U.S. military forces conducted a drone strike on Friday against the Islamic State terrorist group in Afghanistan in an apparent retaliatory attack against those who claimed responsibility for the attack outside Kabul’s airport.
“U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner,” said Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, in a statement. “The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”
ISIS-K, known as Islamic State Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the “martyrdom attack” on Thursday that involved a suicide bomber who detonated an explosive belt at the airport’s gate, killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 110 Afghans. More than 100 were wounded in the blasts.
The U.S military is not aware of any civilian casualties in the strike, the officials said.
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A resident of Nangarhar told NBC News on Saturday they “heard a heavy explosion in the middle of the night.” The person who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals added that they thought “someone had fired rocket on our house, but we then noticed drones hovering over the area.”
President Joe Biden had vowed in a Thursday speech that the U.S. would respond to the attacks “with force.”
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said of the Kabul airport attack hours earlier that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghan civilians.
Two U.S. defense officials familiar with the strike told NBC News that the target of the drone strike was an ISIS-K fighter thought to be involved in planning for future attacks. The strike was in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, where ISIS-K had a large presence several years ago before being largely ousted by the Afghan military and the Taliban.
The unnamed ISIS-K planner was riding in a vehicle with one associate at the time of the strike, was driving in an isolated area. The defense officials said the strike was carried out by an MQ-9 Reaper drone and munitions that were selected for precision and in order to minimize any civilian casualties.
The Taliban also arrested a number of individuals in connection with the Kabul airport attack, a spokesman for the militant group said Saturday. He added that members of the Taliban’s intelligence service were interrogating those individuals, but did not provide further details.
Pentagon officials said 5,000 troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan, ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. forces to complete their withdrawal, despite pressure to extend it.
More than 105,000 people have been evacuated since Aug. 14, according to the White House, and approximately 110,600 people have been relocated since the end of July.
However, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan issued a security alert late Friday, advising American citizens to avoid traveling to Kabul’s airport and to avoid its gates.
Biden said earlier this week he had asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans if Afghanistan evacuations are not complete by the deadline.
Some U.S. allies including France and Spain have already ended evacuations from the airport, while a U.K. government spokesperson said Saturday that its last dedicated flight for Afghan refugees had left Kabul.
They added that a small number of Afghan refugees would be able to board other flights designated for evacuating British military personnel.