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U.S. Will go After al Qaeda Despite Yemen Chaos; Deadline Passes for Two ISIS Hostages; Official: U.S. Advisers May Joint Fight Against ISIS

Aired January 23, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, going after al Qaeda. The U.S. insists it can't keep up the fight against the terror group's most dangerous affiliate, despite the collapse of a friendly government in Yemen.

ISIS hostages. The terror group's deadline for a $200 million ransom passes. So what's the fate of these two captives?

On the offensive. Local forces battle to drive back ISIS. Will American troops join the campaign to recapture Iraq's second largest city?

And inside the wreckage. Divers enter the AirAsia fuselage for the first time as we get a new look at the airliner's final moments.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Violent upheaval. Rebels hold the capital of Yemen. A government that helped the United States battle al Qaeda has collapsed in chaos, and there are now new fears the terrorists will be free to carry out their plots unhindered.

We're also getting new information tonight that the U.S. is doing all it can to continue its campaign in Yemen against al Qaeda's deadliest affiliate.

At the same time, we're also learning more about plans for a major American-led offensive against ISIS with the goal of capturing Iraq's second largest city from that terror group.

Our correspondents and guests and analysts are all standing by. Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has the very latest.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the uncertainty about what may happen next in Yemen is only growing.


STARR (voice-over): Yemen, a country in crisis, with a government resigning and dozens of U.S. diplomats heading home. At least publicly, the White House insists it still can go after al Qaeda's most dangerous branch. JOSH EARNEST, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We continue to have

a strong counterterrorism partnership with the national security infrastructure of Yemen, and we continue to be very vigilant about the ongoing effort to counter AQAP in Yemen.

STARR: CNN has learned behind the scenes, U.S. intelligence and military officials are urgently reaching out to crucial counterparts in Yemen, trying to keep alive counterterrorism operations to track and target al Qaeda in that country, the group that claimed it was behind the Paris attacks. The U.S. continues collecting eavesdropping, satellite and other intelligence on potential locations for AQAP's top operatives, including leader Naser al-Wuhayshi.

ROBERT MCFADDEN, THE SOUTAN GROUP: Make no mistake about it: if they have the intelligence and they have the shot, they will take it.

STARR: Taking the shot could mean more drone strikes, deeply resented by Yemenis. There hasn't been a strike since December.

But there is also a covert U.S. military special operations commando team nearby, perched and ready to conduct a mission on the ground against AQAP if ordered.

The U.S. is still struggling to catch up to the lightning advances by the Houthi rebels this week and is assessing what their plans may be.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: I wouldn't say that it comes as a complete shock; but yes, it did happen very quickly and of course, in a pretty abrupt fashion.

STARR: The unrest may reach a crisis point Sunday when parliament meets. It may reject the resignation of President Hadi, making the next step by the Houthi rebels uncertain.

MCFADDEN: The Houthis have been very consistent for years that they're dead set against any foreign presence in Yemen, regardless of the mission, and that would certainly include the United States.


STARR: Now, one thing that hasn't changed, finding those al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, very tough by all accounts. They are well dug in. They are in hiding. But they appear to be safe. The U.S. doesn't appear to be able to find them.

There may be even more trouble brewing. There are reports of fighting between Houthis and al Qaeda in Yemen's oil-rich regions. That is one of the last things this very fragile country needs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Barbara, just to be precise, the dozens of American diplomats who were told to get out of Yemen, they left on regular commercial flights. The U.S. military did not have to fly in and get those people evacuated. STARR: That is correct. And that is the result that the

Pentagon wanted to see. They wanted people to make every effort to get out, to reduce the numbers at the embassy while they could still safely drive to the airport and board commercial flights.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thank you.

Shiite rebels now control the streets of Yemen's capital. It's anybody's guess what happens next.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, was the only western TV correspondent on the ground there during this entire chaotic upheaval. He's now in Beirut.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're trying to answer the question who is in charge of Yemen. Well, certainly in the capital, as we left Sana'a late last night, it was the Houthis by no mistake.

They've had checkpoints around the city for months, but on the way to the airport in the dark early hours of the morning, they were looking through cars at regular four or five checkpoints on the main road out, looking, it seemed, for Yemenis, perhaps Yemeni officials from the just resigned administration, not really intent, it seemed, on talking to foreigners or troubling them.

But as the whole day passes today, it's quite clear that sort of grip on the streets has not translated into any political process at all. Yes, I mean, the Houthis are able to have people set off fireworks or light off small arms fire, we heard just after the president announced his resignation. But after that, it's been, to a degree, a vacuum.

What we are concerned about, obviously, analysts are concerned about, is quite how this moves forward politically. The Houthis have had great success through dominating the streets and engineering a political deal, which effectively meant the president would allow them to rewrite the constitution and place officials all over his ministries in exchange for simply backing off out of his government buildings with their gunmen.

So clearly, Hadi's decision to resign was a way of stepping away from that deal entirely. Potentially, the constitution allows the speaker of parliament to take control, but there's no obvious process ahead in the slightest. And all that technical detail may be brushed aside by the Houthis if they don't like it.

Parts of the country are talking about seceding. In Washington, this must be a cause for absolute panic, because without somebody you can call in the government, who you can trust as an ally, you're really talking about a huge vacuum. The U.S. operates on their own. And dominant power in the country at this point, certainly in the capital, the Houthis, having one of their slogans being death to America.

So a deeply troubling moment ahead just for the direction of Yemen itself but also for quite what U.S. counterterror policy can do in that country without any form of stable government as it stands -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nick. Nick Paton Walsh joining us.

The fate of two ISIS hostages threatened with death now unclear. In a chilling video ultimatum this week, the terror group demanded that Japan pay $200 million ransom or else. The deadline has now passed.

Let's get the latest. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is following this story -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're now more than 16 hours past the original deadline. That expired at 12:50 a.m. This morning, East Coast time. Still no word. Conflicting messages on Jihadi forums. One of them posted a countdown clock today, promised a new video, said it was in production. We haven't seen that video, so still no final word.

You'll remember that Japan refused to pay the $200 million ransom demanded by ISIS. Real questions as to whether that was a serious demand at all. We also saw in the last 24 hours the mother of one of the hostages make an emotional plea for his life, but as we know in the past, when other mothers have done the same, including for James Foley, sadly, no good result. Again, no final word, though, Wolf, but U.S. intelligence officials watching closely.

BLITZER: And there's a lot of concern right now. It seems like it's a critically delicate moment in the fate of these two Japanese hostages, right?

SCIUTTO: Well, no question. And listen, we know they're in grave danger. These things have not ended well for past hostages, but at this point, until U.S. officials and certainly Japanese officials see hard proof of their fate, they're not going to make any announcement.

BLITZER: Is there a sense right now, Jim, that the entire region seems to be on fire almost? If you take a look at North Africa, in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Middle East. Then you go to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I don't remember a time when the region seems to have been a source of so much chaos right now.

SCIUTTO: Well, no question. You have multiple hot zones right now spread across the region, and you can go from the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria into Libya, certainly the loss of a leader in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, all to different degrees.

But when you speak to U.S. officials, they say that taken together, yes, it looks like a mess and clearly serious. But many of these taken separately are manageable individually. So I wouldn't say that you have panic inside the White House and other departments in Washington. But certainly a level of concern that's great, and it's unusual to see so many of these at one time. It's hard to say when we can identify a time when you've had so many of these regional hot spots boiling over at the same time.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you.

Joining us now, our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. The journalist and Middle East expert Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Our global affairs analyst James Reese, the former Army Delta Force commander. And the former House intelligence chairman, CNN national security commentator, Mike Rogers.

Are you hearing anything, by any chance, about these two Japanese hostages? We're all worried about their fate. We saw the video earlier in the week, threatening them effectively with beheading if Japan didn't pay that $200 million ransom. And that deadline has now come and gone.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: What's concerning is they're not hearing anything. So that doesn't portend well for them. I believe early on that this was more of a messaging deal than it was a financial deal with them. Just like we saw with Foley, they demanded cash but had no -- no real intention of getting that cash. Matter of fact, they had no connection with the U.S. government for negotiations. They just went ahead with the execution.

We're seeing some very similar patterns here. Doesn't mean it has happened, but it's obviously a concern.

BLITZER: Because my sense is Japan would have paid something, maybe to get these two Japanese guys out. Other countries in Europe have paid ransom. And everything we were hearing, though, is Japan wanted to establish a dialogue with someone, but nobody was willing to accept their phone call.

Yes, Wolf, there has been precedence in the past. You know, one of the reasons no one wants to get on the phone, because everyone knows we're listening. Once we can listen and pinpoint you there might be a bomb dropped on them. So that becomes a critical aspect of not being able to communicate with is.

BLITZER: What's your analysis, Peter?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: When money's been exchanged, it's been several million dollars. It's not been $100 million, as Congressman Rogers pointed out for James Foley, the journalist, which was their demand of $200 million. Those are not serious offers. If it was a serious negotiation, we would be looking at $5 million; so it's not a serious negotiation.

BLITZER: What do they gain, these ISIS terrorists, by taking these two Japanese hostages and beheading them? What's the point?

ROBIN WRIGHT, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE: You get the very discussion we're having right now. They're being broadcast not only on CNN but on networks around the world, all waiting for this announcement. It gives them the kind of psychological edge in a conflict where, when it comes to the military equipment, they don't have the edge. But this terrorizes people enough that they think ISIS is actually bigger than it is.

BLITZER: I don't understand. Why would anyone want to join ISIS if they see butchery like this? What's the point?

WRIGHT: Well, I don't think it has as much to do with the butchery as it does the alienation, disillusionment among young Muslims. I just came back from Tunisia, and it has produced the largest number of foreign fighters for ISIS. When you look at Europe, there are a lot of Muslims who have joined despite having a better living condition than they might in the countries from which their families came.

So it has a lot to do with the kind of economic realities, the sense of place, source of identity and who's going to give them a mission in life.

BLITZER: Is it also, to a certain degree, competition that's going on between al Qaeda and ISIS right now? They're both competing for support, for money? Is that what's going on at the same time?

ROGERS: Well, we had seen tracking of that for at least 12 months, where there was this notion that, if al Qaeda didn't get some points on the board, they were concerned about finances and recruiting and logistics hubs, and about half of their al Qaeda affiliates have pledged some support to ISIS, either materially, overtly or, in some cases, covertly have said, "Hey, we're with you. We'll give you help where we can."

So it's really not necessarily that in this case, because we've seen this pattern with them before. This is about their exertion of power. They believe that this is the power that holds their grip in places like eastern Syria and Iraq. They need to continue to show that they have brutality as a part of their governance model or they'll lose grip.

BLITZER: The guy holding the knife, threatening to kill these two, it's the same so-called Jihadi John that was in other videos, the same British accent. Apparently U.S. and other intelligence agencies, they know who he is, but they're not releasing his name, right?

ROGERS: That's correct.


ROGERS: I have high confidence they know exactly who he is. Well, part of that is you don't want to -- you don't want to disrupt any activities in that lineage, if you will. I mean, he has associates. He has people he's talked to. He's had places he's visited. And they don't want to disrupt any of that in order to continue to gain intelligence of value that could ultimately lead to him being brought to justice. BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. We have much more to

discuss. The war on terror continues. The war against ISIS. There are new developments on that front, as well.

Our special coverage continues, right after this.


BLITZER: As fighting heats up in Iraq, the United States is helping the Iraqis plan an offensive to retake the key city of Mosul from ISIS. And there are now growing signs that could mean U.S. advisors end up joining the actual fight on the front lines.

Let's go back to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's getting new information.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight the U.S.-led coalition has been pounding ISIS supply lines into Mosul with repeated airstrikes. That has been ongoing.

All of this is to prep the battlefield for that ground assault into Mosul to try to retake the city.

Here's what's on the table, though. They have to get the Iraqi ground forces ready, capable and able to go into that very tough fight. So there is training and equipping going on.

But the decision has to be made: will U.S. advisors have to accompany them to the front lines? If the Iraqis cannot do it all on their own, it may be that the U.S. will have U.S. advisors accompany them. This is a decision, a military decision that the president would have to approve. He would have to say yes.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs; General Lloyd Austin, the head of CentCom, they have been looking at this. Their advisors, their aides say neither man is ready to make that recommendation right now. Right now, they think it's too soon. They don't know if they need to do it. But both of them looking at that. They have said, if it came to it, they would make the recommendation. They're not there yet, but it's going to be a very interesting few weeks to see how this shapes up.

BLITZER: Are they talking hundreds of U.S. ground forces or thousands?

STARR: No, Wolf. This will be a very small number of advisors, by all accounts. One of the things the Iraqis may need help with is from frontline advisors as the assault would go on, helping them plan how they want to attack, move their forces about. Also, potentially U.S. forces that could potentially help them air mark targets for their attack. U.S. forces on the ground that know how to pick out enemy targets and transmit that information to Iraqi forces.

But the U.S., especially General Dempsey and General Austin, really are determined the Iraqis must take the responsibility for this. They have not shown, as you know, in past months, especially last year, a good deal of resolve, and the U.S. is saying, the U.S. military is saying it's not going to bail them out. They have to do this themselves. The question is how much and what kind of help the U.S. military might be able to give them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much. Barbara Starr with the late-breaking developments over at the Pentagon.

Let's get back to our panel. Colonel Reese, I've been to Mosul. This is a city of nearly two million people. And right now, ISIS is firmly in control. The Iraqi military moves in, even with some U.S. military advisors, that could be a huge bloodbath, if you will.

REESE: It could, Wolf, and it is. It's a huge place. But it's a condition set decision. Right now with the Iraqis, they've been very successful going up the Tigris River. They've gotten Taji, Baiji, Balkhah-ye Bala (ph). They've gotten those -- that land back again. We're also back in Talafar. They're reached up to Talafar and Mount Sinjar.

So right now you're starting to isolate ISIS in Mosul, which is a good thing. If we put the American -- that's just a decision. It's a course of action General Austin is going through right now. That's something that will be coming down, especially for the enablers. The close air support, the medical, the logistics piece, to help the Iraqis figure this out. But it will be a fight, and it will be a blood bath.

BLITZER: Because as you know, Peter, the Iraqi military last year, when ISIS came in from Syria, they threw down their weapons and ran away, basically, and the ISIS forces, they captured all those U.S. weapons: tanks, armored personnel carriers, a lot of good stuff, if you will. The Iraqis simply evaporated.

BERGEN: Yes, but now we've heard Lloyd Austin, General Lloyd Austin on the record telling the "Wall Street Journal" that 6,000 fighters of ISIS have indeed been killed. And if you do the math on that, and extend it out a year or so, I mean, these casualties mount up. It's a group with a maximum of 30,000 people. They are recruiting, but they are having what Lloyd Austin calls a manpower issue. So, you know, Mosul will be a tough fight, but ISIS in Iraq, at least, is having problems.

BLITZER: Are you confident that this operation is going to, A, succeed; and Mosul will be liberated from ISIS?

WRIGHT: Well, the great danger was that Mosul fell so breathtakingly fast despite its size, despite its strategic value. And so you have to worry about the sentiments inside the city, as well. And the problem is as much political as it is military.

This is a predominantly Sunni part of the country, where they resent the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. And one of the problems is the new government in Baghdad hasn't done enough to reassure the Sunnis that they will be part of the system, that there will be power sharing, there will be resource sharing in ways that they will feel part of the country.

And so whatever happens on the ground militarily, you have to have that very important part, and that's where the U.S. intervention failed after eight years last time around.

BLITZER: The big concern, a lot of big concern -- I've spoken to a lot of analysts -- is this new government of Prime Minister Abadi may be better than Nuri al-Maliki, but he's still closely aligned with Iran right now, and Iran and its Revolutionary Guard, they've got a huge military presence right there. They need to be a lot more influential in Iraq right now -- and you're the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee -- than the U.S.

ROGERS: Well, they certainly have lines of communication that are envious to the folks that we have in Iraq today. But remember, we pulled out in a hurry. And...

BLITZER: And Iran pulled in in a hurry.

ROGERS: Well, Iran was there before. They expanded their presence. When there was some fighting going on in the neighborhood, they turned around and looked who their friend was; and Iran was standing there and the United States was not.

You know, again, you could quarterback -- Monday morning quarterback that all day long, but it left some marks and it left some scars; and in that dangerous neighborhood, you go to where your friends are. And if it happened to be Iran for Maliki in a way that, if the United States were there, I don't think he would have made the same decisions, he didn't do that.

So now we have to unwind it. The reason I think this offensive is so important, you have to have some disruptive activity to their ability to recruit, train and really propagandize that they're winning this fight.

The reason they're getting people to show up isn't because of just the threat of beheadings. That isn't it. It's the fact that it looks like they're taking it to the west. That's the way they're marketing it. That's the way they're using their propaganda, "Hey, we're winning. We're beating America. We're beating the west. They can't quite get us out of here. We're winning in Iraq for people who don't think the same way we do."

That message has to be countered. The only way we're going to counter that message is be able to show we can disrupt their activities. You start seeing their command structure in disarray, their inability to get logistics from Syria into Iraq, now they've got a problem that's hard to explain and that's, I think, when certainly our allies...

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. Based on past performance, I'm not very confident in these Iraqi troops. I hope I'm wrong. But based on what they did last year, and simply gave up, it's not encouraging to me. We'll see what they can do.

Coming up, a new king just took command of a powerful U.S. ally. Up next, what we know about him and what he's already promising.

And later, new data shedding some new light on the final minutes before AirAsia, that jet plunged into the sea.


BLITZER: Saudis bid farewell today to King Abdullah who was buried just hours after he died at the age of 90. His successor is an experienced leader but is almost 80 himself and also may have some significant health problems.

Brian Todd is joining us. He's got more on what's going on in Saudi Arabia right now -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, there is real concern regarding the new king because he promoted a controversial minister and because of his health.

Can one of America's most crucial allies in the Middle East be counted on when its new head of state may have serious physical and even mental issues?

U.S. officials are hopeful King Salman can maintain stability since up to this point he's shown to be a capable leader.


TODD (voice-over): He's seen as a no-nonsense savvy player inside the monarchy. Able to sort out the House of Saud's legendary internal feuds and bring the hammer down on princes who go astray.

SIMON HENDERSON, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE OF NEAR-EAST POLICY: He was also the enforcer in the family, slapping people across the knuckles if they did things wrong.

TODD: The "Washington Post" reports Saudi Arabia's new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, even maintained a jail on his own property while he was governor of Riyadh Province.

ALLEN KEISWETTER, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE: Someone has to discipline the royal family he has this role.

TODD: There is genuine concern about the new king's health. He may have suffered a stroke. He's lost two sons to heart attacks and there are questions about his mental acuity.

HENDERSON: In meetings with foreign dignitaries he can function for about five minutes, keeping to his briefing notes, but then he gets confused. He goes off message and becomes very muddled. I'm told by medical experts that this is a classic sign of dementia.

KEISWETTER: There are two theories. One is he has real health problems. After all, he's 79 years old. And the other one is he's a very busy man at 79 years old, that he shows stress. And for instance in the past two or three years, when the king has had his own severe health problems, he's had two jobs. TODD: Analysts say there's little question Salman will maintain

Saudi Arabia's role as a crucial U.S. ally and will keep up the fight against ISIS. What will also likely continue, the brutal system of discipline inside Saudi Arabia which include floggings and public beheadings.

The new king named Mohammed bin Naif, the Interior minister, to the number three position. Bin Naif once survived an assassination attempt by an al Qaeda operative carrying a bomb inside his own body. Ali al-Ahmed, a critic of the regime, says bin Naif uses fear and intimidation to wield huge influence behind the scenes.

ALI AL AHMED, THE GULF INSTITUTE: Mohammed bin Naif is seen by the West as the counterterrorism hero but inside the country he's seen as the evil man who oppressed human rights and throw women in prison for driving.


TODD: We pressed Saudi officials for comments on those remarks about Mohammed bin Naif's human rights record and on the concerns about King Salman's health. They did not respond to us -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, King Salman now, he's from the one line of brothers who were sons of Saudi Arabia's original king but they are all getting old and even older. That's a deep concern right now.

TODD: It really is, Wolf. You know, King Salman has got six brothers, all sons of the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, and of his favorite wife, Hassa al-Sudairi, but they are running out of sons from that spring. Salman and his brother Muqrin are the last two. That's seen as a reason that Salman elevated Mohammed bin Naif to be deputy crown prince.

Mohammed bin Naif is from that next generation. He is about 55 years old and as we said he wields enormous influence behind the scenes.

BLITZER: He certainly does. Everybody who's been to Saudi Arabia and deals with him knows he's a powerful, powerful guy.

Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Our experts are standing by. We're going to assess what's going on in Saudi Arabia, what it means for the United States.

We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: There's a new king tonight in Saudi Arabia, a country that's a vital player in world oil prices, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. There are also deep concerns, though, about the new king's health.

Our experts are here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Robin Wright, you just wrote a piece for "The New Yorker" on

what's going on in Saudi Arabia. Does it look promising, not so promising? How worried should we be?

ROBIN WRIGHT, JOURNALIST, AUTHOR: Well, I think Saudi Arabia's likely to go through a very stable transition. They work very hard at making sure that there's no ripple, whether it's an impact on the price of oil or regional security issues. But I think this is a very interesting turning point for the kingdom. This is a moment that they began that process of transferring power to a younger generation.

The fact that they have a named deputy crown prince who is from the third generation in Saudi Arabia is very telling. This after all is a generation somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 princes and princesses. In effect you almost have to create a new royal family from this huge amalgam of different families.

The moment -- it's interesting that they picked Mohammed bin Naif because he is a security expert and this is a moment when Saudi Arabia actually feels rather vulnerable. You have the deterioration on the Yemeni border, the resignation of a president that the Saudis had helped come to power and had supported financially and politically. You have the sultan of Oman also facing serious health problems.

And to the north you have the Saudis so nervous about what's happening in Iraq that they're building a 600-mile barrier that would -- that dwarfs the kind of Berlin Wall. That they're beginning to feel quite susceptible to regional tremors.

BLITZER: And they're really worried also about Iran right now and Iran's nuclear program. That's a source of grave concern to the Saudis.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Huge. And they've been talking about this for years. Certainly the announcement of the secret talks with Iran has caused a lot of angst amongst the Saudi royal family, especially in the national security sector. They're very, very --


BLITZER: Secret U.S.-Iranian talks in Oman.

ROGERS: Right.

BLITZER: That led to the breakthrough. That's the dialogue that's been going on.

ROGERS: Many would call it a dialogue. Not many would call it a breakthrough, unfortunately. If you'll recall, there is a -- it's called the one, two, three agreement with the UAE which allows them to have -- civilian nuclear power without enrichment. The Iranians just got a deal that says they can enrich at least some undetermined amount of uranium. That sends all of our allies into the rafters.

That's why Saudi Arabia is so concerned. And then you see the expansion of activity by the Quds Force in the region. They are concerned.

BLITZER: If you were still a military planner, Colonel Reese, what would you be doing about the Americans who are in Yemen right now?

COL. JAMES REESE (RET.), FORMER U.S. DELTA FORCE OFFICE: Well, Wolf, we've talked about it for the last two days now. You know, there's a critical task list and critical personnel list inside the -- in the embassy. And they've started doing those evacuations. And that's what I would do, get everyone out that's not critical and has to be there to keep the operations of the embassy going.

And then from there, it's a minute-by-minute decision by the planners, by the regional security officer, to make that decision. And again, I don't think we're in a panic mode right now. I think we've got the boats off the -- you know, off the coast, we can react very quickly. I think we are in good shape.

BLITZER: What about the Yemenis who helped the United States over these past few years, collaborated, if you will, helped target al Qaeda targets, AQAP, what about those folks? What happens to them?

REESE: Well, Wolf, we've got to keep in mind there's the leadership that's bailed but then you always have the working level folks that are still there, they still want to get paid and they still want to be involved in that. So that's where the misconnect comes in. But they're still there.

And I'll tell you, it might not be a bad -- a bad thing for the U.S. right now, what's going on, if things stay stable, we're still able to fight AQAP and do those attacks if need be, with those ground folks, and see what happens with the Houthis, and see if they put this thing together.

BLITZER: Peter, what's your analysis?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, I mean, look, the Houthis hate AQAP so -- and they're a much larger group. You know, on the other hand, you know, AQAP's narrative is, you know, we're the guys that can defend you against the Shia. So it could help both of them. That might not be good for us at all.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Hold your thoughts. We're going to continue our coverage of what's going on but I've got to take a quick break.

Coming up also, there's a another story we're following, an important first in the AirAsia crash investigation as divers finally go inside the jet's fuselage.

And right at the top of the hour, there's dramatic new video of the fighting as plans take shape for an important new military offensive against ISIS.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're following new developments tonight in the AirAsia

crash investigation. The jet with 162 people on board disappeared from radar four weeks ago during stormy weather over the Java Sea.

Let's bring in our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh. She has the very latest -- Rene.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, CNN has obtained a second-by-second timeline from the Indonesian Transport Ministry detailing the final moments of Flight 8501. Now, tonight, we know within just five minutes the aircraft went from normal operations to gone from radar.


MARSH (voice-over): According to Indonesia's Ministry of Transport, less than 45 minutes into AirAsia Flight 8501, as the plane is approaching a violent thunderstorm, the pilot requested to climb and turn left. Controllers approved the turn but denied the altitude increase. Less than three minutes later, at 32,000 feet, the plane turns left. Six seconds later, Flight 8501 suddenly climbs. Within 40 seconds, the plane is at 37,600 feet, an increase of nearly 6,000 feet within a minute.

ALAN DIEHL, AUTHOR, "AIR SAFETY INVESTIGATIONS": He almost certainly was in some kind of strong updraft. That's well beyond the normal climb rate and even beyond the capabilities of an Airbus.

MARSH: Then suddenly the plane stalls. In an A-320 it sounds like this.


MARSH: It descends rapidly, disappearing from primary radar. About five minutes after requesting to climb, controllers lose all signs of the plane.

Alan Diehl is a pilot and former NTSB investigator. He says the timeline provides clues but not answers.

DIEHL: We don't know if this aircraft was in this predicament because of a pure weather phenomenon or whether something on the aircraft failed or if there was some kind of pilot error involved.

MARSH: The search for missing passengers continues. One hundred feet below the surface of the Java Seat, divers entered the plane's main cabin.

SUPRIYADI, INDONESIAN SEARCH AND RESCUE (Through Translator): We found bodies in the fuselage of the plane. We cannot recover all of them because underwater conditions are bad.

MARSH: At least six bodies recovered from inside the fuselage, including three women and a little boy. But more remain inside.

SUPRIYADI (Through Translator): When the divers tried to go deeper into the wreckage of the cabin, they're obstructed by dangling cables and other debris. It's become a problem for the divers to find out exactly how many bodies are in there.


MARSH: Well, Wolf, more than 90 bodies are still missing. We are all, of course, waiting for the preliminary report for more details on what investigators have learned but the Indonesians say they will not release it publicly. And we should mention it is their prerogative. Under international law they do not have to release it. But with such heightened interests, so many live lost, and thousands of A-320s in the air, many are hoping that the Indonesians reconsider -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, why wouldn't they release all that information? Obviously it's of critical importance. We have to all learn the lessons of what happened.

MARSH: And that's what many people are saying because so many eyes are on this and so many people want to know exactly what went wrong. Is it something that is wrong with essentially the aircraft, the A-320. And because so many are in the skies now, many people want to know those answers. They want to know what investigators know. But again, international law does not force them to reveal that. So if they decide they don't want to reveal it, they do not have to.

BLITZER: All right. Rene, thanks very much.

Let's get some more perspective on this AirAsia investigation. Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes. He's a CNN law enforcement analyst.

I have to believe they will in the end release all that information even though they may be reluctant to do so, so quickly.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Right, Wolf. I met yesterday with the Indonesian ambassador here, and he said they want to put the information out as soon as they can. But they really don't want to get in a position where they're putting out conflicting information, if later investigation determines that the initial investigation information wasn't quite accurate. They just want to be more accurate before they put it out. So they will put it out.

BLITZER: The Flight 8501, it was normal, going along fine, and then all of a sudden within five minutes it crashes.


BLITZER: So that's the investigation. What happened?

FUENTES: Well, I think, you know, we're so arrogant in our knowledge that we know all about weather phenomenon. It's only in the last couple of decades we proved that rouge waves exist, micro burst, wind shear. And I think that that's a possibility, this plane with the Tropical Convergence Zone in the middle of a monsoon may have run into something that was something like running into a tornado or a hurricane combined.

And it just got blown up into that position to where the plane couldn't stand the stress, stalled out, came down and crashed. And we just don't know all of the weather phenomenon that exist on this planet.

BLITZER: Sounds similar to that Air France 447. There were two stall warnings there as well, and then the pilots obviously lost control. It sounds like a similar scenario here.

FUENTES: Right. And they were confused in that case by the instrument readings, are they accurate, do they believe it, are the instruments frozen over and therefore giving an accurate reading? So I think the same type of confusion could have existed, however, the updraft is extremely significant. I know the pilot used to fly F-16s but he would have known that a plane like that would not be able to take that kind of stress and do that kind of a climb.

BLITZER: Are you confident the Indonesians will get the job done, this investigation, properly?

FUENTES: Yes, I'm confident it will be done properly. I think the question here, though, is that they're going to still have to determine whether the instrument readings that are on the data recorders, you know, really give them the information they want or were they giving false readings not only to us now but to the pilots at the time they were trying to deal with the emergency.

BLITZER: But they're getting help from outside sources including the United States, right?

FUENTES: Right. Yes.

BLITZER: OK. Tom Fuentes, thanks very much. We'll stay on top of this story for our viewers as well.

Coming up, as local forces fight to push back ISIS, will American troops now get ready to join the campaign to recapture Iraq's second largest city?

And despite the collapse of an anti-terror ally in Yemen, the U.S. is vowing to keep up the fight against al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate there.

Stay with us.


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We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.