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President Biden emerges from COVID isolation to announce death of Ayman al-Zawahiri


President Biden briefly emerged from COVID isolation tonight to announce that the U.S. has killed the top leader of al-Qaida. Officials say the U.S. government carried out a successful drone strike over the weekend against Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was one of the top planners of the 9/11 attacks and took over as al-Qaida's leader when Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S. in 2011.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Now, justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.

CHANG: The U.S. had been trying to track down al-Zawahiri for decades. NPR's Franco Ordoñez is at the White House and joins us now. Hi, Franco.


CHANG: All right. So what more can you tell us about exactly how this operation was carried out?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, at Biden's direction, a U.S. drone fired two Hellfire missiles at a safe house in Kabul, killing the al-Qaida leader Saturday night just before 10 p.m. Eastern time. Speaking from the White House balcony, President Biden said justice has been delivered.


BIDEN: Now, we have eliminated the emir of al-Qaida. He will never again - never again allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because he is gone, and we're going to make sure that nothing else happens. You know, it can't be a launching pad against the United States. We're going to see to it that won't happen.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, this was an operation that had been in the works for months - lot of people working on it.

CHANG: OK. For months it's been in the works, but how exactly did the U.S. track down al-Zawahiri? Like, do we have any details on it?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, from what we're being told, earlier this year, U.S. officials learned that his wife and daughter and her children had moved to Kabul. They later learned that Zawahiri himself had also relocated to the safe house. Biden was briefed about it in the spring. Senior administration officials say at that time, he was adamant about making sure that they had the right target and wanted to limit any civilian casualties, including studying structural plans that they had developed for the house. Now, U.S. officials say al-Zawahiri was seen on the balcony a few times at the house, and that is actually ultimately where he was struck by the two Hellfire missiles and killed. Biden says no one else - no civilians were killed in the strike.

CHANG: OK. Franco, can you just step back for a moment and tell us more about who al-Zawahiri was and how significant is this fact that he is now dead?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, al-Zawahiri was born in Cairo, Egypt. He was trained as a physician, but he was really known as being Osama bin Laden's right-hand person during the 9/11 attacks. He took over the organization as well when bin Laden was killed in 2011. Senior administration officials said, though, that he continued to hold quite a bit of power, often making propaganda videos, and continued to be a threat to the U.S. homeland. Of course, al-Qaida is not what it once was, but, you know, he is still a very symbolic figure.

CHANG: Right. Well, I mean, we should note that al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul as we are approaching the one-year anniversary of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. So what does this operation tell us, you think, about the U.S.'s ability to fight threats there?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I think, on the one hand, I'm sure critics of Biden's decision to leave Afghanistan may try to use this as an example of the country being a safe harbor for terrorists. But senior administration officials said there are certain factions of the Taliban that knew al-Zawahiri was there and that they're going to have to answer for that because it was a violation of some of the agreements struck with the Taliban. But Biden also very emphatically says that this is an example of him keeping his promise not to allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorists. And taking the top al-Qaida leader out proves that the United States can and will continue to not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorism.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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