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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf; New Details on Paris Terror Attacks; Report: Paris Terror Attacks Coordinated; Obama Holding Anti-Extremism Summit; Contamination Fears After Fiery Train Derailment; Obama Defends Immigration Action Blocked by Judge

Aired February 17, 2015 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, coordinated terror -- stunning new details about the communication between the killers at a French magazine and a kosher market by phone and in person.

Naming the enemy. The White House gets into a war of words as it scrambles for new ways to defeat the terrorists with the help of Middle Eastern allies. I will ask the deputy State Department spokeswoman about that and more.

And towering inferno. Is there danger tonight from a train derailment that sent massive fireballs into the air and crude oil into the water?

We want to welcome our viewers into the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And we have got breaking news tonight.

ISIS now launching a major new assault in Northern Iraq against Kurdish fighters who say the terrorists are clearly on the offensive right now and they are coming after these Kurdish forces from several directions. We're told U.S.-led coalition aircraft, they are in the area, but so far, they have not been able to fire on these ISIS units. Stand by, new information coming in.

Also breaking now, new signs that the Paris terrorist attacks were coordinated in a murderous plot that may have linked ISIS and al Qaeda. And there's a chilling new report dealing contacts between the killers at the "Charlie Hebdo" magazine and the gunman who would later slaughter hostages at a kosher supermarket. That includes a face-to- face meeting that probably took place just hours before the first attack.

That deputy State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, she is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We will get the latest from her. Our correspondents and analysts are also standing by with more on the breaking news.

First, let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we had seen evidence that they were friends, that they were involved in a previous terror plot together and that their wives had communicated extensively. Now a report that they were in touch by both text message and in person on the very day of the deadly Paris attacks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): In the hours before the horrific attack on "Charlie Hebdo," the culprits reportedly communicated in person and by text message with the shooter in the deadly assault on a kosher market that would follow two days later.

Citing French investigators, the French newspaper "Le Monde" reports that Cherif Kouachi, one of the "Charlie Hebdo" gunmen, sent a text message to kosher market shooter Amedy Coulibaly just hours before the Kouachi brothers rampaged the offices of the French satirical newspaper.

Two days later, Coulibaly would kill four customers in the kosher market before police killed him. The text was sent at 10:19 a.m. on the morning of the "Charlie Hebdo" attack to Kouachi from one of Coulibaly's 13 cell phones, a phone French investigators believe he bought specifically to communicate with the Kouachi brothers. Only six text messages were sent from the phone.

The text sent that morning, reports "Le Monde," was the last. This new reported information further corroborates a link between the Kouachis and Coulibaly. In January, CNN reported, quoting the Paris prosecutor, that wives of Coulibaly and one of the Kouachi brothers had 500 phone calls between them during the year before the attacks. "Le Monde" reports that evidence from the phone shows that Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi also likely met in person some time between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the morning of the attack.

CHRIS VOSS, FORMER FBI HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR: They were pretty satisfied their operational security. Taking the opportunity and to meet in person is a bit of a chance, but also of course it keeps them from communicating certain facts and details electronically.

SCIUTTO: And from the phones, one more bizarre detail. Investigative sources tell "Le Monde" that the January 7 attack was almost canceled just days before when the gunman Said Kouachi came down with the stomach flu.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: I spoke to a senior counterterror official today who made the point that what we see here is that lone wolf is something of a misnomer. We're seeing that attackers who may be linked to others as we saw in Paris and possibly even linked to larger terror groups and to their leaders, but at the same time very different from 9/11-style command-and-control and as a result, Wolf, much harder to track.

BLITZER: Jim, I know we're also getting new information, breaking news on a major ISIS assault now going after Kurdish targets in Northern Iraq. Only a few days ago, U.S. officials were insisting those ISIS troops in Iraq were on the run. It doesn't look like that.

SCIUTTO: That's right.

It's taking place just to the southwest of Irbil, which is basically the Kurdish front in the northern part of the country. The attacks starting at 9:00 p.m. local time, so under the cover of darkness. And, as you say, it follows other shows of strength by ISIS.

Last week, there was another assault on Kurdish forces and at the same time this assault on the city al-Baghdadi, in Anbar province, very close that major Al Asad air base, where you have some 300 U.S. military forces based. So, yes, you have seen a stopping of their momentum in some areas, a loss of ground by ISIS in Iraq, certainly not in Syria. And now you are seeing them showing they can still carry on offensive operations in numbers and a very coordinated attack, and, Wolf, tonight, it's still under way.

BLITZER: They clearly not only holding Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, but they are going after Irbil, and that is where all of the Kurdish leaders are headquartered, right.

SCIUTTO: No question, and also a great number of American military forces, military advisers, hundreds of military advisers there, as well as diplomats still present, one of those, by comparison, relatively safe zones in the country, but you're seeing here that ISIS can still show its strength on the outskirts of the city.

BLITZER: Jim, we will stay on top of this story. Thanks very much.

Let's get to the terror attacks in Denmark right now. We're getting new information about the suspected shooter and his connection to ISIS.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is in Copenhagen and she's got the very latest -- Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are just learning new disturbing details about the lengths the gunman went to lure in his victims.

We spoke to the head of the Denmark Jewish Society, who viewed video at that synagogue. He said the suspect appeared to be stumbling down the road, acting like he was drunk so he could get in point-blank range of his victims.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, U.S. law enforcement is helping Danish authorities scour the social media and telephone records of Copenhagen shooter Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein to see if he had any communication with Americans.

CNN has learned the shooter used an automatic rifle in his attack, heard here in audio obtained by the BBC. The M-95, like this, is a powerful weapon often used by Danish military. THOMAS RATHSACK, FORMER DANISH SPECIAL FORCES: This guy, he fired his

weapon with single shots, and that tells me that he's quite calm, he's in control, he's not desperate.

BROWN: Just prior to the attack, it appears he swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on what is believed to be the shooter's Facebook page. It is not believed he trained with the terrorist group overseas.

Following the initial attack, a Danish prosecutor says two of El- Hussein's associates provided him a place to hide, get a new shirt and another weapon before continuing to this Jewish synagogue. The two men have been charged. It's believed El-Hussein was radicalized while serving time in this Copenhagen prison after he was convicted of a violent crime.

An imam working at that prison says groups like ISIS do have influence there.

WASEEM HUSSEIN, IMAM: They are interested in it because it's in the media. So, they may have questions about what do I think about ISIS and what's my opinion about ISIS? They want to know, actually, is it actually good or are they bad guys or what are they?

BROWN: In a psychological profile in prison, El-Hussein describes himself as a positive, open and social person who was calm of temperament. The report found no suspicion of mental illness. He was released from prison two weeks ago, according to officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They felt that he was more of a gang member than he was a violent extremist and they did not keep track of him after he was released.

BROWN: Investigators are looking to see if El-Hussein may have been inspired by the terrorists in Paris who left 17 dead. The FBI's head of counterterrorism, Michael Steinbach, recently told CNN copycat attacks are a major concern.

MICHAEL STEINBACH, FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF COUNTERTERRORISM: They want to conduct an attack just to make the news like their -- like the folks they saw on TV. They may be at one level of intent, but community events or world events, at least through their eyes, spurs them on to mobilize and to conduct an attack.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And U.S. officials I have been speaking with say they are alarmed by the frequency of these lone wolf attacks we have seen recently.

Here in Copenhagen, Danish police just sent out a press release with new details. They say the gunman tried to enter through other entrances before going to the main entrance of the first location where that free speech event was taking place. Wolf, it is clear he was on a mission to wreak havoc.

BLITZER: Yes, certainly was. Pamela Brown in Copenhagen for us, thank you.

As ISIS launches a major new offensive right now, it's under way in Northern Iraq not far from the Kurdish capital of Irbil, the White House is holding a summit meeting on ways to try to defeat the terrorists that go beyond military action.

There's been some controversy surrounding the talks.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president spoke about the summit just a little while ago.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The White House countering violent extremism summit is just getting started, Wolf, and there's already controversy.

As you mentioned, for starters, critics are even pouncing on the summit's name and wondering where is the reference to radical Islam as ISIS appears to be getting stronger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): With the ISIS cancer spreading quickly to Denmark where gunman's rampage was allegedly inspired by the Islamic State and to Libya, where Egyptian Christians were beheaded, the White House is scrambling to counter a potent terrorist message.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need answers that go beyond a military answer. We need answers that go beyond force.

ACOSTA: Vice President Joe Biden opened up this week's summit on countering violent extremism, talking with U.S. city leaders about the root causes of radicalism with the U. S. -led coalition carrying out air strikes on ISIS, the summit's goals are aimed at the home front, identifying vulnerable communities, brainstorming ways to counter extremist propaganda and sharing the techniques globally.

While it's not singling out ISIS, the Obama administration is ramping up efforts to combat the group on social media, adding staffers to the State Department Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, a U.S. propaganda outfit spreading the campaign "Think Again, Turn Away" on Facebook and Twitter.

And on YouTube, with videos boasting about the U.S. coalition.

President Obama told CNN he wants to win Muslim hearts and minds.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's very important for us to align ourselves with the 99. 9 percent of Muslims who are looking for the same thing we're looking for, order, peace, prosperity. And so, you know, I don't quibble with labels.

ACOSTA: But Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz complains the name of the summit doesn't even mention the word "Islam." SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: The words "radical Islamic terrorism" do

not come out of the president's mouth. The word "jihad" does not come out of the president's mouth. And that is dangerous.

ACOSTA: Attorney General Eric Holder says critics are missing the point.

ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We're having this conversation about words as opposed to what our actions ought to be? This is a difficult problem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And it's not just Republicans questioning the White House reluctance to use the term Islamic extremism. House Democrat Tulsi Gabbard said the term should be used.

And just before the summit kicked off, senior administration officials were asked why they avoid this term Islamic terrorism or Islamic extremism, and as one official put it, we will call them what we want to call them. We're calling them terrorists. You can call them what you want -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.

Joining us now, the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf. Marie, thanks very much for coming in.

MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: Happy to be here.

BLITZER: Like the White House, the State Department doesn't refer to Islamic extremism; is that right?

HARF: We have talked about terrorists who commit act of violence in a perverted, warped vision of what they think Islam is, but we don't want to give them religious credibility. That's what they're looking for. And we don't want to give that to them because we don't think they have it.

BLITZER: So you are not using the phrase Islamic terrorism or Islamic extremism or violence or anything along -- you don't want to use the word Islam at all, right?

HARF: No.

The secretary, when he's talked about this, again, has said, people commit acts of terrorism with a warped vision of Islam. The president has said the same thing. I actually agree with the attorney general here. We can talk about what words we used. What we're focused on, on what actions we should be taking. That's what this week remains about.

BLITZER: But these are -- these extremists, these terrorists, ISIS or al Qaeda, they are Muslims, they are an extreme, tiny element of a billion-plus Muslims out there, but they are all Muslims.

HARF: Many of them are. There are other groups around the world that are not that commit violent acts of extremism or terrorism.

Again, we're going to call them terrorists. We have been very clear about that. And I would remind people, under this president, we have taken more terrorists off the battlefield than any other president in history. No one should doubt our commitment to calling things like we have seen them and then taking action.

BLITZER: You said that the U.S. cannot kill our way out of this war, that the U.S. needs to go after the root causes that lead these young men, mostly men, some women, to go and join ISIS or al Qaeda or Al- Shabab or these terrorist groups.

Give us a little perspective of what you were talking about.

HARF: Absolutely.

And I'm not the first person to say something like this. Military commanders that we have had throughout many years here fighting this war on terrorism have said the exact same thing, that in the short- term when there's a threat like ISIL, we will take direct military action against these terrorists.

We have done that. We are doing that in Iraq and in Syria. But longer-term, we have to look at how we combat the conditions that can lead people to turn to extremism. If you think about, you know, if there's a radical jihadi on the Internet who is putting out hateful videos, that's powerful and dangerous, right?

But if there are 10,000 men in a country who are willing to blow themselves up because of what that person says on the Internet, that's much more dangerous. So how do you get at those 10,000 people? How do you get them not to pick up the AK-47 and instead do something more productive and positive with their life? That's what we're trying to get at, at this summit, looking at the long-term problem, not just the short-term one.

BLITZER: So you are suggesting that maybe if you find these young men jobs, they might not become terrorists, right?

HARF: I think that's a gross oversimplification.

What we have talked about is there's things like good governance in countries, where if there is not good governance, it can create a vacuum and a space for terrorist organizations to recruit and get people to their cause. We have seen that in Libya. That's the perfect example right now, where there's a lack of governance. You have had young men attracted to this terrorist cause.

Where there are not other opportunities, we have seen this in a number of places around the Middle East and around the world. Unfortunately, people turn to terrorism sometimes. How do you get at the root causes? That's really the bigger point of this week's summit.

BLITZER: But you know, of course, that some of the best-known terrorists out there came from wealth and privilege, with higher education, degrees, whether Mohamed Atta or bin Laden himself. HARF: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Look, countering violent extremism takes on a variety of different ways that you can do that here. Part of it is military. Absolutely. We're taking direct action against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. But, look, if we look around the world and say, longer-term, we cannot kill every terrorist around the world, nor should we try, how do you get at the root causes of this?

Look, it might be too nuanced an argument for some, like I have seen over the past 24 hours some of the commentary out there, but it's really the smart way that Democrats, Republicans, military commanders, our partners in the Arab world think we need to combat it.

BLITZER: But just to be precise, I want to give you a chance to respond to some of the critics who have been out there.

HARF: I'm happy to.

BLITZER: When you said it's important to find these guys jobs, so they don't become terrorists, explain what you meant.

HARF: Where there are places around the world where there's a lack of governance, a lack of economic opportunity, President George W. Bush talked about poverty being one of the drivers that leads people to extremism.

Where there are lacking in these kinds of opportunities, we need to talk about how to make that different, how to help our partners around the world give young men in that vulnerable age group a different path in life. Show them that there's a different chance for them than joining a terrorist organization.

Again, it's one part of it, Wolf, but this is a really comprehensive way of looking at how you combat extremism and it's not one that fits into a sound bite sometimes, as I have seen over the last 24 hours, but it's a really important piece of it.

BLITZER: And the reason is, 24 hours ago, you said the issue of jobs, find these guys jobs.

HARF: Yes.

BLITZER: They might not become -- terrorism. So there's been some buzz out there, some criticism of you as a result. How are you dealing with it?

HARF: Some buzz.

I don't read it. That's how I'm dealing with it.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: OK. All right, Marie. Stand by, Marie. We have got a lot more to talk about.

There's new developments, including a major new ISIS offensive in Northern Iraq right now. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

We're back with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf.

Marie, very disturbing information in the last few hours. We're getting information from our producer who is in the round in Irbil, Tim Lister, that ISIS forces are now moving closer and closer to the Kurdish capital of Irbil, where there are a lot of Americans, diplomats, military personnel.

It doesn't seem that they are on the defensive anymore. They are on the offensive. Not only do they control Mosul, the second largest city up in the north. But they also are moving closer and closer to Irbil. What's going on?

HARF: Well, as we have talked about before, this is going to be a battle that we fight against ISIL that goes in fits and starts.

And we have taken -- helped the Iraqis, I should say, take some significant territory back in Iraq, but as we do that, they will push into other territory. We will see days where they go on the offensive. We will see days where we do.

But overall we know the Iraqis are pushing back on them. We are helping with a lot of firepower. And at the end of the day, this will be a long fight, but we think we can be successful.

BLITZER: But we're also being told that the U.S. does have aircraft hovering over. They are ready to launch airstrikes, but they can't because the ISIS troops are now right up close with Kurdish, friendly Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and if the U.S. were to launch airstrikes, it would wind up killing U.S. friends.

HARF: Well, there are a lot of factors that go into the determination about when we take airstrikes and all of those obviously would play into that.

I know the military, when they can take action against ISIL in Iraq has. So, if they have an opportunity to, I'm sure they will. But, again, we have forces on the ground. We have been very supportive of the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi forces as they have been the ground troops pushing back on ISIL. And I know that's the case here.

BLITZER: This is a really worrisome development. We will stay on top of what is going on in Northern Iraq right now. If the Kurdish town of Irbil is really in danger of falling to ISIS, that would be a huge, huge disaster, not only obviously for the Kurds, for Iraq, but for the U.S. and its coalition partners as well. We will see what happens there. Mosul is already gone, for all practical purposes, as we know.

There's other reports we're getting and CNN is now reporting that in Syria the U.S. is about to start providing the so-called moderate Syrian rebels, the ones who oppose Bashar al-Assad's regime, with weapons, offensive capabilities and the U.S. might even be able to rely on them to call in U.S. airstrikes. Is that true?

HARF: I know the process for vetting and getting weapons to the Syrian opposition, as we have talked about, has been ongoing. We want that to get it up and running.

But to be very clear, the U.S. military makes decisions about what kinds of targets they take. But we work very closely with the Syrian opposition, of course. We have wanted to train and arm more of them and that's what we're going to be doing. But, again, we made those decisions on our own, but we do work very closely with them.

BLITZER: So far you are not providing weapons. Right now, you are just vetting these Syrian rebels.

HARF: Correct. That's right.

BLITZER: Maybe 5,000 eventually will go to Saudi Arabia or Jordan or someplace else for some training, but you're not yet, the United States, providing arms or weapons to the Free Syrian Army?

HARF: You're right. The program is still in the vetting process and then the Qataris and the Turks and others have said -- the Saudis have said they will host places for us to train them, so they can go back into Syria, rejoin the fight there.

You know they are fighting a war on two fronts against ISIS and also against the regime. We really want to get this program up and running and it's moving forward.

BLITZER: Very disturbing information "Le Monde," the French newspaper, reported today, that the attacks in Paris a few weeks ago seemed to be very, very coordinated between the attackers, not only cell phone messages, text messages, but actual meetings, and that one of the groups was basically working with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, another working with ISIS.

Here's the question. Are ISIS and AQAP now working together in these terrorist operations in Europe?

HARF: Well, we're looking at all of these possible links right now.

When we talk about working together, it's not I think like we used to talk about it. You may have communication between AQAP members, ISIS members, and members of some of these cells in Europe. But when you talk about operational control, that's obviously where things get much murkier and we don't have a lot of information to prove that.

But what we're looking at is exactly that. Were there financing links that we need to focus on? Those are one way we can try to get rid of this threat in Europe. Were there training opportunities, where they would go to the region, train and come back? We have talked about that a little bit when it comes to Yemen.

We're looking at all of those links right now, but unfortunately you can go on the Internet, and be radicalized and not ever travel to meet one of these groups. And that's also what we're worried about. BLITZER: As far as you know, was there a direct link between the terror attacks at that magazine in Paris, the kosher supermarket, as opposed to what's been going on in Copenhagen since the weekend, the attack at that free speech offices and then the synagogue?

HARF: I haven't seen anything to suggest operational links.

I know that our partners are looking at that right now. But, again, there doesn't need to be for there to be a copycat. I'm not saying that is what this is, but it possibly could be, for someone to see one of these acts of terrorism and to see how it plays out and then to want to replicate that somewhere else.

We're obviously very concerned about that as well. There are a host of threats out there. This is certainly near the top of the list.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Marie Harf, for joining us.

HARF: Happy to be here.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on how the Paris terror attacks were apparently very well-coordinated. Our terrorism analysts are standing by to tell us what they are learning.

And we also have an update on that fiery derailment of a train carrying millions of gallons of oil. Residents have been worried that a nearby river may now be toxic.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, a report that investigators now believe the Paris terror attacks were coordinated, with one of the gunmen behind the magazine massacre actually texting the supermarket gunmen just before the first attack. There is also reportedly evidence that they actually met in person early that morning.

Let's bring in our terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank; our intelligence and security analyst, Robert Baer. And Mubin Shaikh. He's a former jihadist, former counterterrorism operative. And our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes.

Bob Baer, I want to show you and our viewers a picture. This is a newly-released photo obtained by CBS News that they released that they received by the Pentagon. This is the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi in his detention in Camp Bucca in Iraq, back in 2004. He was under U.S. control at Camp Bucca. There is a picture of him. He was freed. And a lot of us remember what he supposed told his U.S. prison captors as he was leaving. He said, "I'll see you in New York." Ominous words. And now he's the leader of ISIS. So now we see his picture. What do you think about this?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I'd say it's pretty clear he was radicalized in prison. He was picked up on suspicion of being a member of al Qaeda. He -- as I understand it, he was very quiet in prison. But I think the fact is that he looks at the United States as his No. 1 enemy. And I'll go beyond that and say, given the chance, he will attack the

continental United States and is certainly at war with the United States in Kurdistan and Iraq.

Why he was radicalized, I don't know. But it's very difficult for the military to keep track of so many prisoners, and he got through the net. You know, and secondly, we couldn't keep these people after we left Iraq. You can't really point blame at anybody. It's just very unfortunate.

BLITZER: He's now the leader of ISIS. He was in al Qaeda in Iraq, but now that's become ISIS, for all practical purposes. And we know what ISIS is doing.

Paul Cruickshank, we're also learning now that the attacks in Paris last month, the offices of the "Charlie Hebdo" magazine, the kosher supermarket two days later, were well-coordinated by these terrorists. What are you hearing specifically about the coordination?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: That's right, Wolf. A lot of these new details have been published by "Le Monde" newspaper in France. There was always a suspicion that there was coordination between Amedy Coulibaly, the kosher market attack on the one hand, and the Kouachi brothers who attacked the "Charlie Hebdo" magazine, on the other hand, because they'd known each other for years. And they'd all been involved in a plot back in 2010 to free an Algerian terrorist from jail.

But now we have, it appears, absolute proof that this was coordinated, and there were text messages going back and forth between Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi in the hours before the attack.

Also a late-night meeting just before the attack. We're also learning more details about the sort of sophisticated tradecraft some of these tactics were using.

Coulibaly had up to 14 phones. He was very careful to use a new phone in some of these last communications, and he also did some research online about the opening hours at that kosher market that he attacked, suggesting it was a preplanned target, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Tom, we're also getting this new information that a large number -- this is the French interior minister is suggesting a large number of terrorist cells are believed to be operating in France right now, France's interior minister saying they're actually tracking, in his words, hundreds of possible terrorist cells in France right now. That's a lot more than a lot of people suspected.

FUENTES: I think they knew from the beginning, Wolf, that they were -- they were following that many before the attacks happened. And when they called off the surveillances of the Kouachi brothers last June, you know, we questioned at the time, who are they still following that they let go of these guys because of a lack of resources?

So the fact that there's hundreds of potential terrorists in France is nothing new. It goes back at least a decade and including the surrounding countries and coordinating among the countries.

BLITZER: Mubin, you're a good person to ask this question to. As you know, the White House today was hosting and tomorrow, as well, a summit that they're entitling countering violent extremism.

And there's been some criticism that that may not necessarily be the correct phrase, if you will, because they're not using specifically violent or radical Islamists or Islamic extremism. What do you think about this debate? I'm sure you've been following it here in the United States.

MUBIN SHAIKH, FORMER JIHADIST: Yes. The correct term is encountering violent extremists. You don't want to have a department that fixates just on Muslims. There are other kind of violent extremists, sovereign citizen movements, Christian identity militias that are very active.

And the problem is that, think about it from a psy-ops perspective. You don't want the Muslim world to think this is about Islam. You're going to alienate entire populations. And you don't want to do that.

If you're saying that we're engaging in a battle of hearts and minds, you're not going to win hearts and minds by isolating just one group.

BLITZER: What do you think about that, Tom?

FUENTES: Well, I disagree with the standpoint that we have to put it in context. These extremists are not joining the Bloods and Cripps, or the American mafia or the Russian mob. They join in groups that portray themselves as bringing the new caliphate, of spreading Islam and Sharia law around the world.

So I think if you're not pinpointing it to that, you're missing the context of why these groups are doing what they're doing. You know, they're representatives that left 90 countries and joined ISIS. That's why they joined it. It wasn't just they're looking for a group that's violent. They have enough violent street gangs at home in every one of these countries. They didn't need to travel thousands of miles to join ISIS.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, where do you stand on this debate?

BAER: I think that ISIS is transgressive. I think it's gone way past any radical Islamic doctrine. Burning the pilot, murdering the cops in Libya, nothing I've ever seen in Islam. And I have studied the Koran in Arabic for years. And with the Muslim Brotherhood, and this has gone way beyond the killing of apostates.

So this is closer to a cult. You know, they may identify themselves as Muslims, but I think, in fact, if you ask a Muslim scholar, they're closer to heretics.

BLITZER: Mubin, explain why ISIS is doing what they're doing, either beheading their opponents or burning them in cages and then putting them on, on the Internet, videotaping them and getting publicity. What does this do for them? SHAIKH: Well, I mean, so it's terrorism as theater, right? I mean,

it's the spectacle event. They want to show people how powerful they are, how strong they are. And it's to dissuade people who want to fight them to scare them into, "Look, don't come. This is what we're going to do to you."

At the same time, its fan base, it excites them by this violence, by this brutality. And if I can just finish off by saying I think the correct term is terrorists in Islamic costume.

BLITZER: That's a new term. But I see, Tom Fuentes, you're shaking your head. You like that?

FUENTES: Sure. At least it's giving the context to identify what their original base is. Even if they've deviated, as Bob Baer said, I agree with him completely, but the fundamental basis that they're citing is they're going to form a caliphate and the caliphate is a term of a religious country.

BLITZER: I want everybody to stand by, because we have much more on the breaking news involving the war on terror, including new assaults under way right now by ISIS.

And we're also getting new information on a different story. A fiery train derailment that has unleashed some spectacular clouds of fire. Is there any real danger to local residents right now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Red-hot clouds of fire. Look at this. Exploding into the sky, raging for hours and hours. Tonight it's still a hazardous situation at the scene of that train derailment in West Virginia amid a massive oil spill.

CNN's Rene Marsh is in THE SITUATION ROOM with an update of what's going on. Very disturbing.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. And those images are hard to believe that only one person injured. I just got off the phone with the West Virginia emergency management team. We do know that they are periodically testing the water in this area. They want to make sure that it's not contaminated.

We can tell that you three tests have been done and they were able to come to the conclusion that at this point they do not believe any oil was able to make its way into the water supply, which is also a source of drinking water for people in this area.

We can tell you, more than 100 people displaced, close to 800 people without power because that massive fire that you're looking at there, it burned power lines. Of course, this all stems from Monday's derailment of a CSX train that was hauling crude oil from North Dakota to Virginia. It derailed and then ended in that fiery explosion.

There was one man who saw it all unfold before his very eyes. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALEX FANDOR, WITNESS: We're standing out on the river bank when we saw all train explode, or the car explode and it shot up a mushroom cloud about as high as the plume is now, like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARSH: It's just massive, massive flames there. And we should point out, at this hour, the fire is still burning. They don't believe that they will get it out until around midnight. So, that's still a situation they are dealing with. We know that, of course, this highlights just the safety concern to transporting the highly explosive crude oil throughout these neighborhoods.

BLITZER: It's very worrisome. Thanks very much for that, Rene.

Just ahead, a major new offensive by ISIS is unfolding right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. The White House says 11.4 million Americans signed up for private health care coverage through the government's health care exchanges, Obamacare. That beats the administration's goal of 9.1 million enrolments. There's more than 50 percent higher than number people enrolled for coverage back in 2014. The deadline to sign up, by the way, was Sunday.

Tonight, President Obama is defending his executive action on immigration reform just hours after it was temporarily blocked by a federal judge in Texas. It's a major setback, though, for the administration for millions of undocumented immigrants who thought their lives were about to change.

Let's bring in our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns for all the details -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the court essentially said the administration did an end run around the law with its new policies. For now, the Homeland Security Department is suspending its programs so it doesn't violate the court order but the president said he is not conceding defeat on this issue.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): Less than two days before the government was going to start taking applications for immigrant children who want protection from deportation, a huge last minute setback. A Texas federal judge brings the administration's new deferred enforcement policies that could affect up to 5 million people to a screeching halt, at least temporarily.

Late today, President Obama said the administration would comply with the court's decision blocking implementation of its clear policy but made clear that the legal fight is not over. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I disagree with Texas

judge's ruling and the Justice Department will appeal.

JOHNS: Judge Andrew Hanen said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson did not follow the law and administrative rules when he launched the new policies on deferred enforcement late last year. Hanen wrote, "The public interest factor that weighs the heaviest is ensuring that actions of the executive branch comply with this country's law and its Constitution. The judge is an appointee of former President George W. Bush and a sharp critic of President Obama's policies.

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott filed a lawsuit on behalf of his and 25 other states.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R), TEXAS: In Texas, we will not sit idly by while the president ignores the law and fails to secure the border.

JOHNS: The White House is fighting this battle on two fronts. A face off with Republicans Congress over the policies could affect funding for the Homeland Security Department. The ruling means people who are planning on filing for deferred action on immigration for their children starting on Wednesday will have to wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These people who were so excited in November, now they can gather their papers together but they can't participate in the program.

JOHNS: And the president's supporters were urging immigrants who want to change their status to use the time the cases in the courts to get their paper work together.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), ILLINOIS: Get your birth certificates. I want you to get your passports up to date. I want you to get all your documentation to prove that you've been here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: The funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security has been snagged in the Senate because of a disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the new immigration policies. House Speaker John Boehner called on Senate Democrats who disagree with the administration to help get that bill moving.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what the impact of this judge's decision has on funding for the Department of Homeland Security. They got to make a decision in next few days on that.

Joe, thanks very much.

Joining us now, our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and our senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein.

So, Jeffrey, what happens legally next?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the Obama administration appeals this decision. They go to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. This is a court of appeals that's been very unsympathetic to the Obama administration. So, their chances of getting it overturned initially are not great.

BLITZER: Then, it winds up potentially going to the U.S. Supreme Court, Jeffrey, right?

TOOBIN: Wolf, I think this case is on a rocket ride to the Supreme Court even though the term is well along. This could certainly wind up before the Supreme Court this year before the term ends in June, which would mean that both of President Obama's signature achievements, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, and the immigration reform, could both have life or death cases before the Supreme Court this spring.

BLITZER: And marriage equality, same-sex marriage is before the Supreme Court. We'll have a decision on that before the end of June as well.

Ron, in the short term, they've got to fund the Department of Homeland Security by tend of February. So, this judge's decision, this district court judge in Texas, how is that going to impact this debate over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, because, you know, Boehner and the Republicans, they want to tie it to avoiding any action on this immigration reform.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And they don't have the leverage to do so at this point because Senate Democrats simply will not move forward on that basis.

Look, this could provide an out for the Republicans, allowing them to say, look, we'll fund the department as long as for example, the stay is in effect. The initial reaction of conservatives, particularly in the House, has been no, to double down, and say, this shows that we are right and we can -- you know, we should stand fast on this. But in fact, you could imagine way this could provide them an out, because I don't think in the end particularly Senate Republicans want to be blamed for closing down security particularly with what is going on in the world today.

BLITZER: How much division, Ron, because you study this closely, is there with Democrats on this whole issue of immigration reform now?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, you know, there's more unanimity than there used to be. Every Senate Democrat voted for pathway to citizenship when it came, for people who are here undocumented in 2013, when it came before the Senate. And while there are Senate Democrats who are uncomfortable with Obama doing this for unilateral executive authority, none of them have broken off the filibuster that is preventing Republicans from attaching the rider to the Homeland Security bill which will be vetoed by the president even if it somehow passed.

BLITZER: So, Jeffrey, basically, the practical impact of what this judge in Texas has decided to do, that millions of undocumented people here in the United States, they thought within days they would begin this process of getting some sort of legal status to remain in the United States but they're hopes now, at least in the short term, have been dashed, right?

TOOBIN: Yes. This case is not about abstractions and predictions about what might happen. This was going to happen tomorrow. Millions of people were eligible to start this process, this DREAMer's process and the whole thing is stopped cold. Now, the Fifth Circuit may overturn the stay. They may not. But this had enormous practical impact all across the country.

BLITZER: What's going to be, Ron, the political fall out of this?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, the overriding imperative for the administration on this, as in the health care, is to create facts on the ground. I mean, as we see in Congress, the congressional Republicans are very determined to block this. Every Republican presidential candidate in 2016 almost certainly will pledge to undo it if they are elected, that the necessity for the administration is to sign up as many people as possible and to make it as difficult as possible to overturn this, after, if a Republican is in the White House after President Obama.

As Jeff said, ultimately, it's going to be the Supreme Court. And based on the precedents, including 2012 ruling on the Arizona state law on immigration, most advocates are confident that Obama will win in the end. But ultimately, that does require at least one Republican appointed Supreme Court justice and you can never bet your entire house on that at this point.

BLITZER: You want to weigh in on that, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: Yes, I'm weary of making predictions about what the court will do. But even more than the health care case, this immigration matter is about presidential power. There's one thing that Republican appointees to the Supreme Court generally have been, have been supportive of the president's power to set his own agenda, to enforce the law, to pick which cases to bring and which not to bring.

So, I think the Obama administration feels pretty confident that they will win in the long run but in the short run this process is stopped dead in its tracks.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Lots to discuss.

BROWNSTEIN: Running the clock is a problem for them, too.

BLITZER: Go ahead. Finish your thought. I'm sorry, Ron?

BROWNSTEIN: I was going to say running out the clock could be a problem for them too, because their imperative, as I said, is to get as many people signed up to make it as tough to repeal as possible if a Republican wins in 2016.

BLITZER: All right, guys. We'll leave it on that note. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

To our viewers, remember you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet @WolfBlitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNsitroom. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.