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U.S. killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike, officials say

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

U.S. officials have announced that a drone strike over the weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, a top al-Qaida leader and key plotter for the 9/11 attacks. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here with us now with the latest details. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so can you just tell us a little more about who al-Zawahiri was?

MYRE: Right. So he was the leader - the top guy - in al-Qaida for the past 11 years, since Osama bin Laden was killed. And for many years before that, he was Osama bin Laden's No. 2. So he was his deputy. He was involved in plotting and planning a string of attacks in the '90s. He was deeply involved, according to the U.S., in the 9/11 attacks. And he certainly lacked bin Laden's charisma, and so he certainly had none of that. In fact, he was a very dower - not a great communicator in any sense.

He did put out occasional videos, and he has been in hiding, obviously, and nobody knew exactly where he was. He was believed to be either in Afghanistan or possibly in Pakistan. Nobody knew for sure. But he's been the top guy for the past decade or so, even as al-Qaida has been a less powerful force than it was years before.

CHANG: And what specifically do we know about how he was killed over this weekend?

MYRE: Well, we've confirmed with a senior military official he was killed in a drone strike in Kabul, and we'll hear more from President Biden shortly on this. But the U.S. had been tracking him, certainly, for many, many years. And, certainly, he was the top al-Qaida target since Osama bin Laden's death in 2011. They had - he'd been very hard to find. He only occasionally would put out these video statements. So more details, I think...

CHANG: Right.

MYRE: ...Will be coming out shortly. What we do know now is the drone strike in Kabul.

CHANG: OK. So given that he was the top al-Qaida target since Osama bin Laden was killed, what does Zawahiri's death mean for al-Qaida at this point and for Afghanistan?

MYRE: Yeah. I mean, it is a big blow for al-Qaida. They certainly have not been the force that they were. There's been concern that they could rebuild in Afghanistan. They built themselves up the first time when the Taliban were in power in the late '90s, so there was a sense, now that the Taliban are back in power, that the U.S. and other NATO countries are gone, that there could be a resurgence. So that's been watched closely, even though we haven't seen that in terms of major al-Qaida attacks outside the country. So I think that would be the sense - that they're being closely watched. There is a concern that the group is operating not only in Afghanistan, but are in other places as well, and they were looking - the U.S. was trying to keep a close eye and see if there might be any kind of resurgence.

CHANG: So should we be expecting an intensification of these kinds of operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region going forward? What do you think?

MYRE: You know, it's hard to say, Ailsa. What we do know is, last year, before the U.S. pulled out, they talked about this over-the-horizon capability, that the U.S. would still be able to keep watch on terror suspects in al-Qaida or ISIS even without having a presence on the ground. A lot of people mocked that and called it the over-the-rainbow strategy. And we hadn't really seen any major U.S. - we had seen neither major al-Qaida attacks nor major U.S. strikes against al-Qaida. This is really the first one. So it certainly does indicate that the U.S. does have that capability. However, it's - we really can't say whether we'll see many more of these attacks, but it does seem the ability is there.

CHANG: That is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you so much, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.