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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

U.S. Kills Al Qaeda Leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Drone Strike; Pelosi Expected to go to Taiwan Despite Threats from China; Kentucky Flood Survivors Describe Harrowing Experiences. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 05:00   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. It is Tuesday, August 2nd, 5:00 a.m. here in New York.

Thanks for our viewers here in the United States and around the world, getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Erica Hill.

We begin this morning with the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al- Zawahiri, one of the masterminds of 9/11.

President Biden confirming that he authorized the attack in Afghanistan to, quote, remove al Zawahiri from the battlefield once and for all. He had been sheltering in downtown Kabul with his family, months of planning led to what Biden called a precision strike targeting the most wanted terrorist.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We make it clear again tonight that 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.


HILL: Zawahiri's death on Saturday comes 11 years after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. At one point, he was bin Laden's personal physician.

CNN's Jasmine Wright has more on Biden's decision to take him out, and Ben Wedeman joining us with the details on the strike itself.

Ben, let's start with the strike. It was months in the making. What more do we know about the operation itself?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, basically, it was done by a drone that fired two hell fire missiles on to the balcony of the building that Ayman al Zawahiri and his family were living in in the Sherpur district of Kabul. It happened at 6:18 a.m. local time in Kabul.

And this obviously, yes, as we've heard time and time again, this was an operation long in the making. But what is interesting is that until now it is believed that either Zawahiri was hiding out in the tribal areas of Pakistan or in rural parts of Afghanistan. The fact that not only was he in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, he was in a fairly well-off neighborhood apparently living in building that reportedly was owned by a member of the Haqqani Network which is part of the Taliban movement.

Now, it appears that after the Taliban were able to take control of Afghanistan, that Mr. Zawahiri felt that he was freer to operate and therefore, he was according to the intelligence that the U.S. has put out, that they were first able to identify his wife, his daughter, and her children living in the building. And then they were able to spot him essentially hanging out on the balcony of that building as well.

So it is rather ironic that it was only after more than 20 years of U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, they finally pull out and then they are able to kill one of the masterminds of the September 11th attacks -- Erica.

HILL: Yeah, it is -- it is somewhat ironic, as you point out. Meantime President Biden as we're learning more was said to be deeply engaged, immersed in the intelligence.

Jasmine Wright is joining us more now on the planning part of that. And I understand it that no civilians would be harmed or killed?

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN REPORTER: Yeah, that's right. Look, for President Biden, the devil was in the details. Senior administration officials say that President Biden wanted to know the intimate details about the house where al-Zawahiri was staying and the risks associated with taking him out there.

So, for months, President Biden along with a tight knit group of advisers secretly planned this out and part of that planning, Erica, actually included a small scale model of the building that was considered the hideout and basically senior administration officials, intelligence officials put it together. It was living in the White House Situation Room where President Biden could examine it and ask probing questions.

Now, of course the chance for President Biden to take out someone who helped plan 9/11 was enormous, but also so were the risks here. So, you're right, senior administration officials say President Biden asked repeatedly about the potential of civilian casualties and also about the integrity of the building, trying to make sure that if an attack happened, it would be able to withstand.

So it was July 25th that President Biden had his final briefing and when he gave the okay to proceed with the mission. And five days later, they took al Zawahiri out Saturday evening D.C. time, Eastern Time, with those two hell fire missiles we just saw Ben talking about.


And President Biden was updated when it started and when it concluded. And senior administration officials say there were no civilian casualties and, of course, we can't just underplay how momentous this is for President Biden happening just almost a year really after the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan -- Erica.

HILL: Jasmine, Ben, appreciate it. Thank you both.

Let's bring in now, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem.

I want to pick up actually if we could, Juliette, where Jasmine just left off, when the U.S. did withdraw from Afghanistan, there was a lot of criticism about counterterrorism efforts moving forward. What do you take away from this strike?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That what the Biden administration alleged at that stage a year ago, which what is called the over the horizon capabilities which means that you don't need military on the ground, that you can actually fight terrorists through drones and other technological means, they basically said that we'll still be able to do that, and I have to say, yesterday, was proof. I mean, that that over the horizon strategy was not only strong but pretty remarkable when you start to get the details of how this kill happened.

And if, you know -- and that there were no other casualties, not even his family at this stage.

So, it's not just a victory, you get an al Qaeda leader who was significant in a number of ways, you show the -- the U.S. shows that it has over the horizon capabilities, but you are also exposing the Taliban which is significant in terms of both the promises that they had made and the deal that they made with President Trump, that they would not harbor al Qaeda, but also as they try to reengage with other countries. You are sort of exposing their continuing support of international terrorism.

HILL: And that's -- and important to point out, right, because they are trying to be -- to have more diplomatic relations, to be seen as a legitimate government. But the chances that the Taliban was not aware that this man was there in downtown Kabul amidst all of these other buildings, slim to none?

KAYYEM: Zero, absolutely zero. I mean, for one, the building was owned by someone from the Taliban network. It is Kabul. It is not some hinterland of Afghanistan. You are in the major city, you are at least feeling confident enough, you being Zawahiri, to step out on a balcony and expose yourself, you are living with -- he is living with his wife and daughter and her children, so multigenerational.

So, no question that the Taliban would have known. And the most important thing in this sense, Zawahiri would have felt confident -- or could be felt confident of returning to the city once the Taliban took over because of either implicit or explicit statements and assurances by the Taliban that he would be safe. This was safe harbor for him.

So, we exposed had lie, right, that we could still figure out who was even in the city, but also that this story is more about the Taliban I think than about al Qaeda. Who knows what happens to al Qaeda, how strongly they were? But it is more about the Taliban at this stage. HILL: So interesting to see how that plays out, right, what real

impact it has on the Taliban. Really quickly before I let you go, put into perspective for us the importance of 21 years after 9/11, right, the importance of this moment?

KAYYEM: I think that it is significant and we shouldn't forget, I mean, there is something to justice. I mean, this is the way that we have to do it just given the nature of characters. You are not going to arrest him and I think that is important to the families. And I think as there is politics around Saudi Arabia which have harbored al Qaeda with the previous president.

And so I think this just shows that we can continue this fight and make sure that al Qaeda does not reform in the ways that it once had even if it wouldn't be the kind of threat that we faced on September 11th.

So I don't -- I mean, I know we always look for, well, it is not as good -- let's take the win. I mean, let us as American citizens take this sort of multi-prong win. We got Zawahiri, we have capabilities over the horizon, and we sort of, you know, are exposing the Taliban's continuing support of international terrorism. And that is a win. We get their rarely in foreign policy, national security.

HILL: Juliette Kayyem, always good to have your insight. Thank you.


KAYYEM: Thank you. Good morning. Thank you.

HILL: Nancy Pelosi in Malaysia this morning, China waiting to see if her next stop will be Taiwan.

Meantime, devastation growing in flood ravaged eastern Kentucky and the threat still far from over.

Plus, Brittney Griner back in a Moscow courtroom where she will make her case for leniency.


HILL: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to visit Taiwan as part of her tour of Asia this week. This as China continues his repeated threats. Pelosi a congressional delegation arrived in Malaysia overnight. Her upcoming stop in Taiwan would be the first for a house speaker in 25 years.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: If the speaker does decide to visit and China tries to create some kind of crisis or otherwise escalate tensions, that would be entirely on Beijing.


HILL: Will Ripley is joining us live from Taiwan's capital city, Taipei.

So what more do we know about this visit between the speaker and the Taiwan government?



Well, either she is in Malaysia and we were told that we don't know the exact time frame, but we're planning for some sort of later in the evening arrival, which would essentially mean Pelosi's plane, she goes to the hotel, she get some rest and have meetings in the morning. And, presumably, of course, she's going to be with Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen.

Like, we're expecting to see her meet with some members of parliament. It's unclear how long she'll be on the ground before she moves on to the rest of her Asia trip. This is obviously kind of an unofficial stop, although this is the stop that most people have been talking about even before Pelosi left the states.

And then, you know, will she take time to learn more about Taiwan's history? Will she visit any landmarks or will it be one of those quick let's have face-to-face meetings, let's get back on the plane and let's go?

Like other U.S. lawmakers have done where they just are on the ground for a matter of hours, in an attempt to prevent China from taking any sort of provocative action. We have seen obviously propaganda videos released by China, we've seen -- you know, there are concerns that there might be some sort of a military buildup or show of military force, but I'll say that the rhetoric that we've been hearing Xi Jinping telling President Biden, play with fire, you will get burned, that is the kind of language we've heard from China before.

We're not seeing any large scale military buildup. So it seems at least at this stage it will be a rhetorical escalation. China will do something or say something so that it can appear strong and not lose face. But they're not going to try -- a lot of analysts believe that they won't push it into some sort of a conflict. Of course, the United States has also made pretty clear they want to avoid a conflict as well. They just want Speaker Pelosi to safely arrive her, have a meeting, do what she needs to do and then safely move on.

HILL: We will be watching for all of that, Will. I know you will keep us updated as this develops, thank you.

Also with us morning, CNN political analyst and "Washington Post" columnist Josh Rogin.

Josh, good to have you here this morning.

Picking up where Will left off, this sort of saber rattling as has been referred to, their rhetoric, which is Will pointed out, isn't new, these threats from China, what do you actually see that manifesting as, in what way could there be some sort of reaction? JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Good morning, Erica. I

think that there will be two different phases of Chinese government retaliation to Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan today. One will be while she is on the ground, that will likely include according to my sources some military flights that may come near the island, crossing over the median line, there could be some artillery or missile fire from the Chinese side and other shows of force by the Chinese military.

Then she will leave and there will be another phase and that will be the Chinese government's retaliation against Taiwan. We're seeing some of that now, last night, the Chinese government announced the ban on imports of over 100 different Taiwanese manufactured materials, agricultural products.

So we're going to see a long term punishment of Taiwan that could take a number of forms in the military, economic, diplomatic and cyber spheres. So there will be some reaction while Pelosi is there and a lot more reaction after she leaves.

HILL: So in terms of that lingering reaction, that had to be part of the calculus as well for Taiwan to agree to this. But what's that calculus? What are those conversations that you are learning about?

ROGIN: From what I understand, the Taiwanese government is caught between a rock and a hard place. And, you know, they welcome the Pelosi visit and they welcome the diplomatic show of support from the United States. At the same time, they are the ones that are going to have to deal with the consequences for weeks, months or maybe even years. And there will be a new situation on the ground after the delegation leaves that they are largely going to have to deal with on their own.

So they are conflicted about it and it depends on which Taiwanese official you talk to. Some officials think it is a good idea and some wish that she would just stay away.

HILL: In terms of that, based on the fact that this is going to be, you know, from your reporting from your sources a long term impact for Taiwan, that they may have to go to alone, I mean, how do you anticipate the U.S. reacting both publicly and behind the scenes to that?

ROGIN: Right, well, we see it now because of course the Biden administration didn't want Pelosi to go to Taiwan. And now they have to just accept it and they have to deal with the new reality. And that will be a new normal and the U.S./China relationship as well.

And the administration had been trying to prove to China that we could put guardrails on the relationship by respecting each other's boundaries and now at least in the Chinese -- from the Chinese point of view, that plan is over. And so, we're entering a new period of increased U.S./China intentions that is likely never on go back and I think the Biden administration officials realize that and it is not what they wanted but it is what they got.

So we're looking at a period of managing those rising tensions rather than avoiding rising tensions. And I think that everybody is coming around to that realization like it or not.


And on the Chinese side, they have decisions to make, do they want the new normal to be a military tension or an economic tension or diplomatic tension or all of the above, and I just don't think that we know the answer to that yet. But whatever will happen in the wake of the Pelosi visits to Taiwan, that will be a different diplomatic situation in Asia than we had as of yesterday.

HILL: Josh Rogin, always great to have you with us. Thank you.

ROGIN: Anytime.

HILL: Coming up, the Midwestern state about to decide on the future of abortion at the ballot box. Plus, a wounded Ukrainian soldier determined to get back to the fight.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My angry is more bigger than the pain.




HILL: This morning, it is a race against time as rescue crews desperately search for hundreds of people still missing in flood ravaged eastern Kentucky. At least 37 people have died, and the threat not over.

CNN's Pedram Javaheri is joining us with the latest forecast.

And that I think is one of the hardest parts, right, that -- I mean, it just keeps on coming.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, so much has come down and it won't take much to lead to additional flooding. That's the biggest concern.

And we know about 2 million Americans across eastern Kentucky, Charleston, West Virginia under the flood alerts and it does include that area that has been very hard hit. But you take a look, the amount of rainfall that has played out, some areas seeing as much as 10-plus inches in a span of just 24 hours. And you notice the rainfall amounts will begin to diminish over the coming few hours.

Models initially suggested, maybe getting some rain across this region. Now, notice just east of this area, into West Virginia, the lone tornado report in the country, going to show you how inclement the weather has been across this region even as of the past 24 hours. But thunderstorms at this moment just north and east of Charleston in the last couple hours, across bowling green as well, so well to the west and east of the region. Areas across eastern Kentucky hard hit regions and you notice the area that is seeing the heavy rainfall outside of that zone.

But the threat zones for portions of Kentucky now a slight risk. There is a moderate risk including southern areas of Illinois where they have seen heavy rainfall, another round of it possible. But notice as we go into Wednesday, the entirety of much of Kentucky here is removed from that flood concern.

So we do expect weather conditions to at least improve. Again, eastern Kentucky right here, here is the radar indication right now showing you much of the area forecast to remain generally dry moving forward. If anything does come out of it, it will be on the lighter end of things, under an inch, but even half an inch could be problematic.

So that is what we're watching. But chances drop significantly in the coming few hours.

HILL: Yeah, that is I guess a little glimmer of hope there. Pedram, appreciate it. Thank you.

The toll of this flooding is massive. It is not just of course the physical damage, but the emotional damage and the damage to many close knit communities in eastern Kentucky.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher has more from hard hit Hindman, Kentucky.


GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY): Certainly, the deadliest and the most devastating of my lifetime.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kentucky's governor confirming today at least 35 people are dead in the flood stricken commonwealth, including four siblings from Knott County, the youngest just 2 years old.

PRESTON HAYS, FIRE CHIEF, HINDMAN VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT: Just knowing those people, it is heartbreaking. This is our community, our town, our home.

GALLAGHER: This as the desperate search for hundreds of missing people continues with the looming threat of more rain.

BESHEAR: There are hundreds of unaccounted for people at minimum, and we just -- we just don't have a firm grasp on that.

GALLAGHER: Flood waters knocked out vital power, washed away roads and bridges and overwhelmed eastern Kentucky communities, making some rescue efforts nearly impossible.

HAYES: The water came so quick that the fire department started getting calls for water rescues and cellphone communications, emergency contact communications went down.

RANDY POLLY, RESIDENT: They get in that river, it will be dangerous.

GALLAGHER: Randy Polly shot this video showing someone jumping into action to save an elderly woman and her family.

RANDY POLLY, FLOOD RESCUE WITNESS: He was in there for two minutes and what seems like for an eternity and he come back out and said I finally found them.

GALLAGHER: Another rescue, a 17-year-old saved herself and her dog by swimming to a neighbor's roof when flash flooding started last Thursday. Her dad writing on Facebook: We lost everything today. Everything except what matters most.

Emergency shelters are opening across eastern Kentucky, including Gospel Light Baptist Church in Hazard.

Nicole Neace is staying here with her family.

NICOLE NEACE, FLOOD VICTIM: I woke up at 4:50 and I heard a wild noise and I got my flashlight and I looked out the window and it was already halfway up our living room window.

GALLAGHER: She tells us they got out with only the clothing on their backs.

NEACE: There is nothing left. Everything is destroyed.

GALLAGHER: Neace's sister Karen Daugherty said this isn't the first tragedy for her family.

KAREN DAUGHERTY, FLOOD VICTIM: Two years ago, we lost everything to a fire. And we were just now getting back on our feet. It is just devastating that we have to go through it again so soon.

GALLAGHER: Dianne Gallagher, CNN, Hindman, Kentucky.


HILL: A Northern California wildfire has exploded in size in just a matter of days, two people are dead. The McKinney fire broke out Friday near the California-Oregon state line. It's now growing into the state's largest wildfire this year, burning more than 55,000 acres. The fire has forced thousands in Siskiyou County to evacuate.