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U.S. Kills Key 9/11 Plotter; U.S. Warns China Not to Turn Pelosi's Taiwan Visit into 'Crisis'; Kentucky Official: 'Hundreds Unaccounted For' in Flood Aftermath; WNBA Star Griner Back in Russian Court as U.S. Offers Swap Deal. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 06:00   ET



JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States successfully concluded an air strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed the emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.


He was deeply involved in the planning of 9/11.

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.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world. It is Tuesday, August 2nd. I'm Brianna Keilar. John Berman is off. John Avlon is with us this morning.

And President Biden delivering that message to the nation, that justice has been delivered. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, and the world's most wanted terrorist, killed in a precision U.S. Drone strike.

Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden's trusted top lieutenant and one of the master planners of the 9/11 terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. His death coming 11 years after the U.S. took out bin Laden.

Overnight, security tightened in Kabul. These are images of the neighborhood where the Taliban government said the strike was carried out.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST/ANCHOR: The mission was the culmination of a monthslong intelligence operation involving Biden's cabinet and key advisers. Zawahiri was killed by two Hellfire missiles as he stepped out onto the balcony from what he thought was a safe House in Afghanistan.


BIDEN: This mission was carefully planned, rigorously to 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. And the mission was a success. None of his family members were hurt, and there were no civilian casualties.


AVLON: And just this morning, the FBI updating its poster from "most wanted" to "deceased."

Let's go first to CNN's Barbara Starr, live at the Pentagon. Barbara, this is a big moment of closure for 9/11 families and for America overall. What other details are we learning about the operation?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, this was a man with $25 million on his head, and now he is dead. And for the war on terrorism, that is nothing but good news.

Al-Zawahiri was killed, as you said, by two Hellfire missiles fired from a drone, and that in itself is very interesting, because of course, in Kabul, the U.S. has been out of Afghanistan for close to a year now. Publicly no U.S. troops, no U.S. personnel on the ground, no planes, no aircraft, no ability to launch a manned airstrike, we have been told, because the U.S. can't get in there if a pilot or a crew were to go down. So, same thing, you can't put Special Forces on the ground. That's all of what we have been told.

What we do not know about this strike is what was the intelligence behind it and how was that intelligence gathered. What we have been told by the White House is they were studying the intelligence for months and months. They knew Zawahiri was in Kabul. He was staying in the home of a top Taliban aide. This is said to be in violation of the agreements the Taliban made with the West.

So the U.S. knew he was there, was tracking him, and was ready to move in when he stepped out on that balcony.

That's pretty sophisticated real-time intelligence. How the U.S. was able to gather all of that and present it over the months to the president is something that we don't know.

What we do know is President Biden, very concerned about civilian casualties, and he was continuously briefed on all of this and was assured that they were taking every precaution. No evidence (ph), in fact, killed.

So, still a lot to learn about how this man was killed after so many months of being watched by the United States.

KEILAR: Barbara, obviously, a successful mission, but what does it say about the future, about U.S. counterterrorism policy, when you have a top terrorist who is so comfortable there in Kabul, apparently harbored by the Taliban?

STARR: You know, I think that's really the key question. So, let's start with this. The U.S., for months now, has been gathering intelligence about the

regrouping of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and its growth in power in so many of its affiliates around the world.

There had been a lot of concern that al Qaeda was regrouping in Afghanistan.

Zawahiri, by all accounts, felt comfortable, because he thought the U.S. was no longer there; could not reach out, literally, and get to him inside this very populated neighborhood in Kabul. Actually, a very wealthy neighborhood. I've been through there.

So the fact that they were able to get in and get him. What message does that send?

Al Qaeda right now is a very different organization than it was on the morning of September 11. There are offshoots. There are affiliates all the way from Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, into the al-Shabaab group in Somalia across the Sahel in Africa. All of these groups are very powerful in their own locations.

The concern for the United States in counterterrorism is that no elements of al Qaeda get back to the point where they can train, finance, equip and organize and carry out an attack against U.S. or Western interests. That's always going to be the big worry.

Is al Qaeda back? Yes. The question is, can it carry out another attack against the United States? That's the big question.

AVLON: It is, indeed. Barbara Starr, live at the Pentagon. Thank you very much.

STARR: Sure.

KEILAR: And joining us now to talk more about this, we have CNN national security correspondent, Kylie Atwood; CNN international security editor Nick Paton Walsh; and Matt Castelli, who is a former CIA officer and director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council. He is running for the Democratic nomination in New York's 21st congressional district.

Matt, I want to ask you first. How are you seeing this successful drone strike today?

MATT CASTELLI (D), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Well, it's quite remarkable that we were able to conduct this strike knowing that we didn't have boots on the ground. We didn't have a U.S. presence there. To be able to cultivate that kind of refined intelligence picture and actually execute a strike that had high confidence about the target, that was able to execute the target without incurring any civilian casualties, that's a big news story. And it's a testament to the good work of my former colleagues at the CIA.

My teammates there were working on this for a long time, some of them multiple decades in pursuit of this target.

AVLON: And this is a victory 21 years in the making.

Nick, you were among the first to report that the Doha agreements that said that the Taliban would not give safe harbor to terrorists or al Qaeda was absurd on its face, and that we could tell that part, because the Haqqani network was embedded in its cabinet out of the gate.

With the death of al-Zawahiri, what is the status of al Qaeda in Afghanistan today?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: I mean, overnight, have changed what they were and weren't able to do, to some degree. I mean, Al-Zawahiri was certainly involved operationally, and there were some suggesting that his messages recently had shown he was getting more relaxed, perhaps, referring to more recent events. So you'll see a change, because there's a figure head missing.

But in terms of the extent of what they may and may not be able to do, I don't think you're suddenly going to see it change, because they haven't been up to much, frankly, over the past years or so. Can any of us here remember the last major al Qaeda attack that we can all think about? So, there's that, certainly.

But I think it also points to the future of Afghanistan under the Taliban. As you mentioned the Doha agreements, the sort of sense of comfort the U.S. was desperate to get for itself, that it would be leaving with a particular goal achieved, of Afghanistan no longer being a terrorist safe haven.

And you can't have much more of a safe haven, frankly, than the leader of al Qaeda, living in one of the nicest neighborhoods, in the center of Kabul, doors away from senior current government officials.

I had another former government official, messaging me today, saying he lived three doors away from where this happened. This is the nicest place. You don't live there in that Taliban knowing that, certainly.

So this makes a mockery, frankly, of what we already thought with the nonsense promises of no foreigners, no terrorists would be in Afghanistan.

But you cannot take away from the fact this is a real wow moment. I mean, they found the guy, where they had no boots on the ground, and they took him out with what seems to be minimum civilian casualties with total confidence.

So you know, while al Qaeda's gain may be here, the U.S. have certainly learned a lot over the past two decades.

KEILAR: Kylie, I know you've been talking to a lot of your sources. What are they telling you?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the question over what this means for the U.S. relations with the Taliban is a really central one here. There isn't all that much of a legitimate relationship with the U.S.

government and the Taliban government right now. When U.S. officials talk to Taliban officials, they try and keep it at lower levels. We're not providing them with a whole lot of assistance right now.

But it's notable that the secretary of state is coming out and saying that the Doha agreement, which is that agreement where the Taliban said they weren't going to allow Afghanistan to be a place where terrorists could then carry -- use it as a base to carry out terrorist activity, has now been violated.

And talking about the Taliban, not just hosting, but sheltering this al Qaeda leader.

And that is significant, because now we need to see what does the U.S. government do about it, right? A senior administration official last night said that the Biden administration will continue to hold the Taliban accountable. Well, what does that look like?

Because we don't have a whole lot of tools to do that right now, particularly because, I said, of that relationship that is already frayed, already extremely awkward; and because we don't have any boots on the ground to go and go after other targets and also have these conversations with the Taliban.


AVLON: Matt, to that end, I mean, one year ago this week was the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was chaotic, much criticized and a pivotal moment in the Biden presidency. Independent voters breaking with the president decisively.

One of the chief critiques was that if America withdrew entirely, that we would not have the intelligence capability to hold terrorists to account. This strike suggests that's not the case. What's your take?

CASTELLI: Well, I'm surprised that you're correct, that this suggests that is not the case; that we do have the capability to actually maintain some degree of pressure against organizations like al Qaeda. But the key challenge here is that now we're also recognizing the flip side of this coin, is that Afghanistan is a safe haven for terrorism, and it's a safe haven for al Qaeda.

So the requirement still exists that we need a robust counterterrorism capability in the region. Does it require us being physically present in Afghanistan? Maybe not.

But how do we make sure that the resources are made available, there's clarity of mission. And whether it was the Biden administration bungling sort of the withdrawal, but also the prior administration, this Doha agreement that we're just talking about, and the conditions that were never met by the Taliban. There's blame to go around.

But also there's also blame in Congress, because the failure of oversight to make sure that we had clarity about what the future counterterrorism abilities were going to be in the aftermath of the withdrawal. There was plenty of lead time there. And I happening to be running against Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. She failed to show up for her oversight responsibilities.

KEILAR: Matt, I know you're seeing stuff in these pictures that we aren't seeing. So let's talk about that, because when we see the picture of this apartment, it doesn't look incendiary, the way so -- I mean, so many strikes that you have covered, Nick, would look like.

WALSH: You wouldn't see a roof, normally.

KEILAR: You wouldn't see a roof, normally. It would have caught fire. So we don't -- so what kind of weapon do you think was used, and is it really possible to do this without any assets on the ground?

CASTELLI: I'm not going to probably talk about sources and methods. But we can say that, as the president has acknowledged, that the intelligence community was a vital player in all of this.

And the capabilities that we have built up over 20 years of effort in combatting the war on terror here to make sure that we're doing these kinds of strikes in a precision manner, they're on full display right here and now.

AVLON: Nick, what do we know about al-Zawahiri's successor?

WALSH: Saif al-Adel, currently in Iran, according to the United Nations. A source I'm hearing from who knows counterterrorism pretty well in Afghanistan, suggesting he may have recently moved into Afghanistan. That takes, certainly, a major burning issue off the plate of the Iranians, because they would effectively be harboring the new leader of al Qaeda.

We know not a vast amount of him, frankly. And look at the churn, the pace. Al-Masri was the previous leader. He was killed in Tehran a matter of years ago now.

And so this is what it's like, essentially, being in the top tier of a major terrorist organization right now: ISIS, al Qaeda. You have a pretty short life span, it seems at the moment. I mean, they've taken out another ISIS potential leader just in the last year or so.

So I think here we're moving into an organization which still has the branding, still has the ambition, certainly; has a safe haven, clearly, in the Afghanistan. There were talk, I think, before the U.S. left that al Qaeda was biding its time, looking to see that maybe six months down the line, it might be able to effect attacks in the region. Possibly, 18 months against the West.

I'm pretty sure this will make, definitely, a symbolic dent in what they were and weren't able to do.

But the real thing here is exactly how the Taliban react. They're under pressure domestically. You know, it's tough being isolated from much of the outside world. They're struggling to keep the things the population they thought they'd be able to give. And so, do they choose this moment to actually genuinely crack down,

because it's clear the U.S. can do what it likes, frankly, and knows way more than it should.

Or -- this is more likely -- are we just going to see this get worse and worse?

You can put (ph) -- not think of Taliban as some monolithic entity like the Goldman Sachs corporate structure. These are lots of different organizations who often don't like each other; have different ambitions.

The al Qaedis have always been al Qaeda, and they're a key part of, certainly, the Kabul-based Taliban. And so they have a large say as to how the next months ahead are impacted.

KEILAR: Nick, Kylie, Matt, thank you so much for the great discussion.

AVLON: Thank you.

KEILAR: Really appreciate it.

And ahead, we're going to speak with National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications at the White House, John Kirby, for more on this.

AVLON: And it's no longer if but when. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan on her current trip to Asia. Pelosi arriving in Malaysia overnight with a congressional delegation. Her planned stop in Taiwan has ratcheted up tensions between the United States and China.

CNN's Will Ripley is live in the Taiwanese capital -- Will.


So, we know that Nancy Pelosi is in Malaysia right now. We've seen the photos of her visits in Singapore and Malaysia. But the most anticipated stop is not on her official agenda, and that is the stop that is going to be happening here in Taiwan, we believe, possibly in the coming hours.

Because there is no official time line here, we're having to do our best here to figure out when Speaker Pelosi should land here in Taipei.


The school of thought right now is that it could be in the later evening hours, in which case she basically would go to the hotel, overnight at a hotel here in Taipei, probably near Taipei 101 or some iconic landmark. And then she's up in the morning for meetings. Presumably it would be with Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen; perhaps members of Parliament.

But how the day is going to play out, how many hours she's going to be on the ground here, these are all things that we need to watch very closely. And certainly, China will be watching, as well.

They have been putting out propaganda videos, threatening, you know, military action, showing themselves, you know, practicing various amphibious assaults and showing their air forces, you know, in active retaliation, if you will.

But this is a rhetorical and propaganda escalation at this point. We're not seeing a physical buildup in the Taiwan Strait of Chinese military assets.

And so of course, the United States is going to do everything they can to make sure Speaker Pelosi remains safe. But it does seem at this point that China's rhetoric of what you would expect for this kind of high-level visit to an island that China thinks is basically a province of theirs. And they think the United States, by sending high- level officials here, is engaging with a government that they don't believe is legitimate.

And that's -- that's the core of this issue. That's why China doesn't like the United States to have official interactions with Taiwan. Because they say if the United States were to encourage Taiwan to declare formal independence as a country, because a lot of countries around the world including the U.S., don't acknowledge Taiwan's status as a country. That's why we call is a self-governing democracy or a self-governing island.

But this certainly is a complicated situation that Nancy Pelosi will be finding herself in. But she -- she knows the issue well. She's followed it for many years, John and Brianna.

AVLON: Certainly. Will Ripley, thank you. Stay close and keep us updated.

All right. Back here in the United States, hundreds of people are still unaccounted for in Kentucky, with more rain in the forecast. We've got a live report ahead.

Plus, Brittney Griner back in a Russian court. Will Washington's effort to get her released finally pay off?

KEILAR: And it is primary day for some key states. Abortion rights and election denialism being put to the test.



KEILAR: The sun is about to come up in Eastern Kentucky, and it could reveal even more devastation this morning. More rain was in the forecast overnight, and it could bring even more flooding and make the urgent search for survivors even more treacherous. At least 37 people now are dead. Hundreds are still unaccounted for at this point.

CNN's Evan McMorris-Santoro is on the ground in Hazzard this morning.

Evan, it just seems like every time we check with you, this unfortunate number is rising. Tell us what you're seeing today and what you've seen over the last 24 hours.

EVAN MCMORRIS-SANTORO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that death toll does continue to rise. And no one expects that to stop anytime soon. It's a really horrible thing to think about.

But there are some bright spots this Tuesday morning. That severe rain we were worried about coming in last night did not materialize. Forecasters tell us it probably won't materialize today. Although we're still under a flash flood watch here in Perry County and these other flood-affected areas until 9 a.m.

And if you were rescued or you got to safety on Thursday night, you're -- you're starting to see some slow signs of improvement. I, for example, took my first shower in Hazzard this morning, which I know my crew appreciates. But I had to use water that is still under a boil water advisory. Potable water still difficult to find around here.

Power coming back on. Cell service starting to get improved. And we're seeing state and federal aid coming in like travel trailers and things like that that are providing homes for people who lost their spots.

Seeing these -- the weather looks good right now, which is really, really helpful. And people are really hopeful about that.

But Governor Beshear was on "WOLF BLITZER" last night, talking about how there's still very active rescues going on. And how the weather that we've had so far, because it did rain yesterday -- might rain a little bit today -- hampers those efforts.


GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY): We are still searching for people. Our death toll went up to 35 today. And we know of more bodies that have already been discovered. So it's going to continue to grow.

The rain today has hampered some of our efforts. We are still looking for people; and sadly, we are still finding those bodies.


MCMORRIS-SANTORO: So the headlines: that death toll now 37. And that severe rain we were worried about so far has not materialized. A lot of searching still to be done. A lot of repairing still to be done. As you can see behind me, a lot of damage still to be assessed -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes. That has been wiped out behind you, Evan, thank you so much for the report, live for us from Hazzard, Kentucky.

AVLON: And of course, more rain is the last thing Eastern Kentucky needs right now. Let's go down to CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray for more.

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: That's right. The last thing they need, of course. Like Evan said, they really caught a lucky break during the overnight hours. However, the National Weather Service is not comfortable dropping this flood watch until we see how the rest of the next couple of hours play out.

They caught an extremely lucky break, because we were supposed to have some very heavy rainfall across Eastern Kentucky around 4 a.m. And basically, the rain just split.

And these were very potent storms. Likely a tornado across Dallas, West Virginia, that had some -- quite a bit of damage. So this would have been the last thing Eastern Kentucky needed. Of course, no one welcomes a tornado in their region.

But the high-res forecast radar is calling for just a couple of spotty showers for this afternoon. Looks like we're going to stay mostly clear for Wednesday. Really not planning on too much rain for this area.

The bulk of the rain is going to stay to the West. This is the excessive rainfall outlook for Tuesday and Wednesday. You can see the focus is more on Western Kentucky now, versus Eastern Kentucky.

But guys, you're right, any little bit of rainfall is not good for those search efforts.


AVLON: All right, Jennifer, thank you very much.

And up ahead, we're going to speak with a Kentucky resident who says his family is still trapped.

Now, WNBA star Brittney Griner is back in a Russian courtroom this morning as the U.S. tries to negotiate her freedom in a prisoner swap. We've got a live report from Russia, next.

KEILAR: And it is primary day in America. Former President Trump hedging his bets in a Missouri Senate race, simply endorsing "Eric," a first name shared by two rival Republican candidates.


AVLON: Moments ago, WNBA star Brittney Griner leaving her seventh court hearing in Moscow as U.S. officials attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap for her release.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen standing by live near Moscow -- Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, John. And we really noticed that we're getting into the decisive phase of this trial. What the defense tried to do today is it put forward an expert witness to try to cast some doubt on the original forensics.