Eklil Hakimi, the Afghan minister of finance, whose ministry looks after the Intercontinental Hotel, said the shift from the Afghan police to the private security company had happened at the request of the hotel management and with the approval of the country’s National Security Council.
However, President Ashraf Ghani has ordered an investigation into the attack and questions related to the private security company, a senior official said.
“Fighting suicide bombers who have accepted death to kill requires experience,” said Gen. Sayed Mohammed Roshandil, the commander of the Afghan police’s special forces unit that responded to the attack. “When we saw the private company guards, they did not seem prepared for that. They were in a bad place morale-wise, although they had managed to escape to safety. They were panicking.”
General Roshandil, whose Crisis Response Unit responds to the frequent Taliban attacks on urban centers, said he believed that three of the attackers had arrived at the hotel in a vehicle that was later found to be packed with explosives, while three others were already inside the hotel at the time of the attack. When the three attackers in the vehicle arrived at the gate, one of those inside the hotel started firing indiscriminately to create a diversion, he said.
“The guards left their weapons and started fleeing,” General Roshandil said. “The three from outside entered without much trouble.” He said that the three attackers inside the hotel had apparently been staying there for an extended period, learning the layout and bringing in weapons and other equipment, little by little.
“They knew their way room to room, they knew floor to floor, they knew the emergency exits,” he said. “Every route we would try, they would position themselves there already.”
General Roshandil said his unit had prevented an even greater loss of life in the 200-room hotel that was full of guests.
“Because our men arrived, the terrorists couldn’t kill more,” he said. “They were playing like foxes with us, but we used our experience and tactical precision to follow them and to save lives.”
Human Rights Watch called the attack “a grim and unnecessary reminder of the increasingly routine carnage deliberately inflicted by combatants against civilians,” and expressed concern about the sharp increase in loss of civilian life over the past year.
“Those who ordered or carried out this serious violation of the laws of war are responsible for war crimes,” said Patricia Gossman, the organization’s senior researcher for Afghanistan.
Several witnesses said that the attackers had especially singled out foreigners at the hotel, and that the first responders they saw were American forces, but those claims could not be immediately verified. Afghan special forces units are advised by American and NATO members of the military coalition in Afghanistan who go on operations with them, and use gear similar to that of coalition members, which would be hard to distinguish in the dark.
One of the guests who survived the attack said the private security company’s guards at the hotel’s three checkpoints had barely checked his bags when he checked in at the hotel or when he went in and out.
“In the first checkpoint, we were body-searched by the guards but they didn’t check our luggage,” said the guest, Zmarai Hamdard, who works for the Afghan Information Technology Ministry and was visiting for a conference from Herat Province. “Only at the third checkpoint they checked our luggage — not by the scanner, but with their eyes and hands. When I went out and came back, the security guards said, ‘The scanners don’t work anymore.’ It was 7 p.m.”
An Afghan journalist, Abdul Haq Omeri, was visiting friends in a fourth-floor suite when they heard screams — “Suicide attackers, suicide attackers” — and cries for help. They locked their door and stacked chairs against it.
Mr. Omeri said that when the attackers pounded on their door, he and his friends remained quiet. The attackers then set the room on fire with a firebomb.
Mr. Omeri was rescued nearly 12 hours after the attack began, but all three of his friends were among the dead. One jumped from a balcony to his death, and two others remained in the room, where they were probably killed by the fire or smoke.
“I went from one balcony to the next,” Mr. Omeri said. “I did not jump down. I joined other people, and reached the balcony of a room that had been already attacked and its occupant killed. We switched off our phones and stayed quiet.”
For much of the night, Mr. Omeri said, he heard people screaming for help.
“At one point, a woman screamed for help on the third floor,” he said. “But then we heard gunfire and the woman stopped.”