By Amir Shah and Christopher Bodeen Associated Press
KABUL — Afghan police said today they thwarted a major attack in Kabul, arresting five would-be suicide bombers, the largest such group apprehended in the capital.
“If this team had made it through, it would have been a disaster,” said Abdul Ghafar, deputy commander of the Afghan National Police crisis unit.
NATO, meanwhile, reported one international service member died in combat with insurgents today in eastern Afghanistan, but gave no details. It was the 10th death among foreign forces this month.
Ghafar said police, acting on intelligence, stopped the suicide bombers as they traveled in an SUV in the southeastern part of Kabul at 7 a.m. (0230 GMT). He said the bomb team was sent by the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network, but did not say how that information had been obtained.
“Today’s operation marks a big success,” Ghafar said. “Our ability to uncover such plots is improving day by day.”
Such attacks are a hallmark of the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban faction whose leader was once a U.S. ally. The group is considered a serious threat to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan’s east and operates on both sides of the border with Pakistan.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied the Taliban’s involvement in the alleged plot.
“We have no information on these people,” Mujahid said in a brief call to his mobile phone.
Ghafar said the five ranged in age from 20 to 25, but were refusing to give their names, nationalities or other information. He said their targets were crowded parts of downtown Kabul where they could cause the most carnage, but gave no specifics.
The five were displayed before journalists at a heavily guarded police base on the city’s outskirts, along with their vehicle and bags containing explosive material and suicide harnesses. They stood silently with their backs to the journalists, their eyes covered by blindfolds and hoods, and their wrists in handcuffs.
Ghafar said officers were taking the men’s fingerprints and other biometric data in hopes of discovering their identities.
He said the plan had been carefully drawn up, with the vehicle — an expensive Lexus model favored by the wealthy and government officials — selected to avoid police suspicion. Suicide vests and explosives were hidden under the engine block, where officers would be less likely to look, he said.
Ghafar said police are getting better at foiling such plots through a combination of improved intelligence and better training. They were given a good description of the vehicle and were able to close off the area and move in before the bombers had a chance to react, he said.
“I would call this a major blow to the terrorists,” he said.
Violence continued in the volatile southern province of Helmand, where NATO forces advanced against the Taliban in the Marjah region in February. A local Taliban commander killed a Marjah tribal leader, his nephew and three others this morning, said provincial government spokesman Dawood Ahmedi.
The tribal elder and his family had no known link to the Americans or the central government, and the motive for the killings was unclear, Ahmedi said.
Despite today’s success, a number of suicide bombers have made it into the capital in recent months, including a team that targeted government buildings in Jan. 18, leaving 12 dead, and a car bomber who struck near a hotel frequented by Westerners on Dec. 15, killing eight people.
In the worst such attack, a suicide car bomb detonated at the gates of the Indian Embassy on July 7, 2008, killing more than 60 people.
Team suicide attacks, including those in which some members are armed with automatic rifles, mark a change of tactics in response to tighter security in the capital. Attackers count on the likelihood of at least one or more of the bombers evading security, while additional bombers sometimes detonate after the first blast when rescuers have arrived and crowds gathered, thereby causing even greater losses.
Many of the recent attacks are believed to have been carried out by or in alliance with the Haqqanis, a brutal insurgent group that technically pledges allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and has a history of links to Pakistani intelligence.
The network’s aging leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was a respected commander and key U.S. and Pakistani ally in resisting the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Haqqani even visited the Reagan White House, but after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, decided to focus on battling foreign troops in Afghanistan. The group is also highly active in northwestern Pakistan, where its leaders are believed to live in hiding.
The U.S. has sought to kill Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, although the Afghan government has reached out to the organization and two other insurgent leaders, Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, boss of the powerful Hezb-e-Islami.