Aug 2, 2022 - Podcasts

The U.S. kills one of the masterminds behind 9/11

President Biden last night announced the U.S. killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a strike in Afghanistan. It's the most significant blow to al-Qaeda since the death of Osama bin Laden 11 years ago.

  • Plus: the risks of Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
  • And: with rents skyrocketing, we want your stories.

Guests: Idrees Ali, Reuters' foreign policy correspondent and Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, August 2nd.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: the risks of Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. Plus: with rents skyrocketing we want your stories.

But first, the U.S. kills one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks – that’s our one big thing.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans. On Saturday at my direction, the United States successfully concluded an airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed the emir of Al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri.

NIALA: President Biden last night announced the most significant blow to Al-Qaeda since the death of Osama bin Laden 11 years ago.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.

NIALA: Idrees Ali is a Reuters foreign policy correspondent covering the Pentagon and has been following this story. Hi Idrees, thanks for being with us.

IDREES ALI: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: Has the US been looking for Ayman al-Zawahiri since the September 11th, 2001 attacks?

IDREES: Yeah. So they have really, actually they've been looking for him even before because he was basically responsible for the attack on the USS cold warship in Yemen. In 2000, he was indicted, um, for the bombings on the US embassy in Kenya and Tanzania. So even before 9/11, he had a long list of sort of charges and accusations. But really he came to the forefront after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 and he, at that point, took over for Al-Qaeda. And since then he's basically been public enemy number one, as far as the terrorism list goes. There was a $25 million bounty on his head. So really since then he's been the one they've really been looking out for in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

NIALA: Idrees it was almost a year ago that the US withdrew from Afghanistan and President Biden did vow at the time to combat terror groups from afar. Does this make good on that promise?

IDREES: You know, it's interesting because, uh, when the US withdrawal from Afghanistan took place last year, there was some real doubt about how the United States could keep an eye on Al-Qaeda and other militant groups without boots on the ground, because you know, for the past 20 years, the United States had tens of thousands of troops on the ground. And they were still able to sort of continue operating, the Taliban were still carrying out attacks. And so there's some real questions about how you can carry out intelligence gathering without people on the ground. How do you carry out strikes without bases in the country? And what I think this has shown is that it's very possible to do it, but it also sort of shows the level of sort of activity that still exists in Afghanistan. So in a weird way, it's good news that they were able to carry a strike, bad news that Ayman al-Zawahiri was living essentially in the center of Kabul, right under the noses of the Taliban.

NIALA: What's the significance that he was in Kabul instead of in Islamabad?

IDREES: Yeah, the fact that he was in Kabul is actually extremely significant because it shows that the Taliban not only knew, but were likely providing safe Haven, to essentially the leader of Al Qaeda, it showed his level of comfort that he believed he could be essentially in downtown Kabus and not in some mountainous region. And I think it really shatters some of the sort of beliefs that I think a lot of people including myself have had about how militants and their leaderships operate in the 21st century.

NIALA: Is there anything else we need to know about this operation in terms of the US?

IDREES: Yeah, so basically this was interesting in that it was not a US military strike, it was a CIA strike. When a CIA usually does a strike it's for a number of reasons. Firstly it's because you don't have troops or, or assets on the ground, and secondly it's to give you, or the president in this case, a level of, plausible deniability where if a strike goes wrong, no one in the public has to know about it. If it's in the military, there's a whole chain of command and there's a higher likelihood that the information is leaked. So it's, it's essentially to safeguard the information getting out, but also safeguarding the fact that if it's a failure, you, it doesn't get out and it gives you another shot if you need.

NIALA: Idrees Ali is a foreign policy correspondent for Reuters based in Washington. Thanks Idrees.

IDREES: Thank you.

NIALA: In a moment we’re back with the view from Taiwan ahead of Speaker Pelosi’s visit.

NIALA: House speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected in Taiwan today, the first speaker to visit the island in 25 years. We spoke late Monday night with Axios, Bethany, Allen-Ebrahimian who's already in Taiwan. And just so you understand the time differences here, it was early Tuesday morning. Hi Bethany.


NIALA: Bethany. I'm hoping you can share with us what we need to know ahead of this visit. First, why is this trip going ahead despite hesitancy from the White House and some pretty dire warnings from China.

BETHANY: Well at this point, because the trip is public and because of China's very strongly worded warnings for Pelosi not to go, she would look really weak if she backed down. She would look like she was gonna go and then China threatened her and then she didn't go because of that. So because it became public and because of China's threats, in some ways you could say, that's almost forcing her to go. And it's common for congressional delegations to come to Taiwan. So this is well within the rather delicate us framework on our unofficial relationship with Taiwan.

NIALA: What's been China's reaction to all of this Bethany?

BETHANY: Well, Beijing of course, views Taiwan as its own territory. And it views any visit by a foreign government official and especially any high ranking foreign government official as an infringement on China's sovereignty. What is so significant about this visit from Beijing's perspective is that it seems to be an escalation of the US government approach to Taiwan. It's been 25 years since the House speaker visited. As China has further constricted the space for Taiwan in the global stage over the past few years, this would be a major step pushing back against China's pressure. And that to China is unacceptable.

NIALA: Bethany I think people have heard a lot about this visit in the US, there's been a lot of news reports about it. What to your mind is really at stake here?

BETHANY: So what has gone from something theoretical in the future now feels quite a bit more eminent. And that's also what we're hearing from US government officials in the past few weeks several top-level US officials have said that the timeline for a possible Chinese military assault or an attempt at an invasion has moved up from maybe seven years to, you know, as early as 18 months from now. But I, I want to be really clear though that people are not expecting an immediate attack from China on Taiwan during this visit, or even within the next few months. The general consensus is that before November, when the 20th party Congress in Beijing happens, when Xi Jinping gets his third term, they're unlikely to see any major Chinese military action against Taiwan, unless there is a, some sort of miscalculation in the next week or two weeks as tensions rise between US and China. And when I say miscalculation, I mean a military miscalculation or even an accident. When you get high tensions, when you get shows of force, the risk of a military miscalculation is very high. And that risk of a miscalculation is what is so dangerous about this saber rattling, these military exercises and the general escalation around this visit.

NIALA: We'll keep in touch with Bethany as this unfolds and you can follow her on twitter for the latest updates. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is Axios’ China reporter based in Taiwan. Thanks Bethany.

BETHANY: Thank you Niala.

NIALA: Before we go today: Rents are going up across the country, by as much as 20 percent in cities like New York and DC, and affordable housing is scarce. And it’s not just along the coasts: rent hikes and housing shortages are now hitting cities like Boise, Idaho and Phoenix, Arizona. We want to hear from you, especially if you’re between the coasts. Are rents in your area on the rise? Is that affecting your decision to move to a new apartment or even a new city? Let us know by sending a voice message to (202) 918-4893. We’ll have more on this later in the week.

I’m Niala Boodhoo, thanks for listening, stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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