 2014.

Between 2002 and 2017, the United States gave the Afghan military an estimated $28 billion in weaponry, including guns, rockets, night-vision goggles and even small drones for intelligence gathering.

But aircraft like the Blackhawk helicopters have been the most visible sign of U.S. military assistance, and were supposed to be the Afghan military’ biggest advantage over the Taliban.

Between 2003 and 2016 the United States provided Afghan forces with 208 aircraft, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In the last week, many of those aircraft were most useful for Afghan pilots to escape the Taliban.

One of the U.S. officials said that between 40 and 50 aircraft had been flown to Uzbekistan by Afghan pilots seeking refuge. Even before taking power in Kabul over the weekend, the Taliban had started a campaign of assassinating pilots https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghan-pilots-assassinated-by-taliban-us-withdraws-2021-07-09.

Some planes were in the United States for maintenance and will stay. Those en route to Afghan forces will instead be used by the U.S. military to help in the evacuation from Kabul.

Current and former officials say that while they are concerned about the Taliban having access to the helicopters, the aircraft require frequent maintenance and many are complicated to fly without extensive training.

“Ironically, the fact that our equipment breaks down so often is a life-saver here,” a third official said.

Retired U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, who oversaw U.S. military operations in Afghanistan as head of U.S. Central Command from 2016 to 2019, said most of the high-end hardware captured by the Taliban, including the aircraft, was not equipped with sensitive U.S. technology.

“In some cases, some of these will be more like trophies,” Votel said.

FIGHTING AT NIGHT

There is a more immediate concern about some of the easier- to-use weapons and equipment, such as night-vision goggles.

Since 2003 the United States has provided Afghan forces with at least 600,000 infantry weapons including M16 assault rifles, 162,000 pieces of communication equipment, and 16,000 night-vision goggle devices.

“The ability to operate at night is a real game-changer,” one congressional aide told Reuters.

Votel and others said smalls arms seized by the insurgents such as machine guns, mortars, as well as artillery pieces including howitzers, could give the Taliban an advantage against any resistance that could surface in historic anti-Taliban strongholds such as the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul.

U.S. officials said the expectation was that most of the weapons would be used by the Taliban themselves, but it was far too early to tell what they planned to do – including possibly sharing the equipment with rival states such as China.

Andrew Small, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the Taliban was likely to grant Beijing access to any U.S. weapons they may now have control over.

One of the U.S. officials said it was not likely China would gain much, because Beijing likely already has access to the weapons and equipment.

The situation, experts say, shows the United States needs a better way to monitor equipment it gives to allies. It could have done much more to ensure those supplies to Afghan forces were closely monitored and inventoried, said Justine Fleischner of UK-based Conflict Armament Research.

“But the time has passed for these efforts to have any impact in Afghanistan,” Fleischner said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis)