The Pentagon Said No One Was Shot In Kabul Airport Attack. A CNN Investigation Raises Questions

The Pentagon Said No One Was Shot In Kabul Airport Attack. A CNN Investigation Raises Questions

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Inside the final deadly moments of the US’ longest-running warBy Nick Paton Walsh, Sandi Sidhu, Julia Hollingsworth, Masoud Popalzai, Sitara Zamani, Abdul Basir Bina, Katie Polglase and Gianluca Mezzofiore

February 8, 2022

On August 26, 2021, a blast ripped through a crowd outside Kabul airport. More than 180 people were confirmed dead, including 13 American troops.

The Pentagon says all were killed by an ISIS-K bomb.

A CNN investigation raises questions over whether some may have been shot.

Thursday, August 26, 2021
17:36:52 p.m.

The blast ripped through the desperate mass of people outside Kabul airport, turning the sewage canal they’d been standing in red with body parts and blood.

Shogofa Hamidi opened her eyes to find the air thick with smoke, she said. Bodies had fallen on top of each other, and human flesh had splattered onto her face and into her mouth. The travel documents she had been holding had turned to ash.

Around her, people were screaming and wailing. Within minutes, according to Shogofa, the shooting started.

What happened next is part of the untold — and still disputed — story of the attack on Abbey Gate.

The Pentagon said Friday all 170 Afghans and 13 United States service members who died that day were killed in the blast. A three-and-a-half-month US military investigation involving interviews with 139 people concluded that while US Marines opened fire twice after the blast, none of the bullets hit anyone, according to a detailed media briefing by the investigating team on February 4.

The British military say their troops fired into the air to clear a pressing crowd, but nobody was hit. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the bombing, which caused the highest US death toll from a single incident in Afghanistan in more than a decade.

But a four-month CNN investigation raises hard questions over what really happened that day — and how so many people died.

CNN spoke to more than 70 witnesses and families of the dead, reviewed medical records and analyzed video, photos and audio of the scene. Medical staff and administrators at five hospitals that received victims from the attack noted the presence of bullet wounds, and one doctor described removing bullets himself. Hospital statements and patients’ medical records reference bullet wounds. Survivors and families of some of the dead insisted some of the dead and wounded were shot.

Two forensic blast analysts said it was unlikely that so many people could have died in a single person-borne explosion, though other experts told CNN it was possible.

But there are limits to what can be learned. Autopsies are not common in Afghanistan, leaving the medical assessments inconclusive. Video from social media and the military is spotty, and there are gaps in the timeline of events where no footage seems to exist. There are limits to the US military investigation as well. Investigators did not speak to any staff at Afghanistan hospitals or medical staff outside of the US military. Nor did they interview any Afghan civilians.

Still, the information obtained by CNN raises the possibility that gunfire could have played a role in injuries and deaths on that terrible day, despite American and British military denials. This reporting prompts questions about whether the full story has been told about military conduct in the aftermath of the blast.

How it happenedIn the days leading up to the blast, Afghans thronged around the perimeter of Kabul airport, clamoring for a flight out of the city.

The Taliban had taken the capital on August 15, plunging the country back into the hands of a repressive regime the US and its allies had fought for almost 20 years to repel.

By August 26, the desperation outside the airport’s walls was at its peak.

Afghans attempting to flee the country try to reach foreign forces outside Kabul airport on August 26, 2021. Credit: Akhter Gulfam/EPA-EFE/ShutterstockThe US soldiers were just five days away from their deadline to leave and the risks were increasing of an ISIS-K attack. The US Embassy in Kabul warned people to stay away from the airport, unless specifically invited by a US representative.

But the crowds came anyway. Some Afghans arrived at the airport clutching visas or passports for other countries. Others held only hope that they would somehow be ushered through the airport gates.

After the capital fell, thousands of Afghans gathered daily at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

It was the main US evacuation route out of the country and the last place in the capital still under US control.

But getting into the airport — and out of the country — wasn’t easy.

Afghans needed to get through one of the airport gates — and for many, that meant going through Abbey Gate.

Some evacuees stood in a sewage canal that runs along the perimeter of the airport, waving their documents.

Then evacuees needed to get past the allied forces manning the entrance.

This satellite photo shows crowds gathering at the Abbey Gate checkpoint on August 25 — the day before the blast.

The following day, a suspected suicide bomber would detonate an explosive near Abbey Gate.

In the hours before the August 26 blast, video shows people massing near the razor-wire fence guarded by allied troops that separated them from the airport.

Watch what it was like on the ground

Shogofa and her sister Morsal were among the crowd of people standing in the filthy sewage stream, hoping to show their travel documents to French soldiers. Morsal, then 17, had been accepted to a French university and her sister and parents had been told they could evacuate with her.

Nearby, Ahmad, who does not wish to use his real name for safety reasons, was standing with more than a dozen of his family members, including women and children. Some clutched bags stuffed with clothes and belongings for the journey.

Unlike thousands of others, they had valid travel documents: One was a US citizen, some had green cards, and another obtained a visa after working for the Americans.

Shortly before the blast, most of Ahmad’s family had crossed the sewage canal to the area near where US troops were checking documents. The men were passing up the last of their luggage behind them.

Then the bomb detonated…

“The sky turned red with dust.”

“The canal was filled with blood.”

“There was a mountain of dead bodies.”

“(I saw) pieces of human limbs and clothes flying in the air.”

Some Afghans were killed instantaneously. Others were thrown to the ground. On the airport side of the canal, foreign troops lay dead or injured, according to witnesses. Others were still blocking the gate to the airport as dazed Afghans struggled to their feet.

As Shogofa lay in a pile of bodies, she said she saw soldiers in American uniforms rush to pull their injured comrades to safety. Then Shogofa says she saw troops firing on injured Afghans.

“I saw people who were injured in the explosion trying to get up, but they fired on them,” she said.

Shogofa felt someone pulling on her head. It was her sister Morsal, who was bleeding and moving her mouth as if to call her sister’s name, but was unable to speak.

“There was so much blood coming out of her face, like a faucet running full of blood,” Shogofa said.

“There was no shooting in the air. They were targeting people. It was intentional”Nazir, an eyewitness

Morsal had been hit by shrapnel in the shoulder in the blast but was still able to stand. Shortly after the blast, she said she also saw soldiers firing on those who were standing. Then a bullet struck her jaw and came out the right side of her neck, she said. A medical report from the Italian-run Emergency Surgical Center in Kabul, seen by CNN, confirmed she had been hit by a bullet.

Nineteen witnesses said they either saw people being hit by gunfire or were hit by gunfire themselves. While CNN has not been able to verify each witness account of seeing gunfire, it adds to the pressing questions the US military faces over the incident.

When he came to after the explosion, Ahmad leapt into the canal, where he found his cousin, Mohammad, injured but conscious. He pulled him to the side of the putrid water. As Ahmad tried to help his other relatives, he saw a bullet strike Mohammad’s forehead, killing him instantly.

Nazir, 16, who was at the airport with his brother, his brother’s wife and their children, said the shooting seemed to start straight after the explosion.

“There was no shooting in the air. They were targeting people. It was intentional,” he said. “In front of me, people were getting shot at and falling down.”

Another survivor, Noorullah Zakhel, was also standing in the canal when the blast went off. He said he turned to his cousin, Suhail, who appeared uninjured by the blast. “Run,” he said.

Noorullah said he heard shooting as he clambered up the canal wall, so he dropped to the ground and hid among dead bodies. Noorullah noted that the bullets seemed to hit those who tried to flee, so he turned to a family lying next to him and said: “Please don’t run, they will shoot you.”

He recalled soldiers standing in front of him. “They said nothing — they just shooted people.” The next day, Noorullah’s family told him that Suhail had died after being hit by what appeared to be a bullet.

Who fired shotsThe US military confirmed only American and British troops were in the area at the time — but they say witnesses who claim to have seen people being shot were mistaken.

“The testimony you describe is not inconsistent with the recollections of people with jumbled memories from a concussive event who witnessed trauma and are doing their best to piece together what their brain is unlikely to remember clearly,” said Captain Bill Urban, the spokesman for US Central Command (CENTCOM), the part of the US military overseeing Afghanistan, among other countries. “The testimony of people being shot is not, however, supported by any of the other facts as we know them.”

One of the US investigators, Colonel CJ Douglas, told reporters Friday that US Marines and troops from the United Kingdom did fire after the blast over the canal at two “military-aged males,” but he added that none of the bullets hit their target or any Afghans.

In one incident, Marines “fired four warning shots over the head of an individual who displayed concerning behavior and appeared to be observing the casualty site,” Douglas said. “This individual of interest ultimately fled unharmed,” he added.

That day, US or UK troops were in control of all major compounds around the blast site.

Airport security was run by the US military, although they were joined at the gates in the days ahead of the blast by other allied nations.

The other side of the canal was also largely controlled by UK forces.

The Zohak — which has a helipad — was used by the British and US intermittently, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Nearby Baron Hotel was used by the British to process visa applications.

At about the same time, UK troops fired a small number of warning shots into the air from a tower inside a nearby compound called the Zohak Village in the hopes of preventing a “crowd surge,” according to a UK defense spokesperson.

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The Pentagon said no one was shot in Kabul airport attack. A CNN investigation raises questions

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