U.S. drone strike kills al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Kabul

A U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri on Sunday in a CIA operation carried out in Kabul, Afghanistan. He played key roles in the 9/11 attacks and bombings of U.S. embassies, and became leader of the terrorist group after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Nick Schifrin, who was the first correspondent at bin Laden's compound after his death, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The leader of the terrorist group, al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, was killed in a CIA drone strike over the weekend in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Egyptian physician and militant was first jailed after his complicity in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. Zawahri later joined the movement led by Osama bin Laden, which would become al-Qaida. The group attacked several times before the strikes in the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, which left nearly 3000 people dead. After bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011, Zawahri was proclaimed leader. Here now, President Biden speaking tonight from the White House.

  • President Joe Biden:

    On Saturday at my direction, the United States successfully concluded an airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed the emir of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri. You know, Zawahri was bin Laden's leader. He was with him all that the whole time. He was his number two man, his deputy at the time of terrorist attack 9/11. He was deeply involved in the planning of 9/11. One of the most responsible for the attacks and murdered 2,977 people on American soil. For decades, he was the mastermind behind attacks against Americans, including the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors and wounded dozens more. He played a key role, a key role in the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 and wounding over 4,500 others. He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats and American interests. And since the United States delivered justice to bin Laden 11 years ago, Zawahri has been a leader of al-Qaida, the leader from hiding, he coordinated al-Qaida's branches and all around the world, including setting priorities for providing operational guidance and called for and inspired attacks against U.S. targets. He made videos, including in recent weeks calling for his followers to attack the United States and our allies. Now, justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And here with me now is our foreign affairs and defense correspondent Nick Schifrin, who was the first foreign reporter at bin Laden's compound after his killing and who lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years. Nick Schifrin, hello. Big story, so remind us who Zawahri was and remind us how important is al-Qaida today?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As President Biden said, he was important on 9/11 and before 9/11, but really went beyond that. He was really the backbone of al-Qaida's leadership and the inspiration for the ideology behind al-Qaida, that terrorists could target fellow Muslims because as they saw it, they supported the infidel west. And he was responsible not only for helping with 9/11, but also attacks before that. American soldiers in Somalia in '93, the two embassy bombing attacks in the '90s in East Africa, the USS Cole attack in Yemen in 2000. And he was really responsible for some of the aspirations of al-Qaida to go after the U.S. inside the U.S. and its targets. Judy, we focus on ISIS quite a lot these days, thinking about that. They are more active. But al-Qaida has franchises that are around the world that are still active. And in addition to those inspirations that Zawahri and others from al-Qaida central continue to provide to ISIS. Zawahri himself was still strategically involved in al-Qaida worldwide, according to a senior administration official, and he was still currently currently underlining that word, trying to attack the U.S.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So tell us about what we know about this attack, about how it took place that took him out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So as far as we know, according to multiple officials I've talked to, a CIA drone this weekend struck a safe house in downtown Kabul. I mean, it is really in the middle of Kabul when Zawahri was on a patio. The missile was small enough just to hit that patio. And according to a senior administration official, killed absolutely nobody else. And it was the product of months of intelligence coming in. The U.S. knew for a couple of years now that Zawahri had a network of people supporting him. They followed that network and in the last few months, according to a senior administration official, they realized that Zawahri's family had moved to this safehouse in Kabul. They created a pattern of life for the family. They found that Zawahri was going to the safe house. They even created a model of the safe house itself that they presented to the president. This is sounding like a little bit like the bin Laden raid or from so many years ago. But this was just a single CIA drone strike. And again, this portion of Kabul Wazir Akbar Khan, Sherpur, was where I and many Westerners have lived. There are massive houses there that were built with corrupt funds by the former government sitting right there backed by a senior Taliban member, Siraj Haqqani, and his and his team as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But a reminder of how much goes into planning these attacks. Finally, Nick, what does this mean for U.S., the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan now and with the leadership of the Taliban?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Part of what's so amazing about this is the location of where he was hit. But the fact that Siraj Haqqani, who is was a most wanted terrorist in the U.S. list and is now the interior minister for the Taliban government, the fact that the U.S. is blaming tonight him and his family and his network for housing Zawahri in a safe house in Kabul will have massive consequences for whether the U.S. can continue to interact with the Taliban and whether the U.S. can send some of that humanitarian aid through the Taliban government to help Afghan citizens. And tonight, that senior administration official said that the Taliban must abide by to the Doha Agreement. That is an agreement the Taliban made not to house al-Qaida officials, not to cooperate with terrorists who want to continue to attack the U.S.. The official said Zawahri's location is a clear violation of that and the next few days we expect them not to take any drastic steps against U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, this is all very big breaking news that we've just learned about in the last couple of hours. Nick Schifrin, thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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