Just before dawn on Friday, two vehicles filled with explosives were detonated in front of the U.S. Consulate in Herat and five assailants proceeded to lay siege on the consulate with heavy and light gunfire. Although the attack was eventually subdued by Afghan and U.S. forces, it left a number of civilian and security personnel casualties and heavy structural damage in its wake.
It was the severest attack on American assets in Afghanistan so far in the month of September, coming just two days after the twelve year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Responsibility for the assault was claimed by the Taliban immediately after news broke.
Reports regarding the exact number of victims have varied. According to General Taj Muhammad Jahed, Commander of the 207 Zafar Battalion of Herat, the two Afghan officers guarding the gate were killed and five others injured. But information coming out of the nearby hospital indicated differently.
“As a result of today’s incident at the American Consulate, there are a total of twenty injured and one dead,” said Muhammad Rafiq Sherzai, spokesman of Hawzawi Hospital. “Two of the injured individuals are in critical condition and under close observation at the hospital.”
Security officials and eyewitnesses have provided sufficient information to piece together an account of the incident.
The attack began around 5:30am when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-laden SUV near the main gate of the consulate and then a second explosive-laden mini-van hit the gate itself, allowing five other attackers to pass the first gate and open fire on security forces inside the compound.
The assailants engaged in a gun-battle with consulate security personnel and the Afghan forces for nearly two hours until they were finally shot and killed. The scene was reportedly secured by 7:30am.
The first Afghan security forces who arrived at the scene to assist the guards and U.S. forces stationed at the consulate were National Army and Special Unit of Heart soldiers.
After the attack ended, American Special Forces came to the site and entered the consulate to secure the building. Two medevac helicopters landed inside the consulate compound to evacuate staff.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul announced just hours after the attack that “all consulate personnel are safe & accounted for.”
U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham offered the following statement regarding the incident: “Afghan civilians and Afghans on contract to the Consulate were also killed or injured. We are deeply saddened by this senseless loss of life, and our prayers to out to the victims and their families. We hope for the speedy recovery of those injured. We are reminded again of the very real human toll exacted by terrorism. The perpetrators of this attack have shed Afghan blood on Afghan soil.”
TOLOnews reporter in Herat Jawed Zyratjahi who arrived at the scene minutes after the first explosion said the consulate’s main gate was broken and the windows of the 7-storey building shattered.
The magnitude of the explosions in front of the consulate gate were so immense that the windows of houses within 1 kilometer of the attack were shattered as well.
“Some Afghans who were residents of the houses near the consulate are injured by the broken glasses, reported General Abdul Hameed Hameedi, the Herat Police Chief.
The consulate is located in the north area of the city, and it is the second time it has come under attack since opening in 2010. The building is located near a park, popular for locals. The attack could have inflicted more civilian casualties if it was not so early in the morning according to Zyaratjahi.
“Whoever is behind these attacks in Afghanistan, should know that this fire will get to them as well and will affect them too,” Said Fazel Waheed, the Governor of Herat, said following the incident. “The complexity of actions today, were beyond the capability of an Afghan,” he added.
Despite the Governor’s suspicions, the Taliban released a statement online following the incident claiming responsibility for the attack.
“They must have had a house somewhere near here, there is no doubt about that. They have taken advantage of the darkness at night, and have cowardly attacked us,” said Said Baqer Murtazawi, the Commander of the Herat Public Protection Force (PPF).
Nevertheless, many officials expressed their satisfaction with the response from Afghan and coalition personnel, indicating that the incident could have been much worse if action had not been taken to subdue the assailants as quickly as it was.
“We are grateful for the quick response of the Afghan and ISAF security forces who secured the facility and kept our personnel safe. We thank the governor of Herat and the government of Afghanistan for their support and ongoing partnership,” Ambassador Cunningham’s statement said.
After three days of joyful celebrations in Herat and around the country for the victory of the Afghan National Football Team in the South Asian Football Federation CUP, this incident provided a sobering reminder of the violent conflict that still grips the nation.