Photos and videos reveal crowded checkpoints, chaos at Kabul airport on day of the attack

Crowds of people show their documents to U.S. troops outside the airport in Kabul on Aug. 26. (Reuters)
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Jon arrived on Thursday to Kabul’s airport hoping to secure permission to leave Afghanistan with his wife and four young children. It was the fourth time he had made that trip.

The 46-year-old former translator for coalition forces had already paid a high price for his service. He shared his story on the condition that The Washington Post use the name given to him by foreign contractors for security reasons, Jon. He was shot eight times during a targeted attack that ultimately left a metal rod in his leg.

He made his way through a canal near Abbey Gate, on the southeast side of Kabul’s airport. His leg with the metal rod ached as he waded through the putrid water. No matter the difficulty or danger in attempting to leave Afghanistan, he worried the consequences of staying would be much worse. At around 5 p.m., he was at the Abbey Gate in the canal, where U.S. troops were operating a checkpoint.

Source: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Source: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Source: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

As he reached to hand them his documents, a suicide bomber detonated explosives. “There was people’s flesh all over my face, all over my body,” Jon told The Post.

‘Dead people were everywhere’: Carnage and chaos at Kabul airport

Multiple gunmen then opened fire on the civilians and military forces. A local affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

The bombing killed more than 170 people and injured more than 150. That number is expected to rise. Thirteen U.S. service members were also killed in the deadliest attack on American forces in a decade.

The Post reviewed dozens of photos and videos, analyzed satellite imagery and spoke to witnesses to understand the events before and after the devastating blast. Taken together, they reveal a complex web of checkpoints and visualize a chaotic scene in the wake of the bombing.

Suicide bombing lays bare challenges of gate security mission at Kabul airport

An analysis of photos and videos from Wednesday, the previous day, found multiple routes to the blast site. A path leading to the Abbey Gate had at least two Taliban checkpoints and a coalition checkpoint. The security perimeter near the Abbey Gate was guarded by coalition forces. It’s unclear how the bomber gained access to the area.

Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Source: Satellite image via Planet

The U.S. Defense Department did not immediately respond for comment, but American security officials have said the investigation into how the suicide bomber ultimately reached American forces is ongoing. Taliban leaders have said the attack was the result of poor American security.

Before the attack

Mohammad Paimani, a 27-year-old journalist, was one of hundreds of Afghans near Abbey Gate on Thursday morning who had ignored days of warnings by the United States to avoid the airport. Hours before the attack, he shot a video showing large crowds in the area.

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(Video: Mohammad Paimani)

A few feet away, Jon watched those trying to reach the other side of the canal to present their documents to American soldiers. Shortly before the blast, he took a photo showing throngs of people tightly packed into the small space and a child on the ledge next to military personnel.

The blast

In a brief moment of opportunity, Jon thought he could get the soldier’s attention. He reached out with his documents. Then the bomb detonated.

“It was chaos and soon as I was going to call one of them to get their attention, I just heard boom,” Jon said. Dazed by the blast, a loud tone rang in his ear as he tried to escape.

Kabul airport bombing underscores Taliban’s challenges in securing a volatile Afghanistan

Paimani also saw, then felt, an explosion.

“It was like doomsday … no one was helping injured or dead people,” Paimani wrote in a text message.

Fearing a second suicide bomber or the possibility of being trapped, he fled with the panicked crowd. He witnessed women and children trampled in the chaos.

“I never thought this would happen because the Taliban had an agreement with the Americans,” Paimani said. “People thought that Americans warned people of threats just to scare them not to crowd the airport but indeed the [Americans’] warnings came true.”

Ali, who worked for the U.S. Embassy and spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his first name for security concerns, went to the airport with his documents, his ID and an email from the embassy that told him to go to the East Gate of the airport, about a 10-minute walk to the Abbey Gate.

After hearing the explosion, and the gunshots that followed, he quickly took a photo of U.S. troops who looked in the direction of the blast. Then the soldiers threw smoke bombs to disperse the crowd, injuring several bystanders, according to Ali.

“Lots of women, I saw many of them where their faces were burned and they didn’t move,” he said. He took a photo of a man who he said was injured by canisters.

The aftermath

Videos filmed in the immediate aftermath, near where Jon stood, show dozens of bloodied bodies, mangled and piled on top of one another. Some lie in a sewage canal; others are on the ground or the retaining walls just outside the airport’s barricaded perimeter. Survivors can be seen making their way through human remains and personal belongings to pull limp bodies from the water.

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(Video: Asvaka News Agency via AP)

In another video, someone cries out, “Oh God, we repent to you, we repent to you.”

As the injured escaped the blast site down a dirt path, away from the airport, a young boy looked for his father. Then a man yelled, “Don’t stop here! Go, go.”

(Video: @samiull57940027 via Spectee)

Ambulances transported some of the injured to the Emergency Hospital, a medical center for victims of war, about three miles away from the blast site.

(Video: Reuters)

By nightfall, video showed people had again gathered near the area of the blast.

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A Kabul resident filmed crowds back near the Abbey Gate just hours after the deadly blast at the Kabul airport. (Video: AfghanUrdu/Twitter)

Satellite imagery on Friday showed far fewer people in front of the entrances to the airport, especially at Abbey Gate, which appeared deserted compared with previous days.

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August 26 at 3:10 P.M.

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August 27 at 10:17 A.M.

Source: Planet Labs Inc. © 2021

Before

August 26 at 3:10 P.M.

Crowds attempting

to enter the airport

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After

August 27 at 10:17 A.M.

Source: Planet Labs Inc. © 2021

After

August 27 at 10:17 A.M.

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August 26 at 3:10 P.M.

Crowds attempting

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Source: Planet Labs Inc. © 2021

People did try to reach the airport through the north gate, however. A video obtained by The Post showed they were dispersed with flash bangs. Evacuation flights resumed. On Saturday, Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said those who worked with the United States were still being allowed into the airport.

(Video: Aamaj News Agency)

U.S. commanders have said the evacuation mission will continue, despite warnings that another terrorist attack in Kabul is likely. They have requested changes to the security perimeter and road closures in an effort to improve security. Kirby said Friday that airport operations are still under U.S. military control.

For Jon, like so many Afghans still desperate to leave, he made plans to return again to the airport after the attack. “If I stay, I am dead. I have no choice but to return to the gates again.”

Mahnaz Rezaie, Laris Karklis and Karly Domb Sadof contributed to this report.

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