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What Ayman al-Zawahiri's death means for al-Qaida

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The State Department is cautioning that the killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri could lead to an uptick in anti-American violence. The warning says al-Qaida supporters could target U.S. facilities or citizens in response to the drone strike in Afghanistan that killed Zawahiri over the weekend. Yesterday on the show, my co-host, A Martinez, asked National Security Council official John Kirby about this question of safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Admiral Kirby, should Americans feel safer today than they did a week ago?

JOHN KIRBY: Yes, 100%.

KHALID: Zawahiri was the de facto leader of al-Qaida for years, especially after 2011 when the U.S. took out Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri was also considered a key architect of the 9/11 attacks and other attacks, too, like the bombing of the USS Cole back in 2000. But what exactly does eliminating him mean for U.S. safety and the future of U.S. counterterrorism? We're joined now to answer some of those questions by retired senior CIA officer Douglas London. Good to have you back on the show, sir.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Thank you. Good to be back.

KHALID: So, Douglas, we have been hearing less in recent years about al-Qaida. Is the threat substantially less now because Zawahiri was killed?

LONDON: Removing Zawahiri at least provides some immediate and short-term disruption. I think the United Nations' reporting, which reflects that of member states, including the United States and their intelligence, suggests that al-Qaida is actually a longer term threat, perhaps more so than ISIS.

KHALID: Oh, wow. OK.

LONDON: Al-Qaida has more of a long-term aspiration to strike the United States in the homeland and externally, if possible. It's at the core of its strategy to get the head of the snake. So I think the sanctuary that al-Qaida is receiving, even with the disruption of seeing Zawahiri removed, still makes them a threat to reckon with that we continue to need to suppress.

KHALID: I want to ask you about this concept of a sanctuary because Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, not out in some remote, ungovernable areas of Afghanistan. So how do you interpret that? I mean, what does it tell us about the group's relationship, al-Qaida's relationship with the Taliban?

LONDON: I think it tells us a bit more perhaps about what the Taliban is thinking than what al-Qaida's thinking. Zawahiri preached isolation, hiding. He used to tell other leaders to build bunkers underground. It's my speculation that it was Taliban pressure that forced him to come to Kabul to a suburban area where they could keep an eye on him to have some leverage over the group. Al-Qaida and Taliban cooperation remains very good.

But I think the Taliban would rather find some way to keep them from operating such that should they conduct an attack, it won't be immediately traced to their support to al-Qaida in country. So by keeping him in Kabul, where the Haqqani network maintain control over that city, in particular - Sirajuddin Haqqani being the acting interior minister; his uncle, Khalil, being responsible for security - I think it's a way for them to keep eyes on him and also some leverage over the group's activities.

KHALID: I want to ask you more specifically about the strike over the weekend. You know, had the U.S. had boots on the ground in Afghanistan, I imagine that this would have been a very different operation.

LONDON: Well, Director Burns himself has said that this over the horizon works, but it does have limitations, namely the timeliness of intelligence and your ability to quality control. A lot of your collection from human sources is being done indirectly through cutouts or by impersonal communications. Agents have digital ways or other means to communicate with their case officers. So you stretch out a bit the chain of acquisition. In a sense, it's a little bit like playing telephone. You may be talking to an agent through somebody who heard something from somebody else, and that sort of clouds sometimes the intelligence reporting. It doesn't eliminate it. It just makes it a little more complicated.

KHALID: You know, to me, Douglas, this whole operation has been a real test of President Biden's counterterrorism strategy. The argument I recall hearing from the White House after the withdrawal from Afghanistan is that the threat had changed. They no longer needed boots on the ground. They had these over-the-horizon drone capabilities that you mentioned to take on threats no matter where they are. Does the strike over the weekend prove that the Biden administration's thinking is right? Or were they just lucky in this instance?

LONDON: Well, the drone technology is very sophisticated and evolves regularly. So drones and those type of technologies are going to only get better. The problem is they need a start point. They need to know where to look and what they're looking for. And that comes from other strands of intelligence. It comes from human intelligence, sources, agents on the ground, signals collection, cyber and the such. So when you remove your boots on the ground, if you would, you are complicating things. You're making it a little bit harder. So I still think over the horizon is a limitation. It doesn't replace having a presence on the ground, but it's still something that we have the ability to carry out.

KHALID: All right. Thank you, Mr. London. We really appreciate you coming back on the show.

LONDON: My pleasure, as always.

KHALID: Douglas London is a retired CIA officer and author of the book "The Recruiter: Spying And The Lost Art Of American Intelligence." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.