sewn into the linings of clothes.

In May, after Saudi authorities discovered more than five million pills hidden inside hollowed out pomegranates shipped from Beirut, they banned produce from Lebanon, a major blow to local farmers.

According to The Times’ database, the number of pills seized has increased every year since 2017.

The street value of the drugs seized has outstripped the value of Syria’s legal exports, mostly agricultural products, every year since 2019.

Last year, global captagon seizures had a street value of about$2.9 billion, more than triple Syria’s legal exports of $860 million.

Law enforcement agencies have struggled to catch the smugglers, not least because the Syrian authorities offer little if any information about shipments that originated in their country.

The name of shippers listed on manifests are usually fake and searches for the intended recipients often lead to mazes of shell companies.

The Italian seizure of 84 million pills in Salerno last year, the largest captagon bust ever at the time, had come from Latakia. Shipping documents listed the sender as Basil al-Shagri Bin Jamal, but the Italian authorities were unable to find him.

GPS Global Aviation Supplier, a company registered in Lugano, Switzerland, that appears to have no office.

Phone calls, text messages and emails to the company received no response, and the wealth management firm that the company listed as its mailing address, SMC Family Office SA, declined to comment.

Greek investigators have hit similar roadblocks.

In June 2019, workers in Piraeus found five tons of captagon, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, inside sheets of fiberboard on their way to China.

Seehog, a Chinese logistics firm. When reached by phone, she denied knowing anything about the shipment and refused to answer questions.

“You are not the police,” she said, and hung up.

There was one more clue in the documents: The sender was Mohammed Amer al-Dakak, with a Syrian phone number. When entered into WhatsApp, the phone number showed a photo of Maher al-Assad, the commander of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division, suggesting the number belonged to, at least, one of his fans.

A man who answered that number said that he was not Mr. al-Dakak. He said that he had acquired the phone number recently.

Loukas Danabasis, the head of the narcotics unit of Greece’s financial crime squad, said the smugglers’ tactics made solving such cases “difficult and sometimes impossible.”

While officials in Europe struggle to identify smugglers, Jordan, one of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East, sits on the front lines of a regional drug war.

“Jordan is the gateway to the Gulf,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad al-Sarhan, the commander of an army unit along Jordan’s border with Syria, said during a visit to the area.

Overlooking a deep valley with views of Syria, General al-Sarhan and his men detailed Syrian smugglers’ tricks to bring drugs into Jordan: They launch crossing attempts at multiple spots. They attach drugs to drones and fly them across. They load drugs onto donkeys trained to cross by themselves.

Sometimes the smugglers stop by Syrian army posts before approaching the border.

“There is clear involvement,” General al-Sarhan said.

The drug trade worries Jordanian officials for many reasons.

The quantities are increasing. The number of Captagon pills seized in Jordan this year is nearly double the amount seized in 2020, according to Colonel Alqudah, the head of the narcotics department.

And while Jordan was originally just a pathway to Saudi Arabia, as much as one-fifth of the drugs smuggled in from Syria are now consumed in Jordan, he estimated. The increased supply has lowered the price, making it easy for students to become addicted.

Even more worrying, he said, is the growing quantity of crystal meth entering Jordan from Syria, which poses a greater threat. As of October, Jordan had seized 132 pounds of it this year, up from 44 pounds the year before.

“We are now in a dangerous stage because we can’t go back,” said Dr. Morad al-Ayasrah, a Jordanian psychiatrist who treats drug addicts. “We are going forward and the drugs are increasing.”

Reporting was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis in Athens; Gaia Pianigiani in Rome; Kit Gillet in Bucharest, Romania; Hannah Beech in Bangkok; and employees of The New York Times in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon.

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ISIS Poses a Growing Threat to New Taliban Government in Afghanistan

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Aref Mohammad’s war against the Islamic State ended earlier this fall when his unit of Taliban fighters was ambushed by the terrorist group in eastern Afghanistan. A bullet shattered his femur, leaving him disabled and barely able to walk, never mind fight.

But for the Taliban movement he served under, now the government of Afghanistan, the war against the Islamic State was just beginning.

“If we knew where they were from, we would pursue them and destroy them,” Mr. Mohammed, 19, said from his hospital bed in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province where the Islamic State has maintained a presence since 2015.

In the two months since the Taliban took control of the country, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan — known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K — has stepped up attacks across the country, straining the new and untested government and raising alarm bells in the West about the potential resurgence of a group that could eventually pose an international threat.

Islamic State fighters carried out a coordinated attack with gunmen and at least one suicide bomber on an important military hospital in the capital, killing at least 25 people.

This has placed the Taliban in a precarious position: After spending 20 years fighting as an insurgency, the group finds itself wrestling with providing security and delivering on its hallmark commitment of law and order. This has proved especially challenging for the Taliban as they try to defend themselves and civilians in crowded cities against almost daily attacks with an army that was trained for rural guerrilla warfare.

once working together with the Americans and the former government to contain the terrorist group in the east — is on the diplomatic stage.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

In 2015, the Islamic State in Khorasan was officially established in Afghanistan’s east by former members of the Pakistani Taliban. The group’s ideology took hold partly because many villages there are inhabited by Salafi Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as the Islamic State. A minority among the Taliban, who mostly follow the Hanafi school, Salafi fighters were eager to join the new terrorist group.

The draw of young fighters to the Islamic State is especially pronounced in Jalalabad, where Salafi mosques have sprung up in growing numbers in recent years, providing ample recruiting grounds for the terrorist group.

The Taliban have made a show of openness to the Salafists, accepting a pledge of allegiance from some Salafi clerics earlier this month. But there is still widespread unease within their community, especially in Jalalabad.

At one Salafi religious school in the city, the Taliban cracked down on the ideology by forcing the school’s founder to flee. They have allowed boys to continue their Quranic studies but have banned Salafist works from the curriculum.

For Faraidoon Momand, a former member of the Afghan government and a local power broker in Jalalabad, the worsening economic situation in the country is also driving the Islamic State’s recruitment.

“In every society if the economy is bad, people will do what they have to do to get by,” Mr. Momand said.

As dusk fell over Jalalabad on a recent day in October, a unit of Taliban fighters belonging to the intelligence agency rode through the streets in a modified Toyota pickup, a machine gun mounted in its bed, as the streets filled with commuters and evening shoppers.

The Talibs pulled up at key intersections and checkpoints, jumping out and assisting with the screening of cars and the ubiquitous yellow three-wheeled rickshaws that jostle and honk as they throng streets. They poked their heads in, shining flashlights inside, questioning passengers, and waved them on.

“We have a court for every criminal,” said Abdullah Ghorzang, a Taliban commander. “But there is no court for ISIS-K. They will be killed wherever they are arrested.”

Victor J. Blue reported from Jalalabad, Afghanistan; Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Doha, Qatar, and Christina Goldbaum from Kabul. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington; Safiullah Padshah from Jalalabad; and Sami Sahak from Los Angeles.

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In US Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb

[explosion] In one of the final acts of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States fired a missile from a drone at a car in Kabul. It was parked in the courtyard of a home, and the explosion killed 10 people, including 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi and seven children, according to his family. The Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a facilitator for the Islamic State, and that his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to U.S. troops guarding the evacuation at the Kabul airport. “The procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.” What the military apparently didn’t know was that Ahmadi was a longtime aid worker, who colleagues and family members said spent the hours before he died running office errands, and ended his day by pulling up to his house. Soon after, his Toyota was hit with a 20-pound Hellfire missile. What was interpreted as the suspicious moves of a terrorist may have just been an average day in his life. And it’s possible that what the military saw Ahmadi loading into his car were water canisters he was bringing home to his family — not explosives. Using never-before seen security camera footage of Ahmadi, interviews with his family, co-workers and witnesses, we will piece together for the first time his movements in the hours before he was killed. Zemari Ahmadi was an electrical engineer by training. For 14 years, he had worked for the Kabul office of Nutrition and Education International. “NEI established a total of 11 soybean processing plants in Afghanistan.” It’s a California based NGO that fights malnutrition. On most days, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota corollas, taking his colleagues to and from work and distributing the NGO’s food to Afghans displaced by the war. Only three days before Ahmadi was killed, 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians died in an Islamic State suicide attack at the airport. The military had given lower-level commanders the authority to order airstrikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were bracing for what they feared was another imminent attack. To reconstruct Ahmadi’s movements on Aug. 29, in the hours before he was killed, The Times pieced together the security camera footage from his office, with interviews with more than a dozen of Ahmadi’s colleagues and family members. Ahmadi appears to have left his home around 9 a.m. He then picked up a colleague and his boss’s laptop near his house. It’s around this time that the U.S. military claimed it observed a white sedan leaving an alleged Islamic State safehouse, around five kilometers northwest of the airport. That’s why the U.S. military said they tracked Ahmadi’s Corolla that day. They also said they intercepted communications from the safehouse, instructing the car to make several stops. But every colleague who rode with Ahmadi that day said what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves was just a typical day in his life. After Ahmadi picked up another colleague, the three stopped to get breakfast, and at 9:35 a.m., they arrived at the N.G.O.’s office. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his co-workers to a Taliban-occupied police station to get permission for future food distribution at a new displacement camp. At around 2 p.m., Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office. The security camera footage we obtained from the office is crucial to understanding what happens next. The camera’s timestamp is off, but we went to the office and verified the time. We also matched an exact scene from the footage with a timestamp satellite image to confirm it was accurate. A 2:35 p.m., Ahmadi pulls out a hose, and then he and a co-worker fill empty containers with water. Earlier that morning, we saw Ahmadi bring these same empty plastic containers to the office. There was a water shortage in his neighborhood, his family said, so he regularly brought water home from the office. At around 3:38 p.m., a colleague moves Ahmadi’s car further into the driveway. A senior U.S. official told us that at roughly the same time, the military saw Ahmadi’s car pull into an unknown compound 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. That overlaps with the location of the NGO’s office, which we believe is what the military called an unknown compound. With the workday ending, an employee switched off the office generator and the feed from the camera ends. We don’t have footage of the moments that followed. But it’s at this time, the military said that its drone feed showed four men gingerly loading wrapped packages into the car. Officials said they couldn’t tell what was inside them. This footage from earlier in the day shows what the men said they were carrying — their laptops one in a plastic shopping bag. And the only things in the trunk, Ahmadi’s co-workers said, were the water containers. Ahmadi dropped each one of them off, then drove to his home in a dense neighborhood near the airport. He backed into the home’s small courtyard. Children surrounded the car, according to his brother. A U.S. official said the military feared the car would leave again, and go into an even more crowded street or to the airport itself. The drone operators, who hadn’t been watching Ahmadi’s home at all that day, quickly scanned the courtyard and said they saw only one adult male talking to the driver and no children. They decided this was the moment to strike. A U.S. official told us that the strike on Ahmadi’s car was conducted by an MQ-9 Reaper drone that fired a single Hellfire missile with a 20-pound warhead. We found remnants of the missile, which experts said matched a Hellfire at the scene of the attack. In the days after the attack, the Pentagon repeatedly claimed that the missile strike set off other explosions, and that these likely killed the civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” “Because there were secondary explosions, there’s a reasonable conclusion to be made that there was explosives in that vehicle.” But a senior military official later told us that it was only possible to probable that explosives in the car caused another blast. We gathered photos and videos of the scene taken by journalists and visited the courtyard multiple times. We shared the evidence with three weapons experts who said the damage was consistent with the impact of a Hellfire missile. They pointed to the small crater beneath Ahmadi’s car and the damage from the metal fragments of the warhead. This plastic melted as a result of a car fire triggered by the missile strike. All three experts also pointed out what was missing: any evidence of the large secondary explosions described by the Pentagon. No collapsed or blown-out walls, including next to the trunk with the alleged explosives. No sign that a second car parked in the courtyard was overturned by a large blast. No destroyed vegetation. All of this matches what eyewitnesses told us, that a single missile exploded and triggered a large fire. There is one final detail visible in the wreckage: containers identical to the ones that Ahmadi and his colleague filled with water and loaded into his trunk before heading home. Even though the military said the drone team watched the car for eight hours that day, a senior official also said they weren’t aware of any water containers. The Pentagon has not provided The Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle or shared what they say is the intelligence that linked him to the Islamic State. But the morning after the U.S. killed Ahmadi, the Islamic State did launch rockets at the airport from a residential area Ahmadi had driven through the previous day. And the vehicle they used … … was a white Toyota. The U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian deaths from its strike, and says there is an investigation underway. They have also admitted to knowing nothing about Ahmadi before killing him, leading them to interpret the work of an engineer at a U.S. NGO as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi was killed, his employer had applied for his family to receive refugee resettlement in the United States. At the time of the strike, they were still awaiting approval. Looking to the U.S. for protection, they instead became some of the last victims in America’s longest war. “Hi, I’m Evan, one of the producers on this story. Our latest visual investigation began with word on social media of an explosion near Kabul airport. It turned out that this was a U.S. drone strike, one of the final acts in the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Our goal was to fill in the gaps in the Pentagon’s version of events. We analyzed exclusive security camera footage, and combined it with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the strike aftermath. You can see more of our investigations by signing up for our newsletter.”

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How Will The US Cope With Taliban Rule?

Even as the United States finalizes its departure from Afghanistan, it faces a dilemma there as wrenching as any during the 20-year war: how to deal with the new Taliban government.

The question is already manifest in the debate over how deeply to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K.

Another: Whether to release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the United States. Handing the Taliban billions would mean funding the machinery of its ultraconservative rule. But withholding the money would all but ensure a sudden currency crisis and halt on imports, including food and fuel, starving Afghan civilians whom the United States had promised to protect.

These are only the beginning. Washington and the Taliban may spend years, even decades, pulled between cooperation and conflict, compromise and competition, as they manage a relationship in which neither can fully tolerate nor live without the other.

already seeking from the United States.

Washington, for its part, sees Afghanistan as a potential haven for international terrorists, a center of geopolitical competition against its greatest adversaries and the site of two looming catastrophes — Taliban rule and economic collapse — that could each ripple far beyond the country’s borders.

At home, President Biden already faces a backlash over Afghanistan that would be likely to intensify if he were seen as enabling Taliban rule. But he may find that securing even the most modest American aims in the country requires tolerating the group that now controls it.

His administration got a taste of this new reality last week, when American forces evacuating Kabul relied on Taliban fighters to help secure the city’s airport.

testing quiet, mostly tacit coordination.

The United States has a long history of working with unsavory governments against terrorist groups.

But such governments have routinely exploited this to win American acquiescence, and even assistance, in suppressing domestic opponents they have labeled extremists.

This dynamic has long enabled dictators to disregard American demands on human rights and democracy, confident that Washington would tolerate their abuses as long as they delivered on terrorism matters.

less extreme opposition groups.

It may ultimately be a question of whether Washington prefers an Afghanistan divided by civil war — the very conditions that produced the Taliban and now ISIS-K — or one unified under the control of a Taliban that may or may not moderate itself in power.

The Taliban, desperate for foreign support, have emphasized a desire to build ties with Washington.

The longer the United States holds out recognition, formal or informal, the more incentive the Taliban have to chase American approval. But if Washington waits too long, other powers may fill the diplomatic vacuum first.

Iran and China, which border Afghanistan, are both signaling that they may embrace the Taliban government in exchange for promises related mostly to terrorism. Both are eager to avoid an economic collapse or return to war on their borders. And they are especially eager to keep American influence from returning.

“Beijing will want to extend recognition to the Taliban government, likely after or at the same time that Pakistan does so but before any Western country does,” Amanda Hsiao, a China analyst for the International Crisis Group, wrote in a recent policy brief.

Iran has already begun referring to the “Islamic Emirate,” the Taliban’s preferred name for its government. Iranian missions remain open.

eased. But the former enemies have drawn much closer over one issue that is not likely to apply in Afghanistan, extensive trade, and another that is — opposition to China.

Many Afghans fear that American recognition, even indirect, could be taken as a blank check for the group to rule however it wants.

Still, some who are fiercely opposed to both the Taliban and the American withdrawal have urged international engagement.

“Everyone with a stake in the stability of Afghanistan needs to come together,” Saad Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian businessmen behind much of the country’s media sector, wrote in a Financial Times essay.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

Neither engagement nor hostility is likely to transform the group’s underlying nature. And even when engagement works, it can be slow and frustrating, with many breakdowns and reversals on a road to rapprochement that might take decades to travel.

Perhaps the only scenario as dire as a Taliban takeover is one that is all but assured without American intervention: economic collapse, even famine.

Afghanistan imports much of its food and fuel, and most of its electricity. Because it runs a deep trade deficit, it pays for imports mostly through foreign aid, which amounts to nearly half of the country’s economy — and has now been suspended.

The country holds enough currency reserves to finance about 18 months of imports. Or it did, until the U.S. froze the accounts.

As a result, Afghanistan may soon run out of food and fuel with no way to replenish either.

“Acute famines generally result from shortages of food triggering a scramble for necessities, speculation and spikes in food prices, which kill the poorest,” a Columbia University economist, Adam Tooze, wrote last week. “Those are the elements we can already see at work in Afghanistan.”

As the United States learned in 1990s Somalia, flying in food does not solve the problem and may even worsen it by putting local farmers out of business.

according to Save the Children, a charity. The group also surveyed some of the thousands of families displaced from rural areas to Kabul and found that many already lack the means to buy food.

It is difficult to imagine a harder sell in Washington than offering diplomatic outreach and billions of dollars to the group that once harbored Al Qaeda, barred women from public life and staged public executions.

Republicans are already seizing on the chaos of the withdrawal to criticize Mr. Biden as soft on adversaries abroad.

He may also face pressure from Afghan émigrés, a number of whom already live in the United States. Diasporas, like those from Vietnam or Cuba, tend to be vocally hawkish toward the governments they fled.

The administration, which is pursuing an ambitious domestic agenda in a narrowly divided Congress, may be hesitant to divert more political capital to a country that it sees as peripheral.

Still, Mr. Biden has seemed to relish rejecting political pressure on Afghanistan. Whether he chooses to privilege geopolitical rivalry, humanitarian welfare or counterterrorism in Afghanistan, he may find himself doing so again.

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U.S. Launches Strike on ISIS-K as Bombing’s Death Toll Soars

The U.S. military said on Friday night that it had launched its first reprisal strike for the devastating suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport the day before, using a drone to target and apparently kill a planner for the group that claimed responsibility for the deaths of as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

“U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner,” Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement, referring to the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as Islamic State Khorasan.

“The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan,” Captain Urban said. “Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”

The attack at the airport on Thursday was one of the deadliest bombings in the nearly two decades since the U.S.-led invasion. American officials believe “another terror attack in Kabul is likely,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Friday afternoon. “The threat is ongoing and it is active. Our troops are still in danger.”

attack also killed 13 U.S. service members, and one of the first to be identified was Rylee McCollum, 20, a Marine who had been on his first overseas deployment, according to his father. He was one of 10 Marines, two soldiers, and one Navy medic killed in the attack, according to defense officials.

ISIS-K, instead saying it was just one. The explosion hit right near the airport’s Abbey Gate, at a security chokepoint that squeezed together an enormous crowd that U.S. troops were checking for entry.

It was not only fear that trimmed the crowd at the airport Friday, what had been a constant mass since the Taliban assumed power nearly two weeks ago. Taliban fighters with Kalashnikov rifles kept people farther away from the airport’s entrance gates, guarding checkpoints with trucks and at least one Humvee.

Flights to evacuate people already within the airport resumed soon after the bombing. But the airport itself was largely locked down on Friday.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

Both exercises — the walk and the nudging — are proving to be challenges. In the normally bustling and noisy Shahr-e Naw neighborhood, once alive with street vendors and jostling pedestrians, there is now an unsettling silence. And so far his encounters with the Taliban have not yielded the results he had hoped for.

on pace to fall well short of providing an exit for everyone who wants to leave.

That left Afghans scrambling to find a way out of the country.

In the southwest, thousands of people have been trying to flee into Pakistan, gathering daily near the Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing, the only one designated for refugees. In the west, several thousand people a day are also crossing into Iran, U.N. officials said.

Daniel Victor, Zia ur-Rehman, Jim Huylebroek, Megan Specia, Fahim Abed, Jack Healy and Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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Suicide Bombers in Kabul Kill Dozens, Including 13 U.S. Troops

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two explosions killed dozens of people, including at least 13 U.S. troops, ripping through the crowds outside Afghanistan’s main airport on Thursday, just hours after Western governments had warned of an imminent Islamic State attack and told their people to stay away from the airport.

The attack, by at least two suicide bombers, struck at the only avenue of escape for the thousands of foreign nationals and tens — or hundreds — of thousands of their Afghan allies who are trying to flee the country following the Taliban takeover and ahead of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, set for next Tuesday.

Afghan health officials gave varying estimates of the toll at the international airport in Kabul, the capital — from at least 30 dead to more than 60, and from 120 wounded to 140 — while a Taliban spokesman cited at least 13 civilians killed and 60 wounded.

Islamic State Khorasan, the terrorist branch known as ISIS-K.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of its loyalists in Afghanistan.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

General McKenzie said it appeared that a suicide bomber, most likely wearing a concealed explosives vest, had made it through the checkpoints outside the airport, many of them run by Taliban soldiers, who are supposed to detect such attackers. He said he had no reason to believe that the Taliban, who are eager for the Americans to leave as quickly as possible, knowingly let the bomber through.

The chief Taliban spokesman, however, made a point of saying that the attack took place in an area where American forces controlled security.

The explosion hit at the airport gate, where U.S. troops screen people who are trying to get in. Gunfire followed, but it was not clear who was shooting. The general said American forces will work with the Taliban to keep crowds farther back from the airport gates, and to close some roads to thwart vehicle attacks.

“This is close-up war — the breath of the person you are searching is upon you,” General McKenzie said, adding, “I cannot tell you how impressed I am with the heroism” of the service members doing that perilous work.

“If we can find who’s associated with this, we will go after them,” he said.

Mr. Biden vowed, “we will respond with force and precision at our time” against the Islamic State leaders who ordered the attack. He added, “We have some reason to believe we know who they are.”

U.S. Marines at Abbey Gate had been working tirelessly for days, well aware that their time to help Afghans and U.S. citizens flee the country was running short as the Aug. 31 withdrawal date drew near. Ten of them were among the dead.

The State Department had identified about 6,000 Americans who were in Afghanistan on Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban began entering Kabul and the U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. On Wednesday, the department said that figure was down to 1,500 and it was trying frantically to reach them all, telling them to get to the airport or sending helicopters to extract them.

But then the intelligence on an impending attack prompted the United States and NATO allies to tell people overnight not to approach the airport. Even so, by Thursday afternoon, the State Department said, about 500 more Americans had left the country, and hundreds more were awaiting evacuation, while some U.S. citizens had signaled that they do not intend to leave.

Early Friday morning, alarmed Kabul residents reported another series of explosions near the airport, setting off fears of another bombing attack. Taliban officials and Afghan journalists soon reported otherwise: It was the Americans, they said, destroying their own equipment as they prepared to leave Afghanistan.

Reporting was contributed by Jim Huylebroek, Victor Blue, Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim, Fatima Faizi, Helene Cooper, Michael Shear and Lara Jakes.

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Biden Sticks to Afghan Deadline, Resisting Pleas to Extend Evacuation

“People are going to die, and they are going to be left behind,” Mr. McCaul said.

Mr. Biden has emphasized that he was taking the threats to the safety of Americans in Kabul seriously. In a closed-door meeting with leaders of the Group of 7 nations on Tuesday, the president told them that the danger of a terrorist attack was “very high,” according to a senior American official.

A deadly attack against American and Afghan civilians by ISIS-K would be a disaster not only for the United States, but also for the Taliban, who are moving to consolidate control over Kabul. The Taliban and the Islamic State have been enemies, fighting each other on the battlefield for control of parts of the country.

ISIS-K refers to the Islamic State’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who led the meeting, sought to put a good face on the discussions, saying the evacuation had been remarkably successful. He said leaders had agreed on a road map for dealing with the Taliban in the long term, vowing to use Afghan funds held in Western banks as a lever to pressure the Taliban.

“The No. 1 condition is that they’ve got to guarantee, right the way through to Aug. 31 and beyond, safe passage for those who want to come out,” Mr. Johnson said to the BBC after the meeting.

But Mr. Johnson failed in his effort to persuade Mr. Biden to extend the evacuation beyond Aug. 31, and it was not clear what other options the allies had to protect their own citizens and Afghan allies without American military might.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that plans were being made to find a way to ensure that “afterward we can still get as many local employees and people needing protection to be allowed to leave the country.” But her downbeat tone laid bare the sense of futility felt by Western leaders about Afghanistan.

“How can it be that the Afghan leader left the country so quickly?” Ms. Merkel said. “How can it be that Afghan soldiers who we trained for so long gave up so quickly? We will have to ask these questions, but they were not the most pressing today.”

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Europe’s Dilemma: Take In ISIS Families, or Leave Them in Syria?

When Belgium said in March that it would repatriate some women who had joined the Islamic State, along with their children, Jessie Van Eetvelde welcomed the decision with relief — even though she knows it will likely mean time in prison.

She and her two children have been living for at least two years in detention camps in Syria. Her dream, she says, is to have her children, whose father fought for the Islamic State, attend school in Belgium. For that, she is ready to pay the price of having joined the militant group in 2014, if Belgium will take her back.

“Maybe they realized that those who want to go back are sorry and want a second chance,” Ms. Van Eetvelde, 43, said recently in a WhatsApp voice message.

Many European countries have balked at allowing the return of people linked to ISIS, yet some, like Belgium and Finland, are now heeding the advice of security experts and rights groups who say that repatriations are the safest option.

lost its last territorial foothold in Syria, more than 200 women from 11 European countries and their 650 children are living in two Syrian camps, Al Hol and Roj, according to figures compiled by Thomas Renard, a researcher at the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think tank.

Although the Europeans represent a small fraction of the 60,000 people being held in the camps, who are mostly Iraqis and Syrians, European governments are facing increasing pressure to bring the adults back to face trial amid an argument that the countries’ inaction violates their commitment to human rights.

Security experts, rights groups and lawyers of those who went to ISIS territories acknowledge that European governments face legitimate security concerns, along with political dynamics in countries fearful of terrorist attacks. But a growing number of government and intelligence officials say that leaving European citizens in Syria comes with greater risks, including that they could join terrorist groups that target Europe.

Kazakhstan and Turkey have repatriated many of their own citizens to prosecute them and, in some cases, reintegrate them into society.

The Kurdish leadership in the region that oversees the camps has not prosecuted the women, whose roles under ISIS’s rule often remain unclear. And because the administration is not internationally recognized, any prosecutions would still not get them out of their legal limbo.

Most European countries say that they have no legal obligation to help their citizens in the camps and that adults who joined ISIS should be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria.

Save the Children.

Reprieve says that many women in the camps were trafficked, raped and forced into marriage and domestic servitude.

Yet in several European countries, repatriations remain out of the question, said a French intelligence official who requested anonymity to discuss the topic. Part of the hesitancy, security analysts say, is that repatriated women could receive light or no prison sentences.

Britain has stripped British citizenship from nearly 20 women who joined ISIS, in some cases taking them to court to prevent their return. France has turned down numerous calls for repatriation, even as some of the women staged a monthlong hunger strike. The Netherlands and Sweden said that they might take in children, but without their mothers.

France reels from years of terrorist attacks, the government has opposed calls to repatriate people who left to wage jihad.

Although France has taken in 35 children from the camps on a case-by-case basis, 100 women with French citizenship and their 200 children remain mostly in the Roj camp, according to Jean-Charles Brisard, the director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism.

France was due to repatriate at least 160 of them in early 2019, according to intelligence documents brought to light by the newspaper Libération that spring and seen by The Times this year. But the situation in the camps became too volatile, the French intelligence official said, and the plan was abandoned.

asked the International Criminal Court to consider whether the country’s policy makes President Emmanuel Macron complicit in war crimes.

A French woman who went on hunger strike in the Roj camp said that there was no running water and that many people there had respiratory problems. (The Times is not publishing her name, because she says she has received death threats from ISIS supporters who oppose their return to France.) “It’s very difficult to see doctors and dentists — there are no medicines,” she said, adding that the Frenchwomen wanted to return “to be tried, to be jailed.”

Jussi Tanner, a diplomat from Finland who is in charge of his country’s repatriations, said the women and children’s return was not a matter of “if, but of when and how.”

“Repatriating them as quickly as we can is better from a security point of view rather than pretending that the problem goes away when we look away,” he said. “You can leave them there, but they will return anyway.”

Claire Moses, Christopher F. Schuetze and Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting.

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Militants Attacked a Key Town in Mozambique. Where Was the Government?

It’s late March in a coastal town in Mozambique, and a group of militants is on the attack. Thousands of civilians flee as their town is left burning behind them. This isn’t the first time scenes like this have played out here, but it’s the first time we’ve seen them captured in such detail. A crisis has been unfolding as local insurgents who’ve pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, execute the largest land grab by an ISIS-linked group in years. And this has created one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. And now, over the course of about a week, the insurgents are attacking Palma, a strategic port town with massive global investment. In one scene, hundreds shelter in a hotel while a battle rages outside. The question they’re asking … … is the Mozambique government going to save them? It isn’t. The government exaggerated its response in the days after the attack. But we found that government forces weren’t able to defend Palma, leaving its citizens to mostly fend for themselves against the insurgents. Evacuations that did happen had to be hastily organized by private companies. For years, the government has heavily censored media coverage of the conflict, obscuring much of what’s happening. But we can still discover clues about the situation by examining what is aired by local media … … like state-run broadcaster, TVM, and by Sky News, which went to Palma after the attack. Combining this footage with visual evidence from survivors, satellite analysis and ship-tracking data allows us to build a fuller picture of an attack which many felt was not a question of if it would happen, but when. The insurgency is known locally as Al-Shabaab, and it first emerged in the province of Cabo Delgado in 2017. Al-Shabaab’s recruitment is mostly local, and draws on grievances over extreme poverty and corruption. The group has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State … … but how close these ties really are is hotly debated. The government, however, tries to maintain the illusion of safety and calm for international investors. But insurgent activity and control have escalated over time, overwhelming Mozambique’s severely under-resourced government forces. Now in March 2021, those forces are tested again. The insurgents’ target, the town of Palma, lies here. Just South of Palma is the site of Africa’s largest foreign direct investment, a liquefied natural gas project where the primary investor is French oil and gas company Total. The project is hailed as a massive new revenue source that could transform the country, but it’s also controversial, in part, because its construction displaced many local villages. In the months before the attack, insurgents were getting closer to Palma, prompting Total to strike a deal with the Mozambican government for better security at the multibillion dollar gas site. We analyzed satellite imagery which shows at least nine recently constructed military outposts at key positions around the site. It’s clear that the natural gas project, and not the town, is the most secure place when insurgents move in. Now we come to March 24, the day Al-Shabaab advances on Palma. They quickly take control of parts of the coast and all key roads leading into the town — to the southwest, cutting off a key crossroads for military reinforcements. West on this road, and to the north on this road alongside the town’s airstrip. Video obtained and verified by The Times shows a plane trying to land there coming under fire. In it we get a rare glimpse of the insurgents. Multiple eyewitnesses told us that the government forces inside Palma retreated quickly after some pockets tried and failed to fight off the insurgents. We were also told that around 750 soldiers stationed at the gas site stay inside the facility instead of rushing to the city as backup. There’s little footage of the insurgents from during the attack. But Islamic State media did release this footage claiming to show the fighters preparing, along with claims that they targeted a good deal of the town’s infrastructure. The Times confirmed damage to two banks, government offices, the town’s business park, and military and police buildings. The roads are cut off, and the only ways help can now arrive are by sea and air. Three government helicopters are moved from at least 85 miles away to the airstrip of the natural gas site. But multiple eyewitnesses told us that the helicopters only attempt to fly into Palma once and quickly retreat under fire. Other helicopters do come to the rescue, but they’re not government helicopters. They belong to the Dyck Advisory Group, or DAG, a South African military contractor hired by Mozambique to help fight the insurgency. Their presence is controversial. Recently, Amnesty International accused them of war crimes, claims which they deny. DAG is one of the only actors capable of conducting rescues. Its executives told The Times that they intervened on their own without any clear instruction from the government. DAG heads here to the Amarula Hotel. Its guests are mostly foreign. Now they’re joined by over 100 others from around Palma trying to flee. “We’re going to Amarula, bro.” But who should be rescued first and why? With no government oversight, there’s no plan. It falls to people like the hotel’s manager to come up with one. He’s speaking publicly here for the first time. DAG ultimately makes four rescue flights, but their helicopters can’t hold much. And just a little over 20 people make it out. Those left wonder if the military will send in the larger helicopters we showed you before, one of which can carry upwards of 30 people. With no help coming, they developed their own evacuation plan using vehicles from the hotel’s parking lot to drive outside the town. Some take this route to a quarry, where they believe they’ll be rescued. As people are loading into the cars, the hotel’s owner arranges a last-ditch helicopter rescue. It carries members of her staff and her two dogs. She denies the dogs took up space that could have been used by people. The flight is made by a private company that the hotel often chartered for tourist excursions. As for the DAG helicopters, because they have weapons, they provide air cover for this final helicopter rescue. As the ground convoy prepares to make the risky escape over land, there’s still confusion over whether they will receive air support too. But the aerial resources are stretched too thin, and the cars won’t all make it. Photographs showed that several of the vehicles were ambushed and forced off the road. Only a few safely reached this quarry and spend the night hiding. DAG rescues them the next day and dozens more civilians from elsewhere. The government help never comes. With limited air evacuations, thousands of people throughout the area are forced to flee on their own. The man who shot this video told us what happened. Tens of thousands go on foot or by bus across the province toward other cities and towns. Many more people line up at the natural gas site run by Total, where at least some government security is present. Sources tell us that civilians were often denied entrance. As the crowd at the site grows, Total decides to organize a rescue, mostly for its own staff. It charters this ferry, seen here docked at the natural gas site. The Total employees appear to be protected by this ship, known as an Ocean Eagle 43, a patrol and surveillance vessel run by the Mozambican government. It’s one of the few signs of government intervention during the attack on Palma. Ship-tracking data shows they flee south alongside this convoy of mostly private boats. The ferry arrives in the provincial capital of Pemba with over 1,300 passengers, most of them employees. And it makes a second rescue out of Palma a few days later, this time with more locals on board. After the weeklong attack, repercussions were immediately felt — because of the violence, Total has suspended its natural gas operations indefinitely, raising serious concerns about Mozambique’s economic future and the people it left behind. Dozens of Total’s contractors and subcontractors still remain in Palma. Some told The Times that the company hasn’t checked on their safety. Total didn’t respond to our request for comment. Based on our tally of evacuations, only a small number of Palma’s population were rescued during the attack. Roughly 95 percent of the population was left behind. Mozambique’s defense ministry didn’t respond to our questions about their operations in Palma. But after the attack, the country’s president downplayed the severity of violence in the city. His forces have since re-entered the town, assuring people that it’s safe to return. It’s not. A month after the attack, this thermal image reveals large fires burning in Palma, and satellite imagery confirms at least 50 buildings, some of which are seen here, have burn damage. There are near-daily reports of gunfire here. Civilians hoping to escape this threat are forced to rely on a volunteer group working with private companies to organize flights and barges. The cycle of violence plaguing Mozambique for three years continues. Even now, residents must flee on their own, unable to trust in their government to save them.

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‘Why Do We Deserve to Die?’ Kabul’s Hazaras Bury Their Daughters.

KABUL, Afghanistan — One by one they brought the girls up the steep hill, shrouded bodies covered in a ceremonial prayer cloth, the pallbearers staring into the distance. Shouted prayers for the dead broke the silence.

The bodies kept coming and the gravediggers stayed busy, straining in the hot sun. The ceaseless rhythm was grim proof of the preceding day’s news: Saturday afternoon’s triple bombing at a local school had been an absolute massacre, targeting girls. There was barely room atop the steeply pitched hill for all the new graves.

The scale of the killing and the innocence of the victims seemed further unnerving proof of the country’s violent unraveling, as the Taliban make daily gains and the government seems unable to halt their advances or protect its people from mass killings. On Sunday there were mourners everywhere in the neighborhood of the bombing, home to the persecuted Shiite Hazara ethnic minority, but hardly any security to protect them.

The death toll exceeded even previous massacres in this bustling neighborhood of a minority long singled out for persecution by the Taliban and, in recent years, the Islamic State. Afghanistan’s second vice president, Sarwar Danesh, himself a Hazara, said more than 80 people had been killed in the attack.

attack on a wrestling club that killed 20, the school attack that August in which 34 students were killed, and the 2017 mosque bombing in which 39 died. Not to mention the massacres of Hazara in the civil war-torn Kabul of the early 1990s by the forces of warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and his ally, Ahmad Shah Massoud, now revered — not by Hazaras — as a national hero.

The absence of government security forces Sunday, even though funerals are often targeted by the extremists, prompted some to say that the community could rely only on itself.

“If we want to protect ourselves, men and women should pick up guns,” said Ghulam, the day laborer.

The attack “compels Hazaras to pick up guns and defend themselves,” said Arif Rahmani, a Hazara member of Parliament. “Whether the government likes it not, people will stand up and provide themselves with their own security,” he said. “Hazaras will have to make their own decisions,” he said. “There will be gunmen on every corner and street of their neighborhoods.”

Outside the school Sunday a crowd surrounded an elderly man shouting, “God, please help us!” A man listening said: “The only option is to take up guns. We just buried an 11-year-old girl. What is her crime?”

The man, Qasim Hassani, a vendor, continued: “If the government doesn’t stop these terrorists from coming into our neighborhoods, we will do it. Today I am just a vendor. But if they keep pushing, I will be the next Alipur.”

President Ashraf Ghani proclaimed Tuesday a national day of mourning for the victims.

The blast was so powerful it shattered the windows of stores a considerable distance down the street.

“It’s terrifying,” said Naugiz Almadi, a mother clutching her young daughter outside the school. “Hazaras have nothing to protect them. Only God.”

Fatima Faizi contributed reporting.

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