KABUL, Afghanistan — The precision with which militants have been able to carry out deadly assaults in some of the most secure places in Afghanistan has exposed problems with the security and intelligence apparatus in the war-ravaged country.
The shooting spree at Kabul’s iconic Intercontinental Hotel over the weekend is the latest in a series of similar raids orchestrated by the militants from their bases.
Eyewitnesses told The Globe Post shooting and blasts rocked the iconic 20th-century luxury hotel on a Kabul hill just as its guests were about to go to bed on Saturday night.
During the initial few minutes of the attack, when panic gripped officials, hotel staff and guests, many of whom were foreign citizens – crew members of the private Afghan airline Kam Air, it was thought to be a Taliban-hallmark suicide bombing. However, it soon became clear that a number of militants armed with automatic rifles and explosives infiltrated the guarded hotel, and went on a shooting spree.
“They were shooting at everyone, throwing grenades into rooms,” Syed Zakarya, one of some 150 survivors, told The Globe Post.
For more than 12 hours, five Taliban militants continued with the carnage, killing at least 22 people, and leaving many more wounded.
The attack sent shockwaves across the country. Later on Sunday, when the armed siege of the Intercontinental Hotel ended, tales of horror and criminal negligence emerged.
Video footage of a frightened visitor trying to escape the shooting through a window, and falling down from the top floor emerged, depicting the panic and trauma hundreds of civilians had to go through.
“I went to the hotel around an hour before the attack, the luggage scanning machines were not working, and the guards were not searching anyone, simply asking them verbally to surrender any weapons they might have,” Mr. Zakarya said.
Under immense public and media pressure, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) has launched a probe into a private firm, Balkh Safety and Security Company, that got the security contract for Intercontinental Hotel less than a month ago.
Nusrat Rahimi, deputy spokesman for the MoI, informed the public that the operations of the private firm in question had been suspended, and the probe into the incident was underway.
At the same time, it has become known that the Kabul Garrison, the military unit tasked with security of the capital, was not even informed by the MoI about the change of guards at the hotel.
Some analysts have suggested that the inability of the Afghan security and intelligence agencies to prevent the attack on the iconic hotel, which was a safe place even during the bloody civil war in the 1990s, is a testimony to the serious flaws and corruption in the government apparatus.
Kabul Khan, an Afghan security affairs analyst, told The Globe Post that the political wrangling in Kabul and out-of-merit appointments in the security sector have created a huge gap for the militants to exploit.
“For years, appointments in the security sector have been made not on merit but political affiliations and favoritism. And, there have been many incidents when the terrorists have been infiltrating in the police and army, so it is not out question that they could have also been infiltrating in this private security firm as well,” Mr. Khan said.
Prior to the brazen attack on the Intercontinental Hotel, militants staged a similar assault on a Kabul public hospital in March last year, meters away from the presidential palace. More than 50 people were brutally killed, including doctors and patients. There have been many other similar incidents in past. In 2011, the same hotel was stormed by the Taliban, leading to the death of 20 people.