Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Al Qaeda Calls for Lone-Wolf Attacks in U.S.; Source: Five U.S.-Trained Syrian Rebels Captured; Lawmakers Targeted in Battle Over Iran Deal. Aired 5-6:00p ET

Aired August 4, 2015 - 17:00   ET

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


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Al Qaeda threats, twin messages from the terror group's deadliest affiliate. A new video calls for more lone-wolf attacks as al Qaeda's reclusive bomb maker urges attacks in the heart of America.

Captured. Troops trained by the U.S. to fight ISIS are captured and held by another terror group in Syria. Is the U.S. strategy falling apart? I'll ask Senator Tom Cotton of the intelligence committee.

And center stage. Donald Trump will be out front of the first GOP debate, but seven candidates won't even make the cut. We're learning who's in, who's out, and why Trump may need to change his phone number.

Wolf Blitzer is off, I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KEILAR: We have breaking news. There are chilling new terror threats tonight as al Qaeda's deadliest affiliate releases a new video, hailing the gunman that killed five service members in Tennessee and calling for more lone-wolf attacks in the United States.

The group's master bomb maker apparently is breaking his silence, urging followers to attack America.

And we're learning more about a prison escapee who has surfaced as a new al Qaeda leader. Plus, a brutal setback for the U.S. and Syria, where only a few dozen American-trained rebels have been deployed, five already captured by an al-Qaeda-related group, was their mission doomed from the start? I'll be speaking with Senator Tom Cotton. He's from the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. And our correspondents, analysts and guests are standing by with full coverage of our top stories.

We begin with the new al Qaeda threats, calls for attacks in the United States. CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into that -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, tonight two stunning new messages from al Qaeda as it tries to reassert itself against ISIS. First this piece of writing, a very chilling piece of literature linked on Twitter, apparently from the master bomb maker of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, a name many Americans will know, Ibrahim al-Asiri.

In this article, a writer believed to be al-Asiri tells al Qaeda affiliates. Quote, "We urge you to strike America in its own home and beyond." CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of this writing.

Analysts say this is striking, because according to U.S. intelligence officials, Ibrahim Al-Asiri almost never makes statements in public. He's got up to a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Now intelligence officials tell us Ibrahim al-Asiri was behind the 2009 Christmas day underwear bomb plot, and he was behind the attempt to place bombs in printer cartridges in 2010.

Both of those attacks targeted the United States. Both plots failed, but they could have killed hundreds of people. Al-Asiri once even placed a bomb inside the body of his own brother in an attempt to kill Saudi Arabia's top terror chief. That bomb killed Asiri's brother, but it failed to kill that Saudi minister.

Brianna, if this is really from al-Asiri, it is extraordinary because of the risk to his own security he would be taking. He has been targeted in U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. They apparently have not gotten him yet. But if he's sending a message tonight, it is a real risk to his operational security but also a sign he's still alive, still very dangerous, Brianna.

KEILAR: And this second message, it's also chilling.

TODD: That's right. In a new video released online today, a man named Khalid Batarfi, who has emerged as a top leader in al Qaeda, praises the "Charlie Hebdo" attacks in France and the shooting at two military offices in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by Mohammed Abdulazeez. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KHALID BATARFI, AL QAEDA (through translator): He penetrated the base, killing and injuring American Marines in a blessed jihadi operation. We ask Allah to accept him and raise his status among martyrs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Now in this video, Khalid Batarfi also calls for more lone-wolf attacks against America. A U.S. intelligence official tells CNN the tape is legitimate. Batarfi, this officials says, has become a top spokesman for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since his escape from a Yemeni prison this spring.

Brianna, two dual messages from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They are al Qaeda's most dangerous branch and sending some messages of real concern in western intelligence communities tonight, Brianna. KEILAR: And I know you're still working this story, Brian.

We'll have more from you at 6 p.m. Thank you.

A disastrous defeat for American-backed rebels in Syria. The U.S. had hoped to muster thousands, but so far just a few dozen have been trained and deployed in the war zone, and now five have already fallen into the hands of a brutal al Qaeda group. CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is tracking this story.

[17:05:11] Barbara, tell us what happened to these Syrian rebel fighters.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, these are the fighters, Brianna, that the U.S. had provided training and equipment for and had put back into the field in Syria to fight ISIS just days ago.

But now, really disaster has struck. They came under attack late last week, we now know that since that attack in recent days, five of these U.S.-backed rebels have been captured by an al Qaeda affiliate, called al Nusra. One of them was actually killed in that original attack.

Now, the big surprise to the Pentagon is that al Nusra was behind the attack. They thought that they would only come under attack from ISIS, but apparently, this al Qaeda affiliate had quite other ideas. So 54 of the rebels to start. They wanted 5,000 out in the field. Fifty-four to start. One dead, five captured, and an additional five other rebels who belong to an affiliated group also supported by the U.S., also captured by al Nusra.

A very difficult situation for these fighters in Northern Syria. And raising very fundamental questions about the U.S. strategy to put them as the boots on the ground inside Syria to fight ISIS.

KEILAR: Are there efforts underway to recover them, Barbara?

STARR: We don't know the answer to that question right now. What officials have been telling us is the Pentagon is looking at options. What could they do? What obligations do they have to protect them? How could they potentially get them to safer ground? No indication the U.S. will put its own boots on the ground to make that happen. But they are looking at, we are told, options to see how they can keep this smaller group of people safe -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks.

A fierce battle being fought over the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration has won some tepid support from Gulf Arab allies. But Israel's leader is lobbying hard against the agreement, and weary lawmakers are being squeezed from two directions.

CNN's global affairs correspondent Elise Labott has the latest -- Elise.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, supporters and opponents of the deal are squaring off. They have deep pockets, thousands of foot soldiers, and are sparing no effort to win public opinion and votes on Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT (voice-over): Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly waging war against the Iran nuclear deal.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Don't let the world's foremost terrorist regime get its hands on the world's most dangerous weapons. Oppose this bad deal.

LABOTT: Making a direct appeal to the American people and the U.S. Congress.

NETANYAHU: Don't let them take your voice away at this critical moment in history.

LABOTT: This as supporters and opponents of the deal face off with an epic campaign-style battle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nuclear facilities, military sites.

LABOTT: Powerful pro-Israel groups like AIPAC flooding Congressional offices with e-mails and calls, and spending millions of dollars on polls and television ads, warning of the dangers of the deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congress should regret reject the bad deal.

LABOTT: J Street, a pro-Israel group in favor of the deal, countered with its own ad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nuclear agreement with Iran contains the toughest inspection program in history.

LABOTT: President Obama and Vice President Biden personally lobbying Jewish leaders today. But the key battleground, undecided Democrats, chief among them Chuck Schumer, on tap to be the next Senate minority leader. His support would be instrumental in swaying Democrats still on the fence. But he hasn't committed.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: The White House is making every effort to answer my questions. So are the people who are opposed.

LABOTT: Those opponents particularly upset they don't have access to the part of the deal where Iran is to reveal its past bad actions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know of a fool that would agree to an agreement they can't read. I've got to see it. I've got to handle it.

LABOTT: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly waging war against the Iran nuclear deal. NETANYAHU: Don't let the world's foremost terrorism regime get

its hands on the world's most dangerous weapons. Oppose this bad deal.

LABOTT: Making a direct appeal to the American people and the U.S. Congress.

NETANYAHU: Don't let them take your voice away at this critical moment in history.

LABOTT: This as supporters and opponents of the deal face off in an epic campaign-style battle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nuclear facilities.

Military sites.

LABOTT: Powerful pro-Israel groups like AIPAC flooding Congressional offices with e-mails and calls and spending millions of dollars on polls and television ads, warning of the dangers of the deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congress should reject the bad deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: J Street, a pro-Israel group in favor of the deal, countered with its own ad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nuclear agreement with Iran contains the toughest inspection program in history.

LABOTT: President Obama...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[17:10:04] LABOTT: And the White House picked up three key Democratic endorsements: Senators Nelson, Cain and Barbara Boxer, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Officials say they expect Democrats to rally around the president, but they aren't taking any chances, Brianna, and they're going to be fighting for every vote before Congress takes up the deal next month.

KEILAR: Elise Labott, our global affairs correspondent in New York, thank you.

And joining me now to talk more about this is a strong opponent of the Iran deal, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He serves on the Intelligence and the Armed Services Committees. He's a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And I want to ask you about the Iran deal, but first, I want to ask you about this breaking news that we have. This key lawmaker to AQAP, the -- really, the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate, Ibrahim al-Asiri. He's believed to be alive and now speaking out on this new message. You're on the intelligence committee. What can you share with us about this?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: I can't share any classified information, Brianna, of course.

But Ibrahim al Asiri is an incredibly dangerous man. As your report just said, he's made bombs. He stuck it in his own brother, tried to put it in printer cartridges. He's purported to be responsible for the underwear bomber. These are some of the most sophisticated techniques that bomb makers have around the world. The fact that he's coming forward and apparently putting out a statement just goes to show how much of a threat al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula remains to the United States, to our citizens, and why we have to stay on offense in on the war on terrorism.

KEILAR: So you say this sort of reveals a threat? It is pretty brazen that he's making himself known. Certainly, by getting out there and being public like this, there could be some way to trace him so there's some risks there that he's taking. What do you read into this? Should we worry more about an attack?

COTTON: Well, we should always be worried about a man and an organization so dangerous.

KEILAR: Does it tell you anything specific?

COTTON: It suggests there could be some competition between al Qaeda on one hand and the Islamic State on the other hand, the title of the top Sunni jihadist group. The only loser in that competition, though, is going to be the United States and our citizens, because the competition is going to be who can kill the most Americans. And that puts aside Iran and its support for Shiite terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which also had the blood of Americans on their hands.

KEILAR: Do you see this as sort of a jockeying between these groups?

COTTON: It's potential. Yes, there's not going to be a winner from the United States' standpoint. The only loser's going to be the United States.

KEILAR: Let's talk about Iran now. Your response to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, calling you an international man of mystery and saying that your trip to Austria was essentially a waste of time?

COTTON: Well, the only thing mysterious is the content of these two sided agreements between the IAEA and Iran. The IAEA is the United Nations' nuclear watchdog. They have two side agreements. We now know, because the White House has acknowledged the existence of them, but still not the real content. This is not a procedural or an administrative dispute, Brianna. These go to the heart of the verification and inspection system in the deal.

First is access to the Parchin military base, where it is believed Iran tried to design nuclear devices and test detonators for them. Second is Iran's revelation of their past weaponization work. If

we don't have access to those documents, we don't know what Iran has done in the past, and therefore, we can't judge if the IAEA is going to have an adequate baseline to inspect Iran's facilities.

That's why this is so critical to this deal. I can't imagine a senator or congressman voting not just on the up or down, at all without access to these documents.

KEILAR: You think you don't have a sense of really how far along Iran is in the process, right? By -- without having access.

COTTON: This has been a central issue going back years. The IAEA, in fact, put out a report almost four years ago now, that raised 12 areas of concern in Iran's past weaponization work. And if we don't have answers to that, it's kind of like starting a diet without knowing your starting weight. What's the point? You don't know how far you've progressed or how far this case has regressed.

KEILAR: Do you have these concerns? A number of Republicans have these concerns. But what's the alternative to a deal like this? If Iran is really, as we expect, maybe pretty close to breaking out, being able to have a nuclear weapon?

COTTON: Well, the first alternative is not to give Iran 50 to 125 million dollars that they can then use to support more terrorism, kill Americans and our allies all around the world.

Longer term, and this is something you've heard from Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and several other experts, is that we would demand renegotiations. We would put in, say, no sunset at the end of the agreement. We would insist on more intrusive inspection regimes.

So the idea that there's no choice between -- other than this deal or war, I think is a false choice and, increasingly, more and more people are beginning to realize that.

KEILAR: Do you feel this stops Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, certainly, in the near team, as we expect that they will be able to get it?

COTTON: No, I don't. I mean, the deal is bad on many levels. The first is the immediate non-nuclear level. You know, we're going to give Iran tens of billions of dollars for sanctions relief at a time they're still the worst state sponsor of terrorism and destabilizing the region.

[17:15:07] Second, even if Iran follows the deal to the letter, they're going to be a nuclear threshold state in just 8 to 15 years.

But third, I hate to break the news...

KEILAR: What about that versus months?

COTTON: Well, I hate to break the news to your viewers, though, Iran doesn't have a history of upholding its international obligations. So the most likely result, in my opinion, is that they will actually break their obligations; and then they will develop nuclear weapons far in advance of that, in addition to having a stronger military because of all the sanctions relief and lifting the arms embargo and the ban on boasted missile technology. And continuing to destabilize the region.

KEILAR: It's a concern shared by many Democrats, as well as other Americans. We've seen it...

COTTON: This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. When the ayatollah's going to the streets, they don't chant "death to Democrats," "death to Republicans." They chant "death to Americans."

KEILAR: All right. Stand by. We're going to be back in just a moment with more questions for Senator Cotton about what the U.S. can do to perhaps help these U.S.-backed Syrian rebels captured by an al Qaeda group.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:40] KEILAR: Our breaking news. Al Qaeda's deadliest affiliate issues a new call for attacks in the United States, and we're back now with Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He's a member of both the Intelligence and the Armed Services Committees.

Thanks so much for chatting with us again, Senator. There's a video out from AQAP today. And this comes at a time where you have, it seems, even Obama administration officials split on the idea of who is a bigger threat. Is it ISIS or is it al Qaeda?

What do you think?

COTTON: Yes, they're both big threats. I would site Michael Morell. He's the former deputy director of the CIA. He has said that they're both the biggest threat. ISIS, on the one hand, is the biggest threat for the sheer volume of attacks, the inspiration they provide, the lone wolves, for instance. The constant level of threats.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is probably the biggest threat in terms of the magnitude of the threat, being able to take down an airliner or something along those lines. So in that way, they're both the biggest threats we face, and as I said earlier, they may be in competition with each other right now. And the only people that are going to lose that competition are the United States, because our citizens are going to be killed.

KEILAR: You don't see ISIS being capable in either the near term or even the medium far term of carrying out a large attack?

COTTON: It's certainly possible and certainly, it's very concerning that they're developing more and more capabilities, because they now control territory almost the size of Great Britain. And we don't have a lot of great insight into what's happening here. But there's no doubt that the AQAP bomb maker we talked about

earlier is one of the most dangerous men on earth, and has a record of trying to conduct mass casualty attacks on the order of hundreds or thousands. The Islamic State no doubt wants to move in that direction. That's one reason why it's so dangerous that we've let them metastasize across Iraq and Syria.

KEILAR: One of the key things that the Obama administration is doing when it comes to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, specifically Syria has been training these U.S.-backed rebels. There's not many of them, 60 of them now at this point. And we understand that five of them -- in the scheme of things, that's a big percentage have been captured by the al Nusra Front, which is aligned with al Qaeda, in recent days. One rebel has been killed, so you're down six out of 60.

Have you been briefed on this? Can you tell us anything more about this?

COTTON: Yes. The Armed Services Committee had a hearing just a couple weeks ago, where Ash Carter first revealed that we only have 60 of these trained opposition forces, which is just scandalous. You know, we projected we'd have hundreds or thousands.

KEILAR: Thousands.

COTTON: And obviously, five dozen is not going to be able to stand up, not just to the Islamic State, but to the remnants of Assad regime, to al Qaeda elements in Syria, to Kurdish fighters in Syria, and other opposition forces.

I mean, because Syria is no longer really a country. It's a land formerly known as Syria, in which there are at least five different fighting elements. And that's because of the lack of U.S. leadership going back four or five years to their beginning of the civil war. You can now see how it's spun out of control, and it's starting to envelope our allies, neighbors like Jordan and Turkey, as well as completely destabilizing Iraq.

KEILAR: The U.S. now providing air support to these rebels. Do you support that?

COTTON: We should have done this long ago, not just more robust airstrikes against the Islamic State, but also against the Assad regime years ago. The Assad regime, the Islamic State may be fighting each other, but that doesn't mean that one of them is our ally and one of them is our enemy. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said about the Islamic State and Iran, in this part of the world, frequently, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.

KEILAR: What do you do? Well, and I wonder. We're seeing that in the case of the al-Nusra Front, which is also fighting against ISIS. The al-Nusra Front has captured these U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. What can the U.S. do, what should the U.S. do to protect these fighters who have been captured?

COTTON: Well, this is an example of all roads actually going back to Iran. One reason why the administration...

KEILAR: But in terms of -- very specifically, should the U.S. ...?

(CROSSTALK)

COTTON: We cannot train -- we cannot train any person anywhere in the world, in any kind of fight, and send them into the fight without adequate protection, without adequate air cover. If we're not going to do that, then we shouldn't send them. That's immoral and impractical. It's going to undermine our influence.

KEILAR: You want U.S. troops, whether it's Special Forces to provide a rescue?

COTTON: We -- I wouldn't go that far. We do already have troops on the ground in Iraq. I think it's important to remember that. Over 3,000.

KEILAR: And we've seen some operations in specific cases in Syria.

[17:25:08] COTTON: But if we're going to get serious about stopping the Islamic State, we're going to have to listen to our commanders who tell us they need more specialized, specific skilled soldiers on the ground, like joint air controllers who help -- who help multiply the impact of our airstrikes or Special Operations Forces on the ground.

That's not the kind of war you saw in Iraq ten years ago, when I was there, 100,000 heavy mechanized troops, but we already have soldiers on the ground there, keep them safe. And to make sure that we don't stay in Iraq, it spins out of control like Syria already has, we're probably going to have to have more.

KEILAR: Do you see the program in Syria with these U.S.-backed rebels. Obviously, you say this should have been done a long time ago. It's too limited in scope. Is it a failure or does it need to be expanded?

COTTON: Well, right now it's a failure.

KEILAR: Is there any point in pursuing this?

COTTON: Well...

KEILAR: And expanding it.

COTTON: Only if the president has a broader commitment to the region and to stabilizing both Iraq and Syria, against adversaries like the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only then is it both moral and practical to try to train forces like this and send them into a fight.

I mean, how can we as the United States train young men who say they want to fight and then send them across the border to be barrel bombed by Bashar al-Assad's regime, often using chemical weapons that we said we got rid of.

So only if there's a broader commitment to the entire region to stabilize it and to protect our allies and defend our interests there should we be moving forward with something like this.

KEILAR: Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

And next our terrorism experts will weigh-in on al Qaeda's new calls for attacks on the U.S. homeland. Are they a more imminent threat than ISIS?

Plus, experts gather for tests on the debris that washed up on a remote island off of Africa, when will we know if this part of the plane, that flapper on there is part of the wing of the missing Malaysian airliner?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: Our breaking news, al Qaeda's most dangerous branch issues a slick new video. It praises the Chattanooga gunman who killed five service members, and it calls for lone-wolf-style attacks in the U.S.

And the group's reclusive bomb maker is apparently adding his voice to the chilling threats.

Joining me now to talk more about this, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank; CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer, a former CIA operative; and CNN national security analyst Fran Townsend. She was homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.

Paul, put this into context for us. We see that al-Asiri, Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bomb maker of AQAP, has put this message out there. How dangerous is this guy?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, Brianna, he's without question the most dangerous terrorist operative in the United States. He's a master bomb maker, a genius at making explosive devices, which are difficult for airport scanners to detect.

He's three times plotted to bring down U.S. airplanes. Intelligence suggests that he's developing a new generation of explosive devices, including a new generation of underwear and shoe- bomb devices. And he's part of a group which is growing in strength in Yemen. He has more resources perhaps than ever before, and now he's saying his No. 1 priority is to attack the United States.

KEILAR: This, Bob, is a guy who, as we just heard Paul say, he's on the cutting edge of terrorist technology. So it's pretty brazen that he's putting himself out there, in a way that he could be traced back to. There's some risk in that.

Do you see this as a signal that there could be an attack in the works? Or do you see this instead as what Senator Tom Cotton in the Senate intel committee said, that this is actually just AQAP competing with ISIS?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: I agree with Tom Cotton. It's competition. I think it's a bit strange that he's calling for lone-wolf attacks. That's normally the Islamic State.

But as Paul said, you know, this guy's very good at making bombs. He can take explosives, called PETN, and he can form it into anything, in plastic and make it look like common household items which you can get on airplanes. And he's been at this for years. Is he a step ahead of TSA? I don't know, but that's what scare TSA. He's so good; he's got that technology.

The fact that he's calling for attacks on the United States should be alarming. Let's see if anybody answers that call.

KEILAR: And this message, Fran, is fascinating, because it reveals to us that al-Asiri is alive. There had been questions over the years whether he had been killed, whether he'd been wounded. How does he continue to evade intelligence?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it's interesting, because of course, the thing that -- you're looking for clues, whether it's signals intelligence or human intelligence, sources inside the organization.

We know that we've been able to -- U.S. intelligence authorities have been able to stop al Asiri from being successful because of their relationship with our partners, our intelligence partners in the Gulf, especially the Saudis, who have wonderful sources into al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and have been able to target these events before -- and prevent them from happening.

You know, it's interesting that he's issued this call for lone- wolf-type attacks, and that they're focusing on that. I do think this is competition. They've seen the "Charlie Hebdo" attack and others, and they really want to have -- be able to compete with them for operatives, who can make successful attacks against the United States.

KEILAR: AQAP also out with a video today, and it urges more of these "Charlie Hebdo"-style attacks the shootings, rather, in Chattanooga. You see AQAP because of that, competing with possible recruits? We heard Bob say that was kind of strange to hear that.

[17:35:14] CRUICKSHANK: They're absolutely competing with ISIS in the global jihad. They're trying to inspire attacks, as well. In the Chattanooga shooting, he was somebody who was watching videos of the American AQAP terrorist, Anwar al-Awlaki. So I think they're trying to claim some degree of ownership over Chattanooga. They're not saying they're directly responsible. They're very relevant still, and all this, of course, when they're competing with ISIS worldwide.

KEILAR: Fascinating report, Fran, in "The New York Times" today, and it talks about this division that you're seeing in the Obama administration over whether it's ISIS or whether it's al Qaeda, that is a -- really, a worse enemy for the U.S. at this point. It seems like the White House, the FBI, they're really gearing in on ISIS, and the Pentagon is gearing in more on al Qaeda. Who do you think, which group do you think is the bigger threat?

TOWNSEND: Well, it depends on where you're talking about, and the type of attacks.

So first, let's be clear: John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for the national security division at the Justice Department, said 50 ISIS-related arrests over the last 18 months. That ought to be concerning. So for these small lone-wolf type of attacks, they are probably the most immediate threat here in the United States.

As Paul said, though, when you're thinking about a major attack, a mass casualty against a plane, we worry about al Qaeda.

KEILAR: Bob, what do you think? Who's the more dangerous enemy here?

BAER: I think the Islamic State is, at the end of the day. It does have territory; it has a lot of adherents. The "Charlie Hebdo" attack. Another one like Chattanooga in the United States is very possible.

All you need to do is get on the Internet, buy an automatic weapon, go into a crowded area, whether it's civilian or military target, and start pulling the trigger. It's that easy, and there's nothing the FBI can do to stop it. They can't get in these people's heads. And they recruit themselves and they listen to this call from Raqqah, the capital of the Islamic State. And we're going to have this threat hanging over our heads for a very long time.

KEILAR: Bob Baer, Fran Townsend, Paul Cruickshank, thank you so much to all of you for joining our panel today.

And next, investigators are getting ready to examine that wing flap that washed ashore on a remote island off of Africa. Is it part of the missing Malaysian airliner?

Then later, the suspense grows as the Republican presidential candidates wait for word on who gets to share the debate stage with Donald Trump.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:10] KEILAR: Developing now, experts from around the world are gathering in France to examine what many suspect is part of the missing Malaysian airliner. It's a piece of a Boeing 777 wing that washed up last week on a remote eye land off of Africa, and it may be the first physical clue about what happened after the Malaysian jet disappeared almost a year and a half ago.

Our correspondent Saima Molson is near the laboratory where the examination will take place. Saima, tell us what's happening on the ground there?

SAIMA MOLSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, those groups were flown in from around the world. They've been meeting the last few days to swap information about the investigation so far, and to decide exactly what they want to do when this lab opens tomorrow morning. That's Wednesday here in France. And the kind of examinations they want to run. They will be swapping information and deciding what they want to do.

Now, this is an incredibly sensitive and delicate investigation as you can well imagine. Not least because of the families involved. The 239 passengers on board, their loved ones and families, are hanging onto every word and every piece of news that comes out. So they are approaching this with caution. They're not releasing too much information.

They have told us that they've agreed to go forward under an international aviation investigation. But also a judicial investigation. And that is because this is also a manslaughter case here in France. There were four French nationals on board, and their families have brought a case forward for (UNINTELLIGIBLE) terrorism or hijacking would be involved. And that is why there's going to be a French prosecutor and someone from the Malaysian judiciary inside that lab come Wednesday when they open that box.

Now, standard operating procedure is for that sealed container, remember that was delivered, the flaperon we now know to be from a 777 aircraft, delivered with a police escort in a sealed container. When they first open it, they will all be filmed. They will all have to be present. And then they'll start to run the tests that they've all agreed to, likely to be things like sonograms, X-rays. And then they'll take that piece apart to try and match it with MH-370 -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Take us about the search, Saima. Is there any expectation that new items will be sent to France soon?

MOLSON: Yes, it kind of felt like as soon as that flaperon had turned up last Thursday, that there would be more debris potentially coming up on Reunion Island or lands nearby, Brianna.

But so far, there hasn't been anything else that can be solidly attached to or identified with an aircraft, leave along MH-370. But there are a lot of people, local people gathering to get to work on Reunion Island and search teams going out to sea, trying to see if they can help and find anything. So far, though, I must stress, nothing else has been found. There is one piece believed to be a part of a suitcase. That's being tested in another laboratory, the Criminal Research Institute just outside Paris -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Saima Mohsin in Toulouse, France, thank you so much.

And coming up, Donald Trump gets a taste of his own medicine. What happens if you call his newly leaked phone number?

Plus Vice President Joe Biden jokes about his plans for 2016. Does it mean perhaps he's getting serious?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:01] KEILAR: Well, you might say the polls are now closed because at the top of this hour, that was the cutoff for the release of new polls that will be used to determine which Republican presidential candidates will share the debate stage with Donald Trump on Thursday night. Nine of them will make the cut. Seven of them will not.

And CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash keeping track of all of the pre-debate commotion. And there's a lot of it.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's so much to keep track of, especially when you consider that this is the biggest presidential field in modern history. So there is no easy way for the party or the networks to navigate a crowded debate stage, never mind the candidates who have to face a frontrunner who's a reality quite comfortable in front of the camera.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Overnight in New Hampshire, this sneak preview of sorts of what the crowded Republican debate stage will look like with one glaring exception. Donald Trump who is now leading the GOP presidential pack in multiple polls by double digits.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've had great success. And they -- you know, just -- and people see that. And I would put all of that energy and whatever that brain power is, whatever that type of -- into making our country --

BASH: Tonight the key question ahead of the first presidential debate Thursday is how everyone else will navigate the Trump dynamic. Sources close to Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, say he plans to pivot as much as possible to his own record of fighting for conservative principles.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think in the end what will make the difference and how we win the nomination is people realize, they don't just want a fighter. They want someone who can fight and win.

BASH: Then there is Ohio Governor John Kasich's unorthodox approach.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Maybe I'll give him a hug. I don't know.

BASH: Kasich may have only gotten into the race two weeks ago but tonight it looks like he will edge out the candidate who has been itching to go head-to-head with Trump -- former Texas governor Rick Perry.

RICK PERRY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump's candidacy is a cancer on conservatism.

BASH: Though there are 17 GOP candidates, debate rules say only the 10 with the highest national poll numbers will be on the stage together, putting Trump at the main event with former governor Jeb Bush, Governor Scott Walker and neurosurgeon Ben Carson along with former governor Huckabee, Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio and Governors Chris Christie and John Kasich.

That leave seven other candidates hunting for attention in other ways. Including South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham who helped prosecute Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial. Something Graham suggested Monday makes him qualified to run against Hillary Clinton.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm fluent in Clinton speak. You want me to translate, Jack? When he says, Bill says, I didn't have sex with that woman, he did. When she says, I'll tell you about building the pipeline when I get to be president, it means she won't.

BASH: Meanwhile, Trump who famously gave out Graham's cell phone number on live TV --

TRUMP: I don't know if it's the right number. Let's try it. 202 --

BASH -- spent the day getting a taste of his own medicine. The Web site Gawker published one of the billionaire's numbers and Trump quickly changed the voicemail.

TRUMP: Hi, this is Donald Trump. And I'm running for the presidency of the United States of America.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now a top aide to one of the 10 candidates who will be on the main debate stage said something very interesting to me today, Brianna. It was actually pretty wise, which is historically you don't win a debate like this with all of these people this early on but you certainly can certainly lose. And that's -- the driving force behind a lot of these philosophies in debate prep which is do no harm.

KEILAR: Do no harm. That's fascinating. OK. So how is Donald Trump preparing for all of this? You asked him about this.

BASH: Well, you know, if you believe what he says, he is very much downplaying it, which is really kind of counter to what he always says which is I'm not a regular politician because that's the classic expectations game. Right? No, no, I'm not preparing. But in this case, I actually believe him because he does talk about how comfortable he is in front of the camera. So it's not so much a performance thing.

You know, what I asked him about was, what about the issues? What about the policy? Because depending on how much in the nitty- gritty the questionnaires get, there are a lot of policy questions. I tried to ask him some. He didn't have, you know, specific answers on him. Sure, there's be lots of others. You know, he says he's getting policy briefings from watching TV. So we'll see how that goes.

KEILAR: Can we expect specifics? Or is this just completely to be determined, do you think?

BASH: I think it's going to be hard for him to get through a debate for two hours on a debate stage with a lot of people who have a lot of policy experience, without being able to dive into some of the specifics.

KEILAR: All right. We'll see if that happens. All right, Dana Bash, thanks so much.

Coming up, more than 13,000 people ordered to flee their homes as a massive wildfire -- is raging out of control as firefighters try to fight it.

And the former Ferguson police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown. He is speaking out and he is raising new controversy.

[17:55:08]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: Happening now. Breaking news. Calls for terror. A top al Qaeda leader and a notorious bomb maker urged followers to launch new attacks on America, praising the gunmen who killed five servicemen in Chattanooga.

Will jihadists in the U.S. heed their call?

[18:00:02] California inferno. Almost two dozen fires are ravaging the state. One of them charring 20 square miles in just five hours. Thousands of people have evacuated as flames close in on their homes.