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What it was like in Kabul during the U.S. strike on al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri


The U.S. says it has killed the leader of al-Qaida. Ayman al-Zawahiri was considered a planner of 9/11 and numerous other attacks. He was once a deputy of Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. killed in 2011. President Biden told the nation this evening that the U.S. operation unfolded over some months.


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.

CHANG: Our colleague Steve Inskeep is in downtown Kabul at the moment with NPR colleagues, and he joins us now. Hi, Steve.


CHANG: All right. So I'm so curious, what did you hear personally as this attack developed over the weekend?

INSKEEP: Well, one thing we heard was explosions over the weekend, Ailsa, which woke a lot of people here, including where we are. President Biden described an attack on Saturday. I should tell you, it's not clear if he meant U.S. time or Kabul time. The explosions here came Sunday morning to us. People then began sharing images of a multi-story house with windows blown out, and it's a house in the Sherpur neighborhood. And you can walk there from the many, many government offices in this capital city. This is not...


INSKEEP: ...Remote at all. Rumors did quickly spread that it was a drone attack, which Biden has now confirmed. And it took a while for people to get an idea of what had happened. The early reports here suggested it might have been an ISIS target, for example, or maybe nothing. And the idea that it was al-Qaida's leader is only emerged in the last few hours.

CHANG: OK. Well, the reason that you and your team are in Afghanistan in the first place is because one year ago this month, the Taliban seized control there. The U.S. attacked Afghanistan in 2001 because the Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden, and now the Taliban is in charge again. Let me ask you, what are people saying about al-Zawahiri living there or, like, just amongst them, as you say, just a walk away from so many government offices?

INSKEEP: Well, the Taliban put out a statement overnight and said their investigation confirmed that American drones - plural, drones - conducted this attack. They didn't say a word about casualties, and they complained about the attack and said it was a violation of international agreements. But this is an extraordinary development, Ailsa. The Taliban have been accused of sheltering extremists for years. They've denied it again and again. But this was in a very heavily secured area of the city with checkpoints all over and very near the government ministries.

CHANG: And what are people telling you? I mean, as you've been reporting in the country about what's transpired under the last year, under Taliban rule, what are you hearing?

INSKEEP: This is an amazing time to be here. It was one year ago this August that the Taliban took charge in Kabul. Now, on the very day of this U.S. drone attack the other day, we met the Taliban defense minister - the interim defense minister, Mohammed Yaqoob, who is the son of Mullah Omar, the one-time leader of the Taliban who sheltered Osama bin Laden once upon a time, which is what led to the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. Mohammad Yaqoob, the son, says he wants good relations with the United States. And in fact, when I asked him about that, he laughed because it was so obvious to him that they would want good relations with the United States. This is going to complicate that. At that point, we'd heard of some kind of attack in Kabul. We asked him about it. He acknowledged the incident but didn't say it was serious.

But the most revealing thing maybe was how we met this defense minister, Ailsa, on the day of this attack. We were not told the location of the meeting. A car came and guided us there so we would not know it until we arrived, which seems like the sort of thing you would do to avoid any possibility of someone finding your location and launching a drone attack.

CHANG: That is NPR's Steve Inskeep in Kabul. Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad to help. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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