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French Hostage Beheaded; Thousands Flee ISIS Into Turkey; Obama Addresses UNGA; Interview with Rep. Marsha Blackburn

Aired September 24, 2014 - 12:30   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Want to get back to our breaking news. Still no word from Paris on a Web video that appears to show the beheading of yet another hostage, this one, a French hostage, and this time, the beheading taking place in another country, in Algeria.

This is a picture of Herve Gourdel. He was kidnapped in Algeria on Sunday, just on Sunday. In a posting that was titled "A Message of Blood for the French Government," Mr. Gourdel is apparently put to death by armed men who swear allegiance to ISIS and their leader.

We're going to bring you more details of what's happened in this particular story just as soon as we get more details.

We're hearing from the people of Syria as well, those who witnessed the air strikes in Raqqa and the aftermath as well, the noticeable difference, not just the damage but the emptiness.

For the first time, apparently the streets were clear of those foreboding black-clad ISIS members with their loudspeakers demanding people behave and go to prayer, no longer roaming the streets in their trucks.

CNN's senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is live at the Syria/Turkey border. This is just incredible information that you've been able to get from an activist who is on the ground.

Can you just fill in the blanks on exactly what that person told you about where these ISIS people have gone? Their leadership, have they fled? Are they coming back now that things are abating somewhat?

Fill in the pictures if you could, Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Here's what he told us. He said that around 8:00 a.m. local -- bearing in mind that these strikes happened around 4:00, 5:00 a.m. local -- there was a large convoy of 20 to 25 ISIS vehicles packed with fighters. He believes it may have held some of their senior leaders because of the heavy security surrounding them.

He said then, as you were describing, that it was the first time people felt like they could go out into the streets and at least be able to breathe a little bit freely.

But he said that really did not last for long because by 8:00 p.m., ISIS was back, not necessarily in the same numbers that they used to roam the streets in before but they were back. They were setting up checkpoints, and they were detaining people at random, he said, anyone who they suspected may have been an informant or filmed anything on their cell phone.

In terms of the targets in Raqqa itself specifically, the buildings that these air strikes hit, he said that they were mostly empty or had been emptied ahead of these air strikes.

ISIS has been anticipating this. He said about two weeks ago, about 20 days ago, they began moving into civilian homes. And so while there were some casualties among the ISIS fighters, he said the buildings were mostly empty.

The great concern right now -- and this is why it's such an emotionally conflicting time for the residents of Raqqa -- is that on the one hand, they're so happy that finally after all they've endured, someone, something is coming to help them.

But at the same time, they're very afraid of what he was describing as being the Afghanistan effect, where a target takes out civilians that are the casualties.

BANFIELD: So, Arwa, if you could also take me to those who decided not to stay and fled, many of them fleeing for Turkey.

It's just remarkable the sheer number that is we're hearing. I think in the span of about four days about 200,000 people have left the Syrian/Kurdish city of Kobani. This is just -- this is unbelievable.

Can anybody handle that onslaught of desperate refugees?

DAMON: It's been incredibly difficult for the Turkish government to get a grasp on this, and at one point, they actually opened up multiple border crossings, eight or nine of them, and then as the flow slowed down over the following days, since Friday, they've got two border crossings open in this one area that is in northern Syria.

It's predominantly Kurdish and ISIS forces just moving straight into there, taking over dozens of villages incredibly quickly, sending people fleeing for their lives.

These individuals also are saying they want to see more action against ISIS in that area. In particular, many of them, Ashleigh, walked for days to try to get to safety, carrying their small children, carrying whatever belongings they could on their heads.

And the conditions are absolutely miserable. You have a combination of sandstorm and very torrential downpours.

BANFIELD: Just awful, the pictures that we're seeing to the right of you, Arwa, with these little kids living in the dirt at this point.

Arwa Damon doing the reporting for us and doing a great job, thank you for that. Stay safe, Arwa, you and your crew.

By the way, another great colleague of mine, Christiane Amanpour, this morning speaking exclusively to the secretary of state, John Kerry, to talk about the al-Qaeda splinter group, Khorasan, and the alleged plot against U.S. and European targets.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Can you confirm precisely what it was and the imminence of it?

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: These are remnants of al Qaeda, core al Qaeda as we called it. These are people who were definitively plotting against the United States and the West. We have been tracking them for some period of time now.

And it is true that we didn't put a lot of public focus on it because we really didn't want people -- we didn't want them to know that we were, in fact, tracking them as effectively as we were.

So this would have happened with or without ISIL. We were focused on them, and the moment actually was ripe. There were active plots against our country. We knew where they were, and we did what we needed to do.

AMANPOUR: Can you tell us what the plots were, precisely?

KERRY: No, I can't. I'm not going to go into that. But suffice it to say, we knew there were active plots against the country.


BANFIELD: And while the Obama administration says it will take time to degrade ISIS with air strikes, some members of Congress say we shouldn't be doing that. Other members of Congress say what we're doing isn't even close to being enough.

Ahead, I'm going to speak with Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, the Republican from Tennessee.

The question to the congresswoman, if the air strikes aren't enough but boots on the ground are too much, what lies in the middle? That's next.


BANFIELD: One of the biggest concerns with any conflict, of course, is escalation, and with that comes the possibility that America could ultimately be forced to send in combat troops against is, even though the president has said it's not an option right now.

Here's a little bit more of what the president said this morning to the U.N. General Assembly.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As an international community, we must meet this challenge with a focus on four areas. First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed.

This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria. Mothers, sisters, and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death.

In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.

No god condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning, no negotiation with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.

So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death. In this effort, we do not act alone nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands.

Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities. We will use our military might in a campaign of air strikes to roll back ISIL. We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region.


BANFIELD: Joining me now to talk about the politics behind America's war against ISIS is House Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn who voted in favor of the president's plan to arm and train those so- called moderate Syrian rebels.

Congresswoman, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I just want to read back something that -- I want to quote from you, an interview that you gave to Nashville public radio in which you said, what we would rather see him do is be more aggressive and more forthright and go after this more full force and not go at it halfway.

But you stopped short in that same interview of suggesting that there should be U.S. ground troops, so I don't know that I understand what exactly is more forceful than the position the president's taking and what the president and the coalition is doing. Can you explain?

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), TENNESSEE: Absolutely. And one of the things that we do know from listening to command teams, listening to some of the current generals is I think they're leading the president to take a more aggressive position in fighting, defeating, destroying and, in my words, annihilating is and ISIL in any -- and any of these terrorist groups that have sprung up out of al Qaeda.

Now, it would be inappropriate for us to predetermine or to say to the generals and the command team on the field, this is exactly how you're going to do it. What we need to be doing is hearing from them as they begin to make their plans, as they begin to say, this is how we're best going to do this in the most efficient, effective way --

BANFIELD: I hear you. But I'm not sure -- I just don't understand what you're saying. What's more aggressive than 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles, four dozen aircraft, 200 pieces of ordinates -- all of that just in two days.

What's your opinion -- you're saying the president needs to use more force and be more forceful and more aggressively?

BLACKBURN: That's right.

BANFIELD: Using what?

BLACKBURN: Well, let's start with defining the coalition. We're yet to know who is a part of this coalition. We are yet to know what is going to transpire over this period of time.

How long does he expect the air strikes to continue? What is the expectation there of our military? Is he willing to back off of the sequester that has been on the military and is he willing to stop this drawdown of the end strength? How are our military men and women going to be sent forth?

I have a major military post in my district. Whether it's the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell or the Fifth Division or the 160th Special Forces, what they don't know yet is what would be the mission that they're expected to accomplish and what would be the rules of engagement.

Is there going to be a status of forces agreement with Iraq? Who -- the president is the leader of the free world and we need him to speak in that manner and to be able to articulate what is going to a pathway (ph). The details and the specs of that are going to be laid out by the generals. They're going to tell us what's going to be needed.

BANFIELD: Well, when you say that you don't know who this - when you say you don't know who this coalition is, I'm not sure I understand that issue either.

BLACKBURN: We don't.

BANFIELD: Well, we've had five Arab nations all going on the record saying they flew alongside American missions, whether they dropped or supported.


BANFIELD: They're on the record. This isn't guesswork. This isn't sources say. This is, we did this. So what - what do you mean we don't know who the coalition is?

BLACKBURN: We do not know who else is in the coalition and today --

BANFIELD: It's on the map right in front of us right now.

BLACKBURN: Well, and, yes, as those came in and flew those missions, yes, we know that they were participating there. We don't know who this broad coalition that is being billed out, who is a part of that. And that has not been defined for us at this point in time. That is something I think that many of our allies are waiting to hear, who is going to be participating and in what (INAUDIBLE).

BANFIELD: Ms. Blackburn, do you want to see boots on the ground? Do you - do you want to see -- I want you on the record because I know that, you know, unfortunately, Congress can't go on the record actually in Washington right now. You are all off in preparation for the upcoming midterms. But go on the record here, if you would, please. If the air strikes, the campaign that you're seeing right now isn't aggressive enough, in your words, do you want to see American boots on the ground? Is that the aggression you're looking for?

BLACKBURN: I want us to annihilate all of these terrorist organizations and make certain that we rid them -

BANFIELD: Yes, we all want that, but how do you want that to happen?

BLACKBURN: We're going to follow what our command team -- the ones that are in the field that are working, they are in the field --

BANFIELD: And the question is, do you want American boots on the ground in Syria? BLACKBURN: Let's -- we are going - we are going to see what they tell

us. We have given them this harsh (ph) authorization -

BANFIELD: No, no, I'm asking you. You've asked for more aggression than the current airstrikes.

BLACKBURN: Ashleigh -

BANFIELD: And I'm asking you, do you want to make - this is a very simple question for a congresswoman to answer.

BLACKBURN: Ashleigh, it is - it is - no.

BANFIELD: American forces with boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria?

BLACKBURN: No, ma'am. I want you to listen to yourself, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: It's a question.

BLACKBURN: You do not need 435 people playing commander in chief. What you need is members of Congress supporting the command team and the president making the decisions that are going to annihilate and get rid of these territorial (ph) assumptions (ph).

BANFIELD: So I can't get you to - I can't get you to agree one way or the other whether that's a good idea?

BLACKBURN: Because I'm going to support my commanders that are in the field. BANFIELD: All right, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, thanks so much

for your time. Do appreciate it.

BLACKBURN: Thank you, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right. What a lot of people are weighing in on is what the United States needs to do to defeat ISIS. And obviously as you can see, a lot of people have differing opinions. And my next guest says America will live to regret this latest bombing campaign. Forget boots on the ground. He says there's a whole lot of better ways to win this war. We'll talk about it coming up.



DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At over 400 pounds, Sia Figiel was revered in her Samoan culture.

SIA FIGIEL: I was considered by people a Samoan woman of strength. But there is no strength in pain, in hurt, in living with uncontrolled diabetes.

GUPTA: Complications from her diabetes even forced her to have all of her teeth removed.

FIGIEL: It was on that same day that I decided to be an activist against obesity and diabetes.

GUPTA: Already an acclaimed author, she used her platform to become a crusader, speaking to children and parents about the dangers of obesity. To jump-start her own weight loss, she joined the 2014 CNN Fit Nation team and began training for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. In eight months, she not only lost weight by swimming, biking and running, she also gained a lot of confidence. On September 14th, she became a triathlete.

FIGIEL: I just feel like I'm a new person. I feel like I've been rebirthed, I've been baptized.

GUPTA: Not even a nasty bike crash could keep Figiel from reaching the finish line.

FIGIEL: And they wanted to take me in the emergency vehicle, but I - I said, I can't do that, my family's out there, my team's out there. I cannot ride in a car. I came to do a race.

GUPTA: She finished the race with her team by her side.

FIGIEL: My team was there. (INAUDIBLE) were there. And they brought me in.

GUPTA: More than 100 pounds lighter now, she's not ready to stop.

FIGIEL: I'll do it again.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, Malibu.


BANFIELD: Back at the news now.

If you look at America's long track record in the Middle East, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence that these latest air strikes in Syria are going to end up fixing much of anything. In fact, some say the United States is going to end up regretting this latest action in Syria. Joining me now is one of those sayers, Ryan Cooper, he's the national correspondent for, who's been very critical of President Obama's plan to combat ISIS.

So, Ryan, thanks for being with us. I've just basically run the spectrum as I land on you from Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn who says we're just not doing enough with these air strikes, although she wouldn't answer my question as to whether boots on the ground is what's enough, in fact she wouldn't say what is more aggressive than that, to you who calls this another boneheaded open-ended conflict in the Middle East. It feels to the guy sitting in the middle, and that's me, that it's easy to criticize when things are so complex, none of this is easy, except the criticism. Why is your tack (ph) any different?

RYAN COOPER, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THEWEEK.COM: Well, I mean, I'm just going with, you know, the record of what we've done over there for the last decade and a half. And the record is unmitigated failure. We just don't have any good evidence that we're able to do the things that the president and the congresswoman thinks that we are able to do. We can't micromanage the politics of, you know, a chaotic civil war. Their - you need to recognize --

BANFIELD: But can you stand on the sidelines and watch people being slaughtered wholesale, women being jailed and raped on a regular basis? I mean I think you actually mention in your piece, the answer is containment, don't arm or bomb, keep watch from the sidelines. Is that really the role for a world leader, as Obama said, you know, America is?

COOPER: Well, if we want to help people who are suffering, what we should do, first of all, is take actions that will guarantee that effect. Right now, the U.N.'s world food program is running short of money. And they're going to cut back pretty much all of their Syrian operations over the next year while 130,000 refugees poured into Turkey over the last two days. So we spend $500 million on this plan that I think probably won't do anything good. And, meanwhile, for much less than that, we're allowing refugees to go without food, water, shelter. You know, there are lots of things we can do all across the world, bed nets and so forth, that will help alleviate human suffering. You know, bombings track record is just terrible in this respect and we have good reason to think that the opposite will happen, it will make things worse.

BANFIELD: Well, certainly, as I said, none of this is easy. Even the refugee question just, you know, became a whole lot tougher with roughly 200,000 refugees on the move in just four days. Ryan Cooper, thanks so much. Appreciate your time.

COOPER: Thanks for having me.

BANFIELD: And thank you, everyone, for watching. Do stay tuned though. My colleague, Wolf Blitzer, takes over the helm live from the United Nations, where the president has just wrapped up and where it is a very, very busy week. He's coming up next.