"Despite this attack, we are continuing the mission," Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. told reporters — as President Joe Biden vowed retaliation

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Kabul airport explosion
Smoke rises from explosion outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday.
| Credit: Wali Sabawoon/AP/Shutterstock

Twelve U.S. service members and a number of Afghan civilians were killed in a "heinous" bombing and gun attack by Islamic State fighters outside the airport in Afghanistan's capital on Thursday amid the ongoing evacuation effort, Pentagon officials say.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. confirmed the number of American troops killed during a Thursday afternoon press conference and said 15 others were wounded, along with civilians.

That toll represents one of the deadliest single days for American forces since the Afghanistan war, now in its final stages, began 20 years ago.

McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said he did not have a confirmed casualty number for the Afghans. The Associated Press reported, citing officials, that 60 were killed and another 140-plus were wounded.

The troops killed included 11 Marines and a Navy medic, according to the AP.

"Their loss weighs heavily on us all," McKenzie told reporters.

He said a suicide bomber on Thursday struck the Abbey Gate, one of the entry points to Kabul's airport, after which Islamic State gunmen opened fire on the military and civilians.

The working assessment was the bomber, having already passed through other checkpoints en route to the airport, detonated themselves as they were being screened by American forces to enter the gate, McKenzie said.

Asked how the assailants could have made it through the layers of security, McKenzie said, "It was a failure somewhere."

He also stressed the "daily heroism" of American forces — Army, Navy, Marines — who have to physically screen the tens of thousands of people seeking to evacuate through the airport.

He said he did not know the size of the bomb used but suggested that could be responsible for the high number of casualties.

There was a second bombing at the Barron Hotel, which is not far from the airport and has been a focal point for those evacuating, McKenzie said.

He described the deaths as wrenching and bluntly acknowledged the likelihood of future attacks by extremists, including possible rocket and vehicle strikes. And he said the military would "go after" those responsible if they could be identified.

But he also said the U.S.-led evacuation of American citizens, Afghan allies and refugees would not be deterred.

"Despite this attack, we are continuing the mission," McKenzie said.

At a White House speech later Thursday, President Joe Biden vowed retaliation against the Islamic State fighters: "We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay."

"We're outraged as well as heartbroken," Biden said. He also led a moment of silence for the dead.

He subsequently took questions from reporters who pressed him on the strategy of the withdrawal and cited widespread criticism he has faced.

He reiterated that it was "time" to end the decades-long war that, in his words, no longer served a purpose.

Kabul airport explosion
A view after two explosions were reported outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday.
| Credit: Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty

The Taliban, who recently took control of Afghanistan, has been coordinating with U.S. and coalition forces amid the evacuation and U.S.-led military withdrawal.

As of Thursday morning, the U.S. had evacuated or helped evacuate more than 90,000 people since the Taliban took power.

Before Thursday, officials increasingly warned of the dangers of Islamic State fighters opposed to both the U.S. and the Taliban. McKenzie underlined that as he spoke with reporters while also noting the preventative measures he said U.S. forces were taking to curb more losses.

The off-shoot is also known as ISIS-K, referring to Khorasan, the historical geographic term the militants gave themselves.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombings later Thursday. John Kirby, the Department of Defense's spokesman, called it a "heinous attack."

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones and teammates of all those killed and injured," Kirby said in a statement.

A man at the scene told the AP there was an explosion in a crowd of people outside the coalition-controlled airport.

Throngs of refugees have gathered there since the fall of the country's government in mid-August, seeking to flee.

On Wednesday the U.S. Embassy told Americans to stay away from the airport unless instructed otherwise, citing a security threat, as European officials warned of intelligence of a possible suicide bombing.

America's top diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, had said the threat warned of "was clearly regarded as credible, as imminent, as compelling."

"Being part of these huge crowds that remain around the gates, entrances to the airport, is dangerous. We're obviously concerned about our own people as well," Wilson said, according to CNN.

If you would like to support those in need during the upheaval in Afghanistan, consider:

* Donating to UNICEF to aid Afghans in the country or

* Donating to the International Refugee Assistance Project to help those fleeing.