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Killing of al-Qaeda leader renews tensions with the Taliban

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are still many questions that swirl around the U.S. drone strike that killed the leader of al-Qaida in Kabul last weekend. Ayman al-Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden's deputy, and he led al-Qaida after U.S. forces killed Bin Laden in 2011. Zawahiri's killing marks the end of a 21-year manhunt and the beginning of renewed tensions between the U.S. and the Taliban. NPR's Arezou Rezvani has been following developments from Kabul and joins us now.

Arezou, thanks so much for being with us.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: Hi. It's good to be with you.

SIMON: You were in Kabul on the day of that drone strike. What did you see? What did you hear? And what's the neighborhood and surroundings like now?

REZVANI: Yeah. So a few NPR colleagues and I were here, and a couple of us even woke up to the sound of that blast. Details at the time were very slow to trickle out at first. Many of us thought it was maybe a rocket attack that the Islamic State had launched, which is a group that's active here. So it really caught people off guard when the U.S. finally came out and said it was behind the strike and that Ayman al-Zawahiri was the target. After that announcement, we did try to visit the site. And it's important to visit scenes like this because it's a way to check if what officials are saying about civilian casualties, for example, match reality.

When we got there, it was an upscale neighborhood. The Taliban were heavily armed, and they had cordoned off the street where the strike took place. And our interaction with them was quite tense. One Taliban guard scolded us for even coming and sent us back. We did drive past the area again on Thursday. It's still heavily guarded, and they're not letting anyone near the site still.

SIMON: Was it a revelation that Zawahiri was living in Kabul?

REZVANI: It was definitely a big surprise for people here. The house that was hit where he was living and hiding was located near several government offices. The Taliban's intelligence headquarters is a short drive away. And the house is said to have belonged to the Taliban's acting interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani. And that raises all kinds of questions about who in the Taliban may have known about Zawahiri's whereabouts. Many people I spoke to also said it was really jarring to wake up to the sound of a huge explosion again. And that's because Kabul hasn't been experiencing attacks and bombings that were common a year ago under the old government, when the Taliban themselves were launching many of those attacks.

One Afghan woman I spoke to, Shahla Nawabi, who lives close to where the strike took place - she put it to me this way.

SHAHLA NAWABI: I just thought, oh, no. Do we want that again? We're so used to having this quiet and not feeling scared of bomb strikes and suicide bombers. And we are actually getting used to that, living in a little bit of peace and harmony. So that really shook us all.

SIMON: And what has the Taliban said so far?

REZVANI: So Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid released a statement this week claiming they had no idea that Zawahiri had been living in Kabul. He said they planned to investigate the strike. They're also accusing the U.S. of violating the agreement they signed with the Taliban in 2020. In that same statement, the Taliban also warned that if the U.S. carries out a strike again, there would be consequences. There were also anti-U.S. protests around the country Friday that appeared to be coordinated. A lot of Taliban leaders tweeted out videos and pictures of the protests. And I've also been talking to Taliban rank-and-file about the killing of Zawahiri. One Talib told me that he thinks the news that Zawahiri was killed in Afghanistan is a lie and that al-Qaida doesn't even exist in the country. So there's a sense of disbelief among them, too.

SIMON: Arezou, what's the security situation like in Kabul right now?

REZVANI: You know, it definitely feels like something shifted this week. There are many more Taliban security and intelligence agents roaming the streets. Some of that may have to do with the Shia holy month of Muharram, which is underway. The Shia minority have been the target of Islamic State attacks, so that may explain some of the heightened security. But overall, I'd say the surprise operation by the U.S. has triggered a sense of fear among people that they could again pay the price for renewed tensions.

SIMON: NPR's Arezou Rezvani speaking from Kabul. Thanks so much for being with us.

REZVANI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.