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Ayman al-Zawahiri's death is a significant blow to al-Qaida, Kirby says

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We turn now to the Biden administration and the National Security Council's coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby. Admiral Kirby, Ayman al-Zawahiri became one of America's top targets after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. What difference will this death make for counterterrorism efforts in the region?

JOHN KIRBY: Well, we know it's going to have a significant blow to al-Qaida and to their plans, their operations, perhaps even their resourcing. He was the emir, but he also was actively engaged in urging his followers to plot and plan attacks, to include the potential for attacks on the United States. So we know this is going to have a significant blow to them. Obviously, it will have a significant psychological blow as well. So we're going to watch the organization going forward, clearly keep our eye on them. It's unclear right now who his successor will be or how that successor will plan to lead al-Qaida. But in addition to removing Mr. Zawahiri from the battlefield, we believe that this has definitely caused them to suffer a significant setback in terms of what their future might be.

MARTINEZ: But there definitely will be a successor, right? That's definitely going to happen.

KIRBY: Well, I think we have to assume that. Only al-Qaida senior leaders will know for sure if, when and who. But we are just under the assumption, given their past behavior and how they behaved when, for instance, bin Laden was taken out, that they will try to name a successor.

MARTINEZ: Because the hunt for this man - I mean, he was the heart of the 9/11 attacks. I mean, it lasted more than 20 years. And after all the time that the U.S. was in Afghanistan, I mean, are we essentially back to where we started?

KIRBY: I wouldn't say that at all - not at all. I mean, al-Qaida is a vastly diminished terrorist network than it was 20 years ago and even 10, 11 years ago when we killed bin Laden. They are a diminished force. That said - and this is a really important thing to remember - diminished though they may be, they still represent dangers. And the fact that Zawahiri was actively urging his followers to plot and plan attacks against the United States tells you all you need to know about how vigilant we need to stay.

MARTINEZ: And he was also right in the heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul. I mean, is - with the Taliban in power, does it still make the country a safe haven for extremists, for terrorists?

KIRBY: I think - you know, I think you should ask other al-Qaida members in Afghanistan how safe they feel they are right now. We've proven that al-Qaida will not - I'm sorry, Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack our homeland. And this strike that the president ordered proves the case. Now, we said a long time ago, a year ago, we knew al-Qaida was starting to move back in small numbers in Afghanistan. We were honest about that. We also said that the plan isn't to hit every single al-Qaida terrorist with a missile. It's to make sure that we are defeating those threats to our homeland, to the American people. Mr. Zawahiri presented that kind of a threat, and that's why we took him out.

MARTINEZ: How did the Pentagon track him down?

KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get too much into the specific intelligence stream. I would just tell you that this was the work of the intelligence and the counterterrorism community writ large. It was a team effort. And that essentially - and you heard the president talk about this last night - we were able to track the movements of his family. And by tracking the movements of his family, we were able to then track his movements to reunite with them. And then once we knew that there had been a - they had been reunited, we were able to then develop a pattern of life, to watch this individual's behavior so that we could, A, identify, make sure it was, in fact, who we thought it was, and B, then develop a pattern of behavior that would allow us an opportunity to take a strike if and when we could.

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

KIRBY: Yes, 100%. This man, not only as I said, was the emir of al-Qaida, but he was urging his followers. He was trying to resurge the group, and he was urging them to plot and to plan. He was putting out inspirational videos. In fact, we may see additional videos from him. But yes, the American people are safer today. And we will stay at it. This is an important point. We are obviously glad that this mission was successful, but nobody's taking a knee. Nobody's taking a breather. Nobody's patting anybody on the back. We know we have to stay vigilant against this group.

MARTINEZ: National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, thank you.

KIRBY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.