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U.S. Kills Al Qaeda Leader Al-Zawahiri In Drone Strike In Afghanistan. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 01, 2022 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The United States has successfully targeted and killed the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Stand by for details on the drone strike in Afghanistan as President Biden is preparing right now to address the nation on the strike.

Also tonight, increasing death and destruction from extreme weather here in the United States. CNN is on the scene of historic flooding in Eastern Kentucky and an exploding wildfire in Northern California.

Welcome, here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get right to the breaking news, the United States killing the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, more than a decade after the raid that took out Osama Bin Laden.

Let's go to our White House Correspondent M.J. Lee. She's working the story for us. M.J., this is really significant and an important moment for the U.S. right now. Tell our viewers what you are learning.

M.J. LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. This is about to be a major announcement that we hear directly from President Biden. We expect that President Biden will be addressing the nation at around 7:30 tonight. And a senior administration official had told us that this was a counterterrorism operation of a significant Al Qaeda target. And now we are learning from sources that this target was in fact Al Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Now, the senior administration official had importantly also noted that the successful operation did not result in any civilian casualties. Now, of course, keep in mind that this comes about a year after the U.S.'s full withdrawal from Afghanistan, the last military planes leaving Afghanistan in August of last year.

So, this is going to raise questions a lot of question that perhaps, the president himself will address about how exactly this operation was conducted given that there are no U.S., American military presence currently in Afghanistan, and also what the assurances are that we hear potentially from the president himself on this note that there was no civilian casualties.

Now, as you know, the president has been isolating because of a rebound case of COVID, and this is a part of the reason why we are going to hear the president deliver his remarks from the blue room balcony instead of an indoor setting.

There is no question, Wolf, that when hear the president speak later tonight, he is going to be speaking as the nation's commander-in- chief, a significant operation and a significant announcement directly from the president in just a little bit, Wolf.

BLITZER: I can only assume that the president personally had to sign off on this decision to target and kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda.

Stand by, M.J. I want to get some more from our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr right now. You're over there at the U.S. military, Barbara. What are you picking up?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we have every reason at the moment to believe this was a drone strike, most likely carried out by the CIA, not by the U.S. military. But that being said, why do we believe that that is the most likely scenario, is because the U.S. does not send manned aircraft over Afghanistan because it has no ability to recover pilots or crews as they go down. So, this would not have been like the Bin Laden operation, most likely. This would not have been Special Operations forces on the ground. We don't believe that's what -- right now, that is what happened. This operation most likely drone that had been watching overhead.

But it raises a very interesting question. In the Bin Laden operation, of course, Navy SEALs went into that compound, killed Bin Laden, took photographs, there was proof of death. And so we will have to see if the administration is able to offer the world similar, specific proof. If there was anybody on the ground showing that al-Zawahiri is dead. We just simply don't know the answer at this time.

$25 million reward on his head. He was, by all accounts, the leader of the Al Qaeda movement after Bin Laden was killed. Now, whether he directed specific operations, the U.S. remained worried about him and worried about the resurgence of Al Qaeda, especially in Afghanistan and very worried that there would be enough resurgence of Al Qaeda. And they still worry in the coming years that Al Qaeda could again regroup, organize itself to be able to carry out some kind of strikes against U.S. interests or even the U.S. homeland.

That continues to be the reason Al Qaeda is the core concern of the U.S. intelligence community, the military and the entire U.S. government. Any Al Qaeda ability after all these years to strike out again is something they want to make sure they deal with before it would even remotely happen.


So, now, al-Zawahiri dead, we need to learn how exactly it happened and where that leaves Al Qaeda now. What is the U.S. intelligence assessment with al-Zawahiri gone, Bin Laden long gone, of the capability of the Al Qaeda organization, how it may be able to regroup leadership now, raise funds, organize, train, equip and where Al Qaeda may be planning to strike in the future. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, a huge, huge win for the U.S. right now, Ayman al- Zawahiri killed by the United States.

Barbara, stay with us. I also want to bring in CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Osama Bin Laden. He knows this subject really, really well. Also joining us, CNN Military Analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling and CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood is with us as well.

General Hertling, how significant is this, the strike killing the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: This is a target that the U.S. has been going after for over almost three decades, Wolf. This even goes before the 9/11 strikes. Zawahiri leads in Al Qaeda that has various networks around the globe with an uneven centralized control. Affiliates like (INAUDIBLE), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen, Nasr al-Islam in the African Sahel, al- Shabaab in Somalia. So, you're talking about an individual who is the CEO of this organization. You can debate how powerful he is compared to Bin Laden but it's a big deal.

The other thing I'd bring up to is, Barbara mentioned that this was more than likely a drone strike. That -- I would give that probably a 70 percent possibility. But I wouldn't rule out a man strike against this individual either. What you are talking about is the kinds of things we talked about when we withdrew from Afghanistan. This would be an over-the-horizon strike with very little capability for collecting intelligence within Afghanistan. This was a significant hit by both the intelligence community and anyone who pulled off this operation.

BLITZER: Yes. The U.S. has been trying to find this guy, capture him or kill him for so, so many years.

Peter Bergen, Ayman al-Zawahiri, he took over as the leader of Al Qaeda after the killing of Bin Laden. As someone who has covered Al Qaeda extensively, and you have, what can you tell us about Ayman al- Zawahiri and how big a loss is this for the terror group?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I would say Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was in his early 70s when he was killed. He comes from an upper middle-class Egyptian family. He's a surgeon. He's a physician. He's a smart guy. He was not, however, a charismatic leader in the mold of Bin Laden. And I don't think he ever really resuscitated Al Qaeda when he took it over back when Bin Laden was killed on May 1st, 2011.

He didn't prove to be a very competent leader of Al Qaeda. But the reason I think that he was killed in Afghanistan over the weekend was he was beginning to a lot more risks. According to the United Nations, he released kind of an unprecedented number of videos. Every time you record a video, there is a chain of custody of that video, getting it out there, somebody maybe taking a video. So, he was becoming more prominent. And I think it seems to me that that may well have been the reason that he was detected.

BLITZER: General Hertling, a Taliban spokespersons has just tweeted, and I'm quoting now, that an airstrike was carried out on a residential house in Kabul City on July 31st. And, once again, I'm quoting, initial findings determined that the strike was carried out by an American drone. That's the tweet. What do you make of those details?

HERTLING: I don't think we should be taking any intelligence from anybody within the Taliban right now, Wolf. That's certainly something that they are going to talk about a potential for civilian casualties, for damage to a neighborhood. So, again, I think we really need to listen to what the president says today and the kind of intelligence we have and how confident the U.S. is on the success of this strike. I think we're going to get a lot tonight at 7:30 from President Biden.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're right. I think we're going to get a lot of details on how this was all carried out. The U.S. has been trying to do this for so many years.

Kylie, this comes after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, what, nearly a year or so ago, changing the counterterrorism landscape. That presents new challenges for the U.S. right now, doesn't it?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Incredibly new challenges, Wolf. And I think those at the State Department, those within the Biden administration who said after that withdrawal that the Biden administration would still work on counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan are probably feeling pretty right now. Because, as you said, according to that Taliban spokesperson, this was a drone strike that was carried out yesterday in Kabul, which is hugely significant.


Of course, we need to wait to hear the details about how this was carried about from the president tonight. But if the United States was able to work with the Taliban on this, yet to be seen if that was actually the case, then that would be significant. And there have been concerns about how the Biden administration, how the U.S. could continue any sort of legitimate counterterrorism operations in the country without having a U.S. military footprint on the ground there.

BLITZER: And, once again, we're standing by to hear directly from the president of the United States. He's getting ready to address the nation, indeed, the world on this major, major development for the U.S.

Everyone stand by. We are continuing to follow this huge breaking news. We will have much more on the U.S. killing of the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Afghanistan. Much more of our special coverage right here in THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.


BLITZER: We're back with major breaking news right now. Sources telling CNN the United States has killed Al Qaeda Leader Ayman al- Zawahiri in Afghanistan in a successful drone strike against Osama Bin Laden's successor. President Biden is preparing to address the nation and indeed the world very, very shortly about this operation.


Jim Sciutto, you and I have covered this story for a long, long time. This is a huge deal.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. I mean, first on Zawahiri, he was literally Bin Laden's right-hand man. When he merged Islamic -- Egyptian Islamic jihad, that was Zawahiri's initial organization, with Al Qaeda, it became a bigger, more capable organization. This goes back to the 1998 embassy bombings, even prior to 9/11, that he was operationally involved with.

BLITZER: The U.S. embassy bombing.

SCIUTTO: The U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania Kenya.

And also in terms of personal relationships with Laden, he was his physician as well as his second in command of the organization, so, ties to the man who led Al Qaeda for many years. And since then, for more than a decade after Bin Laden's killing, Zawahiri has been the number one man in this organization. So, in that sense, he is significant in his own right and second only really to Osama Bin Laden in terms stature inside that organization.

The other point I would make is this, is that the U.S. ability to carry out operations from outside Afghanistan post its withdrawal last August has very much been in question. Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, has acknowledged publicly they can't do it as well, right? They don't have the same resources. They don't have the same vision and surveillance without people on the ground. I spoke to the head of MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, last week. He acknowledged to me in public it is more difficult from outside in, as the British call it, the Americans call it over-the-horizon.

For the U.S. to have carried this out from over the horizon, a successful attack like this, be it drones, outside surveillance, whatever help they had on the ground in terms of intelligence, if a bounty played a role, still shows remarkable capability a year after the U.S. took its footprint off the ground. Remember, that footprint was, yes, uniformed soldiers, there was also heavily CIA operatives that were carrying out the bulk, really, of U.S. counter-terror activity before the withdrawal.

BLITZER: It's interesting, General Hertling, the assumption, correct me if I'm wrong, was that Ayman al-Zawahiri was hiding out somewhere in Pakistan, where Bin Laden had been was hiding out as well. If he went from Pakistan into Afghanistan, assuming that might be safer for him following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, that would be significant.

HERTLING: Well, back in the day when we were discussing Afghanistan a whole lot more than Ukraine, Wolf, we know that that (INAUDIBLE), the area that people moved back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is basically a free zone. It's not difficult to cross over from one to the other. But to really hone in on Jim's point a minute ago in terms of that over-the-horizon capability, that's when we withdrew from Afghanistan. There was a lot of discussion about the impossibility of doing over- the-horizon strikes. And the Central Command commander at the time also said, yes, it will be much more difficult.

But when you are talking about gathering intelligence on key targets in order to conduct targeting data, there are all kinds of different targeting capabilities, if you take away one of those, like the human targeting capability, where you have someone on the ground knowing where the person is and can confirm or deny their location, that's significant.

But you still have intelligence, signals, overhead imagery, spies within the Taliban government potentially even that would rat out this guy. Because the complexities of the relationship, as Peter Bergen will tell you, are extreme, in this case, the dynamics between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and even the personality of Zawahiri. So, all of those are factors in terms of how you get the intelligence to conduct a strike from a long distance when you don't have people inside of the country.

BLITZER: Well, you make a really important point. I want to bring in Peter Bergen right now. He's a real expert on Al Qaeda. Peter, what is, as far as we know, the Al Qaeda relationship right now with the Taliban in Afghanistan?

BERGEN: Very close. I mean -- and don't take my word for it. The U.N. issued a very detailed report just last month. They issued these reports fairly regularly. This one was focused on ISIS and Al Qaeda. The U.N. has characterized the acting minister of the interior, Siraj Haqqani, as a member of the leadership council of Al Qaeda.

So, here, you have this unusual example of Al Qaeda actually being a cabinet member of the Taliban, a member of Al Qaeda being a Taliban cabinet member. So, those relations are very close. And I think this gets to why perhaps Zawahiri was found. He was feeling very comfortable. The U.N. and the same reports that he released an unprecedented number of videotapes kind of testifying, A, to a current proof life, and, B, to kind of the comfort level that he had with the Taliban. So, I think that will be part of the story that we will see as we get to know more about how this went down.

BLITZER: And we are about to learn a whole lot more about how this went down.

Barbara Starr, you are at the Pentagon for us.


It may have been a CIA drone operation, but there's no doubt the U.S. military was deeply involved in preparing for it, the intelligence that was necessary, among other things. Tell us what you're learning.

STARR: Well, Wolf, the U.S. military, the intelligence community, they share the most exquisitely classified information on Al Qaeda literally every day. They all have the same information, they know what is happening and they understand what Al Qaeda may be up to. We don't know yet what the key piece of intelligence was that led them to understand, or when it happened, led them to understand where Ayman al-Zawahiri was. They may have been tracking him for some time.

And as you said a short time ago, Wolf, they must have -- it would make perfect common sense that it would have presented options to President Biden about how to best go after Zawahiri. This is something that very typically happens when the CIA or the Pentagon has a target, an important target. You take it to the president of the United States and you say, here are options how we can get after this target, how we can capture or kill this person. And you most importantly tell the president what are the risks.

And that's the key thing, I think, at this hour that we do not know that may prove most interesting. What are the risks that were presented to Joe Biden? How did he evaluate them? And how, with his advisers, did he come to a decision? Certainly, a drone, an unmanned weapon system flying hours into Afghanistan would have been the least risky, no human life at risk in the air from a pilot or a crew.

But you might not have to prove that Zawahiri was killed. You would need someone on the ground to take a photo to prove to the world that it was him. Was that a Taliban operative in cooperation with the U.S.? Were there some kind of intelligence operatives that went in on the ground, as risky as that would have been? So, that's going to be one of the key questions, what were the risks, how did the president evaluate them, how did he come to the decision he made.

And we may or may not learn details. I want to raise this with everyone. We may or may not learn details. If this was something so difficult, and, as I say, based on such exquisite intelligence, they may tell America and the world some details, but they may decide to keep something close hold in case this was the type operation that they may want to conduct again in the future, Wolf.

BLITZER: M.J., you're our White House correspondent, and I remember the night that the world learned that the U.S. had killed Bin Laden. There is the former president, President Obama, with his top national security advisers. You see the then-vice president, Joe Biden, sitting there as well. They were in the White House situation room watching all of that unfold.

I could only assume, M.J., that this operation, that President Biden and his top national security advisers, returned to the White House situation room to monitor that. The only complication being the president of the United States, over the weekend, once again, tested positive for COVID. So, maybe he decided to stay out of THE SITUATION ROOM. But what are you learning? I assume we're going to get a lot more details on this from the president when he addresses the nation and the world very soon.

LEE: That's right, Wolf. And as we wait for the president to deliver these remarks, it is worth just spending a beat, thinking back on this raid to kill Osama Bin Laden under President Obama. That iconic photo that you just put up on the screen, President Biden, who was vice president at the time, of course, was literally the person sitting in front of President Obama at the time as this raid was going on. He had literally a front row seat to one of the most consequential moments of former President Obama's presidency. He also, of course, saw firsthand just how consequential this was for President Obama politically.

I think it is way, way too soon to start talking about the political ramifications of this strike. We haven't even heard directly from the president. But I will tell you, when we get to the point of being able to talk about the political ramifications, I mean, there is no question that the president is going to be thinking about what a huge sort of victory this is going to be as he talks to the nation as the nation's commander-in-chief.

The raid that killed Osama Bin Laden literally remembered got turned into bumper stickers. It was a message that the White House very much touted at the time. It was something that they obviously celebrated and talk a lot about. And we could see something similar coming from this White House and this president.


But, again, I just want to emphasize, too soon to talk about politics as we wait for the president to deliver these remarks.

If I could just say one more thing that we have been discussing, just about how such a strike might have been possible, how the U.S. would have been able to conduct such an operation, we can actually look back directly on some of the things that the president himself had said, going back to last summer around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He made pretty clear in his remarks that the U.S. is going to continue fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. But he said we just don't need to fight a ground war to do it. We can do it with over-the-horizon capabilities. So, if this end up being what actually happened with this strike, we shouldn't be all too surprised. He has telecast this before.

BLITZER: Yes. We're standing by to get a whole lot more details on this historic moment that we are watching unfold right now.

Everybody standby. Just ahead, we're going to discuss the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda leader, with a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Congressman Adam Kinzinger is standing by live.

We'll be right back.



BLITZER: We are following major breaking news right now, CNN confirming that the United States has targeted and killed the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a drone strike in Afghanistan. President Biden is getting ready to address the nation and indeed the world very soon from the White House. Right now, we're joined by Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He's a key member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He's a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Let me get your reaction first to the news that the U.S. successfully targeted and killed Bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Well, this is huge. It's a moral victory, of course. Zawahiri has been a target of the United States for decades. It is an actual victory in terms of making America safer. He was the leader of Al Qaeda, as we know, since Osama Bin Laden. And while Al Qaeda has been a little quieter lately, they certainly have not given up on their goals of attacking us. This is a big win.

I congratulate the president for making the call and for the intel and military communities for executing this. I know some of the details, I can't say. And it was seemingly, fairly complicated. But good word to everybody.

BLITZER: You had heard about this over the weekend, is that right?

KINZINGER: I had, yes. I had a source that informed me of this a number of hours ago, and I was impressed it stayed quiet.

BLITZER: Yes. It's amazing how a major development like that does remain quiet.

As I pointed, Congressman, you served in Afghanistan. What are the challenges of conducting a strike like this, and we're told it was drone strike, after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan nearly a year or so ago?

KINZINGER: Yes. I mean, the challenge is massive. So, first of, I think there's a lot of questions, maybe the militaries knows more about this, but did the Taliban know that he was there. That could lend further credence to Taliban and Al Qaeda cooperation, but it's very difficult. When you have troops and intel assets in place, obviously, they have their sources. You can get very real-time information. When you don't have that, and we've certainly been hamstrung in our ability to be able to target these kinds of targets, then it makes it a lot more difficult. You don't get as much real-time information. How do you confirm something if somebody tells you this person is here, how do you confirm that's them?

Obviously, we can still do that in some cases and today is a great day to celebrate that. But I also think it's a moment to really keep in mind, somebody will replace al-Zawahiri and how we're going to take them out eventually, as well.

BLITZER: Well, how does the U.S. go about collecting intelligence on an Al Qaeda leader, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, without boots on the ground, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan for that matter? How do you think the U.S. was able to carry out this mission?

KINZINGER: Well, it could be any number of things, and I don't know the answer to what happened here. But what we do know, we have the ability to do it. Obviously, there are sources that can give us information. There's electronic means. I would tend to think that he was fairly safe on the electronic side, as Osama Bin Laden was, but he also may have been feeling a little arrogant because we were out of Afghanistan. And particularly if the Taliban gave him safe harbor, he probably had no reason to suspect he was a target. And even they didn't, he probably still felt a little safer.

So, there's any number of things the intel community can do to find something out. And then, obviously, when you don't have people on the ground, the difficulty is we may have some pretty good cameras and stuff but you can't necessarily tell who somebody is from the sky, and so you have to have other ways to confirm that.

BLITZER: How much do you believe this strike actually degrades Al Qaeda right now, Congressman? Because the big question is what sort of threat they pose right now beyond the borders of their safe haven, let's say, in Afghanistan?

KINZINGER: Well, I think it certainly is degrading them in a short- term. So, if you imagine kind of a fighter on the ropes, this was a massive blow and knocked that fighter down. That's what happens when you lose your spiritual leader. We know that is what happened when Osama Bin Laden died. A, we got a lot of intel from that, but it also was a gut punch to Al Qaeda. But that doesn't mean they are done. There will be somebody to come and replace him. He may have already had a successor he was grooming. And their desire to kill us simply because of who we are has not changed.


And, look, let's just be honest, when we left Afghanistan, that did embolden them to believe that the United States could be beaten. We can't be beaten on the battlefield. Our will can be beaten. It was beaten in Afghanistan, but that said, today is a day to celebrate this moral and actual, physical victory against Al Qaeda.

BLITZER: Does this strike, Congressman, show that the United States isn't taking its eyes off the threat from Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups in the region?

KINZINGER: Yes, I think so. I mean, even though our capacity is significantly degraded with whatever we have the ability to do, and I don't know all those details, I think they're still an enemy of the United States. We'll still go after them.

Again, we're not going to be able to do these operations as intensely as we were, and we need to keep that in mind when we talk about the U.S. future and partnerships with Iraq, for instance, when we talk about what Iran is doing, when we talk about Al Qaeda or ISIS in Iraq, which still exists.

We can keep these actions up here, there, around the world, but it is important to recognize that, as great as technology is, technology cannot replace people on the ground that know things, that tell us things. And that's why it's important to both have those assets on the ground but also to be able to follow through on our word, so when people tell us stuff, they know that we're not going to abandon them.

BLITZER: I assume, Congressman, the U.S. should be bracing now potentially for some sort of retaliation or revenge from Al Qaeda.

KINZINGER: Yes, it's possible. I mean, Al Qaeda does not have the reach at the moment that they had, of course, on 9/11. This is why staying on the offense against Al Qaeda. So, when you hear some of these senators that say, bring all the boys home, people like Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, that just wants to basically give up on the entire world. The reason that we have been safe is not because Al Qaeda has changed their mind, it's because we fought them where they exist.

And so if they have the capacity to strike back, they would, now certainly in the United States, if they could, but they probably have more capability to strike back on our forces, our allied forces, in those regions. This is why it is important, as much as we may get tired of talking about the war and we may come up with tripe words, like endless wars, it's important for us to stay on offense, because we're going to find a day where if we let our guard down, they will be back here in the United States. Their will and their desire and their beliefs have not changed.

BLITZER: Good point. Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thanks so much for joining us and thanks, once again, for your service to our country.

We're going to have much more coming up on the breaking news we are following as we await remarks from the president of the United States. Stand by, we will be right back.



BLITZER: President Biden is getting ready to speak to the nation and indeed address the world less than an hour or so from now about a huge, new development in the war against terror. Sources tell CNN the United States has killed the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a drone strike in Afghanistan.

Let's assess what's going on. Jim Sciutto, you are here with me in our situation room. I assume there are White House officials, national security officials in that other situation room down at the White House, they're watching all of this unfold very closely, as well.

SCIUTTO: No question. This would show an enormous counter-terror ability from outside in, from over the horizon, inside Afghanistan, that, frankly, it was not clear the U.S. maintained this following its withdrawal a year ago. In fact, senior U.S. officials right after the CIA director acknowledged that we can't do this as well from outside the country without boots on the ground, both uniform, military, but also CIA operatives. So, this is remarkable. It shows the remarkable ability to do that from afar.

Now, we should inject a note of caution here that the statement is saying there was no civilian casualties. We should remember that a year ago there was a strike, a counterterrorist strike that turned out to have hit the wrong target. You'll remember this --

BLITZER: In Afghanistan.

SCIUTTO: In Afghanistan. They said it was an ISIS target. It ended up killing ten civilians. So, we have to see, as this plays out, were there other casualties, is there more, we don't know about the strike yet. And that's why we're going to be listening to the president in about an hour's time.

The other piece I would say, and Barbara referenced this a bit, is what led to this intelligence. You can have surveillance from satellites, you can have it from drones, you can have tips on the ground. There was a $25 million bounty on Zawahiri's head.

I remember going back to when the U.S. killed Uday and Qusay Hussein in Iraq. I was there. There was a $15 million bounty on their heads. And that's what led to the intel that led to them being killed by U.S. forces on the ground there. Was there a cooperator on the ground? Was that bounty involved? That's another question that we'll need to have answers.

BLITZER: Let me get General Hertling involved in this. General, they are going to have to prove that the this was, in fact, Ayman al- Zawahiri who was targeted and killed. How did they do that?

HERTLING: Well, Wolf, what Jim just said is fascinating, because the strike doesn't end with a strike. And what I mean by that is, once the strike occurs, the intelligence community is looking to pick up what's called a reflection. What kind of signals are going out? Is anyone talking? Are there movements of some of the other main leaders in Afghanistan or movement within the Taliban government that might indicate what is happening and who has been killed.

The very fact, as you said earlier, that the Taliban has issued a tweet saying, a drone strike hit or an aircraft strike, as they said, hit this community, doesn't tell you much, but it does tell you they are reporting something.

Now, they may follow up with all kinds of manipulation of the intelligence, but I would suspect, having seen these kind of strikes before and, in fact, conducted these kinds of strikes before, that immediately upon executing the strike, you are listening for more intelligence.


Whether it'd be overhead platforms that are giving you indicator of what's occurring on the ground, or signals intelligence that are hopefully picking up remarks of others within either the government or the al-Qaeda community.

BLITZER: You know, Kylie, you do a lot of reporting on the national security-related issues. How high of a target was Ayman al-Zawahiri for the U.S. at this point?

ATWOOD: Well, listen, he was an incredibly high target, not only a high target but a long-standing target of the U.S. government, Wolf.

When you guys were talking earlier he is someone who was integrally involved in the planning of the twin embassy bombings that took place in 1998 against the U.S. embassies in Tanzania, and Kenya, that was over 20 years ago. At that time, of course, he was on the radar of the U.S. government. And thereafter, he actually escaped a U.S. missile strike, that the United States tried to take him in Osama bin Laden out in Afghanistan. Since then, he has risen in terms of how important he is to the U.S. government.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, standby. We're getting more information, more details on the breaking news, we're also awaiting remarks from the president of the United States.

President Biden getting ready to address the nation and indeed the world very, very soon. Stay with us, much more of our special coverage coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: We're following major breaking news right now. A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan targeting and killing the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

CNN's Michael Holmes looks at al-Zawahiri's life and legacy of terror.


AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI, AL QAEDA LEADER: We want to speak to the whole world. Who are we? Who are we?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): By the time Ayman al- Zawahiri burst on the world scene after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he was already a terrorist, committed to turning Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state. The young doctor came from one of Egypt's leading families. There was even and al- Zawahiri Street in Cairo named after his grandfather.

His uncle described him as pious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was known as a good Muslim, who was keen at pray at time in the mosque and to read and to think and to have his own decisions.

HOLMES: Al-Zawahiri spent 3 years in prison after Sadat's assassination. After he got out, he made his way to Pakistan where he used his medical skills to treat those fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. That's where he met Osama bin Laden, and they found a common cause.

He talked about it a decade later.

AL-ZAWAHIRI: We are working with brother Bin Laden (INAUDIBLE) since more than 10 years ago (INAUDIBLE) in Sudan and many other places. HOLMES: Al-Zawahiri was many places in the early 1990s. Even it is

believed, visiting California on a false passport.

His group attacked Egyptian embassies and tried to kill Egyptian politicians. Eventually, al-Zawahiri folded his group into al-Qaeda.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Zawahiri pretty much led the group. He did the strategic policy of with al-Qaeda's agenda was, and suddenly bin Laden gave his authority and listens to it, but al-Zawahiri called the shots.

HOLMES: Al-Zawahiri was that bin laden side when he declared war on America in May 1998.

Weeks later, they launched an attack on U.S. embassies in Africa, and then gloated after they escaped the U.S. cruise missile attack launched in retaliation.

After the 9/11 attacks, al-Zawahiri began to become the voice of al- Qaeda, taunting the U.S.

ZAWAHIRI (through translator): American people, you must ask yourselves, why all this hate against America?

HOLMES: After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden and al- Zawahiri were on the run, sometimes together, more often apart. His wife and daughters were killed in a U.S. airstrike aimed at him.

But he continued to issue messages on subjects ranging from the war in Iraq to the London subway attacks in 2005. And while he was always a likely choice to succeed Osama bin Laden, it took the organization several weeks to announce his promotion.

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA CHIEF: Zawahiri is not charismatic. He has not been -- he was not involved in the fight earlier on in Afghanistan. So -- I think he has a lot of detractors within the organization, and I think you're going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more.

HOLMES: Without bin Laden, al-Qaeda could never be the same.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: The idea personified by Osama bin Laden. He was this charismatic to join al-Qaeda, you pledged a personal oath to him. People went and died, not for Ayman Zawahiri, or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but for Osama bin Laden.

HOLMES: Terror experts say that to jihadists worldwide, al-Qaeda still has great appeal as an inspiration, and while al-Zawahiri was an obvious successor to bin Laden, it is not at all clear who would succeed al-Zawahiri.


BLITZER: That was CNN's Michael Holmes reporting.

Stay right here. We're going to have much more on all the breaking news right after this.



BLITZER: President Biden is getting ready to address the nation indeed the world a little more than half an hour or so from now the major breaking news, the killing of the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al- Zawahiri, in a drone strike.

Jim Sciutto, you and I were both covering that night when then- President Biden announced the killing of bin Laden, there's similarities going on at least in my mind right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. Zawahiri was a leader enjoying founder of the greatest terrorist threat the U.S. is ever faced in al-Qaeda. A decade later after getting Biden, al-Zawahiri appears to be dad. The U.S. appears to have carried out the strike, truly against the odds, a year after from Afghanistan following which the U.S. officials acknowledge the U.S. did not have the same counterterror ability.

To have accomplished that from afar, with all of those challenges is remarkable feat.

BLITZER: We're certainly going to stay on top of this for you. This is major, major breaking news. A huge, huge win for the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military, CIA, of course, as well.

Jim, we're going to stay on this and thanks very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT' picks up our special coverage right now.