WASHINGTON — The Taliban have killed the leader of the Islamic State cell responsible for the suicide bombing at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021 that killed 13 U.S. troops and as many as 170 civilians, the White House said on Tuesday.
Four senior American officials said that U.S. intelligence analysts became aware in early April that the mastermind of the attack, whom they declined to identify, had died in a Taliban operation in Afghanistan. It was unclear whether the Taliban were specifically targeting the insurgent or he was killed in one of the increasing number of attacks between Taliban and Islamic State fighters, the officials said.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, called the Taliban operation “another in a series of high-profile leadership losses” that the Islamic State cell, known as Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, had suffered this year.
The officials said that based on classified intelligence reports — most likely from informants, electronic intercepts or information from allied spy services — analysts concluded with “high confidence” that the chief plotter of the airport attack had been killed. But the officials offered no evidence to support that conclusion or other details about his purported death.
The administration on Monday began calling relatives of the American troops who died in the attack to tell them that the ISIS-K leader had been killed by Taliban security forces in recent weeks. Officials were also sparing with the details they were willing to share with the families.
“They couldn’t give me his name; they couldn’t tell me the details of the operation,” said Darin Hoover, the father of Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover of the Marine Corps, who was killed during the blast.
Mr. Hoover said that while he had not expected the military to share everything it knew, the call left him feeling “frustrated, again.”
“I want the administration to take some accountability and responsibility for this,” Mr. Hoover said. “Say, ‘We screwed up. It’s not going to happen again.’ It can’t happen again. He gave his life for this. This is what he wanted to do, and this is what happened — and now we’re all being treated like garbage.”
The 2021 evacuation from Afghanistan and its aftermath continue to be a subject of heated debate on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have voiced similar demands of the Biden administration.
G.O.P. lawmakers have accused the administration of being directly responsible for the failures of the exit and condemned administration officials as inept when it comes to the future of counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Democrats have largely defended those officials, arguing they did the best they could in a difficult situation and faulting President Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, for making a deal with the Taliban that committed the United States to exit.
Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, who is running one of the congressional investigations into the Afghanistan evacuation, hailed the reported killing of the terrorist leader responsible for the Abbey Gate attack. He said in a statement that “any time a terrorist is taken off the board is a good day.”
“But this doesn’t diminish the Biden administration’s culpability for the failures that led to the attack at Abbey Gate, and will in no way deter the committee’s investigation,” Mr. McCaul added.
There is very limited, if any, information sharing about the Islamic State between the Taliban and the United States, and the U.S. officials said the United States had no involvement in the attack that killed the cell leader.
ISIS-K and the Taliban have been fighting pitched battles since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021.
The attack raised ISIS-K’s international profile, positioning it as a major threat to the Taliban’s ability to govern the country and, according to American officials, as the most imminent terrorist risk to the United States coming out of Afghanistan.
President Biden and his top commanders have said the United States would carry out “over-the-horizon” strikes from a base in the United Arab Emirates against ISIS and Qaeda insurgents who threaten the United States.
Over the past two years, the Taliban have waged a heavy-handed campaign against ISIS-K in Afghanistan. So far, their security services have effectively prevented the group from seizing territory or recruiting large numbers of former Taliban fighters bored in peacetime — among the worst case scenarios laid out after Afghanistan’s Western-backed government collapsed.
Still, in the absence of American airstrikes and Afghan commando raids that killed many of its leaders, ISIS-K has spread from its original stronghold in eastern Afghanistan to nearly all of the country’s 34 provinces, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The group has also carried out major suicide attacks on government buildings and foreign embassies in Kabul.
The attacks have undercut the peaceful image the Taliban have sought to paint of Afghanistan under their rule, the first stretch of relative calm the country has seen in 40 years and a hallmark promise of the Taliban’s new government. Even as some officials with the Taliban administration promote the successes of raids on purported ISIS-K hide-outs, others have outright denied the existence of ISIS-K in the country.
In February 2022, a Pentagon report concluded that a single Islamic State suicide bomber carried out the attack at the Abbey Gate of the airport. The findings by a team of Army-led investigators contradicted initial reports by senior U.S. commanders that militants fired into the crowd of people at the airport seeking to flee the country and caused some of the casualties.
The report also absolved Marines of firing lethal shots into the crowd at Abbey Gate as some officials had suspected because of the large amount of ammunition the Marines had fired after the attack, which took place on Aug. 26.
The Islamic State identified the suicide bomber as Abdul Rahman Al-Logari. American officials say he was a former engineering student who was one of several thousand militants freed from at least two high-security prisons after the Taliban seized control of Kabul 11 days before the attack. The Taliban emptied the facilities indiscriminately, releasing not only their own imprisoned members but also fighters from ISIS-K.
Perhaps the biggest error by the United States after the Abbey Gate bombing would come just three days later. On Aug. 29, American officials, fearful that another suicide bomber would attack the airport, launched a drone strike, hitting a white Toyota loaded with what were likely water canisters, not explosives. The officials who called in the strike had not noticed video footage that showed the presence of at least one child in the area two minutes before the strike.
In the end, 10 civilians, including seven children, were killed.
Karoun Demirjian reported from Washington, and Eric Schmitt from Portland, Ore. Christina Goldbaum contributed reporting from London.