Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Primary Day; U.S. Kills Al Qaeda Leader. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 14:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. I'm Alisyn Camerota. Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

We are following two major international stories this hour.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now in Taiwan, defying threats from China of retaliation over the visit. And the world's most wanted terrorist is dead from a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend. U.S. officials say it was so precise, there were no civilian casualties in the middle of a posh Kabul neighborhood.

CAMEROTA: A $25 million bounty was offered for finding Ayman al- Zawahiri after he killed thousands of Americans. He was the successor to Osama bin Laden and his personal doctor.

Al-Zawahiri helped plot the September 11 attacks and at least two other bombings that killed Americans overseas.

CNN has a team of correspondents covering this story.

Let's start with CNN is Alex Marquardt on how this operation went down.

So, Alex, did the U.S. have any help on the ground from sources who were not Americans?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn and Victor, that is a terrific question. It's one of the many that we still have about how this intelligence was gathered and, of course, how this culminated in the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It's certainly possible that there were Afghans acting as intelligence assets or agents on the ground. But, for now, the administration is not detailing what they call the sources and methods that helped them gather this intelligence.

It's very safe to assume that much of this intelligence was gathered from the sky through visual methods, drones and satellites, as well as through what's known as signals intelligence, basically intercepting communications. But this was a months-long process, the White House saying today that

this took most of the year. And President Biden was first briefed in April, when there were indications that Zawahiri had moved not just to Afghanistan, but to Afghanistan's capital, to Kabul, to join his family, his wife, his daughter and his grandchildren.

Now, the White House is saying that he himself never left this safe house in an upscale central neighborhood of Kabul, but his family did. And his family was tracked, despite the fact that they were using what are being called terrorist techniques to hide their pattern of life. That was not successful.

They were tracked. Zawahiri was spotted on the balcony of that home. And that is eventually where he died. There was -- the final green light was given by President Biden for a very precise strike on July 25. That strike happened Sunday morning, Kabul time, when a drone fired two Hellfire missiles.

Now, the White House is saying that they have visual confirmation of his death, but they do not have DNA confirmation. Take a listen.


JOHN KIRBY, NSC COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: We do not have DNA confirmation, Brianna. We're not going to get that confirmation. And, quite frankly, Brianna, based on the multiple sources and methods that we have gathered the information from, we don't need it.

We have visual confirmation, but we also have confirmation through other sources and methods.


MARQUARDT: So they got combat confirmation through various streams of intelligence.

Alisyn and Victor, of course, that is very different from the bin Laden raid, when SEAL Team Six went onto the ground in Pakistan and, after killing bin Laden, they actually had his body.

Now, the Biden administration is holding this up as an example of what they can do in the future, continue to take out terrorists in Afghanistan without having U.S. boots on the ground. But, of course, it remains very much to be seen whether they can replicate this, whether they will bring these same resources to bear against terrorists who are not arguably the most wanted terrorist in the world -- Alisyn, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, Alex, thank you.

Nick Paton Walsh is here with us in New York.

Al-Zawahiri, obviously, the leader of al Qaeda, what does this death mean for the world? NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Well,

certainly, for anyone whose life was affected by 9/11 and by some of the awful terror activities of our cloud over the last 20 years, it provides some element of justice.

And it's definitely a reminder that, however much chaos you can attribute to the United States in its departure from Afghanistan, it's still pretty capable. I mean, this is staggering, to be honest. They weren't there on the ground. They found this guy from possibly eavesdropping on phones.

And they used minimum amount of force to kill him on the balcony of a house that probably housed rich Westerners over the past decades. This is a very nice part of Kabul. I can't get out of my head the idea that he's literally hanging around a place where there may have been parties held during the NATO presence there.

That's kind of startling. What does it mean for al Qaeda? Well, look, he's a superannuated leader of a franchise that was increasingly less among the impressive ones in the world. ISIS took a lot of attention. Al Qaeda was certainly there. And there were warnings before the U.S. left that, by the end of this year, maybe early next, they might be in a place to have reconstituted, possibly attacked the West.

That was disputed a lot by the U.S. before this strike. A lot of that messaging before they left was, al Qaeda is not a problem. And now, clearly, they know exactly how big a problem al Qaeda have been.


So it robs this -- probably the most well-known terrorist group in the world of its symbolic figurehead. Does it mean that stuff that may have been in their planning schedule last week is no longer in it? Maybe, maybe not. We don't really know how effective they have still been. They have lots of local franchises around the world. But that's getting locals to kill other locals for extremist reasons.

They haven't really hit the West in a palpable way over the past years. So, certainly, it's a sign that America does not forget. It has extraordinary reach; 20 years ago, you just wouldn't even imagine. They had to invade Afghanistan to try and go after bin Laden. They just saw this guy from space.

And so I was startled when I heard this news. But it also brings the larger question of where the Taliban really are in all of this. No one really believed them when they said, as part of this peace deal, things that made the U.S. feel very comfortable, there will be no foreigners here, there will be no al Qaeda. We will be exactly the place you want us to be.

But, still, you can't get much more of a prominent al Qaeda figure than Zawahiri. And there he is. He's gone now, but there will be a replacement. And we just don't really know whether that leaves the Taliban shaken and reticent or emboldened going forward in terms of who they give safe haven to.

CAMEROTA: And, like you said, the precision with which it was done was so stunning.

And that brings us to M.J. Lee. She's at the White House.

So, M.J., President Biden reportedly made it a top priority to avoid civilian casualties. But how did he ensure that?

M.J. LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we know is that this final order from the president to conduct the strike that eventually killed Zawahiri, it came after months of very top-secret meetings and meticulous deliberations.

What we know now is that the president was first informed back in April that, according to his intelligence officials, they believed that they had located him at this house in Kabul. And in the months that followed, he was kept abreast as intelligence officials gathered information about his whereabouts and his daily life patterns, including the fact that, at times, he would go out into the balcony of this house.

Now, this photo that the White House released earlier today of a meeting that took place on July 1, if you take a look at the middle of that table, there's this box briefcase like thing that's sitting there. And we are told by officials earlier today that inside of that box is the model house that intelligence officials built to replicate that safe house that Zawahiri was in.

And this is a box that the president himself examined inside the Situation Room and raised a whole bunch more questions, including about how weather or lighting or even the construction materials of that house could potentially affect that strike that eventually happened.

Now, one consideration that was very important to the president, as you mentioned, Alisyn, was making sure to minimize civilian casualties, including members of Zawahiri's family living inside that house with him. Of course, we now know, according to U.S. officials, that nobody else was killed.

And just keep in mind, throughout all of this, and throughout that strike that took place, President Biden was back in COVID isolation, so he had to be kept informed of everything that was going on by his officials as he was in the White House residence.

BLACKWELL: All right, M.J. Lee, Nick Paton Walsh, Alex Marquardt, thank you all.

Max Boot is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a "Washington Post" columnist. Retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton is a CNN military analyst.

Welcome to you both.

Colonel, let me start with you. And there were some who questioned about this time last year, when President Biden said that the U.S. would continue to focus on counterterrorism efforts over the horizon, being able to focus on what's happening in Afghanistan without actually having a physical presence. This seems to be the proof of the success of that.


And, of course, we shouldn't take this too far. There are going to be times when we actually will need boots on the ground to do certain things. But, in this particular case, it's very clear that we have come a long way, as Nick mentioned in his piece that he did with you a few minutes ago.

This is very clearly a situation where the intelligence services have come together. There's a lot of work between the different intelligence agencies that got us to this point. And that work really has taken place over the last 21, 22 years, and even before that.

And that allows us to do these kinds of strikes. These are precision strikes. The munitions are picked very carefully. The targeting is done in exquisite formats.

And it is done in a way that allows us to do this without collateral damage. So, yes, for the moment, this does prove that the president was right a year ago when he said over-the-horizon capabilities will help ensure U.S. safety. And that is exactly what has happened.


And, Max, I mean, I just want to take a moment to mark this milestone, because, for those of us who have 9/11 seared into our psyches forever and who will never forget, basically, because the President George W. Bush vowing that we would track down the terrorists wherever they were and the U.S. would get them, and now knowing that all of the plotters have either, as of last night, been killed, or captured, and you can see just -- I mean, these were names that were -- that we knew very well, that, for 10 years, we talked about Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.


There are others who have also been captured that we don't talk about as much, but still. And the fact that then his successors of at least President Obama and President Biden fulfilled that vow of President Bush's, it's just -- it's remarkable. They took 21 years, but the U.S. did it.

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It's certainly an amazing demonstration of U.S. capability to track and to eliminate those who attacked us on 9/11.

And I think it is a very good thing, not just for seeing justice being done, although that's incredibly important, but also for sending a message of deterrence and that we will never rest until they are tracked down.

But it's really a mixed message. And I think you can draw both support and criticism of the withdrawal from Afghanistan from what just transpired. The support is, as Cedric just said, that this is showing that standoff long-range counterterrorism is possible, at least in this instance.

But on the other hand, we shouldn't minimize the fact that, more than 20 years after 9/11, you once again, had the leader of al Qaeda living in Kabul, and under the protection of the regime once again, because Zawahiri was living in a safe house affiliated with a guy who was one of the senior figures in the Taliban government.

So, it's definitely a good news/bad news message. The good news is that we have been able to track down and eliminate so many of these leaders, but the bad news is that, more than 20 years later, al Qaeda still exists and still has a substantial perch in Afghanistan.

BLACKWELL: Max, I want you to listen to the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, about what could come next potentially for the Taliban.


JAKE SULLIVAN, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think it's strange to call it a safe harbor when we just took out the leader of al Qaeda sitting on his balcony in Kabul.

So, no, it does not signal that to me. What it signals to me, Savannah, is that the president has made good on his word when we left. He said the United States did not need to keep sending thousands of American men and women to fight and die in Afghanistan after 20 years of war to keep this country safe.


BLACKWELL: Now, the White House also says that the Taliban has violated the Doha Agreement to not harbor those terrorists.

Could there be consequences? And what are the options? There are no significant diplomatic relations with the Taliban.

BOOT: I'm doubtful there's going to be a lot of consequences. There's not a lot that we can do.

Our basic leverage right now is in providing aid to Afghanistan. But we have already been very cautious about providing aid because we don't want to support the Taliban government. But, on the other hand, there is a humanitarian disaster going on in Taliban, with -- in Afghanistan, with millions of people being on the brink of starvation.

And so we are trying to provide humanitarian assistance, but we have very limited leverage. I mean, that's the reality. And this is a huge counterterrorism success, no question about it. But there's -- I'm doubtful that we're going to be able to continue these kinds of strikes on a regular basis against the hundreds of al Qaeda followers who are presently in Afghanistan.

And, to some extent, we have recently lost a lot of leverage over what happens in Afghanistan, because we have a hostile regime that has violated their agreements with us. But it's -- nobody thinks that we're about to invade Afghanistan. That's the last thing we're ever going to do again.

So, at the moment, it's kind of a wash, I would say, that the Biden administration can point to this as a success story and blunt some of the criticism of the one-year anniversary of the Afghanistan pullout, but the full story remains to be written. And we shouldn't lose sight of the tragic fate of the people of Afghanistan, who are suffering so much right now.

CAMEROTA: Colonel Leighton, Max Boot, thank you very much for the expertise in explaining all the nuance of this story.

BLACKWELL: It's primary day in several states across the country, which sets up the test of Trump's hold on the Republican Party, at least the latest test.

How election deniers are expected to fare in crucial swing states.

CAMEROTA: And rescues are still under way in Kentucky. The threat is not over there. The dangerous heat is now setting in.



BLACKWELL: Voters in five states, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Washington, and Arizona, are heading to the polls today.

And several key primary races feature Trump-backed election deniers, including there in Arizona, where Trump and his ex-Vice President Pence have backed rival candidates for governor.

CAMEROTA: In Kansas, it is the first-in-the-country test of how voters feel about abortion rights.

Today, they will decide on an amendment to their state's Constitution that would severely restrict abortion access.

CAMEROTA: Joining us now to talk about all this, we have CNN senior political correspondent and host of "INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY" Abby Phillip and CNN senior political commentator and former adviser to President Obama David Axelrod. He is the host of "THE AXE FILES."

Great to have you guys here.

I barely know where to begin, because there's so much to watch. But let's just start with Arizona, OK?

So a Trump-backed election denier is running for governor, but there is a full slate that could be elected there, David, of election deniers. And then what? I mean, this is the nightmare scenario.


DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. CAMEROTA: It goes all the way up and down the slate.

AXELROD: Well, when you consider the role that Arizona played in the last election, obviously, this has real implications for the future.

But there's another element of this, which is -- and this is true across all these primaries -- for a guy for whom vengeance is kind of a way of life, this is like prom night for Donald Trump, because he -- there are so many people on the ballot here who he has grievances with.

There's a grudge match with Pence and the governor of Arizona for -- in the governor's race, where Trump is on one side. And his candidate may well win against a candidate supported by Governor Ducey, who angered Trump, and Pence.

Rusty Bowers, who testified before those hearings, the speaker of the House, is running for the state Senate, and is very much in jeopardy of losing to a Trump-backed election-denying candidate. You go across the whole tableau of candidates of campaigns today across the country, and I think Trump is set up to have a big vengeance night tonight.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And I think, just given Arizona's role in the whole election saga, I mean, remember, Arizona was the first state that, when FOX News called it, the White House and the Trump campaign basically lost their minds.

And on that election -- in that election week, that was the place where we saw people, Trump supporters and Republicans, showing up outside of vote-counting centers and protesting. This is a place where the Republican base is really very, very far to the right.

So this is not, I think, a state where you should have any confidence that sort of cooler heads will prevail. I think it's very likely that you're going to see some of these more extreme candidates, secretary of state, governor and Senate, winning their primaries and potentially setting up very interesting general election matchups come the fall.

BLACKWELL: Kari Lake right now is not only selling former Trump's -- former President Trump's big lie. She is starting to tell one of her own, saying that she's seeing some evidence of cheating going on in the primary.


AXELROD: She's been trying this for weeks, that she may not accept the results. This is becoming the norm in precincts of the Republican Party.

So, yes, I mean, she's already got her -- she's prebutting results, just in case they don't go her way.

PHILLIP: I mean, it's amazing, though, because a lot of this is just literally made up out of whole cloth.

But it's giving some of these candidates down-ballot just the ability to basically say, if I don't like it, I'm not going to respect the results of the election. And that is also what is so dangerous about all of this.

CAMEROTA: Well, that's where democracy goes to die.

If you don't respect the election results, it's an autocracy, I mean, by definition. And so that's what is already -- they're already proudly saying this. And so that -- so, that's one thing, but I also want to turn to Kansas, because there's this referendum about abortion rights that is put to voters.

But, Abby, the language is so convoluted in this amendment that it will be hard for voters. Basically, a yes vote means no to abortion rights. A no vote means yes to abortion rights. It's upside-down world on this ballot. And, by the way, it's not even as clear as I just made it. I mean, it's really convoluted.

So is this going to be a bellwether for what abortion rights means in the country?

PHILLIP: I don't know, I mean, I think for exactly that reason.

First of all, referendums are often like that, extremely confusing for voters, very difficult for them to understand and a short window of time for voters to understand the issues. So it will be a bellwether of something. But this is also a conservative state. And it's a confusing referendum. So I'm not sure how much more broadly we can read into it, especially since I'm not sure that this is a place where Democrats think that abortion is going to be a bellwether.

It's going to be in the purple states and purple counties and suburban areas of the country.

AXELROD: I think what it will be a bellwether of is how much people can organize around these issues.

I think the motivational issue -- on both sides, there's a huge organizational effort going on around this issue. I will say, on the confusing nature of the ballot, generally, the no side has an advantage in those kinds of races, because people's default position is to is to vote no.

But I do think it's going to tell us something about how much this gets people out to vote and how much the organizational efforts mean around this issue.

BLACKWELL: David, President Biden is on a pretty good run. He's had a pretty good couple of weeks, so the killing of al-Zawahiri, CHIPS bill passed, gun legislation, gas prices, not under his purview, but 80- cent drop is better than the alternative.

AXELROD: Well, he got the credit when it was going the other way.

BLACKWELL: And so now he gets some of the credit, I guess, when it goes down. The Manchin-Schumer bill is in play. Is this enough, this group of

wins, to balance out the pain of inflation when voters go to the polls?


AXELROD: I would say Democrats are probably feeling a lot better than they were seven weeks ago. But we should note that, seven weeks ago, they were about to jump off tall buildings, they were so worried about what was going to happen in November.

And this -- one Democrat said to me, this could turn a Category 5 storm into a Category 3 storm. The one thing that I think is very much now up for grabs -- and Abby sort of referenced this -- is when you think about the Senate race in Arizona, the Senate is very much, I think, more in play today than people thought for Democrats to hang on to it than they thought they would, partly because of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump's going to deliver a very right-wing candidate in Arizona today. I think Democrats are looking at that as a plus. In Pennsylvania, he did it. In Georgia, he did it. That could be the difference. Donald Trump could end up being the MVP for Democrats when it comes to hanging onto the United States Senate.

PHILLIP: Because those are all states, by the way, that Joe Biden won, which gave Democrats have probably as good a playing field as they could get in the Senate environment.

But then Republicans are now on the verge, in some cases, like in Arizona, and have already nominated people, candidates that are flawed and that are struggling in these races already. So that's why I think Democrats are feeling a little bit better today.

But there are a few more seven-week periods between now and November. So, we will see what happens.



AXELROD: And I think also Republicans have the combination of the Dobbs decision, the two tragic mass shootings and the hearings. And Trump reemerging in a big way in our politics, I think, has also given -- is defining the Republican Party in a way that has been -- that Democrats think may be helpful in the fall.

But you still have all these headwinds of the economy and other discontents and the history that the governing party tends to lose seats in a midterm election.

PHILLIP: I will just say real quick...


PHILLIP: ... when people feel good about the trajectory, that is -- the trajectory matters, I think, in politics and in people's realities.

So, if they can keep this going, it could be a potentially good thing for them.

BLACKWELL: All right.

We will, of course, watch the coverage tonight of the primary votes across the country.

Abby, David, thank you.

David, the 500th episode of "THE AXE FILES" podcast drops this Thursday. Congratulations.

AXELROD: Thank you.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't say, a bunch of those episodes were on TV here at CNN. And your fantastic executive producer, Lauren Mensch, was the executive producer of those shows. So, you know why they were very, very good.

PHILLIP: We love Lauren Mensch.


CAMEROTA: That's so interesting. She had been -- she had been wrapping us.

BLACKWELL: Now she's wrapping us, yes. Yes.


BLACKWELL: All right.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, guys.

BLACKWELL: Thank you, guys.

CAMEROTA: Great to see you.

All right, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in Taiwan at this moment, despite China's warnings of retaliation. We are live in Beijing with the reaction next.