DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And al-Qaida is at the center of a pretty stunning announcement from the White House this morning. President Obama said two hostages of al-Qaida, including an American, were killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur.
GREENE: Just shortly before the president said those words, the White House put out a statement that two other Americans, known to be part of al-Qaida, were also killed in separate operations. Here with the latest is NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, good morning.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So explain to us the events that we're hearing about this morning.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the president came into the White House briefing room and apologized for the U.S. accidentally killing the two hostages who were held in the al-Qaida compound. This is what he said.
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OBAMA: As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So the two hostages were an American doctor named Warren Weinstein, who'd been an al-Qaida hostage since 2011, and the second is an Italian national that had been held by al-Qaida since 2012. His name was Giovanni Lo Porto.
GREENE: And Dina, we should be clear, this was not something that has just happened. I mean, we're talking about perhaps a few months ago, this operation.
TEMPLE-RASTON: We think it happened in January. And it looks like, in a separate operation, the White House said that Ahmed Farouq, an American who'd been with al-Qaida for some time, has also been killed. And another al-Qaida member, an American who has a familiar name, Adam Gadahn, was also killed. He was this young Californian who had converted to Islam and joined al-Qaida some time ago and was often seen in its propaganda videos. He actually sort of became the group's English language spokesman for years. It's unclear exactly how many operations were conducted or whether they were drone strikes or maybe some other sort of air operation. But the White House did make the unusual step of announcing this this morning.
GREENE: OK, announcing that hostages of al-Qaida were killed and also two Americans actually involved with the terrorist organization - where did all of this take place?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the only thing we know for sure is that it took place along the Afghan-Pakistan border. And that's an area where al-Qaida's known to be hiding out. The president said that there'd been hundreds of hours of surveillance videos. And as they were watching this compound, the U.S. didn't know that there were civilians in the compound - and had been watching the compound extensively just before this strike took place. You know, a lot of drone strikes have been taking place around Miramshah, which is where the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based terror group that's affiliated with al-Qaida has been known to be located. And that's the area near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
GREENE: And interesting timing, that the White House decides today to announce this, Dina, even though this happened some time ago. Do we know anything about whether they had, you know, been able to confirm, in some way, that these people had been killed or what happened?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we think that the strikes took place sometime in January. And in February, the intelligence officials began picking up chatter that Mr. Weinstein and Lo Porto had been killed. But they didn't know how. So they thought this might have happened in a drone strike. So they began looking at a lot of - poring over the drone feeds and intercepted communications around that time. And apparently, not long ago, maybe as soon as this week, U.S. intelligence officials concluded with a high degree of confidence that the hostages were killed in this January drone strike. And then, they began notifying relatives.
GREENE: And Dina, is there significance - you know, we noticed in the White House statement, it pointed out very specifically that these Americans who were believed to be part of al-Qaida - specifically, they said they were not being targeted. What does that tell us?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they have to go through a particular legal process to specifically target an American. And that kill, as it's known - a kill list - actually has to be personally approved by the president. So they're going to great lengths to say this time that that determination wasn't made and that these two American members of al-Qaida were accidentally killed in these strikes.
GREENE: All right, we've been hearing from NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks very much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.