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THE SITUATION ROOM
Hundreds of Americans At Risk in Yemen; Interview with Jason Chaffetz; ISIS Demands $200 Million for Japanese Hostages; Two Yemenis Charged with Plot to Kill Americans
Aired January 20, 2015 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, ally under siege. Rebels seize control of Yemen's capital. Hundreds of Americans are at risk right now, with U.S. warships prepared to evacuate them.
How will al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate take advantage of the chaos there?
Terror tape -- a new ISIS video shows two hostages, as a familiar figure delivers a chilling threat -- pay $200 million ransom or else.
And steep climb -- we have new information on the last minutes of AirAsia Flight 8501. It shows the airliner rose faster than a fighter jet before plunging into the sea.
Are other passenger planes at risk?
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: The breaking news, a key U.S. ally in the war against al Qaeda is now under serious attack from within. And a power shift could leave the terror group even stronger and much more dangerous. Yemen's presidential palace has now been seized by the rebels and the country's information minister says a coup is now complete.
Amid the chaos, a very dangerous situation for hundreds of Americans, if not more. The U.S. Embassy says shots were fired at one of its vehicles and two U.S. Navy warships, they are now in position to evacuate Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, if necessary.
Congressman Jason Chaffetz is standing by live, along with our correspondents and our analysts. We have the only Western TV reporter on the ground in Yemen, Nick Paton Walsh.
But let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- .
Barbara, what's the latest?
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, Wolf, the U.S. Embassy in Yemen remains open and operating, said to be a vital outpost to keeping an eye on al Qaeda in Yemen. But the question, of course, is how long before it simply gets
too dangerous to stay put?
STARR (voice-over): Yemen under siege from Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, attacking the presidential palace, raising the possibility of an all-out coup against the Sunni-led government. A national security crisis for the US. The immediate worry, the safety of several hundred American embassy workers. An embassy vehicle already shot at.
SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION: If the U.S. Embassy is under threat and the U.S. military cannot guarantee the safety of its diplomats and other civilians at the embassy, it is time to go, at least temporarily.
STARR: It's no longer clear the streets are safe enough for personnel to drive to the airport to leave via commercial air if the State Department orders an evacuation.
CNN has learned two U.S. Navy warships moved into the Red Sea late Monday, ready to evacuate the Americans if ordered.
The USS Iwo Jima and USS Fort McHenry now on standby. A U.S. official cautions, if it comes to that, it will be a difficult and dangerous military operation, given the uncertainty about the security situation on the ground.
A longer term concern, the unraveling of Yemen. Next door, Saudi Arabia worried about Iran's power play in supporting the rebels and the inability of the Yemen government to take control gives al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, the local affiliate, a dangerous advantage just a week after laying claim to the Paris attack.
JONES: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is under the least pressure we have ever seen it because the government is struggling to survive. And, frankly, it's losing that struggle right now.
STARR: Just months ago, President Obama touting the U.S. partnership with Yemen.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
STARR: So why even run the risk of staying in Yemen, the U.S. diplomats staying put?
U.S. officials say keeping an eye on al Qaeda in Yemen is vital. Right now, it is considered the top threat in terms of terrorist organizations that could -- could reach out and attack the United States -- Wolf. BLITZER: Because we're beginning to see a clear pattern now. As
Barbara, you know, the U.S., obviously for good reason, shut down its embassy in Damascus, Syria. They suspended all embassy operations in Somalia. More recently, they shut down the U.S. Embassy, evacuated all Americans from Libya, despite the massive U.S. effort to get rid of Gadhafi and get some sort of new regime there.
And it looks like it's only going to be a matter of time before the same thing happens in Yemen right now. So I assume two warships are in place, but they probably will need some more assets. There are a lot of Americans in Yemen right now.
STARR: Well, military officials, Wolf, will tell you that they do have everything in place to handle this if they are ordered. And look, even if the diplomats were ordered out of Yemen and they got in cars and drove to the airport to get commercial flights, the U.S. military will keep a very close eye on them as they go through those streets of Sana'a. That is a very dangerous situation there right now.
But, Wolf, you just made a very critical point. There are so many places that the State Department has basically had to shutter, places that are vital to collecting intelligence in the war on terror. They are reluctant to shutter any more of these places. The general feeling is the State Department would like to hang on. The Pentagon is saying you've got to go before we can't get you out.
BLITZER: Yes. And there are a lot of military personnel in Yemen right know. The exact number classified, but there are a lot right now. They're going to have to be evacuated, presumably, at some point, as well, in addition to the diplomats and the civilians and the other Americans who are there.
All right, thanks very much, Barbara, for that report.
Let's go to Yemen right now.
Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is the only Western TV correspondent on the ground in Yemen.
So what are you seeing there today, because I understand a U.S. Embassy vehicle was shot at with Americans inside.
What's the latest that you're seeing and hearing -- Nic?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the incident happened on Monday night near the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. Embassy travel around here in pretty conspicuous black armored SUVs. And a couple of them seemed to be nearing the embassy at a checkpoint there and these gunmen opened fire upon them, initially warning shots, but then those shots were directly aimed at the vehicle.
Now, the Embassy was clear, these are not warning shots, I quote them, there was an intent there. The embassy vehicle managed to pull away. Nobody injured, it
appears, either on the gunmen's side or those inside the vehicle, who are U.S. diplomatic personnel.
But that was followed today by the real power vacuum you've been talking about, Wolf. We are seeing an extraordinary situation here, where the presidential administration was shelled over yesterday. Today, the Houthi rebel movement, who are accused of being backed by Iran, they deny that. They simply moved in there during the end of some political talks that were aimed at trying to keep the cease-fire going here.
We've heard some gunfire. There was gunfire outside the president's residence itself. He, of course, stayed in there, is said to be safe.
The question really, though, now is, we've just heard the Houthi leader on television at length asking for changes to the new constitution, a greater share in power, perhaps a suspense or change in military operations in a key al Qaeda area in Yemen.
We're really wondering quite who's in charge.
Are cabinet officials going to come into work tomorrow?
The minister of information seemed to feel that the president had completely lost control when she spoke to me earlier on.
The Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, still calls the president the president. He's not necessarily claiming there's any change in anyone's title right now.
But the key buildings the president is supposed to be in are crawling with his militia.
So there's an enormous power vacuum here. And it's an uncertainty which must be troubling people Washington more than anything else. They simply don't know who to ring here at the moment. And, frankly, if they did call the president, quite where is he and does he have any leads on power at the moment -- Wolf?
BLITZER: Yes. There's a lot of uncertainty here in Washington, I can tell you, Nick. And there's deep concern. Right now, they don't believe these Shiite Houthi rebels, who seem to be taking charge, Nick there, they represent, that they really want to go after Americans. But they fear that could change pretty quickly. They're worried about that, even though they see no immediate indications that these Houthi rebels are going to target Americans.
PATON WALSH: Well, one of the slogans the Houthi rebels have on their post is "Death To America!." I mean they very much ascribe to that sort of Iranian revolution slogan, which leads to more accusations of Iran backing, or at least ideological sort of assistance through them, which they deny.
No, at the moment, in the country's capital, there seemed to be -- initially, when they first came in -- a source of calm. But they were eventually attacked by al Qaeda. And then, of course, now we've seen them run into conflict with the government itself. So there's no immediate anti-American sentiment that you see when you meet them. But there's a leader's speech today. It was clear. It was critical of the U.N., the U.S., many Western powers are trying to intervene here in Yemen and impose the new constitution, which they were upset. They thought it would split the country into six different parts and that would be certainly against the benefit of the Houthis here.
But there's a definite concern of how this developed, simply because a sectarian divide, the Houthi and Shia, they're facing a lot of Sunni tribes here, including al Qaeda. And, of course, that as that sectarian tension builds, like it has across the Middle East, that could certainly assist al Qaeda and make life very difficult for the West here, trying to pursue key targets with the U.S. drone campaign -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're showing our viewers, Nick, some video that you shot earlier today showing some of the devastation that has occurred, the shelling, the fighting that's been going on. It's a pitifully poor country to begin with, but it looks like a real disaster unfolding in Yemen right now.
Is that what you see?
PATON WALSH: Well, the streets of Sana'a are bizarrely (INAUDIBLE) one moment, everyone is terrified, hiding indoors, staying away from the windows, trying to explain to their children what's going on. And then the next, they're running around filling up their cars with petrol, trying to get provisions. This is an extraordinarily odd situation. But Yemenese, frankly, are used to that. Years of conflict, they're just seeing a particularly troubling escalation now ---Wolf.
BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh, be careful over there.
We'll stay in close touch with you.
Nick is the only Western television reporter courageous enough, at least from our perspective, to be in Yemen right now.
We'll stay in close touch with him.
The United States may no longer have an anti-terror ally in Yemen. Hundreds of Americans, if not more, they are at risk right now -- diplomats, military personnel, other civilians.
Joining us now, a key voice on national security issues, Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
He's the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
Congressman, Yemen's capital, it looks like the presidential palace and other key places, they're now in the control of these Shiite Houthi rebels.
How dangerous is this crumbling situation in Yemen right now for the Americans who are still there?
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R-UT), CHAIRMAN, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Well, it may be the most volatile situation on the face of the planet at the moment, especially if you're an American. We're deeply concerned about the embassy personnel, the military personnel, the others there in that country. The Houthis are making a strong push and they are, as it was pointed out in the report, no friend of the United States of America.
And yet I worry that the president, literally a short while ago, was not only heaping praise on the success, he called it, in Yemen. That is obviously not the situation. And we have to get on top of it, because -- and we're going to have to bring in some partners, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to help solve this problem.
BLITZER: Well, that was back in September when he was citing Yemen, maybe Somalia, as a success story in this war on terror.
But it's clearly, since then, the situation has unfolded.
And today, you just heard Nick report that a U.S. Embassy armored vehicle, an armored car, was fired at not far from the embassy.
Here's the question -- is it time, from your perspective, to get out of there, to evacuate those Americans while the U.S. still can?
CHAFFETZ: Look, I know we may be Republicans and Democrats, but we care deeply about the American personnel there. The State Department and the White House itself is going to have to make that decision. I'd like us to stay there as long as possible. I think engagement is an important part of the long-term future there. We want to have our embassy personnel there doing everything they can to build economic and ties to that country.
But at the same time, safety comes first. And they're going to have to make that decision. And I'll support them when they decide to, if they need to, to pull them out.
BLITZER: Congressman Chaffetz, I want you to stand by.
We have a lot more to discuss, including what's going on in the overall war on terror, the latest developments unfolding in Europe right now.
We'll take a quick break.
Much more right after this.
BLITZER: We're following the apparent collapse of a key U.S. Ally in the fight against al Qaeda.
I want to go back to congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He's the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, a leading voice on national security. Congressman, we know that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,
which is based in Yemen. The chief bomb maker there is this guy named Ibrahim al-Asiri. He's still very much at large, despite U.S. efforts to find him and target him and kill him, if possible, in Yemen. But he's very much at large right now.
And the Kouachi brothers, the ones who killed all those people in Paris the other day, they trained in Yemen.
Is it just a matter of time before AQAP strikes again?
CHAFFETZ: Well, that's the worry. We're worried about the intelligence we're able to gather in that part of the world. Certainly, they have been expanding. They're attacking, going after the presidential palace.
Does that mean they can go and strike again into Europe or, heaven forbid, into the United States or anywhere for that matter? That's the deep worry. And so we don't have -- we don't have the type of intelligence gathering there that we needed.
BLITZER: We know that some of those ISIS terrorists are dispatching their fighters to specifically target westerners. Mostly in the past we always assumed ISIS was going after various locations in Syria and Iraq, maybe a few other places in the region. But now there seems to be a new strategy. Is that your understanding?
CHAFFETZ: Well, that's what makes it so difficult to defend, is because it is widespread. You can do it with small groups of people. But certainly, that message has been out there and been pervasive. You see there are calls for those types of terrorist type of activities, and the world needs to come together. A, let's identify what it is; and let's go after and get it. It is radical Islamic terrorism. Let's call it what it is, and let's go after it and get the job taken care of. And I think the world is coming to that conclusion. We can't mess around with this. We have to go out and capture these -- if not kill these people.
BLITZER: We know that ISIS is now also demanding that Japan pull its support for the U.S.-led coalition air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. They are demanding, these ISIS terrorists, $200 million for the return, the release of two Japanese hostages.
There you see some video. You see the two Japanese hostages on their knees. They're being threatened with death, beheading within 72 hours unless Japan pays $200 million. What's your reaction when you see this?
CHAFFETZ: Well, that's what terrorists do. They try to inflict terror, and they're doing it upon the Japanese people and the rest of the civilized world. That's why you can have a no-tolerance policy. You have to call it out for what it is. And we're going to have to come up with a global strategy. The United States inevitably is going to have to lead in that strategy.
We need the president more engaged on this to make sure that we bring along the coalition partners in all corners of the world from the Japanese to the Saudi Arabians to the United Arab Emirates. I mean, you name it, we're going to have to bring people together and collectively fight and defeat this.
BLITZER: You've said that the United States, the Obama administration, so far has done, in your words, a terrible job bringing in other countries in this fight against ISIS. What other countries are you talking about? What else do you want the U.S. to do?
CHAFFETZ: Well, we can talk for instance about no-fly zones and making sure that we have air superiority, which we could clearly have and could clearly do.
But we also need to have the engagement of many of those in the Middle East who do not want to see the spread of ISIS, who can come to our aid, and are in a position not only financially -- you know, it's great when they pony up and spend the dollars, but they're going to have to actually help us with keeping up people and personnel and intelligence. We need that kind of help right now with the Iranian influence and what you're seeing playing out in Yemen. They, too, the Saudi Arabians, United Arab Emirates, they too have a very vested interest. It takes leadership to bring them all together and collectively fight and win this war.
BLITZER: Specifically, what countries do you want to be brought into this U.S.-led coalition?
CHAFFETZ: Well, look, we need everybody from every NATO ally that we can name. We also need people from the Middle East. We have fallen apart in Libya. That is nowhere to be found. Egypt is going to play an important part of this. But Saudi Arabia specifically has a very vested interest that really needs to be in lockstep with us every -- every step of the way.
BLITZER: The suspected ringleader of this Belgium terror plot, this guy Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is still at large. How important is he that he be captured?
CHAFFETZ: Well, look, you have some great counterterrorism efforts there between the French and those in Belgium. I don't know where he is. If I did, I couldn't say it anyway. But I don't.
But there are a lot of good efforts to try to capture this one individual. It is a web. You want to understand who are they communicating with? Who are they interacting with? Who else is maybe in support of what they were doing there? And so I know a lot of effort is being placed into that. But I don't have an update for you, Wolf. I wish I did.
BLITZER: What would you like to hear from the president tonight in his State of the Union address when it comes to the war on terror?
CHAFFETZ: Look, I think this is one thing that the president can bring Republicans and Democrats together. I think the country is on edge. We've seen our friends and loved ones in Paris and other places that are -- have been on the receiving end of a lot of this terrorism.
The president has an opportunity to draw us together. I can tell you, I'm worried that the president can even identify what the problem is and call it out for what it is. I want him to demonstrate, not through just words in a speech before -- before the State of the Union, but show us the action that he's going to take to bring this coalition in and defeat ISIS. I doubt anybody could repeat what it is we're going to do to defeat ISIS other than, "Let's just defeat them." It takes more than that. It takes action. It takes leadership by the United States. I hope we hear that from the president tonight.
BLITZER: But you're not supporting what the U.S. did for more than a decade in Iraq and in Afghanistan: send in tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of ground forces.
CHAFFETZ: I would leave every option on the table. But the president has got to lead a coalition and bring people together and get others who have a very vested interest right there in their own backyard. That is not what we're seeing, Wolf. I'm not suggesting or advocating that we put tens of thousands of American troops or boots on the ground.
But what we could do in the intelligence, what we can do with air superiority, what we could do in being a true leader and making sure Turkey that is fully engaged with us in all this. Those are the types of things that the United States can and should and must be doing.
BLITZER: Congressman Chaffetz, thanks very much for joining us.
CHAFFETZ: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, more on that new ISIS video threatening more beheadings unless a huge ransom is paid in a very short time.
Plus, we have new details on the desperate hunt for the alleged ringleader of an ISIS terror cell.
BLITZER: A new video from ISIS shows two hostages, as a very familiar figure and a very familiar voice delivers a chilling threat: pay $200 million ransom or else.
Brian Todd is here. He's looking into this story for us. It's very, very worrisome.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. You know, the Japanese are getting now less than three days from ISIS to pay that ransom or they're going to kill those two men. But tonight we're also asking U.S. and British officials some very tough question about the murderous jihadist in the video who's still being allowed to taunt the west.
TODD (voice-over): His voice, posture and his threats are menacingly familiar. The ISIS militant believed to be a British national nicknamed Jihadi John delivers an ultimatum to the people of Japan.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You now have 72 hours to pressure your government in making a wise decision by putting the 200 million to save the lives of your citizens. Otherwise, this knife will become your nightmare.
TODD: An apparent reference to the amount of money Japan's prime minister has just pledged for humanitarian assistance in the fight against ISIS. British officials have said they believe they know Jihadi John's identity. But they haven't disclosed it publicly. Why not?
AKI PERITZ, FORMER CIA OFFICER: They can put pressure on his family, put pressure on his friends. Maybe they have a line to him. Maybe they know who his cousins are or going to Syria who can identify him.
However, if you publicly tell everybody who he is, his real identity, then maybe he'll go underground and he'll disappear.
TODD: In the meantime, Jihadi John has now made at least six videos, insulting the coalition, threatening western hostages, overseeing their beheadings. While ISIS may be suffering setbacks on the battlefield...
PERITZ: ISIS is absolutely capturing the PR war, at least using this individual. All these months later, he certainly is the bogeyman that scares the west. He's articulate. He's scary looking. You can't see anything about him besides the knife and his eyes.
TODD: And, Aki Peritz says his appearance in the videos amplifies the coalition's limitations on the battlefield.
Five months and about 2,000 airstrikes after the beheading of American hostage James Foley, why hasn't Jihadi John been captured or killed? We asked U.S. and British military and intelligence officials. They won't comment.
Tony Schaefer (ph), who directed Special Operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, says it's because the coalition can't insert commandos into Syria to get him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because of certain events which happened that the administration is worried about, the attempt to rescue Mr. Foley is one of the things which has now made the White House very reluctant to act aggressively.
TODD: A reference to the Special Operations mission near the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa last summer, when SEALs and Delta Force commandos stormed an abandoned oil refinery, looking for Foley and he had already been moved. Now, responding to Schaefer's (ph) comment, but that spooked the
White House. A senior the U.S. administration official tells CNN the U.S. government is actively pursuing justice for those hostages, murderers. That they're not in a position to discuss in detail what they're doing, but they will hold the terrorists accountable -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You would think that the U.S., with all of its capabilities, could at least shut down the capability of ISIS to post these beheading videos out there...
BLITZER: ... if they really wanted to. What are you hearing about that?
TODD: If you can't stop the actual killing, at least stop the videos. We've asked Aki Peritz, the CIA officer, former CIA officer, who is an expert on these videos, about that. He says that's much more difficult to do than you may think. He says ISIS has multiple ways to upload those videos onto the Internet, and they have a lot of outlets who want to help them put them out. So far the coalition has not been able to stop those videos, and that's a frustration, as well.
BLITZER: Yes. They're really good, ISIS, in terms of taking advantage of that social media. A lot more sophisticated than a lot of these other terror groups, certainly, have been. They're showing that.
All right. Thanks very much for that report.
BLITZER: Rocked by terrorism, European authorities are now scrambling to stay ahead of the threat. There were no -- there were new anti-terror raids overnight. We have new video of an alleged ringleader of a Belgian cell linked to ISIS.
Let's bring in CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.
Paul, what are you learning now about the status of all of these investigations?
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, the investigation continues into this terrorist plot in Belgium. The suspected ringleader in that plot, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is still believed at large at his last known location in Greece. You can see him on the video right here. That was shot in the last year somewhere on the ISIS front lines in Syria or Iran.
But he traveled from there to Greece to direct this terrorist cell in Belgium, who were plotting a terror spectacular, according to Belgian officials. They had all the chemicals necessary to make a high explosive. They had police uniforms suggesting they wanted to gain access to sensitive sites.
In this video, you see here on the screen, Abaaoud says that he gets pleasure from seeing the blood of the disbelievers flow. So you get some insight into his world view. He's a highly motivated individual, very dangerous, still on the run. The CIA are chasing him, many of the world's intelligence agencies trying to figure out where he is. But they've not yet been able to locate him, Wolf.
BLITZER: So presumably, he's changing his appearance. He's one of the most wanted men in the world right now. Would he go so far, for example, to put on casual garb, shave his beard, get a whole new look to try to evade all those people who are trying to find him?
CRUICKSHANK: That's exactly the kind of thing that he's going to be doing: dressing differently, looking differently, hanging out in some area that people wouldn't suspect that he could be.
The last known location was Greece. We know there are a lot of islands. You can sort of jump on a ferry. You can get around to pretty remote places quite easily. You can get over to Turkey and then across to Syria.
He may already be back in Syria for all we know.
But this was a sophisticated plot from ISIS. The Belgians believe that the senior leadership of ISIS signed off on. They believe that ISIS is pivoting toward attacking Europe, attacking the west, putting their very considerable resources into doing that.
So right across Europe right now, there's concerns about these groups of young men who've returned from Syria and Iraq and who are now back in Europe, that they could go operational at a certain point, because that's what ISIS has encouraged. Overall, more than 500 European extremists who fought in Syria and Iraq back in Europe. That's a very worrying number, Wolf.
BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Paul. Paul Cruickshank helping us better appreciate what's going on.
Coming up, an alleged terror plot to target Americans. We're just getting word of new arrests.
And later, the clearest evidence so far about what led up to that AirAsia jet crash.
BLITZER: The bloody power struggle in Yemen can only benefit al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate. And that concern is underscored today by word from the U.S. Justice Department. The two Yemeni men have been charged with conspiring to murder Americans.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is joining us live from Paris right now.
Pamela, update us on what's going on.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, according to newly unsealed Department of Justice documents that were unsealed today, actually. We've learned that the two Yemeni nationals were on a mission to kill Americans abroad under the direction of al Qaeda. They allegedly took part in several battles against U.S. forces, and one in particular a U.S. Army Ranger was killed, according to these documents. They also helped recruit an American to join al Qaeda. That American recruit turned into a cooperating witness and helped the FBI find these two Yemeni nationals.
They were actually arrested in Saudi Arabia and then brought to the U.S. recently, and they appeared before a New York judge today, facing these charges of conspiracy to kill Americans abroad -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. That's a dangerous situation, Pamela. We'll get back to you shortly.
I want to go in depth right now with our national security analyst, Peter Bergen; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes -- he's the former FBI assistant director; and our CNN global affairs analyst, James Reese. He's a former Army Delta Force officer.
Peter, you heard Brian Todd's report. The U.S. has already spent, what, $1.2 billion launching about 2,000 air strikes against various ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. One point two billion dollars. Is that money well spent? Because I don't see ISIS disappearing anytime soon.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I mean, they're taking -- there's a huge amount of attrition, particularly in Iraq. It's an Iraq first policy in Syria, there's been reliable reporting of ISIS actually expanding of late. So I think it's been more successful in Iraq, which is the kind of Obama administration approach. We don't have an alliance with the Syrian government. We do have with the Iraqi government. So it's easier for us, easier for the United States to operate there.
BLITZER: But the Iraqis themselves say it's not the U.S. that's doing the work with them in fighting ISIS. It's the Iranians who are in Iraq. They're doing the work, and they're becoming even more closely aligned with Iran right now, the U.S. sort of secondary.
BERGEN: We do have 3,500 American soldiers who are providing all sorts of support to the Iraqi Army. And the numbers, as you know, it was 300 just about a year ago. So I expect that number will grow over time.
BLITZER: But the Iranians are the big winners, at least so far in terms of their influence in Iraq moving over to Syria, the Bashar al-Assad scheme. We'll discuss that later.
Tom, CNN has now obtained video, new video, first of Amedy Coulibaly. He's the guy who attacked that kosher supermarket in Paris. And his partner, Hayat Boumeddiene, she was seen scoping out a Jewish institution in Paris. Did law enforcement, the intelligence community, the security services of France, miss golden opportunities here?
TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, in hindsight, of course, Wolf. But you know, at the time they were investigating it, they hid in plain sight, adopted western clothing. I mean, all the other pictures you've seen of her she's fully covered. You barely see her eyes. And then I've seen pictures online of her that you see this one here, where she's scantily clad. I've seen pictures of her in a bikini in Paris.
So obviously, they were trying to do what they did to blend in and not look as suspicious. So probably later, they go back to security cameras and they see them walking around looking like this.
But at the time, after all those months and years, the French authorities just thought, "Well, maybe they're just blending in. They're not so bad after all."
BLITZER: They stopped the surveillance on both of them.
FUENTES: The question has not been asked, though, Wolf. If they stopped surveilling this crew, who were they surveilling that they thought were worse? So there are some -- there are some people out there that are even worse yet, or they wouldn't have stopped the surveillance on them.
BLITZER: All right. Good point.
Colonel Reese, let's talk about Yemen right now. Take us behind the scenes. I'm worried about the hundreds, if not more Americans -- most of them U.S. military personnel -- who are still there. There are some diplomats, to be sure, but there are a lot of military personnel on the ground in Yemen. What's going on in terms of getting ready for a contingency plan to evacuate these men and women?
LT. COL. JAMES REESE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, Wolf, CentCom and the Marines on the ground in Yemen and the float organization that's out in the Gulf right now, they're continuing to make plans. They're looking at contingencies. They're looking at tertiary plans of what to do. They're setting these things up. Because as soon as the State Department gives the word that we want to now evacuate, we'll go into that evacuation plan.
What DOD is trying to get the State Department to do is hopefully not make that decision too late, if need be, that we're now into a forced entry aspect for a noncombatant evacuation.
BLITZER: Because there are two warships, the Ft. McHenry, the Iwo Jima. They are now off the coast of Yemen. They've got helicopters. They've got B-22 ospreys. But as the fighting escalates, it's going to become more difficult, right?
REESE: Well, it is. And that's why, if we wait till the last minute to make a decision, and that becomes a forced entry. So now we're going to have to put air cover in there, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) helos, and the Ospreys that go on and make these aspects happen. It's really just -- really complicates things.
But again we want the political aspects to continue so it's a fine line. It's the art of the science and art of this aspect.
BLITZER: And as this rebellion goes on in Yemen, Peter, it opens up new opportunities for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which is based in Yemen.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. I mean, much like the Syrian civil war, al Qaeda can present itself as the defender of the Sunnis against the Shia Houthis that are -- right at the gates of the capital right now. I think that helps their narrative.
BLITZER: You can only imagine, Tom, you worked at the FBI, if Americans start getting killed in Yemen right now, the uproar that's going to develop and people are going to start asking, why didn't you get them out? You knew this was happening. Aren't American lives more important than maybe trying to make our point you've got to keep some Americans there?
TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I don't think they're there to make a point, Wolf. I think they're there because they're doing important work. And if they leave, that work will stop. I mean, the attempts to do the drone strikes and take out al Qaeda leadership over the years have come from the great partnership on the ground there, not only with the Yemeni authorities, with the Saudi intelligence that are on the ground in Yemen.
You know, there's a close working relationship there between the CIA, the FBI, the U.S. military and our counterparts from the government of Yemen. So to pull out of there, we pay a huge -- a huge price and then people will say, well, why didn't you stay and gather intelligence? You left and you don't know what's going on.
BLITZER: But, Colonel Reese, the U.S. already pulled out of Somalia, no U.S. embassy in Mogadishu, U.S. obviously pulled out of Libya, no U.S. embassy in Tripoli. The U.S. obviously pulled out of Syria, no U.S. embassy in Damascus.
I see a pattern unfolding here. What about you?
REESE: Well, Wolf, unfortunately, you're right. These failed states that we're trying to hang on to because we know if Yemen goes, it just -- it continues to let AQAP have a bigger and bigger safe haven.
Now there could there be a silver lining in this piece. If we can figure out a way to get the Houthis now to maybe look at helping us if this collapse continues and this coup continues in effect, maybe -- and I say this maybe -- maybe they will help with counterterrorism fight against AQAP. But again, that goes back to I think we need to start looking at having some discussion with the Iranians.
BLITZER: All right. We'll pick up that thought. I want everybody to stand by.
Coming up, also, we have the clearest evidence so far about the moments leading up to the AirAsia jet crash. We'll update you. That and all the day's other news coming up.
BLITZER: There is startling new information tonight about the final moments of the AirAsia jet that crashed into the Java Sea last month. The crash killed all 162 people on board. Now there's important new clues about what happened.
Let's bring in our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. She's working the story.
What are you learning, Suzanne?
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have new information today into what might have caused AirAsia Flight 8501 to crash. Investigators are now looking into the moments just before the plane went down, telling us that the aircraft climbed so fast it wouldn't have been able to keep flying.
MALVEAUX (voice-over): Indonesia's Transportation minister says AirAsia Flight 8501 was climbing at 6,000 feet per minute just seconds before it stalled and crashed into the Java Sea.
MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Right away there would have been warnings going off. There would have been overspeed warnings, there would have been engine warnings, there would have been altitudes and pitch alert.
MALVEAUX: A big problem, because commercial aircrafts like the Airbus 320 are designed to climb one to 2,000 feet per minute, less than half the speed the doomed aircraft was apparently ascending. When a plane goes up so dramatically, it can lose lift and come crashing back to the ground.
SCHIAVO: The way to recover is to put the nose down or in the case of an Airbus that's flying on autopilot to let the autopilot take over, but I suspect that was not an option here because there were so much going on.
MALVEAUX: Investigators have been pouring over the cockpit voice and flight data recorders which collect information on the plane's speed and altitude. Indonesian authorities say the recorders did not pick up sounds of gunfire or an explosion. For the moment, ruling out the most sinister scenario.
ANDREAS HANANTO, INDONESIAN AIR SAFETY INVESTIGATOR (Through Translator): The voice from the cockpit does not show any sign of a terrorist attack. There's only the pilot sounding very busy.
MALVEAUX: The pilot had asked permission to increase his altitude to try to avoid severe thunderstorms. Meanwhile, the painstaking search for bodies continues. Only 53 of the 162 have been recovered.
The largest piece of the wreckage, the fuselage, remains at the bottom of the ocean, where investigators suspect many of the bodies could be.
The head of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency says the search for victims will not stop.
BAMBANG SOELISTYO, INDONESIAN SEARCH AND RESCUE AGENCY (Through Translator): After we close, we will continue our daily search and rescue effort. We will fulfill their hopes with our best effort.
MALVEAUX: The problem has been the current which has prevented divers from reaching the bottom and at this point, sadly, the remains are decomposing.
As for the investigation, we're told the transcript of the pilot's conversation is about halfway complete. That's going to be used along with all of the data from the recorders to come up with a preliminary report.
We suspect, Wolf, that that is going to be released within days.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Suzanne Malveaux, reporting for us.
Coming up, a CNN exclusive. A video of one of the Paris gunmen and his girlfriend carrying out surveillance of a potential target.
And the fall of an American ally. Hundreds of Americans at risk as rebels seized control of Yemen's capital. How will al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate take advantage of the chaos?
BLITZER: Happening now, exclusive video. One of the Paris terrorists and his now fugitive girlfriend, they are seen scoping potential targets. Tonight, new arrests, new information in the terror dragnet all across Europe.
Plus, under siege. A critical U.S. ally against al Qaeda is losing its grip on power. Americans are at risk. And evacuation plans are ready to go.
And the president's challenge. We're getting new details about the speech to the nation tonight as he faces new terror threats, resurging economy and a Congress with more power to stand in his way.