WASHINGTON – A Marine who survived the deadly bombing at Kabul’s airport during the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan told lawmakers Wednesday he was told not to kill a suspected ISIS terrorist who he believes was responsible for later killing 13 of his fellow service members and countless Afghans.
Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews recounted to the House Foreign Affairs Committee how his team deployed to Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26, 2021 and were tracking a man whom intelligence officers believed was a suicide bomber “throughout the entirety” of the day leading up to the explosion.
“Intel guys confirmed the suicide bomber … described as clean-shaven, brown-dressed, black vest and traveling with an older companion,” he said. “I asked intel guys why he wasn’t apprehended sooner since we had a full description. I was told the asset could not be compromised.”
Vargas-Andrews recounted his experience during his opening remarks at the committee’s hearing examining the Biden Administration’s handling of the final weeks of the 20-year-long US war in Afghanistan. The chaotic effort brought massive crowds to the airport with fewer than 6,000 US troops deployed to assist.
Vargas-Andrews told the committee that his team continually updated intelligence teams that day on the suspect’s actions, noting the men were an “anomaly in the crowd” and “both had obvious mannerisms that go along with who we believed him to be.”
“They handed out small cards to the crowd periodically, and the older man sat calmly and seemingly coached the bomber,” Vargas-Andrews said. “Over the communication network, we passed that there was a potential threat and an idea attack imminent.”
“This was as serious as it could get,” he added.
Vargas-Andrews said he requested permission to kill the suspected terrorist and his team leader got a sniper gun ready. But the Marines were told not to shoot because “leadership did not have the engagement authority for us.”
Unwilling to give up, the Marine then asked his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brad Whited, “to come to the tower to see what we did.” While Vargas-Andrews waited for the commander to appear, “psychological operations individuals came to our tower immediately and confirmed the suspect met the suicide bomber description.”
When Whited finally arrived, Vargas-Andrews said his team showed him evidence and photos of the men.
“Pointedly … we asked him if we could shoot,” he said. “Our battalion commander said, and I quote: ‘I don’t know.’”
Baffled, Vargas-Andres said he and his team “asked very harshly, ‘Well, who does? Because this is your responsibility, Sir.’”
“He again replied he did not know who and would find out. We received no update and never got our answer,” he said. “Eventually the individual disappeared. To this day we believe he was a suicide bomber.”
Hours later, Vargas-Andrews was working in the crowd outside the airport’s Abbey Gate when an ISIS terrorist detonated the suicide vest, killing 13 Americans and more than 160 Afghans.
Vargas-Andrews, who lost an arm and a leg in the blast, was one of the roughly 45 troops who were injured but survived.
“We were ignored. Our expertise was disregarded,” he said of the lead-up to the blast. “No one was held accountable for our safety.”
Nearly 130,000 people were airlifted from Afghanistan during the mission, but the Biden administration has been regularly criticized for ending the mission before hundreds of Americans and thousands of former elite Afghan military personnel, interpreters and women leaders promised sanctuary could be evacuated.
Ending his opening statement, Vargas-Andrews requested the House committee ask him more about the day of the bombing, noting that “no one wanted my report post-blasts – even NCIS and the FBI failed to interview me.”
“The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion, and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence,” he said. “The 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for.”
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