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U.S. Drone Takes Out Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan; Pelosi Arrives in Malaysia Ahead of Possible Trip to Taiwan; At Least 37 Dead as Search Continues for the Missing in Kentucky; Wildfires Destroy 1.5 Million+ Acres in U.S.; Brittney Griner Back in Court as U.S. Negotiates Swap. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 04:00   ET



MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and a warm welcome to our viewers joining us in the United States and all around the world. I'm Max Foster in London. Just ahead --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Biden announcing that the United States has indeed killed the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are hundreds of unaccounted for people, minimum.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was an above ground layup, it was all water surrounding us. It was very, very scary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A dramatic warning from China, today, after sources confirmed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan during her trip to Asia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with a long-standing U.S. policy into some sort of crisis of conflict.


ANNOUNCER: Live from London. This is CNN NEWSROOM with Max Foster.

FOSTER: It's Tuesday, August the 2nd, 9:00 am here in London. 4:00 am in Washington.

U.S. President Joe Biden claiming a major win in the war of terror after a drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The 71 year old took over as leader of the terror group after the U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. He was deeply involved in planning the 9/11 attacks, as well as the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya and Tanzania. The drone strike happened on Sunday morning local time in Kabul.

Afghanistan after months of surveillance and planning, two hellfire missiles hitting the balcony of Zawahiri's safe house. U.S. officials said senior Taliban leaders knew Zawahiri was sheltering at the house and even tried to conceal his presence after the strike. President Biden was first briefed on Zawahiri location in April. And then spent months with cabinet members and advisers planning the strike.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After relentless seeking Zawahiri for years under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year. It moved 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.

As commander-in-chief, it is my solemn responsibility to make America safe in a dangerous world. The United States did not seek this war against terror. It came to us. And we answered with the same principle and resolve that have shaped us for a generation upon generation. To protect the innocent, to defend liberty and we keep the light of freedom burning, a beacon for the rest of the entire world. Because this is a great and defining truth about our nation and our people. We do not break. We never give in. We never back down.


FOSTER: CNN's MJ Lee is at the White House with more on this story.


MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A significant announcement from President Biden on Monday night that a U.S. airstrike in Kabul on Saturday, had taken out al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al- Zawahiri, of course, became the leader of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death more than ten years ago, and is seen as one of the masterminds of the September 11th attack here in the U.S.

Now what we are told is that earlier this year U.S. intelligence had gathered that he was in a safe house in Kabul, and that U.S. intelligence officials had spent months gathering information about his whereabouts, about his pattern of life, and have kept President Biden informed as he ultimately last week made the final decision to go ahead with this air strike.

Now the president indicating in a speech to the nation that this is something that will hopefully give a little bit of closure to the families and victims of the September 11th attacks.


He said in his remarks to the nation that justice has been delivered.

BIDEN: Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer. The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm.

LEE: Now, this news, of course, comes about a year after the United States pulled out all of its forces from Afghanistan, a process that ultimately ended up being chaotic and it ended up also, being bloody. At the time, the president himself said the U.S. is going to continue fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, but that doesn't have to be a ground war. He said at the time that it could be via over the horizon capabilities.

Now we saw the president speak behind the podium, outside at the Blue Room balcony. This, of course, is because the president is continuing to isolate after a rebound case of COVID. There's no question this is going to go down as one of the most significant moments of President Biden's presidency so far.

MJ Lee, CNN, the White House.


FOSTER: The counterterrorism analyst tells CNN, that it would've been impossible for Ayman al-Zawahiri to be in Kabul without the knowledge or at least some Caliban officials. And added the recent statements from the al-Qaeda leader suggested he might have left or let his guard down really. CNN national security analyst, Peter Bergen weighed in.


PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The reason I think that he was killed in Afghanistan over the weekend was he was beginning to take a lot more risk. According to the United Nations, he'd released kind of an unprecedented number of videos. Every time you're recorded video that the chain of custody of that video getting it out there and somebody may be taking the video. So, he was becoming more prominent. And I think that it seems to me that that may well have been the reason that he was detected.

DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: This is a very, very symbolic success to bring one of the last of the original al-Qaeda leaders who did so much damage around the world. Again, the east African bombings, a number of the other bombings in North Africa, other exhortations of bombing elsewhere. Not to mention, of course, being a core part of al- Qaeda when the 9/11 attacks were planned.


FOSTER: CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman joins me now from Rome. Ben's been has been covering al-Qaeda and Ayman al- Zawahiri for decades now, Ben. And hearing there they describe this is deeply symbolic. The question is, is a more than? That does it undermine al-Qaeda in this war against the United States that they wage?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's certainly symbolic. But the United States does put a premium on sort of the symbolism of either killing or capturing its enemies, whether that's Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But the problem is essentially that the reasons why these people exist is because of ongoing problems. Basically, the fundamental nature of the political systems that exist in the Middle East. If you look at the contemporary landscape in the Middle East, it is full of failed or failing states, brutal dictatorships and corruption. Much of which the United States turns a blind eye to. And this is very fertile ground for the growth of groups like al-Qaeda, like ISIS, like others.

And therefore, yes, politically it's certainly a plus for President Biden or President Trump or President Obama before him, to take out these enemies. But at the end of the day, because of the existing political systems, the dystopia that is the Middle East, nothing really is going to change. And in fact, if you look at the Middle East at the moment, are just going from bad to worse. So, as I said, great political bonus, domestically perhaps in the United States, very little difference on the ground.

FOSTER: He was found, wasn't he? One of the most healthy areas of Kabul. Suggesting being that the Taliban were aware that he was there or at least affiliate groups were aware that he was there. What's the relationship, as we understand between al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

WEDEMAN: Well, he was in the Shirpur district, which is a district of mansions and villas owned by a member of the Haqqani network, which of course is part of the Taliban movement.


And we understand that the building Ayman al-Zawahiri lived in was owned by a member of the network which is of course part of the Taliban movement. And certainly, it would appear that one of the reasons why his profile was increasing in Afghanistan in Kabul, is that after the pull out of the U.S. and its allies from Afghanistan and the takeover of the entire country of Afghanistan by the Taliban that he felt comfortable. And there's no doubt about it that the Taliban were well aware that Ayman al-Zawahiri was in their mitts. They were -- we don't know -- but it's likely that they were in some way, providing material support for him.

So, yes, there's no question about it at this point. And it's certainly ironic that the United States was able to locate and kill Ayman al-Zawahiri after it pulled out of Afghanistan. That perhaps this over the horizon tactic that's been used by the United States with drones and whatnot. In the end proves more effective than a highly expensive military presence on the ground in that country on the other side of the globe from the United States -- Max.

FOSTER: OK, Ben Wedeman, thank you very much. We'll have much more on this story coming up later this hour as well.

And now U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has arrived in Malaysia, the second stop in her trip to Asia. Her visit there coming as U.S. officials say Nancy Pelosi is also set to go to Taiwan. It's already starting strong reaction in China and escalated tensions between Beijing and Washington.


JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit, consistent with a long-standing U.S. policy into some sort of crisis or conflict. Or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around Taiwan Strait. We will not take the bait or engage in saber rallying. At the same time, we will not be intimidated.


FOSTER: CNN's Blake Essig joins us now from Tokyo with the very latest. The whole world really watching here. The reaction from China really for this visit. So, what do we know about the details of the visit as we know them so far?

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Max, as you mentioned the Speaker of the House is in Malaysia now. Could Taiwan be the next stop on her tour of Asia? We don't yet know that answer. But what we do know is that Pelosi is expected to visit the democratic self-governing governor of Taiwan during her tour of Asia. That's according to officials in both the Taiwanese and U.S. government.

Now as you might expect, news of Pelosi's potential visit to Taiwan hasn't exactly been received well in Beijing. Earlier this morning, China's ambassador to the United Nations call the Speaker's apparent visit, dangerous and provocative. And on Monday, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry said this about her planned visit.


SHAO LIJIAN, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESPERSON (through translator): We would like to sternly won the U.S. once again that China is standing by. And the People's Liberation Army will never sit idly by. China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. As for what measures, if she dares to go, then let's wait and see.


ESSIG: All right, the video also posted online Monday. The People's Liberation Army sent a note -- sent a, I would say, not so subtle note to the world. The video shows off the PLA's weaponry and fighting tactics while saying it's standing by and ready for the fighting command. And it will bury incoming enemies. In response to China's perceived saber rattling, Taiwan's defense ministry said that they don't underestimate their enemies but remain confident in their ability to ensure national security.

As for the U.S. response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it's on Beijing if they try to create a crisis around the Speakers possible visit. And multiple sources say President Biden has made it known that he doesn't think it's a good time for the Speaker to visit Taiwan. But doesn't believe it's his responsibility or his place to tell her that she shouldn't go. Now that being said, with Pelosi expected to make the trip, U.S. officials said that the Defense Department is monitoring Chinese movement in this region and working to secure the plan to keep Nancy Pelosi safe -- Max.

FOSTER: Blake Essig, thank you. We are watching the latest developments very closely.

Still to come, U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner is back in court, as the U.S. attempts to secure her release from a Russian prison. We are live outside the courthouse for you.

Plus, Kentucky residents tried to move forward after deadly flash floods despite still rising waters. But there's more trouble ahead in the forecast. Pedram has the latest.


PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Max, all eyes here on what's happening in eastern Kentucky, flood alerts have been prompted. Of course, we know an incredible amount of rain has come down, we're following the latest here on the forecast coming up in a few minutes.


FOSTER: At least 37 people have now died from flash floods in the U.S. state of Kentucky and officials expect that number to grow. Rescue crews have been racing to save those trapped by the rising water. They've been pulling people off rooftops like this one, stranded and helpless. Good Samaritans like Nathan Day weren't even aware of the bad weather until he answered the call to help his neighbors and their children escape their home as it filled with water. He spoke earlier with CNN's Anderson Cooper.


NATHAN DAY, KENTUCKY RESIDENT: They were down there, in the bottom. And the other house is right here where the other family lives.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Did you have a boat with you or any supplies?

DAY: No, I went through the water.

COOPER: You just went down by yourself through the water?

DAY: Me and my wife.



FOSTER: Officials say all-state roads are passable for now but continuing rain can make conditions much worse. CNN's Evan McMorris- Santoro has more now from Kentucky.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) EVAN MCMORRIS-SANTORO, CNN CORRESPONDENT Monday was another day of digging out and finding out just how much damage these historic floods have done in this part of Kentucky. I'm in Perry County, one of the hardest hit places. And everywhere you go around here, you hear stories of just how harrowing it was to live through these floods. Listen to this mother who is now living at a shelter, a church converted into a shelter because she lost everything. Listen to what it was like for her to live through those flooded with their children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a creek in front of us and a creek beside us, but only ankle deep. Like something the kids would play in, you know, every day. I had no idea how fast and how deep that it would get. And he took my 11-year-old out first. He had to tie him around himself, and to her and they started out. He lost his footing in the water and she fell and went under. But thank God, he started swimming and he got her out to safety and then he came back one of the time and he got us.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO: The governor telling people here the death toll is continuing to rise. A number he expects will continue to go up as rescuers and first responders can finally get to some of these places that have still been trapped by the waters that ripped away bridges and ripped away roads. He says that there are some good signs. Some power has being turned back on, cell services back in some places, some water is coming back. But overall, the damage here is immense and will be here for a very long time. And in the short term people here have to worry about maybe more rainwater and also heat. Heat which is very bad for people who have been trapped in their house and maybe don't have power and don't have water. That's coming in just a couple of days. The situation here still very fluid and still very dangerous.

Evan McMorris-Santoro, CNN, Perry County, Kentucky.


FOSTER: The national interagency Fire Center says more than 55 large fires are burning in 13 U.S. states. Combined they burned more than 1.5 million acres. In California, the McKinney fire is now the largest in the states this year. It's going to more than 55,000 acres and it's turned deadly with two bodies found inside a burned vehicle on a residential driveway. Thunderstorms and lightning have complicated efforts to contain this blaze. The fire is also affected animals. This calf spent three days without food and water as the McKinney fire passed through. It's recovering from burns and dehydration.

And California isn't alone, a fast growing fire is tearing through western Montana, and officials warn winds are about to pick up. The Elmo 2 fire has burned almost 13,000 acres or about 5,200 hectares, pre-evacuation orders are in place for some residents who live in the fire zone. Elmo 2 is burning close to the Flathead Reservation and Native American officials there say the fire danger level is very high.

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri is at the CNN Weather Center monitoring all of this for you -- Pedram. JAVAHERI: Yes, Max, well we'll start off talking about the flooding

concerns because we know it's still about 2 million Americans across eastern Kentucky, portions of West Virginia are still underneath the risk here for flooding over the next few hours, before conditions gradually begin to improve.

And of course, you've seen the scenes play out with the tremendous amount of rainfall and the devastating floods that have been in place. And you really cannot overstate the significance, the force, the ferocity of moving water. Because water just at your knee height moving at around six miles per, about 10 or 11 kilometers per hour has the same force per unit area as a high end tornado. So, that is the amount of force behind the water that was on the ground across this region of eastern Kentucky, and we see why the damage that was up behind.

Radar imagery this morning, you wanna look for it towards in the Pikeville area across the eastern region of Kentucky, notice, it's very quiet. So, the north strong storms well to the west, strong storms but it looks as though we're finally getting a break here when it comes to the active weather. And even yesterday there was one tornado report in the United States. Guess where it was? Right next door across the border into West Virginia. So again, active pattern had been in place. But from Tuesday into Wednesday, you'll notice the threat here diminishing across the state of Kentucky and entirely being removed when it comes to the risk for excessive rainfall and flooding.

So, we know very little rainfall can cause quite a bit of damage at this point given how saturated the soil is. But forecast guidance moving forward does look to bring quieter conditions here with very minimal rainfall at most. And again, that's the good news at least in the immediate forecast.

Now heat also a big story across the Central U.S. Some areas feeling as hot as 109 Fahrenheit, about 42, 43 Celsius. And notice this, now seeing the fire risk become more scattered in nature. We have had some moisture in this region, just complicated things when it comes to of course, thunderstorms in the area for fires.


But the cloud cover and the scattered wet weather has also limited the growth of this fire. So, containment still staying at 0 percent. But notice from Saturday to Sunday, we had explosive growth for this fire from 18,000 to 51,000 acres. But from Sunday into Monday introducing some of that monsoonal moisture, the growth only 5,000 acres. So, again slowing down a little bit which is good news for some of the firefighting efforts in this region. And there is a chance for additional storms across this general area moving forward as well.

Here's the excessive rainfall risk, Max, going into Tuesday notice much of the Western half of the U.S., the drought stricken, the fire stricken region does have a chance here to see some wet weather. So again, some beneficial news for the immediate forecast across these areas. FOSTER: OK, Pedram Javaheri thank you.

Now the trial of American basketball star, Brittney Griner is underway as the U.S. attempts to negotiate a prisoner swap for her release. It's the seven hearing for Griner since they arrested her in the Moscow airport for having cannabis oil in her bag. She pleaded guilty to the charge last month in the hope of giving a more lenient sentence. CNN's senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen joins me from outside the courthouse in Russia. Just explain, Fred, what this hearing is about in comparison to the previous one.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the previous one was really an important one for Brittney Griner, Max, that was one where she, herself took the stand sort of laid out her side of what exactly happened on February 17th, when of course, she was apprehended and Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. Also of course showing remorse, saying that she took responsibility for having those vaping cartridges in her luggage. She did not mean to take them. So, she's obviously trying to get some leniency from the court. And that really is a large part of the strategy of the defense. What's going on today is that the defense has called another witness, an expert witness. And that witness is sort of trying to cast some doubt on some of the original forensics that were done on those vaping cartridges. If you recall, prosecution saying that in total in those two vaping cartridges, it contained about, they said, 0.7 of a gram, maybe a little bit more of THC of cannabis among the oil that was obviously in those vaping cartridges as well.

Now the witness for the defense was called. We've been listening in on a little bit of what's been going on in the courtroom saying that there is some doubt about, and that the original findings that have been done there at Sheremetyevo Airport, that those cannot be considered scientific, as this expert witnesses says.

Again, right now this trial is in an extremely important phase because it is the last couple of hearings that are going to take place. It's unclear when exactly there is going to be a decision, when there is going to be a verdict. But it certainly looks like we are all moving towards the backend right now. Been able to speak with the defense team for Brittney Griner, they say so far, they believe that the trial has gone as well as is possible under these circumstances. They've been able to present their evidence. Brittney Griner has been on the stand as well.

But of course, looming over all of this the whole time, Max, it is also those negotiations that the U.S. made public last week trying to obviously get Brittney Griner out. Also, Paul Whelan, the former marine whose of course serving a 16 year sentence right now here in Russia for alleged espionage -- which he denies. In return possibly for Viktor Bout the convicted arms dealer who's currently serving a sentence in the United States. It's unclear whether or not that has any influence here. Certainly, from what we're hearing from the court, it doesn't.

But Brittney Griner's defense team said they were not aware of any negotiations taking place. But they also said that if there is an exchange, they wouldn't be against it. They simply want to see Brittney Griner get home as fast as possible -- Max.

FOSTER: And how does she look? Obviously, you saw appear in court today. How is she bearing up under the pressure? She's been there since February, hasn't she?

PLEITGEN: Yes, you know, that's a very important, question, Max, and that's something we also put to the defense team as well. When we spoke to her defense lawyer, that defensive lawyer had literally just come from a meeting with Brittney Griner. We of course saw her this morning. She's still looking very strong. She looks very focused as well. And that's exactly the vibe that we also got from her defense lawyer also. She said that right now Brittney Griner, of course is quite nervous as this trial is sort of coming to the last phase. But at the same time, also very focused on her defense.

And one of the other things that the lawyer also pointed out is that Brittney Griner did want to let all of her fans, all of her supporters in the United States and around the world knows that obviously she sees all the support that she's getting. She gets a lot of that also from her lawyers who bring her document, who bring her some of the newspaper articles into the jail that she's being held, at the detention center that she's been held at. And she really does appreciate all the support that she's getting and that obviously gives her strength as well.

So, right now, obviously, a bit of anxiety as the trial is coming to a close or going to the closing phases. But at the same time, you do see Brittney Griner, as her defense team says, very, very focused on trying to see all of this through and trying to get as lenient as possible a sentence from the court -- Max.

FOSTER: Back with you with any updates, Fred, thank you for joining us from Khimki in Russia.

Time for a short break now. When we come back -- the U.S. takes out the world's top terrorist at a safe house in Afghanistan. We will hear from U.S. President Joe Biden.


BIDEN: with the far 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.