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Al Qaeda Leader Al Zawahiri Killed; U.S. Warns Taliban; Jeremy Slinker is Interviewed about Flooding in Kentucky; Deadly Flooding in Kentucky. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 09:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A good Tuesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

The world's most wanted terrorist, one of the key masterminds behind 9/11, is now dead. President Biden delivered the news from the White House that a U.S. precision drone strike killed the al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, as he sheltered in a safe house right in downtown Kabul. Al Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden's most trusted lieutenant and successor. His physician for a time. His death comes 11 years after the U.S. killed bin Laden, and 21 years after the 9/11 terror attacks.

President Biden emphasized that his death sends a clear message.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This mission was carefully planned, rigorously minimize the risk of harm to other civilians. And one week ago, after being advised that the conditions were optimal, I gave the final approval to go get him.

No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.


SCIUTTO: The White House has just released this photo from July, President Biden meeting with his national security team in the Situation Room discussing the possible operation to kill al Zawahiri. Reminiscent of that photo from the Situation Room during the bin Laden operation.

This morning we are learning new details about the planning behind it. It was intricate. It was months long. U.S. intel agencies were tracking down the al Qaeda leader going back well into the beginning of this year.

CNN's Arlette Saenz joins me now from the White House. What more do we know about the planning behind this, because what's

remarkable, it seems that they first alerted the president April 1st, but U.S. intel agencies seemed to be aware of his possible presence there for some time before that.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, this operation taking out al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri really was a month's long planning that was meticulous, and highly secretive between President Biden, some of his top advisers and most importantly the intelligence community. A senior administration official outlines this very tightly held operation. He outlined the details of it to reporters last night, with President Biden first being briefed in April on the intelligence that al Zawahiri was staying at a safe house in Kabul.

But for months before that, intel -- the American official had been working to piece together some of the intelligence relating to his location. They had identified his wife, his daughter and her children. And officials say that they were using this terrorist trade craft, those women were, to try to prevent anyone from tracking them to that house where al Zawahiri was staying.

Now, officials had started to determine and identify some patterns of life there at that house, including al Zawahiri spending extended periods of time sometimes out on a balcony there. They also started to analyze the construction and the structure of the building that was located in downtown Kabul. Of course, that was in a residential area, so there were a lot of concerns during the planning of this operation about possible civilian casualties.

Now, this work played out over the course of May and June, and then President Biden, on July 1st, convened a meeting of his national security team in the Situation Room. You can see in that photo there, the CIA director, Bill Burns, also his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and other officials were on hand as the president was briefed on this proposed operation. There were a lot of questions from President Biden when it came to concerns about ensuring that there were little or no civilian casualties.

The president was also shown a scale model of the house where al Zawahiri was staying. You can see that wooden box there in the center of the room.

Now, over the course of the next few weeks, the -- his team worked together to try to answer some of the president's questions. And then on July 25th, while the president was isolating during his first bout with Covid, he convened a meeting with his officials, again, to try to go into some more granular detail about this proposed operation. The president asking more questions about the possibility of civilian casualties. And five days later, it was when those two hellfire missiles were launched taking out al Zawahiri.

Of course, you also have to consider the circumstances with which this all played out. It was nearly a year ago that the U.S. withdrew its presence from Afghanistan. Many had questions whether the U.S. would have the intelligence capabilities to carry out such an operation. And over the weekend, they certainly showed that they did have that.


SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes, certainly remarkable feat to do so over the horizon, as intel agencies and the military will describe it.

Arlette Saenz, at the White House, thanks so much.

This morning, the Biden administration is now warning that the Taliban could face consequences for harboring al Zawahiri because doing so violated the Doha Agreement, as it's known, a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, signed at the end of the Trump administration.

CNN national security correspondent Kylie Atwood joins me now.

I mean the question here I suppose is, does the U.S. believe the Taliban didn't know about this, right? I mean it seems the implication here is that they knew about it and might have been protecting it.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and they've said so much in recent hours with the secretary of state putting out a statement last night talking about Haqqani Taliban figures knowing that this person was in Kabul and, therefore, grossly violating, in his words, this Doha Agreement.

As you said, Jim, that was an agreement signed between the U.S. and Taliban that committed the Taliban to not allowing Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists. And what the Biden administration is saying today is that the fact that this was carried out in Kabul, and that some members of the Taliban affiliated with the Haqqani Network knew about this, is a direct violation of that agreement that they signed on to.

Now, we heard earlier this morning from the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who also talked about this. He said that they -- the Taliban would be held accountable. And he was asked about how exactly the Taliban would be held accountable. And listen to what he said.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We are in direct communication with the Taliban on this. And I'm not going to telegraph our next moves. But the Taliban well understand the United States is going to defend its interests resolutely and insure that Afghanistan cannot be used as a platform to attack our country.


ATWOOD: Now, the other thing that he talked about was conversations about U.S. capacity to hold the Taliban accountable and saying the Biden administration wouldn't hold back if it came to the possibility of future strikes like this, to take out terrorists.

So, the question now is, do they view this strike in and of itself as accountability, the fact that they went after this terrorist leader with, of course, without telling the Taliban in advance, or is there something else that they can do to hold the Taliban accountable. Of course, there aren't a whole lot of tools in their tool kit just because of the nature of the very frayed U.S. relationship with the Taliban leadership right now.

SCIUTTO: No question. Virtually cut off.

Kylie Atwood, thanks so much.

Joining me to discuss, Bruce Hoffman, terrorism and insurgency expert, CNN national security analyst as well, Peter Bergen, author of "The Rise and Fall Of Osama bin Laden," also someone with the -- one of the rare folks who met bin Laden.

Good to have you both on.

Peter, if I could begin with you.

This is an intricate, months long intelligence operation to locate, pinpoint, figure out the tactics of how you are going to take him out, while minimizing and avoiding, it seems, civilian casualties.

How was that possible from over the horizon, as they say, from outside the country?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, there's some incredible things we don't know. But what we do know is it seems that Ayman al Zawahiri's effort to basically reconnect with his family, with his wife, his daughter, grandkids, brought him into Kabul, probably, you know, shortly after the Taliban took over Kabul. He was housed in a Haqqani Taliban safe house with the connivance of the leaders of the Taliban.

We also know from the United Nations that he released an unprecedented number of videos during this period. Eight between August of last year and May of this year. Every time you do a video, somebody's got to take it, somebody's got to go and upload it at an internet cafe. It's not like everybody has internet service in their house in Kabul right now.

So, you know, U.S. government officials, senior officials say there was a composite intelligence picture that led to him. So, I think trying to find his family, releasing these videotapes, that's all part of the story.

And then, of course, I'm sure they had people on the ground that were observing him on the third-floor balcony where he would often - apparently fairly often come out.

SCIUTTO: People on the ground, but not Americans?

BERGEN: I don't know.


BERGEN: I mean I - you know, it - we, obviously, have, you know -- we left 78,000 Afghans behind. All of whom have special immigration visas, meaning they worked with the U.S. government. So that's a lot of people who actually have some links to the United States. So it wouldn't be surprising that we have assets on the ground that are Afghan and would be very interested in finding Zawahiri.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Interesting. Yes, and at great risk to themselves.

Bruce Hoffman, a simple question here, does this make you and me and the homeland safer from a large scale attack plotted by al Qaeda in Afghanistan against the U.S. homeland?

BRUCE HOFFMAN, TERRORISM AND INSURGENCY EXPERT: Absolutely. The question is for how long, but it's certainly a profound disruption to al Qaeda's general operations. I mean, don't forget, this is the eighth senior al Qaeda commander around the world that's been killed by the United States since 2019.


So, certainly we're at a tipping point where al Qaeda commanders have to spend more time worrying about their own personal security, one hopes, than plotting and planning international terrorist attacks, including against the U.S.

SCIUTTO: Now, Peter, you've made the point that Zawahiri, though he had - you know, he goes back to really the expansion of al Qaeda when he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad with bin Laden in '98, you know, the Cole attacks, the U.S. embassy attacks and, of course, 9/11 followed. But he was not - he was not bin laden. He was not as charismatic a leader.

Does this open up the possibility of a more capable al Qaeda leader taking his place?

BERGEN: It does. And, in fact, there's one in the wings who may well become the next leader, Saif al-Adel. He's a former Egyptian special forces officer. He's been part of al Qaeda from the beginning. He's been living -- he was living in Iran for years after 9/11. He may already be back in Afghanistan. At one point he was a caretaker leader of al Qaeda after bin Laden was killed before Zawahiri was tapped.

But I will say, and one other thing, Jim, which is, I think, important for our viewers to understand, President Biden, I think, made a number of misleading statements last night about Zawahiri's role as a -- deeply involved in the planning of 9/11 and the USS Cole attacks and the U.S. embassy attacks in Africa. There's really little evidence for that. You know, Zawahiri was a very bad guy, but there's no need to gild this particularly lily.

Zawahiri actually played a pretty marginal role in the pre-9/11 al Qaeda. And you - don't take my word for it, anybody listening to this or watching this can read the 9/11 Commission report. He really wasn't involved in the planning of 9/11. That was bin Laden and others. So, you know, Zawahiri - and Zawahiri turned out to be a very incompetent (ph) leader of al Qaeda. Never carried out an attack on the United States or American interests in the decade he ran it. He actually - and, of course, he presided over the split between al Qaeda and ISIS, which, you know, was really a terrible thing for al Qaeda because ISIS became the most effective terrorist group in the world.


BERGEN: You know, if bin Laden had been around, you know, maybe he would have been able to paper over those differences.

SCIUTTO: Well, Bruce, one open question following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan -- we're coming up at the end of this month on the one year anniversary of that -- had been, can the U.S. carry out effective counterterror operations from outside the country without boots on the ground, whether they be U.S. military or CIA assets?

And Bill Burns, CIA director, has acknowledged publicly it's more difficult. I spoke to the head of MI6 a week ago who said it's more difficult from outside the country. But they were able to do it here. Does it show greater capability to do so than we were aware of?

HOFFMAN: Well, it shows really how sophisticated U.S. intelligence collection has become on multiple levels. Whether it's the ability to capture images from far up in the sky or whether it's having human assets on the ground to then verify and confirm what has been spotted on photographs.

But, you know, at the end of the day, you're only as good as your last success. And we shouldn't be under any illusion that is dramatically successful as this was, terrorists plan attacks often in secret.

I mean as Peter, I think, very accurately described, al Zawahiri's family was being tracked to Kabul. Al Zawahiri himself fell into a routine, where he got fresh air every morning on his balcony. So that's one thing. But disrupting secretive clandestine terrorist cells, plotting and planning attacks, let's say, in the hinterlands (ph) of Afghanistan is still, I would argue, appreciatively more difficult than it was a year ago.

SCIUTTO: Yes, it's amazing, people still get into routines. I mean you remember - remember all the stories about bin Laden circling the courtyard in that compound. And now we have Zawahiri here sitting on his balcony.

Bruce Hoffman, Peter Bergen, thanks so much to both of you.

Coming up next, we are live in Kentucky as thousands of people who lost everything to the flooding are now facing 100 degree temperatures. Many more people are missing, sadly.

Plus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to visit Taiwan this morning, any moment now, as China warns of possible retaliation.

Also ahead, voters head to the polls in five states today. Some of the Republican contenders for statewide offices have repeated false claims about the 2020 election.


[09:18:28] SCIUTTO: At this hour, Kentucky, the latest flood watches are expiring as the rain finally starting to subside there. Now officials shifting their concern to the heat, which could be devastating for thousands in the region still without running water or power in the wake of all this. So far the death toll stands at 37 people. Sad fact is many hundreds more are still missing. Rescue crews are taking extraordinary measures to save as many people as they can. But days after the flooding began, many are still trapped.


ZACK LEE, FAMILY TRAPPED IN KENTUCKY FLOODWATERS: It's just starting here. The shock and awe of the flood is over. And I hope people don't give up on us and they keep helping. We just need hands to get to these people. We need more people to get to the people that we need to get out of the hollers.

I think the worst is still to come if we aren't able to clear paths and get to these people.


SCIUTTO: Joining us now, Colonel Jeremy Slinker. He is the director of Kentucky Emergency Management.

Colonel, thank you for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: So, first, you -- hundreds still missing. You were telling me during the break, though, that in the last 24 hours or so you have been able to locate some of those people. Any sense of how many at this point?

SLINKER: That's a difficult number to really nail down just because it's a constantly changing number as we locate people with family members, or like I had said, with communications coming back up, since the onset of this disaster. And then, like I said, we -- we're aware that some of the outcomes are not going to be good.



SLINKER: So that -- there is no exact number.

SCIUTTO: I understand. It's got to be heartbreaking to deal with.

Tell us how the geography of the area, we're showing some aerial pictures here that give a sense of these tight valleys, kind of like a network of valleys here, tell us how the geography makes it - makes these rescues and the search and rescue harder.

SLINKER: Well, obviously, as you said, this is the Appalachia region with Appalachia Mountains. And so in mountainous areas, it always makes it tough to search. The terrain is steep in places. Obviously, it funnels water down into specific channels. You know, a lot of the areas that people live in are what we call hollers.


SLINKER: And, you know, and when one of those floods, it can affect that entire holler.


Is it -- were there warnings in advance for folks living in these valleys? Did they get out quickly enough warnings?

SLINKER: Well, there was - there was weather warnings sent out through multiple avenues. National Weather Service, Kentucky emergency Management. But I'll say no one was predicting the amount of rain in such a short amount of time. Up to ten inches in some areas and less than a - you know, within an hour or two. So it kind of takes you to almost something that couldn't happen, happens, and it just catches everyone off guard. And it was just difficult to get out in time and evacuate some of these areas.

SCIUTTO: I can imagine.

We were speaking yesterday that so many of the shelters, the hotels, motels there, full. Do you have enough space to find these people temporary housing?

SLINKER: Well, the quick answer is not -- no.


SLINKER: We're working on that. We're constantly working on that. We're evaluating our use of travel trailers, and where we have locations that there's already hookups where we can start lodging people in those.

As you know, the state parks have opened up in the area to shelter people. Those are starting to fill up. We just opened up an additional state park late yesterday and we're starting to house people there now.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, we do wish you the best of luck. We've got - we know you got a long road and the people there have a long road ahead of them. So, take care and please send them our best. Colonel Jeremy Slinker.

SLINKER: Thank you. Send any help you have.

SCIUTTO: Here's some more help. For more information about how you can help victims of the Kentucky flooding, go to We've got some links there from Colonel Slinker's team, actually. We're going to tweet those out as well. It's a good resource for finding ways to get these people some help.

CNN's Evan McMorris-Santoro is also on the ground in eastern Kentucky to see what's been left in the wake of all this.

I think it's hard for people to understand just how devastating this was. You know, almost biblical, right? These waters moved through there. What have they left behind?

EVAN MCMORRIS-SANTORO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, it's hard for me to understand, and I've been here for several days touring around. That was a great interview with the colonel describing just how hard this rescue effort has been here.

Let me illustrate that for you. I am standing on what used to be a very robust concrete and steel bridge that, until last week, stood here carrying traffic. And you can see what happened when these floodwaters just came out of nowhere and blasted through this area. You can see those steel girders just twisted up. This - you know, this whole concrete section is gone. That roadway, just gone.

What the colonel was talking about is that there are plenty of places in this area where people might live behind a bridge smaller than this one, and that's the only way they get in or out of where they live. And those bridges are gone. And when they're gone, the people behind them are trapped.

And so this is the deal - this is the big challenge that they're still dealing with all these days later after this flood, that they're having to go in there, try to find supplies, get them to people who are stuck in those hollers where there's no access to get in.

And you mentioned the idea too that there's this heat wave coming. That's the big challenge right now. The challenge right now is they're trying to stabilize people here, get them those supplies, find them, make sure they're safe before these hot temperatures come in, which is, obviously, very, very dangerous in a world with no power and maybe no water.

But just look at this. This is what is happening all over this part of Kentucky.


SCIUTTO: Yes. It impacts those trying to leave and certainly rescue teams trying to go in.

Evan McMorris-Santoro, thanks so much for being there for all of us.

Well, still ahead, politics. Five more states head to the polls in major primaries today. One state is going to leave abortion rights up to the voters. What's expected to happen there.

Plus, we are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Right now U.S. stock futures are down amid tensions between the U.S. and China. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expected to visit Taiwan today.


Asian markets all closed in the red Tuesday morning. Here in the U.S., the major averages all posted their biggest one-month gains, however, in July since back in 2020. They did fall on the first day of August.