Kabul Airport Attack Review Reaffirms Initial Findings, Identifies Attacker


By Matthew Olay

A supplemental review of the original investigation into the 2021 suicide bombing attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and roughly 170 Afghan civilians at Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate has reaffirmed the military’s findings of the initial investigation and identifies the attacker. 

Ordered by U.S. Army Central Command in September 2023, the results of the two-year supplemental review found that no new information disclosed in public testimony since March 2023 had any material impact on the original investigation’s findings. It also confirmed that a lone ISIS-K suicide bomber had carried out the attack, and that the attack could not have been preventable at the tactical level, members of the supplemental review team explained during a recent briefing. 

“With access to analysis from across the intelligence community, we were able to identify the Abbey Gate person-borne IED bomber as Abdul Rahman al-Logari, an [ISIS-K] member since 2016,” said one Army official on the 12-person, joint supplemental review team.  

Al-Logari was one of thousands of ISIS-K members the Taliban released from a pair of detention centers in mid-August 2021, according to another Army team official. 

The same official also pointed out that the supplemental review team determined ISIS-K would have still been able to conduct the attack regardless of whether al-Logari had been released, because the terror organization already had multiple suicide bombers available.   

“This supports the conclusion that the attack at Abbey Gate was not preventable at the tactical level,” the official said.  

During the supplemental review, the team sought to address five separate topics deemed worthy of either initial or follow-on assessment since the original release of the 2022 report on the attack.  

Two of those five topics included the circumstances surrounding the alleged confirmation of the description of the alleged attacker; as well as the circumstances related to the request for the authority to engage that individual.  

Regarding identification of the alleged attacker and the request to engage that perceived threat, the supplemental review found that the chain of command’s proper use of the rules of engagement allowed the Marines on the ground to avoid making any potentially lethal mistakes amid all of the confusion brought on by having to deal with throngs of Afghan evacuees, according to one Marine supplemental review team official. 

“Leaders constantly engaged service members and Marines on the ground throughout the evacuation to ensure they understood the use of force to deal with the unruly crowds, the Taliban and the constant threat before them,” the official said. 

One topic of some contention the review team sought to address was if, on the morning of the attack, Marine snipers had or had not positively identified a particular individual who appeared to stand out from the rest of the evacuees — a so-called “bald man in black” — as a threat worthy of engaging. 

The review found that the battalion commander on scene properly evaluated the request to engage the individual by applying the set rules of engagement. 

“The battalion commander exercised sound military judgement to conclude that the ‘bald man in black’ was not a lawful military target …  Any portrayal of these events showing the battalion commander did not understand these events [is] just not supported by the evidence,” the official said. 

“It is clear [the battalion commander] did not approve the snipers to engage the ‘bald man in black,’ and it was clear that this decision was understood.”   

As to the actual attacker, the review team determined that there was very little chance of identifying al-Logari prior to him detonating his body-worn IED.  

“Positive identification of the bomber prior to the attack would have been improbable, given the timeline and the density of the crowd,” another Army review team member said, before going on to state that service members were “vigilant in their duties” the day of the attack, despite the fact that intelligence available at the time lacked data that could have been used to identify al-Logari as the assailant. 

The same official also said the intelligence community has used facial recognition technology to compare a photo of al-Logari to one of the “bald man in black,” and that the result yielded the “strongest negative possible rating” determining that the separate photos were not of the same individual. 

Additional examples of service member vigilance and professionalism came to light during the supplemental review.  

One topic assessed in the review — which was not included in the original report on the bombing — was a question as to whether ISIS-K or the Taliban had conducted a perceived “IED test run” on Aug. 21. That day, Marine snipers who were posted at the airport observed three individuals with accompanying bags that they deemed to be suspicious. 

Though the supplemental review team ultimately couldn’t conclude whether an IED test run had actually taken place, the team praised the level of skilled professionalism the Marines exhibited while investigating the situation. 

“The Marines remained disciplined, and they were relentless in how they treated these bags,” said one army team official, adding that the Marines were sure to execute the appropriate tactics, techniques and procedures. 

“They did the right thing, despite the uncertainty of the environment,” the official said. “They remained disciplined, and they performed their duties admirably; and that was to preserve the force and also to protect civilians and others.” 

Another of the topics the review team assessed, and subsequently praised, was the Marines’ decision to consolidate their perimeter at the airport on the day prior to the bombing. This was due to increased exposure to unvetted evacuees and the threat of an IED attack, among other hazards. 

“Based on our assessment, consolidating the perimeter was a sound tactical decision,” a Marine official from the review team said. “Additionally, after discussing that decision during the supplemental review with several service members who were critical of it previously, they all agreed that it was a sound tactical decision.” 

Though it wasn’t one of the core five topics addressed, the supplemental review team saw it as germane to mention the robust presence of military leadership in the vicinity of Abbey Gate during the day of the bombing. 

“It is important to note that multiple Marines emphasized that leaders were present and engaged throughout operations at Abbey Gate, [and] our supplemental review found the same,” one of the Army officials stated, while adding that 22 leaders at the rank of E-4 or above were wounded or killed during the attack. 

“We found that certain individuals, even two years after the blast, were unaware that the battalion commander had been wounded by ball bearings; and that — while still performing his duties — he had to be forcibly led away from the blast zone because senior enlisted Marines insisted that he needed to be treated for his wounds.” 

Between the supplemental review and the initial Abbey Gate investigation, the team interviewed more than 190 people at 24 separate locations. The average interview consisted of approximately 64 questions, resulting in 16 pages of typed transcription in the form of a signed memorandum for record, according to one of the army review team officials.  

The official closed out the briefing by pointing out that the supplemental review team has photos of the 13 U.S. service members who lost their lives in the Abbey Gate attack posted in the team’s office in such a manner that the photos are the first thing the team members see in the morning, and the last thing they see as they depart for the evening. 

“This is to always remind us of the fallen service members and the importance of what we’re doing,” the official said.  

“This is to honor them.” 

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