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Biden says the U.S. killed top al-Qaida leader and key Sept. 11 plotter

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the United States says it has killed the leader of al-Qaida.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ayman al-Zawahiri was considered a planner of that attack and others. He was once a deputy of Osama bin Laden. He ascended to al-Qaida's top position when the U.S. killed bin Laden in 2011. Now President Biden says the U.S. found him in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year. He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family. After carefully considering the clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all.

KHALID: When Biden says downtown Kabul, he means the area around government buildings - buildings that are, in fact, controlled by the current rulers, the Taliban. And our co-host Steve Inskeep is in Kabul with NPR colleagues. Good morning, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey there, Asma.

KHALID: So, Steve, how did the news of this attack unfold?

INSKEEP: It took a couple of days. The first sign of something going on was the sound. People woke to at least one early morning explosion here, and they began sharing images of a multi-story house with the windows blown out. All through Sunday, rumors spread that it might have been a drone attack, but it took a couple of days before Biden and the Taliban both confirmed that. The Taliban, we should mention, blame American drones - plural - while the U.S. talks of a drone strike.

Now, the idea that Zawahiri was hit took a couple of days to emerge at all. The speculation was going in other directions. And the Taliban, even now, have not confirmed that he was killed.

KHALID: And where exactly was this house that was struck?

INSKEEP: It's a house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, which is upscale - a lot of big houses. Some of them used to be occupied by U.S.-backed warlords - big blast walls, guard towers. Now, of course, the population is flipped. It's different because the rulers are different. And we drove to the area of the targeted house this morning and found Taliban fighters blocking and guarding the approaches to it. But otherwise, life seemed to be going on as usual in the streets all around. It's near embassies. It's near government buildings. And, in fact, the government intelligence headquarters is just a few minutes' drive away from where, according to the U.S., Zawahiri was hiding.

KHALID: Well, I mean, Steve, that does raise another question because the Taliban are now in charge there in Afghanistan. They seized control a year ago. And we should, you know, tell listeners that that is why you're there - reporting on how the country has changed. What are they saying about Zawahiri living right there?

INSKEEP: Even though the Taliban have not confirmed his death officially, this seems like an extraordinary development. Of course, the Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden after 9/11. That's why the United States attacked Afghanistan in the first place more than 20 years ago. The U.S. has accused the Taliban for years of sheltering extremist groups that target the United States. And now the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is saying the Taliban violated the Doha agreement. That is the deal from a couple of years ago under which U.S. troops left Afghanistan. They pledged not to allow extremist groups to operate.

KHALID: Steve, Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Taliban violated the Doha agreement. And, you know, we should specify this is a deal with the United States under which they promised not to shelter extremists. What are the Taliban saying in regards to that?

INSKEEP: Pretty much the opposite. They're saying that the United States violated the agreement by striking Afghanistan. Now, this gets a little legalistic, but it's revealing to hear the way the Taliban describe that agreement. One year ago, as they were taking over here in Kabul, we called a Taliban spokesman named Suhail Shaheen, and he said this.

SUHAIL SHAHEEN: It is our commitment that we will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against any other country, including the United States. We want to pave the way for reconstruction of Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Now, listen there to what he's saying and also not saying. He's saying we will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil for attacks, but he doesn't promise that some extremists will never be living here. Now, there's other language that people who threaten the United States have, quote, "no place in Afghanistan." And it's unlikely the U.S. is going to accept any of these explanations because the U.S. did regard Zawahiri as an ongoing threat. And some of his videos have surfaced this year.

KHALID: So, Steve, how does the timing of this drone strike affect the Taliban?

INSKEEP: Wow. It comes just as they were preparing to reach out to the world. The anniversary of their takeover is coming up. They've been relatively open with me these past few days. They're expecting more international journalists in the days to come. And they say they want better relations with the United States.

In fact, on the very day of this drone strike, I flew down to Kandahar - important city for the Taliban - and I met Mohammad Yaqoob, who is the defense minister for the Taliban. He is the son of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader from the 1990s. And I asked him, do you want better relations with the United States? And he laughed because, to him, it's so obvious that they want that. Taliban leaders envision themselves a little like, you know, Vietnam, a former U.S. enemy that became a trading partner and even a friend. But now this strike hangs over all of that and raises questions for the United States about the Taliban's intentions.

KHALID: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep in Kabul. Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.