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Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri Killed in U.S. Drone Strike in Kabul, Afghanistan; White House States Drone Strike on Al-Qaeda Leader Caused No Collateral Damage; U.S. Warns China Not to Turn Pelosi's Taiwan Visit Into "Crisis". Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 08:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Zawahiri was Usama bin Laden's trusted top lieutenant and one of the master planners of the 9/11 attacks. He was targeted as he stepped out on the balcony of a house where his family was hiding in downtown Kabul.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And this video, just obtained by CNN, shows the moments following the strike. You see heavy plumes of smoke billowing from the area. Overnight security tightened in Kabul. Sources say President Biden took great pains to prevent collateral damage from the strike, examining a scaled model of Zawahiri's home before greenlighting the mission. And this morning, the FBI updating its most wanted notice for Zawahiri to deceased.

KEILAR: Let's bring in National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House, John Kirby. Sir, thank you so much for being with us. I know that certainly you are hailing this as a success today at the White House and we're trying to get more information about it. What can you tell us about this attack? Anything more about the type of weapon that was used? And can you guarantee that no one was killed besides Zawahiri?

JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: All good questions, Brianna. So, look, this mission really took shape over the course of the last six, seven months. It was really sort of early this year, as you heard the president say, that we got indications that Mr. Zawahiri had moved into Afghanistan. So what we were able to do is stitch together some intelligence based on the movements of his family, quite frankly. And then once we tracked them into Kabul, we were able to then be able to track him and his efforts to reunite them.

That led then to weeks if not several months of making sure that we had the right guy, that this was, in fact, Mr. Zawahiri, and that this was in fact their residence, and then, of course, developing a pattern of life. His habits, if and when he went outside, how often, on what days, for how long, all that kind of stuff factored into it.

And once we knew that we had an effective pattern of life and opportunities that could be taken, it was really then just stitching together how you were going to take that opportunity and with what. In this case we used an unmanned aerial vehicle with missiles, obviously. And two of those missiles were fired at Mr. Zawahiri while he was outside on that third-floor balcony.

The president made it very clear, when he made the decision that he wanted to make sure we avoided civilian casualties. And we know we did. From a series of intelligence and other sources that we have available to us, we have been able to ascertain with high confidence that no civilians were hurt or injured or -- no real damage, even to the structure, other than minor damage from this strike.

KEILAR: We have seen strikes in the past where they were incendiary, and they burned up everything around them. This looks different.

KIRBY: I really don't want to get too much into the targeting itself, Brianna. But I would just tell you that this strike was done in a very precise, very deliberate, and very constrained way to do exactly what it was intended to do, kill one man.

KEILAR: OK, so I want to ask you, what does it say -- what does it say -- and I think, I'm surprised that they can't get another leaf blower or lawnmower going behind you, John Kirby.


KEILAR: I have to acknowledge that, just when I think there is one, there is three going. But what does it say about the future of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan that one of the most wanted terrorists in the world is comfortable on a balcony in downtown Kabul?

KIRBY: Well, I'll tell you a couple of things. One, it tells you we can do exactly what we said we were going to do a year ago. Over the horizon counterterrorism capability is possible. In fact, it can be very effective, and we have seen that just over the course of this weekend.

And if I'm an Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan right now, I bet you I'm thinking that it's not quite the safe haven I once thought it was, and I'm sure that this is putting them on their back heels, and we're going to have to watch and be vigilant as they try to adjust to what just happened on Saturday night.

KEILAR: Jake Sullivan says we're communicating directly with the Taliban about their obligations not to allow Al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a basis for plotting. What does that look like? What is he saying? What is the White House saying? And what are the consequences of them not doing that?

KIRBY: We have multiple channels to communicate with the Taliban, and we're using those channels. We've made it very clear that this was a violation, not that we believe, not that we think it was a violation of the Doha agreement, which specifically says, and commits them to not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven or launching pad for attacks against the United States or other of our allies and partner.


And clearly because Mr. Zawahiri was not only there but was actively encouraging his followers to plot and plan attacks against American interests and the American homeland, that's a violation. We made that very clear. And believe me, this strike, itself, sends a very strong message to the Taliban about our sincerity in meeting that commitment.

KEILAR: What is the Taliban doing in the wake of this attack specifically on the ground with the family of Zawahiri?

KIRBY: All we know, Brianna, is they moved the family. And we, again, we know that for sure, that they have moved the family away. The house is now empty. They have done a lot of cleaning up. Certainly, their original account of this was false, that it was a rocket attack and nobody was hurt. So they're trying to manage the spin here a little bit and the information environment. I can't speak to what the Taliban leaders are now doing long-term in terms of their relations with the United States or with the relations with these terrorist networks, but we've made it clear what our expectation is for their behavior going forward.

KEILAR: Do you have DNA confirmation of his death?

KIRBY: We do not. We do not have DNA confirmation, Brianna. We're not going to get that confirmation. Quite frankly, Brianna, based on the multiple sources and methods that we have gathered the information from, we don't need it.

KEILAR: Do you have visual confirmation?

KIRBY: We have visual confirmation. But we also have confirmation through other sources and methods.

KEILAR: You have confirmation through other sources and methods as well.

As we talk about what happens going forward, with the Taliban, can you just shed a little more light about what we are expecting to see, what the ramifications really are going to be? This is a pretty amazing operation, but obviously you would expect that resources to do something like this are finite. So how do you impress upon the Taliban and get them to stick to the agreement of not harboring terrorists?

KIRBY: We think that the strike itself, you kind of alluded to this in your question, the strike itself is a measure of accountability. The strike itself tells them, shows them how serious we are about our desire never to see Afghanistan become a safe haven again for launches -- the launch of attacks against our homeland. And it shows them the degree to which we're capable of doing this without boots on the ground, and that we're going to be able to maintain that capability going forward.

You called it a finite resource. I won't disagree with you. Obviously, all military resources are, in effect, finite, because you can number and count them. But we have a range, a layer of opportunities and capabilities in the region to be able to do this in the future if we really need to. And believe me, the president has been very clear with the national security team that we're going to stay at that -- we're going to stay at that task, we're going to keep that capability robust, and we're going to continue to look for ways to improve it going forward.

KEILAR: I think I'm speaking more specifically about intel and operating, obviously, in a place like Afghanistan, which is tough. It's tough when you don't have a base there.

KIRBY: They will probably adjust some of the things that they do. We know that. We anticipated that. We'll adjust as well.

KEILAR: And just finally, explain why this isn't just being right back where the U.S. was 9/11 with Al Qaeda being in Kabul.

KIRBY: My goodness, Al Qaeda is nowhere near the organization and the threat that it once was, certainly on 9/11, or even 10 years ago when we killed bin Laden. It is a vastly diminished terrorist network, and they have had their challenges. That doesn't mean, however, that we can just take the eye off the ball and forget about them. Just like ISIS. ISIS is vastly diminished thanks to our efforts inside that coalition. But it doesn't mean they aren't a viable threat.

Mr. Zawahiri was posing a threat because he was actively encouraging his followers to plot and plan attacks against the homeland, against the United States, and that was all the justification we needed. But they are a vastly diminished threat. We're going to make sure they continue to be a vastly diminished threat, and that's by being vigilant.

KEILAR: John Kirby, thank you so much. Live with us there from the White House, we appreciate it.

And joining us now is the founder Good Trouble Productions, and former anchor at ABC and CBS news Reena Ninan, and CNN senior political commentator and former senior adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod. Thank you so much to both of you for being here. So you heard what John Kirby is saying, and obviously they're hailing this as a success. It is a success. They got this guy after 21 years. But there is also a lot of questions this is raising about this guy being in Kabul, David.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, there's no question about it. But I must say as I was watching John Kirby there, I was thinking back a year ago to his briefings at the Pentagon on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And, boy, he has more of a bounce in his step today because success is better than the appearance of disorderliness, and he -- and offense is better than defense, and this was an offensive move.


But look, it does raise questions. How did he get there? How did he feel, as you pointed out, so comfortable that he stepped out on the balcony in the middle of the capital of Afghanistan? And one hopes that what Kirby says also turns out to be true, which is this is a lesson that will chasten the Taliban about harboring terrorists in their -- in the shadow of their capital.

REENA NINAN, FORMER ANCHOR, ABC NEWS AND CBS NEWS: I can't imagine just how -- so surprising to me how cocky and brazen Zawahiri was to be in the middle of this town, and also the fact that there for hours, is my understanding, he was known to be sitting on this balcony. The one thing covering war zones and being in that our security forces will tell you that protect us, you never want to create a pattern where people can identify what you're doing day in and day out.

But what amazes me about this, I started my career on 9/11, and coming around to this point and watching it and seeing you talk about it, too, earlier this morning as well, we didn't -- I think so many people didn't believe the Taliban, Al Qaeda, didn't believe President Biden when they pulled out and he said we're going to still maintain counterterrorism. People believe counterterrorism looks like a war. Folks in military uniform on the ground. And what we saw here today was that that's not how counterterrorism is fought. It's through intelligence, local law enforcement. It's from partners in the region helping us.

And what surprises me the most is how this happened. Brianna, you were asking Mr. Kirby about this. We didn't see these explosions. Like, what happened here in this moment? What was used was developed, my understanding, was two hellfire missiles. These missiles were developed under the Obama administration is my understanding. The way they do, how they come in, there are six blades that essentially come in and have the capacity of chopping up one individual very horribly.

KEILAR: They don't explode.

NINAN: They don't explode. There's not hundreds of pounds of explosives, which was an issue during the Obama administration, as I covered the Middle East. Women, children, all of these innocent people were used as human shields. This was a way to be able to counter that, and to use this type of secret weaponry that can go in, take out a target, and get out.

So when people don't believe the White House when they say that counterterrorism operations are still taking place, when they say that we are still watching these regions and haven't taken our eye off the ball, we have new capabilities in the U.S. that allow us to do that without boots on the ground.

AXELROD: I think the big question a year ago when the president said that we were going to continue these operations was, how do you get intelligence when you don't have assets on the ground? And obviously, they were able to get intelligence here, which has to cause some concern for the Taliban and for these terrorist organizations.

AVLON: Well, Zawahiri felt comfortable enough, he thought he would be protected presumably by the Taliban, enough to go to Kabul, and that clearly was a fatal mistake.

David, I want to stay with you, because one year ago this month, that's really when President Biden's poll numbers started going decidedly south, around the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. By which, I mean, look, war ends are inherently messy. But that was especially chaotic. What you can see and know from the polling is independent voters in particular fell away from the president dramatically in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Do you think that this action, killing Zawahiri after 21 years, is enough to start counteracting some of the damage that was done to the administration's credibility with the withdrawal from Afghanistan?

AXELROD: Look, I think that it is helpful. I recall when Usama bin Laden was killed that President Obama's numbers went up, but it was a temporary kind of bump. But the point is, it comes in the midst of a series of things that look good for the president. He's passing some significant legislation. He may be on the cusp of passing another piece of significant legislation. And as I said earlier, wins breed wins, success breeds success. So it's helpful.

But he's still, the party is still facing gale force winds in the fall. So it may reduce a category five to a category three. But certainly, this is a far better story for the president than the desultory nature of the withdrawal a year ago.

KEILAR: There is also this split screen of what's happening when it comes to 9/11, and I know it seems like so long ago, but not that long ago for so many of us, right? On one hand you have the former president this weekend saying, as he hosts a golf tournament backed by the Saudi league, no one has gotten to the bottom of 9/11, at the same time that you have the U.S. government taking out the leader of Al Qaeda. And I wonder how that strikes you right now.

NINAN: What remains with many me in the days after 9/11 are the stories of the pregnant moms who were carrying babies whose fathers had passed, the children who now have grown up without parents.


And now, we see the reverse is true. We live in a country where parents are losing their children, as much as we focus on this war on terror, on al Qaeda. We have -- the director of national intelligence, intelligence forces have told us Afghanistan is not our biggest threat now.

We don't talk enough about how domestic extremists are also harming our country equally as big of a threat as well. It is important to note, you know, the stories we now cover of the parents from gun violence, our Black churches and synagogues, I think that's also warrants equal attention, we're talking about threats against America.

KEILAR: It is a really interesting changing landscape that I think is worth a discussion.

Reena, David, thank you to both of you.

AVLON: Thank you so much for joining us.

KEILAR: So a man who brought a gun to the Capitol on January 6th has been sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Why some of his children say former President Trump deserves life behind bars.

And it's no longer if, but when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan on her current trip to Asia. How China is likely to respond. AVLON: Plus, we now know Tiger Woods was offered more than $700

million to join the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league. Wow.


KEILAR: This morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to make a highly controversial trip to Taiwan, even as China vows to retaliate if she steps foot there.


She and other lawmakers arrived in Malaysia earlier this morning as part of their Asian tour.

And CNN's Selina Wang is in Beijing, Will Ripley is live in Taipei, Taiwan.

Will, first, to you, what are we expecting there?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are getting -- it is very unusual, the Taiwanese government not only very transparent. They're putting out tweets. They're putting out press releases. They have stayed very silent today.

The ministry of defense not responding to questions. There is no updates about whether any Chinese warplanes have crossed into the self-declared air defense identification zone even when reporters asked about it. Normally, they tweet that stuff automatically.

We do know the presidential office had a cyberattack that shut down their website for about 20 minutes. Of course, there is no way to say who conducted that attack. But it was an unusual type of incident.

We're expecting in the coming hours for Nancy Pelosi to arrive and I guess then in terms of what is going to happen, we know that she is expected to overnight here in Taipei and have meetings tomorrow, we don't know how many or how long, she plans to be on the ground, officially. But she might have a full schedule and what we're also going to be looking for is the reaction on the mainland side, while she's here and perhaps even more crucially after she leaves.

AVLON: Selina, what is China saying about this right now?

SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the language from China, it is getting angrier, but still the threats remain vague. The military saying it won't sit idly by. Officials threatening serious consequences, saying this is a direct challenge to China's sovereignty because despite what the White House says from Beijing's perspective, they see the visit of a leader in the presidential line of succession to Taiwan as tacitly supporting Taiwan independence, which is a clear red line for Beijing.

Now, this fiery language we're hearing, we have heard this type of rhetoric before when it comes to Taiwan, the difference this time is that the timing is sensitive. We're months away from a key political meeting when Xi Jinping is expected to step into an unprecedented third term. So, this is a moment when he cannot look weak.

And already we're seeing this military propaganda that is showing off China's military hardware, with the message to bury your enemies. We're also seeing several military drills recently including just this past weekend in China's province closest to Taiwan.

So, at the same time, however, that Xi Jinping needs to look strong, he also needs stability, especially considering all the challenges at home, so we have to look for a response that saves face, but also stops short of turning this into a real escalation.

KEILAR: All right. Selina and Will, thank you for the latest on that.

There is backlash that is pouring in because of the NFL's punishment for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Is there a double standard?

AVLON: And Don Lemon in the House. Last night, he spoke to retired D.C. police officer who was part of Trump's motorcade on January 6th. Don is here to discuss that and much more.


KEILAR: Right?




SGT. MARK ROBINSON (RET.), DC METROPOLITAN POLICE: It was a heated argument in the limo. And he wanted to definitely go to the Capitol. When we arrived at the White House, the motorcade was placed on standby.

LEMON: Were you saying, what on earth does he want to go back to the Capitol? Is that what you guys were thinking?

ROBINSON: I mean, absolutely. I mean, now knowing what actually happened, that would have been horrible. You know, had the motorcade responded, you know, to the Capitol, it would have been far worse.

I think it would have, you know, probably encouraged the more rioting, you know, and felt supported, you know, if the presidential motorcade came in support of them. I think the insurrectionists would have felt as though they had the support of the president.

Had we made that move, I thought it would have been an insane movement, and I think the sentiment was felt even with the Secret Service. They weren't prepared for that and I'm just glad it did not occur.


KEILAR: That was retired D.C. Metropolitan Police Sergeant Mark Robinson, speaking to our Don Lemon last night.

Sergeant Robinson was part of Donald Trump's motorcade on January 6th. And Don is with us here to discuss this interview.

So interesting to hear him talk about it. We heard it multiple times, he says, while he was in the motorcade.

LEMON: Yeah, good morning. There is just having him and just doing an interview -- good to see you, as well.

AVLON: You too, man.

LEMON: It is -- it is interesting to have him sort of in that environment, just talking, instead of seeing his testimony, right? He's a nice guy, he's a genuine good guy, you can tell, right? You can get what kind of a person he is, it comes through the television.

But what's interesting is he said, I had been in, you know, over 100 motorcades since 2011. And I've been in these situations. Not an insurrection, but similar situations where there was a motorcade, and not once had the president wanted to go somewhere and everyone around him said, no, we're not doing it. And they -- was adamant about it.

And then he said, imagine if he would have gone, if we would have gone back to the Capitol with the president what would have happened. More rioting, rioting that he would have inspired.

AVLON: That's what struck me about the interview, right? I mean, here is a guy who is a consummate professional, corroborating Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony, which initially had been attacked by some people in an attempt who never went under oath, this is corroboration.

But the fact he said if he had taken that motion, how much worse it would have been. What do you think that says about the president's state of mind and intent?

LEMON: Well, even -- I asked him, what do you think -- what do you mean by it would have been worse? And he said -- I said, do you think it would be more death or whatever? Yes, of course. What does that say about his state of mind? I mean, that's he's delusional. That's what it says about his state of mind.

Let's not pretend there was some sort of rationality around this. This wasn't rational behavior. Just think of what he had just done moments ago on the ellipse. That he encouraged people to go down. He encouraged people to go to the Capitol. He wanted to be there with his people.

From the other testimony, those people are not there for me. They're not going to harm me. I know that they have -- he knew they had weapons, according to the testimony. He knew.

But he didn't think they would use those weapons against him. They would use weapons against other people, like perhaps the vice president of the United States who they --