Family Of Marine Killed During Afghanistan Withdrawal Stunned To Learn Snipers Could Have Taken Out Suicide Bomber

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews’ revelation that he could have shot the Abbey Gate suicide bomber before the attack ever occurred shocked family and advocates of one of the service members killed in the attack, they told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • Vargas-Andrews told Congress earlier this month that he was denied permission to engage the individual who killed 13 U.S. service members assisting in the Afghanistan withdrawal.
  • “They said nobody knew where he was at that time or what he looked like at that time,” Shana Chappell, the mother of 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, who died  in the blast, told the DCNF.

A Marine sniper’s testimony that he had an opportunity to take out the Abbey Gate suicide bomber during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan came as a surprise to family and advocates of one of the service members killed in the attack, they told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) conducted an investigation into the events leading up to the suicide bombing on August 26, 2021 that killed 13 U.S. military personnel aiding the evacuation of Afghan allies after the Taliban captured Kabul. Family of the deceased received in-person briefings a short while before CENTCOM made public the unclassified version of the final report, but one family member and two advocates said the briefers never provided any indication that the Marine snipers had a missed chance to engage the bomber.

“They said nobody knew where he was at that time or what he looked like at that time,” Shana Chappell, the mother of 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, who died in the blast, told the DCNF.

“What [the sniper] had said I had already known about, because other Marines had talked about it before the investigation had even happened,” she added. “There was just a lot of stuff that didn’t add up that I had been told by the Marines that were there, and none of it was mentioned in the report that was given to us.”

The investigation concluded a lone suicide bomber managed to bypass Taliban checkpoints at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, detonating an explosive vest that also contained ball bearings at 5:36 p.m, according to the report. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed up to 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. servicemembers, as well as wounding dozens more.

Briefers, including a Marine Corps colonel, a military justice officer, a major and a non-commissioned officer, presented a slideshow and a spiral-bound booklet to Nikoui’s parents in January 2022 on the events of the attack. Retired Col. Kurt Schlichter, a trial lawyer and media figure representing Chappell, and retired Col. Seth Goldberg, a lawyer, attended the briefing by request to support the family with legal and military expertise, and confirmed the briefing contents to the DCNF.

They told the DCNF that they understood the families of the remaining deceased received similar briefings around the same time. (RELATED: ‘Bullsh*t’: Ex-Ambassador Accuses Biden Admin Of Engaging In Coverup Of Afghanistan Disaster)

“There was nothing about knowing who the guy was — who the terrorist was —nothing about having eyes on [him], nothing about the battalion commander being requested permission to fire — nothing about any of that,” Schlichter told the DCNF.

However, at a House hearing on March 8, Marine Corps Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews said he, Sgt. Charles Schilling and an unnamed individual spotted the suicide bomber from their perch in the sniper tower, located near the sewage canal and the gate itself, sometime just before 1 p.m. on the day of the blast, according to a transcript. The unnamed individual had previously provided descriptions of the man who Vargas-Andrews believed to be the suicide bomber.

Vargas-Andrews requested permission to engage with the suspect and presented evidence to the battalion commander, LT. Col. Brad Whited, Vargas-Andrews testified.

“We asked if we could shoot. Our battalion commander said, ‘I don’t know,'” Vargas-Andrews told Congress.

“If it was classified, and they withheld it for that reason, the briefing that the families gave was entirely misleading and you don’t have to mislead to not reveal classified info,” Schlichter said.

The Marine Corps officials provided detailed descriptions and diagrams of the events leading up to, during and immediately following the suicide bombing to address “rumors” and uncertainties that had arisen, Schlichter told the DCNF. They demonstrated, for example, that through the interview process they gathered no conclusive evidence of small arms fire during the blast, and that even though no officers were killed, each leader was in an appropriate position at the time attending to his or her duties, both lawyers separately said.

The DCNF viewed the spiral-bound book Chappell received and confirmed that it corresponded to the CENTCOM report.

A Marine machine gunner who was not in the sniper tower said that it wasn’t until Vargas-Andrews’ testimony that he heard there was an opportunity for a potential shot at the bomber.

“I had knowledge that the bomber was identified and found out that he was identified when we were there. I assumed they had taken care of it,” Tadeo Guerra, who was a Lance Corporal at the time, told the DCNF. “Not too recently that I found out that they hadn’t done anything about it.”

Briefers did not discuss rules for taking lethal action against suspected attackers with the family, Goldberg told the DCNF.

“Naturally that isn’t always discussed with the families” because it is “not easily determined or understood,” he said.

However, there is significant difficulty in reconciling differing accounts of the event, Schlichter and Goldberg said. Severe injury and trauma might have affected Vargas’ memory, and subjects of the investigation may have provided incomplete accounts, Schlichter explained to the DCNF.

In addition, it’s unclear whether the investigators ever interviewed Vargas-Andrews, as he denied that any DOD or State Department officials came to him for testimony while he recovered from his blast injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Unclassified versions of the investigation and supporting material released last year do not provide conclusive evidence that any interview took place.

Neither CENTCOM nor the Department of Defense responded to media inquiries, and the Marine Corps directed the DCNF to CENTCOM.

Exhibit 195, Enclosures 2, Department of the ArmyMajor portions of the interview logs compiled for the CENTCOM inquiry, including names of all interviewees save Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue and hundreds of pages of content, are redacted, according to a DCNF review of the material. None of the available transcripts appear to suggest the suicide bomber had been identified or that a request to shoot traveled up the chain of command.

Moreover, multiple accounts of the event in the interview logs describe only vague, general threats that could not be tied to specific individuals, the documents show.

“Nearly every Marine interviewed in 2/1 [2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment] was aware of the reported threat, but did not find the information to be out of the ordinary compared to other earlier threats,” CENTCOM found in the final report.

In October 2021, snipers gathered for an interview concerning the attack that appeared to focus on creating a sketch of people and their positions at the moment of the attack from their perspective in the tower, which was located close to the gate, the interview document shows.

Snipers also disabled a Toyota Corolla — to which Vargas-Andrews may have referred in his testimony — with gunfire when warnings of an attack using the vehicle emerged, the document shows.

“We received about three images of possible suspects, but nothing that I think would indicate the bomber specifically at Abbey Gate,” an unnamed official said in the interview transcripts.

Brig. Gen. Lance Curtis, the commanding general of the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, served as lead investigator, according to a briefing. A team of six conducted 70 interviews with 139 people.

“There were at least four imminent threat streams that occurred between the 25th and the 26th at Abbey Gate, and what we found is that leaders took the appropriate measures tied to these imminent threat streams. They would lower their profiles, seek cover and at times, they would even cease operations at the gate for periods of time,” Curtis said in a Feb 4, 2022 briefing after the investigation’s public release.

The investigation found that all threat streams lacked specificity.

“There is a separate investigation that is being conducted by the FBI that’s taking a look at that,” Curtis said when asked about reports the identity of the bomber was known beforehand.

Vargas-Andrews did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The Commander directed the staff [to] relook the investigation and will make a determination on the next step based on what is found, or not found,” a CENTCOM official told a congressional committee this week in correspondence obtained by the DCNF.

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