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James Heappey, the Armed Forces minister, said there was “very, very credible” intelligence of an “imminent attack” and that the danger was so severe that it could take place even while he was speaking.
But he admitted that with around 400 Britons still to depart and large numbers of Afghans wanting to exit the country, many were so desperate they had decided to “take their chances” by staying in the queue at the airport.
“We believe that there is a very imminent, highly lethal attack possible,” he said. “I can’t stress the desperation of the situation enough. There is the threat — it 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.
“It’s an extraordinarily challenging situation. People are desperate, people are fearing for their lives anyway, so I think there is an appetite from people in the queue to take their chances, but the reporting of this threat is very credible indeed. There is a very real imminence to it.”
He added: “I don’t think anybody should be surprised by this — Daesh, or Islamic State, are guilty of all sorts of evil. The opportunism of wanting to target a major international humanitarian mission is just utterly deplorable but sadly true to form for an organisation as barbarous as Daesh.”
Mr Heappey’s warning follows similar alerts from the US, Australia and Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg about the threat of an IS suicide bombing or other assault at Kabul airport.
Huge crowds have gathered there hoping for a place on one of the remaining evacuation flights before the August 31 deadline when the final American troops will depart.
President Joe Biden said earlier this week that the threat posed by “Isis-K” — an Afghan affiliate of Islamic State — was one reason for keeping to the August 31 departure date because of the daily growing risk.
But the new intelligence outlined by Mr Heappey indicated that the severity of the danger had now reached a peak, with the minister admitting that an attack within “hours” was likely.
He said one problem was that British troops were only able to operate in a small area and, along with other nations, were relying on the Taliban for security elsewhere.
Mr Heappey, a former soldier, added that suicide attacks were “extraordinarily hard to stop” and that it was “terrifying to be able to know that that threat exists when the crowds are as thick as they are” when preventing a bomber getting through “verges on impossible”.
The airlift was continuing on Thursday, however, with the minister disclosing that 11 RAF flights were planned. That is an increase on the eight evacuation flights yesterday, which carried 1,988 people to take the total flown out of Afghanistan by Britain to 12,279.
Mr Heappey said that around 1,000 people, including Afghan interpreters and other staff eligible for sanctuary because they worked directly with the UK, were still on the ground waiting to exit, but warned that some would-be refugees will be left behind.
“There is still time in this process, there is still capacity,” he said, before adding: “We won’t get everybody out. There will be people who will be in danger who won’t be evacuated. The reality is that we are asking people to move away. That reduces our capacity to process people.
“There are no good answers to this I’m afraid. People are already in harm’s way. They are already fearful for their lives. They fear that the Taliban will seek reprisal. The threat to these people is already clear and well known — it’s what we’ve been trying to minimise through the airlift.
“An awful lot of people, even knowing that the Australians, the Americans, the UK are giving the advice that we are now giving, still feel like the airport is the safest place. That’s a concern because the crowds are still very large and that reflects the desperation that people have.”
The last British civilian airlift is expected to leave before the weekend because of the need to give time for UK troops to depart before the last Americans fly out.
Kabul airport is expected to close then, although efforts are under way to ensure that it can reopen for civilian flights, possibly with the assistance of Turkey.
World leaders attending a video G7 conference earlier this week made clear that they would be pressing the Taliban to allow more people to leave Afghanistan for sanctuary overseas in return for future co-operation.
The Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has also said that those wanting to flee should attempt to do so via land borders and that British embassy staffing in neighbouring countries would be increased to assist in processing applications speedily.
Colonel Richard Kemp, former head of British forces in Afghanistan, said the threat of a terrorist attack at Kabul airport “has existed right the way from when this evacuation began”.
“That threat of a terrorist attack, whether it’s from the Taliban, Islamic State, or al Qaeda, it could equally be all three of those groups,” he told BBC Breakfast. “The fact that people are talking about Islamic State doesn’t make that the most likely threat.
“I think that threat has existed right the way from when this evacuation began, and I have no doubt that our forces are fully aware of the threat and already, for days now, have been taking measures to try to mitigate it, to prevent something like that happening.
“But, clearly, there could be a terrorist attack of some sort against the forces in the airport, maybe forces outside the airport, and of course the people trying to get in.”
Former foreign secretary David Miliband said many Afghans were scared that the withdrawal of troops would also mean that aid workers will not be able to help millions of those in need.
Mr Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s also an invisible crisis which is desperate.
“That’s a crisis of tens of millions of Afghans who need humanitarian aid, who need to be served by the humanitarian aid community, who are desperately worried that the military withdrawal on the 31st of August will not just mean the end of the possibility of people to leave but also will signal a humanitarian aid withdrawal, a diplomatic withdrawal, a political withdrawal that will leave them at the mercy of not just political events but of a collapsing economy, of Covid running rampant, of drought in 80 per cent of the country.”