Defense & National Security — US strike kills Al Qaeda leader

The United States has conducted a drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan over the weekend. 

We’ll detail what we know about the operation so far, plus another $550 million in lethal aid for Ukraine, more on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) planned trip to Taiwan, veteran anger over scuttled burn pit exposure legislation and the latest on a Senate vote for Finland and Sweden to join NATO. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Al Qaeda leader dead in US airstrike

The United States conducted a drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan over the weekend, a source familiar with the operation confirmed to The Hill.   

President Biden is expected to speak about the operation in an address Monday evening. The White House said the president would deliver remarks on a “successful counterterrorism operation” from the balcony of the Blue Room at the White House.   

A milestone: The operation marks a major milestone for the U.S., as Zawahiri succeeded Osama bin Laden as the leader of the terror group in 2011.   

Zawahiri had been rumored to be dead, but he appeared in a video on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks last year.   

“Over the weekend, the United States conducted a counterterrorism operation against a significant al Qaeda target in Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said Monday, without naming Zawahiri as the target. “The operation was successful and there were no civilian casualties.” 

Read more on the operation here 

Biden to send another $550M to Ukraine

The United States is greenlighting another military assistance package to Ukraine, sending $550 million in ammunition for advanced rocket systems and other equipment to the country to fight the Russian invasion.    

What’s in it?: White House national security spokesman John Kirby previewed the new assistance package on Monday, saying that it would include ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, as well as ammunition for 155 mm artillery.   

The Pentagon said in a statement that the package would include 75,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition.   

The sum total, so far: President Biden has authorized over $8 billion in security assistance for Ukraine over the course of 17 packages since he took office, a figure which includes the latest package, Kirby said. 

A steady stream: The administration has periodically released assistance to the Ukrainians as they fight the Russian invasion, which recently entered its sixth month. The last military assistance package — totaling $270 million — was announced on July 22 and included four more HIMARS. 

Ukraine’s response: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Biden for offering Kyiv “robust support” and for recognizing Russia as a “threat to entire civilized world.”   

“New defense assistance package is bringing us closer to victory,” he tweeted.   

Unanswered questions: The U.S. has led allies in supplying assistance to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia. As the war drags on, there are questions about how long the U.S. and its allies can maintain unity on Ukraine.   

Read more here 

Kirby: Don’t be intimidated by China’s rhetoric 

White House national security spokesman John Kirby on Monday said a visit by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan is “not uncommon” and there was no reason for recent threats by the Chinese government

  • “We shouldn’t be as a country — we shouldn’t be intimidated by that rhetoric or those potential actions,” Kirby told Brianna Keilar on CNN’s “New Day.” 
  • “This is an important trip for the Speaker to be on and we’re going to do whatever we can to support her,” he added. 

The trip: U.S. and Taiwanese media has reported that Pelosi is expected to visit Taiwan as part of her trip to Asia that began this week with a stop in Singapore

  • The visit, first reported by CNN, would make Pelosi the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the independent island in decades. 

The current policy: The U.S. has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island that China considers to be part of its territory, which under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 includes a U.S. commitment to support Taiwan without a promise of direct engagement if China invades. 

China’s warning: Beijing has warned that it firmly opposes a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi and it would have a “severe negative impact” on China-U.S. relations, vowing that China would take “strong and resolute measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” 

“There is no reason for the Chinese rhetoric,” Kirby said on CNN. “There is no reason for any actions to be taken, it is not uncommon for congressional leaders to travel to Taiwan. It is very much in keeping with our policy and consistent with our support to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act.” 

Hesitations: Biden said last month that the U.S. military “thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for Pelosi to conduct a visit. 

Kirby on Monday said the White House had communicated with Pelosi and her staff about the trip. 

“I’m not going to talk about security requirements, but clearly we want to make sure that when she travels overseas, she can do so safely and securely, and we’re going to make sure of that,” Kirby said. 

Read that story here 

Advocates staying until toxic burn pits bill passes 

Veterans and advocates spent the weekend staked out outside the Capitol demanding that GOP senators drop their opposition to much-anticipated legislation to help veterans who are suffering illnesses due to toxic exposures.  

Republicans last Wednesday blocked passage of the Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring our PACT Act, which would benefit an estimated 3.5 million veterans. 

Fed up: While the Senate is expected to hold another vote on the bill this week, those protesting outside said they were tired of waiting.   

  • “These veterans don’t have time! They’re running out of time. They need health care now, and if they don’t get it, they’re dying!” said Natalia Kempthorne-Curiel, who traveled with her father Nathan Kempthorne to the demonstration.  
  • “No one should have to deal with this — they shouldn’t have to deal with this. They shouldn’t have to be outside while they’re suffering already,” she added.  

The scene: About two dozen advocates stood outside the Capitol on Thursday, venting their frustrations to members of the press about the GOP senators who backtracked on the bill, citing concerns about how funds are allocated. 

An unexpected reversal: The Senate initially passed the PACT Act by a vote of 84-14 in June, and the House passed the bill in July by a vote of 342-88. The upper chamber needed to re-pass the bill because the House version included technical corrections.  

But last Wednesday, only 55 senators voted to pass the bill, falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Twenty-five Republicans who had previously supported the bill changed their votes to oppose it. 

The GOP’s turn against the bill occurred hours after Democrats announced a deal on a new spending deal, fueling speculation that the opposition was linked to the revived reconciliation efforts. 

  • What the bill would do: The PACT Act looks to expand eligibility for veterans benefits to post-9/11 veterans who were exposed to toxins from burn pits, which were widely used for waste disposal at military sites. The bill adds 23 illnesses linked to burn pits and toxic exposure to the VA’s list of presumptive service conditions.  
  • The measure also looks to expand presumptions related to Agent Orange exposures to veterans who served outside of Vietnam. 

Pressure campaign: Thursday evening, Rosie Torres, the founder of the nonprofit organization Burn Pits 360, and other veterans advocates began brainstorming how they were going to pressure the Senate to finally pass the bill. They were already planning to hold a big rally to advocate passage of the bill, so they decided to start that evening with a sit-in outside Congress. 

“Slowly but surely, people started trickling in, and people have flown in from New York, take the train, taking the bus,” Torres said. “Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina — these people are driving. They’re in the cars and they’re coming.” 

Read the full story here 

Hawley to vote ‘no’ on Sweden, Finland NATO bids

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Monday said he would vote against Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join NATO, a move that would go against most of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle.   

The reasoning: In an op-ed published by The National Interest, Hawley says the United States shouldn’t expand its security commitments in Europe due to a more pressing threat from China.    

“America’s greatest foreign adversary doesn’t loom over Europe. It looms in Asia. I am talking of course about the People’s Republic of China. And when it comes to Chinese imperialism, the American people should know the truth: the United States is not ready to resist it. Expanding American security commitments in Europe now would only make that problem worse—and America, less safe,” he wrote 

An expected vote: Finland and Sweden in May announced their intentions to join NATO following Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The governments of 19 NATO countries have since ratified the two Nordic nations joining the alliance. Eleven, including the United States, have yet to do so. All 30 member states must approve the additions.   

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants senators to vote on enlarging the alliance before the lawmakers leave Washington, D.C., for a monthlong break set to start Aug. 8.     

  • Wide support: Finland’s and Sweden’s requests have received widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans. But Hawley — who was one of the 11 conservatives who opposed the $40 billion Ukraine aid package Congress passed in May — insists the United States isn’t prepared to go against both Moscow and Beijing.   
  • Hawley’s stance goes against that of the majority of his fellow Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who last week said the United States “would be fortunate to have two new treaty allies as impressive and capable as Finland and Sweden.”  
  • Eighteen House Republicans last month voted against a symbolic resolution to support Finland and Sweden joining NATO. 

Read more here 


  • The Center for a New American Security will hold a virtual discussion on “Operationalizing the Quad,” a talk focusing on “promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” at 8:30 a.m.  
  • The Government Executive Media Group will host a virtual talk on “Modernizing Finance Through Digital Transformation,” with a focus on Navy financial, supply chain, acquisition and workforce management processes, at 1 p.m. 
  • The Senate Armed Services Committeewill consider the nomination of Terrence Edwards to be inspector general of the National Reconnaissance Office at 2:30 p.m. 


That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!