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News brief: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Pelosi's trip to Asia, It's Primary Day in Arizona

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the United States says it has killed the leader of al-Qaida.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ayman al-Zawahiri was considered a planner of that attack and others. He was once a deputy of Osama bin Laden. He ascended to al-Qaida's top position when the U.S. killed bin Laden in 2011. Now President Biden says the U.S. found him in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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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 clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all.

KHALID: When Biden says downtown Kabul, he means the area around government buildings, buildings that are, in fact, controlled by the current rulers, the Taliban. And our co-host, Steve Inskeep, is in Kabul with NPR colleagues. Good morning, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey there, Asma.

KHALID: So Steve, how did the news of this attack unfold?

INSKEEP: It took a couple of days. The first sign of something going on was the sound. People woke to at least one early-morning explosion here. And they began sharing images of a multi-story house with the windows blown out. All through Sunday, rumors spread that it might have been a drone attack. But it took a couple of days before Biden and the Taliban both confirmed that. The Taliban, we should mention, blame American drones, plural, while the U.S. talks of a drone strike. Now, the idea that Zawahiri was hit took a couple of days to emerge at all. The speculation was going in other directions. And the Taliban even now have not confirmed that he was killed.

KHALID: And where exactly was this house that was struck?

INSKEEP: It's a house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, which is upscale, a lot of big houses. Some of them used to be occupied by U.S.-backed warlords - big blast walls, guard towers. Now, of course, the population has flipped. It's different because the rulers are different. And we drove to the area of the targeted house this morning and found Taliban fighters blocking and guarding the approaches to it. But otherwise, life seemed to be going on as usual in the streets all around. It's near embassies. It's near government buildings. And, in fact, the government intelligence headquarters is just a few minutes' drive away from where, according to the U.S., Zawahiri was hiding.

KHALID: Well, I mean, Steve, that does raise another question, because the Taliban are now in charge there in Afghanistan. They seized control a year ago. And we should, you know, tell listeners that that is why you're there, reporting on how the country has changed. What are they saying about Zawahiri living right there?

INSKEEP: Even though the Taliban have not confirmed his death officially, this seems like an extraordinary development. Of course, the Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden after 9/11. That's why the United States attacked Afghanistan in the first place more than 20 years ago. The U.S. has accused the Taliban for years of sheltering extremist groups that target the United States.

KHALID: Steve, Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Taliban violated the Doha agreement. And, you know, we should specify, this is a deal with the United States under which they promised not to shelter extremists. What are the Taliban saying in regards to that?

INSKEEP: Pretty much the opposite. They're saying that the United States violated the agreement by striking Afghanistan. Now, this gets a little legalistic. But it's revealing to hear the way the Taliban describe that agreement. One year ago, as they were taking over here in Kabul, we called a Taliban spokesman named Suhail Shaheen. And he said this.

SUHAIL SHAHEEN: It is our commitment that we will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against any other country, including the United States. We want to pave the way for reconstruction of Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Now, listen there to what he's saying and also not saying. He's saying, we will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil for attacks. But he doesn't promise that some extremist will never be living here. Now, there's other language that people who threaten the United States have, quote, "no place in Afghanistan." And it's unlikely the U.S. is going to accept any of these explanations because the U.S. did regard Zawahiri as an ongoing threat. And some of his videos have surfaced this year.

KHALID: So Steve, how does the timing of this drone strike affect the Taliban?

INSKEEP: Wow. It comes just as they were preparing to reach out to the world. The anniversary of their takeover is coming up. They've been relatively open with me these past few days. They're expecting more international journalists in the days to come. And they say they want better relations with the United States. In fact, on the very day of this drone strike, I flew down to Kandahar - important city for the Taliban. And I met Mohammad Yaqoob, who is the defense minister for the Taliban. He is the son of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader from the 1990s.

And I asked him, do you want better relations with the United States? And he laughed because to him, it's so obvious that they want that. Taliban leaders envision themselves a little like, you know, Vietnam, a former U.S. enemy that became a trading partner and even a friend. But now this strike hangs over all of that and raises questions for the United States about the Taliban's intentions.

KHALID: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep in Kabul. Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

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KHALID: And in East Asia, a big foreign policy question. Will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visit the self-governed island of Taiwan off the coast of China?

MARTINEZ: It's not on her official agenda. She's in Malaysia today and supposed to go to South Korea next. But Pelosi is reportedly considering a quick stopover in Taiwan. And the Chinese government has been warning such a move would have grave consequences.

KHALID: NPR's John Ruwitch joins us now from Beijing. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

KHALID: So fill us in on, what is the latest? Is Nancy Pelosi planning to go there? Is she not? We've been hearing a lot of back-and-forth.

RUWITCH: (Laughter) Well, there's no confirmation from the speaker's office, of course. Various media, including in Taiwan, are citing unidentified sources, saying Pelosi is planning to fly there tonight, local time, and then meet with Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, in the morning before departing. The last speaker of the House to visit Taiwan was Newt Gingrich, who did so in 1997. Pelosi's trip was reportedly planned originally for April in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But she came down with COVID, of course. And analysts say that, you know, a visit would signal to Taiwan and others in the region that the U.S. stands by its allies and friends and given Beijing's rhetoric that it won't back down.

KHALID: And, John, we should say that, you know, China clearly is not happy at all with this idea of a potential visit. What have you been hearing from Beijing?

RUWITCH: No, the rhetoric from Beijing has been sharp. The foreign ministry spokesman yesterday said a visit would hurt already strained ties between China and the U.S. The People's Liberation also, he said, wouldn't sit by and watch. In fact, over the weekend, there were military drills across from Taiwan. And some military units have engaged in all kinds of forms of chest-thumping on social media.

I spoke with Wen-Ti Sung about this, how China might react if Pelosi does go. He's a Taiwan expert at the Australian National University. And he says, Beijing is trying to thread a needle here. They would need to react. But the Communist Party is holding a Congress in two or three months. And Xi Jinping is angling to stay on as party boss. And Sung says the overriding priority now for the party is stability.

WEN-TI SUNG: And that's why Beijing really feels that it's caught in a very difficult dilemma, and that Pelosi's visit is a hot potato that Beijing really wants to do everything it can to help dissuade and deter.

KHALID: You know, John, I am struck by the domestic politics of this all here in the United States because, you know, sure, there is separation of powers. But would this visit occur if the Biden White House put its foot down and told the Democratic leader in the House not to go?

RUWITCH: Well, the White House has been repeating that the speaker decides where she travels. The White House doesn't make that decision. Congress is, as you say, a separate but equal branch of government. They've also reiterated that the so-called one-China policy, which is at the heart of China policy in the U.S., hasn't changed. And a visit by Pelosi doesn't change a thing. John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, had this to say about it yesterday.

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JOHN KIRBY: Put simply, there is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with longstanding U.S. policy into some sort of crisis conflict or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait.

RUWITCH: Yeah. Kirby says Beijing does appear to be positioning for further steps, but that, you know, any kind of escalation doesn't really serve anyone and could have unintended consequences.

KHALID: All right. That's NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thank you so much, John.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

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KHALID: Which political party controls Congress in November hangs in the balance, which is why state primaries are being so closely watched, to see which way voters are leaning.

MARTINEZ: Today, five states are holding primaries. And in the swing state of Arizona, voters will cast ballots in several key races.

KHALID: Ben Giles from member station KJZZ has the details. Good morning, Ben.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Good morning.

KHALID: So let's begin by just looking at - as you survey the Arizona primaries, what has stood out to you about these races?

GILES: It's so many open races for our top statewide positions here in Arizona, the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state. There's no incumbent in this toss-up state. Former President Trump has also, of course, played a big role here, as he has in other states. He's endorsed a slate of candidates who deny the results of the 2020 election. That includes candidates for governor and candidates for secretary of state. That's the position that oversees voting here in Arizona.

And just to give you an idea of how many election-denying candidates we're talking about, there's at least one candidate for secretary of state who flat out said they would have broken the law and refused to certify the 2020 election had they been in office. And that isn't even the candidate that Trump endorsed. So it's an interesting field. And Trump has also made notable endorsements elsewhere, including in the U.S. Senate race.

KHALID: So let's talk a little bit more about that Senate contest.

GILES: Right. There are several Republicans vying to take on Democratic Senator Mark Kelly. He's well-known here. He's raised a ton of money. According to OpenSecrets, this is already nearly a $74 million race. And that's just so far. This seat is a top target for Republicans nationally. It was a big deal in 2020 when Kelly won because that meant that Arizona Senate seats were both held by Democrats.

KHALID: Yes. Yeah.

GILES: But it's also been viewed as kind of a rebound state for Republicans ever since that 2020 vote because this is a historically red state. And the GOP has historic turnout advantages in the midterms. So Trump has backed Blake Masters. He's a former venture capitalist. Blake is also backed by his former boss. That's conservative powerbroker Peter Thiel. And that comes with a lot of money and yet another expensive race. Masters is up against a bunch of candidates who also sought the Trump endorsement, like businessman Jim Lamon and the current Arizona attorney general, Mark Brnovich.

KHALID: You know, Ben, I've also been hearing quite a bit nationally there about the governor's race in the state of Arizona. What are you hearing there? And what are you keeping an eye on?

GILES: So that's another open primary. Governor Doug Ducey here is term limited. He's endorsed Karrin Taylor Robson, who's got the support of more establishment figures in the state and nationally. That includes an endorsement from former Vice President Mike Pence. She's a wealthy candidate. She spent millions and millions of dollars to boost her name ID here. But she's still been trailing in most polls to Kari Lake, who's backed by Trump and is another one of those candidates who's aggressively pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Lake has even baselessly started to claim that she's seen signs of fraud in this current election, just like Trump did before 2016 and 2020. The winner will likely face Katie Hobbs. That's the current Democratic secretary of state.

KHALID: That's KJZZ's Ben Giles. Really appreciate - thank you for taking the time.

GILES: Thank you. 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.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.