Al Qaeda Leader Killed In Afghanistan By American Drone : Consider This from NPR Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan over the weekend. For years, al-Zawahiri was Osama Bin Laden's deputy — and was known as the mastermind behind the 9-11 attacks.

NPR's Greg Myre and Diaa Hadid discuss the implications of al-Zawahiri's death for the U.S., Afghanistan, and America's decades-long war on terror.

This episode also features reporting from NPR's Steve Inskeep.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Al Qaeda Leader Killed In U.S. Drone Strike In Afghanistan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1115226592/1115274538" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the late spring of 2011, al-Qaida's second in command recorded a 30-minute video eulogizing Osama bin Laden, who had just been killed in a raid by American Special Forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Ayman al-Zawahiri had been bin Laden's longtime deputy and was known as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Zawahiri was an Egyptian eye doctor who transformed into a top commander and spokesman for al-Qaida. And a week after that 2011 video, he would become its new leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It is a familiar name. Ayman al-Zawahiri now taking over for Osama bin Laden. He's been a U.S. target...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Often called the brains behind Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri is now to assume the leadership of the diffuse organization that is al-Qaida.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: The Egyptian eye doctor has served as al-Qaida's operational commander and spokesman and was widely seen as a logical successor.

KELLY: Zawahiri would go on to lead al-Qaida for more than a decade, right up to this past weekend, when he himself was killed by an American drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, on Saturday, at my direction, the United States successfully concluded an airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed the emir of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

KELLY: President Biden announcing the operation Monday night from a balcony at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: After relentlessly seeking Zawahiri for years under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year. He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family. After carefully considering a clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all.

KELLY: When that precision strike hit Kabul, NPR's Steve Inskeep was there in the city.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The first sign of something going on was the sound. People woke to at least one early morning explosion here, and they began sharing images of a multistory house with the windows blown out.

KELLY: The house where Zawahiri was killed was not some fortified compound hidden up in the mountains. It was a residential building right in the middle of Kabul.

INSKEEP: It's a house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, which is upscale, a lot of big houses, some of them used to be occupied by U.S.-backed warlords, big blast walls, guard towers. We drove to the area of the targeted house this morning and found Taliban fighters blocking and guarding the approaches to it. But otherwise, life seemed to be going on as usual in the streets all around. It's near embassies. It's near government buildings. And in fact, the government intelligence headquarters is just a few minutes' drive away from where, according to the U.S., Zawahiri was hiding.

KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - nearly 21 years after 9/11, the mastermind of the attacks has been killed. We'll have the story of Ayman al-Zawahiri and what his death means for the U.S., for Afghanistan and for America's decadeslong war on terror.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Tuesday, August 2.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan last year, the Taliban had agreed, at least on paper, not to shelter members of al-Qaida as it had in the '90s. But in reality...

JOHN KIRBY: Now, we said a long time ago, a year ago, we knew al-Qaida was starting to move back in small numbers into Afghanistan. We were honest about that.

KELLY: And that is John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, speaking with NPR on Tuesday morning.

KIRBY: We also said that the plan isn't to hit every single al-Qaida terrorist with a missile. It's to make sure that we are defeating those threats to our homeland, to the American people. Mr. Zawahiri presented that kind of a threat, and that's why we took him out.

KELLY: Now, how long Zawahiri had been in Afghanistan is unclear, but a Taliban official told Reuters that he had previously been in Helmand Province in the south before moving to Kabul after the Taliban took over last year. According to John Kirby, U.S. intelligence could follow his movements by following his family.

KIRBY: By tracking the movements of his family, we were able to then track his movements to reunite with them. And then once we knew that they had been reunited, we were able to then develop a pattern of life, to watch this individual's behavior so that we could, A, identify, make sure it was, in fact, who we thought it was and, B, then develop a pattern of behavior that would allow us an opportunity to take a strike if and when we could.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: So what does the death of Zawahiri mean for Afghanistan and for U.S. policy in the region? Well, we called NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre and Diaa Hadid, our international correspondent in Islamabad, Pakistan.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: I started by asking them how Zawahiri could have ended up after 21 years on the run in central Kabul under the nose of the Taliban.

HADID: I think the first thing to say is it's highly unlikely that the Taliban didn't know that Ayman Zawahiri was in Kabul. He was in an upscale area that's dominated by rich and powerful Afghans. In terms of what this strike means for Afghans, I think it may well accelerate some trends we've seen evolving over the past few months, and that is the Taliban have become more hostile, more paranoid and more suspicious of aid workers and journalists, both Afghans and foreigners. And so, for instance, today, as reporters rushed to the area where the drone had struck, they were beaten back in some cases by Taliban security forces. Some of them had their accreditation ripped up, and they were physically threatened.

And I think more broadly, for Afghans who were connected in any way to the Western-backed government that preceded the Taliban, and certainly those who were connected to Western militaries that were present in Afghanistan over those past two decades, I think their lives may become more precarious. They'll be under more suspicion, more surveillance. And we'll see in the coming days and weeks if those trends will accelerate. But certainly I think the question the Taliban are asking themselves right now is, who tipped off the Americans to Zawahiri's whereabouts?

KELLY: Absolutely. Well, and to follow on something you said that this may make the Taliban more paranoid, more suspicious, does it also make them even more of a pariah? They were trying to gain some international legitimacy. They desperately need international help. Where does this leave things?

HADID: It's hard to tell, because what we've seen so far is that there's a parallel effort to keep the Taliban isolated while also not severing a tenuous lifeline to Afghans. So, for instance, you know, the international community through the World Food Program and large NGOs on the ground are helping about 20 million Afghans more or less stay alive there, preventing them from falling into starvation because Afghanistan is in the midst of a terrible hunger crisis.

What I would say, though, that this suggests is that when you have Ayman al-Zawahiri sunning himself on a balcony in Kabul, it suggests that the Taliban are not interested in making compromises for international recognition. They want to do it on their terms. And that is something that we have seen quite clearly over the past few months. For instance, they haven't even let girls go back to secondary school. And this is perhaps the lowest bar of the international community of what they will accept before they can start giving the Taliban any form of diplomatic recognition. And they just won't do it.

KELLY: Greg Myre, pick this up from the U.S. perspective. What details have you managed to glean on this strike, what appears to have been a remarkably precise drone strike? President Biden says there were no civilian casualties, not even any family members harmed.

MYRE: Right. That's what the president said last night. And we've got some details, not a lot. I mean, the fascinating part is the U.S. was apparently able to track Zawahiri's family to Kabul several months ago. And then as they kept an eye on his family, they tracked him. He showed up there. Now, all sorts of questions flow from this that we'd like to know about. I mean, one point I'd make is that a year ago, the U.S. talked about having this over the horizon, possibility of keeping terror groups in line.

KELLY: Right, that they would still be able to take out terrorists even if they weren't on the ground inside the country.

MYRE: And that was openly mocked at the time. People were calling it the over the rainbow strategy, the sense that this would not be possible to do. But the U.S. has shown, at least in this case, they were able to track him, hit him on a balcony. The big question I have is, where did this drone come from? The U.S. has no bases in Afghanistan. It doesn't have any bases in neighboring countries. The closest U.S. bases are in the Gulf, which is a long way away.

KELLY: Yeah.

MYRE: U.S. officials kept talking about studying this pattern of behavior suggests the U.S. knew that he came out onto the balcony in the morning. But to sync that up, to time that up and what appears to be a very long range drone strike is pretty remarkable just from the technical logistical point of view.

KELLY: And then, Greg, in terms of the significance of this, of his death for al-Qaida, for global terrorism more broadly, which, of course, has evolved way beyond the al-Qaida that pulled off 9/11.

MYRE: So symbolically, this is a big blow any time a group loses its leader like this. But al-Qaida really hasn't been all that active, especially in terms of Western targets. It really hasn't had a major attack in the West since Paris in 2015. And I think the larger message is that for the United States, international Islamist extremism is just not the priority it was. Right now, it's Russia's war in Ukraine, and China is the big long-term threat. Doesn't mean this won't change, but that's where we are right now.

KELLY: Last question to both of you. Just trying to place the significance of this. Diaa, I'll turn this to you first. We've seen two decades of U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. We've seen the obviously chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces one year ago. What does Zawahiri's death tell us about what the U.S. has managed to achieve in that country?

HADID: Well, I think it's easy to be glib about it and say that 20 years happened as if they didn't happen. You know, the United States entered because the Taliban were sheltering Osama bin Laden. And then less than a year after they withdraw, the next al-Qaida leader feels confident enough about his security that he steps out onto his balcony. On the other hand, the Americans have left clearly with some sort of robust intelligence network in place, whether that's technological or human or statecraft in terms of regional alliances or all three. And I'm presuming, at least from an American security perspective, that is a modest achievement after two decades in the country. But it just seemed kind of poignant and sad.

I was thinking today about how many Afghans desperately hoped that at least with the Taliban coming to power, they might see an end to conflict. You know, few Afghans have any illusions about who the Taliban are, but at least they had hoped for some peace and quiet. And now I'm wondering how many of them are now staying awake at night thinking, who are the Taliban harboring? Where are they harboring them? And are we going to get bombed again?

KELLY: Greg?

MYRE: Yeah. I think both this episode and the past two decades again showed the U.S. had this incredible military prowess, this incredible technological ability. But in modern war, it's often that's not enough. It's extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible for an outside nation, even a big, powerful one like the United States, to go into a very poor country like Afghanistan and remake the country's politics and its economy and its culture. So even with all this extraordinary power that the U.S. has been able to unleash on Afghanistan, here we see the Taliban still in power, Afghans facing a very, very bleak future.

KELLY: That was national security correspondent Greg Myre in Washington and international correspondent Diaa Hadid in Islamabad. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.