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How the U.S. took out an al-Qaida mastermind despite having no boots on the ground

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden says the U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri brought justice to a mastermind of decades of attacks on Americans, including 9/11 and the bombing of the USS Cole. The U.S. hadn't carried out such a high-profile operation in Afghanistan since the withdrawal of U.S. forces a year ago. And the strike came at a time when U.S. national security interests seemed to be focused elsewhere. Joining us now is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, with the U.S. military gone from Afghanistan, how was the U.S. able to develop such precise intelligence on where the al-Qaida leader was?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah, the U.S. has provided a few details, not that much. But clearly, they did have great intelligence on Zawahiri. They said his family moved into this large upscale house in the center of Kabul. This is a diplomatic area also favored by some of the Taliban leaders. And the U.S. was able to keep close watch on this house. And then Zawahiri himself moved in after his family did. He never left the place. But the U.S. knew enough about his movements to expect him on the balcony on Sunday morning. That's when he was hit by the - in the drone strike. A year ago, the U.S., as it was leaving Afghanistan, said it would keep tabs on the country from over the horizons. And many doubted this or mocked this because the U.S. military wouldn't be there. Diplomats were gone. Intelligence would be much harder to get. But the U.S. has shown that it is able to gather good intelligence and, at least in this case, carry out a very precise strike.

MARTINEZ: Considering where he was living, does this maybe point to a close relationship with the Taliban and al-Qaida?

MYRE: Yeah, it really does. The Taliban pledged not to harbor extremists and that their territory wouldn't be used to carry out attacks. But Zawahiri's presence in Kabul strongly suggests that there still is this very close relationship. He couldn't have been there if at least some members of the Taliban leadership weren't aware of this. And it also means that the U.S. and the Taliban are going to continue to have real differences and not move forward on other issues, like the humanitarian crisis. This will continue to be a big obstacle.

MARTINEZ: So where do you think the United States then rates al-Qaida as a threat at the moment?

MYRE: The U.S. is still very wary of al-Qaida but sees it as a much more limited threat now than what it was. The U.S. believes al-Qaida wants to regroup in Afghanistan, that it has affiliates that can still be dangerous in places like Yemen and west and north Africa. But it's just not the force that it was. The Islamic State is considered much more dangerous, and it's also present in Afghanistan and many other places. But the focus really has moved on. The U.S. is focused on Russia right now and looking to the Chinese threat in the longer term.

MARTINEZ: So should we expect more of these kinds of U.S. strikes in the future?

MYRE: Yes, I think they're likely, but I think they'll be relatively rare, nothing like we saw at the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We should recall the U.S. took out an Islamic State leader in Syria in February. So the U.S. still sees a need to keep tabs on these groups and not letting them become too strong. But it's really just become a secondary issue to larger U.S. security concerns.

MARTINEZ: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

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

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.