Afghanistan's intelligence service arrested a militant wearing a police uniform who took part in the multipronged attack on Kabul's main luxury hotel that killed eight, officials said Tuesday. A notorious militant leader believed to be based in Pakistan was accused of masterminding the assault.
Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, said three militants stormed the Serena Hotel on Monday evening. A guard shot and killed one attacker at the gate to the hotel's parking lot, which triggered his suicide vest.
A second attacker blew himself up near the entrance to the hotel's lobby, and the third attacker made it inside the hotel and shot his way through the lobby and toward the gym, Saleh said.
He said the attack was masterminded by Siraj Haqqani, a well-known militant leader thought to be based in Pakistan's tribal area in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan. The U.S. military has a US$200,000 bounty on Haqqani.
Saleh showed a picture taken from the hotel's security cameras showing a gunman in a police uniform inside the hotel's lobby, apparently the third attacker. He was apprehended 15 to 20 minutes after the attack began, he said.
"The third person, after killing a number of the guests, maybe he changed his mind for some reason, he didn't detonate himself," Saleh said. "He changed his clothes and later when security forces searched the premises, he was arrested."
The official spokesman of the Kabul Serena said Tuesday the hotel was closed for repairs, including damage caused by bullets and grenades.
"This will certainly affect our business," said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified citing company policy. "The hotel was helping drive business in Afghanistan by creating a safe haven for international businessmen that wanted to invest and work here. This will dent that confidence."
Confusion over death toll
There was confusion over the death toll. Saleh said three Americans and a French woman were among those killed, but the U.S. Embassy said only one American citizen died. The French embassy was not aware of any French casualties.
The Serena spokesman said three hotel employees and two guards were killed during the attack. Officials have said an American citizen and a Norwegian reporter also died, and the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department said a Filipina spa supervisor wounded in the attack died on Tuesday.
Bo Asplund, the top U.N. representative in the country, said the attack was a matter of great concern, representing "a deliberate targeting of foreign guests and Afghan civilians."
"The international community has been present here for many years, enjoying the hospitality and generosity of its Afghan hosts," Asplund said in a statement. "Its work is driven by the shared belief that peace and progress must prevail over war and suffering. This was an attack on those values, and a senseless crime."
U.S. troops rushed to scene
More than 30 U.S. soldiers in a half-dozen Humvees rushed to the hotel as part of a quick reaction force, and security personnel from the nearby U.S. Embassy ran through the building looking for U.S. citizens.
“There was blood on the floor all the way to the kitchen. There was a lot of blood in the lobby,” said Suzanne Griffin of Seattle, who had been in the hotel gym at the time of the attack.
“There were empty shell casings outside,” added Griffin, 62, who was working for Save the Children.
She said she had to step over the lifeless body of a woman when evacuated from the locker room.
“Thank God I didn’t get into the shower because then we heard gunfire, a lot of it. It was very close, close enough that plaster came off the ceiling,” Griffin, her voice shaking, told The Associated Press shortly after the attack. “We all just sat on the floor and got as far as we could from any glass. ... We turned our phones on silent.”
Deadliest hotel attack since '01
It was the deadliest direct attack on a hotel in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
The assailants appeared to concentrate their assault on the Serena’s gym and spa, where foreigners relax and work out at night, suggesting the militants had cased the hotel in advance.
The Taliban has targeted aid workers and civilian contractors with kidnappings and killings, but this was the most daring and sophisticated attack yet and was aimed at a prominent symbol of foreign presence in the country, apparently designed to point out the vulnerability of the Western presence.
Taliban have typically focused their attacks on Western and Afghan government or security personnel, not Western civilians.
The multipronged assault began around 6 p.m., when the Norwegian Embassy was hosting a meeting at the Serena for visiting Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described Stoere as the target of the attack.
Witnesses said they first heard gunfire, then several explosions — likely from hand grenades — and also one large blast — the suicide bomb.
“There were two or three bombs and there was complete chaos,” Stian L. Solum, a photographer from the Norwegian photo agency Scanpix, told Norway’s state radio network NRK. “When I started to walk out (of the elevator), a bomb went off a little way from me. There were shots fired by what I think was an ANA (Afghan National Army) soldier.”
In Washington, two State Department officials said that one American citizen had been killed. The victim’s identity was being withheld pending notification of relatives, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said the attack was carried out by extremists “killing innocent people to pursue their political objectives.
“It underscores the reason we have to stay on the offense against the extremists in places like Kabul but also in other places around the world,” she said. “We’re in for a long, hard fight. These are deliberate, patient people who will murder innocents including our own people.”
There are more than 50,000 troops from at least 39 countries, including about 25,000 U.S. forces, in Afghanistan.
Norwegian reporter slain
A reporter for the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet, identified as Carsten Thomassen, 38, died from wounds he sustained in the attack, according to the paper’s Web site. “We feel great sorrow and powerlessness,” managing editor Anne Aasheim said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists mourned Thomassen’s killing, calling it a reminder of the dangers that exist in countries like Afghanistan.
A Norwegian Foreign Ministry employee was also among the wounded but was out of danger at a Kabul hospital, officials said.
The 177-room Serena is a newly built luxury hotel frequently used by foreign embassies for meetings, parties and dinners. The nicest hotel in the city, visiting Westerners often stay, eat and work out there. Located in downtown Kabul, it is near the presidential palace, although separated by fences, blast walls and checkpoints. It is also near several government ministries and a district police station.
On its Web site, the hotel bills itself as an “oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city.” The Serena has a double-gated entrance for cars, several armed guards and a metal detector at the entrance.
“In the wake of this attack, the management will strive to further reinforce the security in and around the hotel to prevent further attacks and ensure the safety of its guests and staff,” the company said in a statement from Paris.
While the number of casualties from the attack could have been higher, the militants were still able to penetrate a well-guarded and high-profile target, a symbol of progress in an otherwise downtrodden capital.
The reverberations of the attack could be felt for months. While Western aid workers, embassy employees and businessmen enjoy a fair amount of freedom of movement in Kabul, security companies could now restrain their Western clients from visiting restaurants at night if the Taliban start targeting them.