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Breaking News: U.S. Intelligence Suggests ISIS Bombed Russian Airliner Early Saturday Morning. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired November 4, 2015 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: I want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Jake Tapper. You're watching THE LEAD.

And we are following breaking news, U.S. intelligence suggesting that ISIS or an ISIS affiliate bombed a Russian airliner early Saturday morning over the Sinai Peninsula, to be precise, put a bomb in the plane, the crash killing 224 people, including 25 children.

CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest joins me now.

Now, Richard, this is still preliminary information. You hear officials hedging it. We don't have concrete evidence yet.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: We don't, but the significance of what Paul was reporting and Barbara is reporting is that this was one of the roads, the options that was always on the table and now is the prime reason or possibility.

Remember, Jake, when the plane fell out of the sky in the cruise, there was only a certain limited number of options. And top of the list from day one was always terrorist activities, because planes don't crash. But you needed something to hang it on. Otherwise, you are looking at structural failure, pilot error, whatever it might be.

And now the British are saying it may, the U.S. intelligence is saying that it suggests it was a bomb. So you start to cut away all the other potential reasons. And, you know, it is pretty difficult to bring down a plane in the absence of a bomb. Planes are designed to fly, even when they go wrong mechanically. And so the significance of the last couple of hours cannot be overstated. It's a game changer.

Everything changes now about the investigation, the criminal -- the way the criminal mind will now be looked at, and, of course, security at airports, particularly in Egypt.

TAPPER: And, Richard, as an aviation expert, did this look initially to you as though it was likely an act of terrorism based upon the information we have gotten, how the plane fell apart, the trajectory of all the bodies and the parts of the plane?

QUEST: From the moment the plane disappeared, the answer's no. It's not. If a plane falls out the sky in the cruise, you always think bomb first of all.

But then you remember cases like Air France 447, Air Asia and others and you start to balance that out with other stories. And you start to look out for, how did the plane come out of the sky? But the key to this was that report that Barbara Starr brought us a couple of days ago about the satellite heat flash.

Now, the moment you had that satellite heat flash, everything shifts back to a bomb. Planes don't blow up for no reason. I can tell you that after covering it for three decades. You know, they do not blow -- tanks do not blow up automatically. There's only been a couple of cases in all the years. And so the moment you had the heat flash and now you have got this other information, you are now looking at a bomb.

But what I'm waiting for is, frankly, the Egyptians and the Russians to come clean and say, yes, we are now seeing evidence of what everybody else is talking about. They are the ones that are going to have to confirm it with the hard, fast evidence of the wreckage.

TAPPER: All right, Richard quest, thank you so much for your expertise.

Much more on this breaking news story ahead, Britain and Ireland now suspending flights from the Sinai Peninsula over fears that this was a terrorist bomb -- that story next.



TAPPER: We're back with breaking news, U.S. intelligence suggesting that ISIS or an ISIS affiliate caused Saturday's crash of a Russian passenger airliner in Egypt; 224 people died in that crash, including 25 children.

Let's go to CNN's Phil Black, who's live in London for us.

Phil, a strong statement from the very top there, Prime Minister David Cameron saying a bomb very well may have brought down this plane. What are you hearing about how intelligence has been gathered there in the U.K.?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, even stronger language we're just hearing was used at a government meeting that took place here tonight, Jake.

From a government official, we're told that the assessment now is there's a strong possibility that there was an explosive device on board this plane. Now, the government today announced that in its suspicion that this could be the case, that they had grounded all direct flights from Sharm el-Sheikh to the U.K.

There are five carriers that make those direct flights. We were told that that suspension was initially just for today. We're now told that that is indefinite, if you like, for the time being. The U.K. has sent its own team of experts to the ground in Sharm el-Sheikh to assess the security there. That work is ongoing. They say they're working closely with Egyptian government officials.

And as a result, they believe that there's still more work there that needs to be done. And so flights remain suspended. No one will be coming and going directly from the U.K. It raises the question of how people who are there already will eventually get back. The government says they're now looking at putting on special flights with special security for people who are keen to leave there and get back to the U.K. here.

Now, they're not releasing precisely what information has led them to this conclusion, but they are being very open, very specific, very clear in the statements that are coming from the prime minister's office, from the government here. They believe strongly that there is a strong possibility of an explosive device being responsible for bringing down that aircraft, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Phil, having covered the U.K. for so long, the British government is rather circumspect, they're cautious when they say things like this. So even a statement that says they believe it's very likely suggests that there's much, much more that they're not saying.


BLACK: Indeed.

This is not the sort of statement that would be made lightly or without considerable consideration. The way that they are disseminating this information, I think, is really important. It's not through behind-the-scenes briefings. It's not through anonymous sources. These are very clearly specifically worded statements directly from the prime minister's office, which indicates that they have very strong reason to make these statements, to take the precautions that they are taking, which, as we have been discussing, has included grounded these direct flights, but also sending in their own teams to assess the security situation within an airport in another sovereign country, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Phil black, thank you so much.

Let's bring in Mohannad Sabry. He's an expert on the Sinai Peninsula. He wrote the book "Sinai: Linchpin, Gaza's Lifeline, Israel's Nightmare" that just came out four days ago.

Mohannad, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your sharing your expertise with us.

Does it surprise you at all that, theoretically, according to U.S. intelligence, terrorists would able to infiltrate Sharm el-Sheikh Airport and place a bomb on a plane? Is that something that, having studied the region so long and so well, is a surprise?

MOHANNAD SABRY, SINAI EXPERT: Well, it is not surprising. I have to say it's a wild theory, but it's not surprising. We have seen ISIS in Egypt, ISIS affiliates in Egypt infiltrate higher

levels of security. We have seen them leading assassination attempts on the interior minister, on the prosecutor general. They did not succeed with the interior minister, but they succeeded with the prosecutor general.

They were working closely with ex-military officers, ex-special operations officers. And they have had a long history of building sophisticated bombs using suicide bombers and explosive vehicles. Just this morning, another suicide attack was seen in el-Arish, the most secure -- supposedly the most secure city and the home of the majority of the security apparatuses and institutions in Sinai.

TAPPER: Wow. And let me ask you, when people talk about there being ISIS or ISIS affiliate presence in the Sinai, what are they talking about? Are these merely religious extremists who fled Cairo after General Sisi took control? Are these actually people with allegiance to al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS in Syria? Who are they?

SABRY: Oh, they are sophisticated terrorists that existed and operated in Sinai even before Sisi. They started their operations in 2011. We have seen attacks on the gas pipeline leading to Israel in Eastern Mediterranean countries. We have seen major attacks on the military and police departments over the years before Sisi.

And after Sisi's rise to presidency and the brutal campaign of the Egyptian military in Sinai, this group which was named Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Now, how effective that is, we cannot really assess that, namely because of the -- Egypt's policy of blocking out the Sinai and keeping anyone from having access to it, which is very similar to what we're having now, is that we're not hearing anything specific or anything detailed from the Egyptian authorities or the Russian authorities. And this has been the policy for decades.

TAPPER: Because they don't want to empower them by giving them more attention, more information?

SABRY: Or because they simply don't want the media or the international community to have access to what's going on in Sinai because of violations, because of flawed policies and so many other reasons.

TAPPER: All right. Mohannad Sabry, thank you so much for joining me.

SABRY: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: If ISIS did get a bomb inside a passenger plane, and it looks like it might have, according to U.S. intelligence, what does that mean for the flights in the United States? We will ask the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: To everyone watching here in the United States and around the

world, welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Two hundred twenty four people including 25 children killed by a bomb planted on a plane by ISIS or its affiliates.

That's the latest U.S. intelligence on what took that Metrojet airliner out of the sky. Let's talk about this possible terror attack with the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

Have you been briefed on this incident? Is there anything new you can tell us? Does what you're being told by investigators match what our reporting that ISIS or ISIS affiliate planting a bomb on this plane?

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I have been briefed and I guess I would urge people not to jump to any conclusions yet. We are still trying to confirm what the cause of the crash was. It is certainly possible that it was an explosive, but it's also possible that this was a structural problem with the plane with the tail section of the plane.

So at this point I don't think we're prepared to draw any conclusions. But obviously we're investigating it and directing our intelligence resources to try to determine the cause of the crash.

TAPPER: You were in the Sinai just a few months ago. What can you tell us about the presence of extremists, of terrorists, of even ISIS affiliates in the Sinai and their capabilities?

SCHIFF: Well, there has been a terrorism presence there for quite some time. But it has become much more potent, much more numerous, the sophistication of the attacks largely on the Egyptian military have been increasing in their intensity and their scope.

So there is a very substantial terrorism problem there. We've had an observer mission there as part of an agreement between Israel and Egypt for many, many years. But that's had to be significantly curtailed because of the level of threat and violence.

So it is certainly an area that has become unfortunately a hotbed for many terrorists. And this is, you know, undoubtedly something the Islamic State in the Sinai would aspire to do. I don't know that they would have the capability of shooting down an aircraft.

There were some early at least public reports that that might have taken place. An aircraft of that altitude I think that makes it very unlikely.

[16:50:03]But the sophistication required to place a bomb on an aircraft is far less substantial and that is one of the possibilities that we have to consider.

TAPPER: If that proves to be correct, what U.S. officials are telling CNN that it is most likely an ISIS or ISIS affiliated group that placed a bomb on the plane, would this -- should this significantly alter national security thinking? SCHIFF: Well, it would certainly alter, I think, the precautions that airlines in the region would have to take. What we would be advising our own travelers potentially in the region. In terms of our efforts in Egypt, in Syria and Iraq, it probably doesn't change that very much.

The biggest impact though may be on Russia. If ultimately there's some confirmation that ISIS did bring this plane back -- bring it down rather, the question would be what impact would that have on Putin, on the Russian psyche on their willingness to commit even greater forces to the conflict?

That may be the biggest question mark if that's the case. But again, I'd caution your viewers not to jump to any conclusions at this point. We'll know a lot more when those black boxes are analyzed.

TAPPER: All right. Adam Schiff, congressman from the House Intelligence Committee, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate it. Much more on this breaking story, we're going to take a very quick break, back after this.



TAPPER: To our viewers in the United States and around the world, welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to continue to follow the breaking news here in Washington, the latest U.S. intelligence suggesting that the Metrojet flight that plummeted from the skies was brought down by a bomb delivered to the plane's cargo bay by ISIS or ISIS affiliates. The crash killed 224 people over the weekend including 25 children.

Let's bring in CNN justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. Now, Pamela, you have new information on why U.S. officials believed this is almost certainly what happened.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We're learning that some of the intelligence that officials are basing this theory on, this bomb theory on -- is chatter that they picked up after the plane went down.

This is chatter from ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula that would indicate perhaps they were responsible for bringing the plane down. We know that ISIS has already come out and said it was responsible, but now there's been additional chatter picked up.

However, I should caution, Jake, that there hasn't been anything else to corroborate that chatter such as forensic wreckage with bomb residue on it. So that is a big reason why U.S. officials are being cautious and jumping to any conclusions right now.

But I can tell you officials I've spoken to today have said it is a significant concern that a bomb was put on this plane or there was a suicide bomber on the plane and that ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula could be responsible.

ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula is one of the most active ISIS affiliates. It has shown bomb making capabilities. But if it was able to put a bomb on the plane and bring a plane down, this would be an increase in the sophistication.

This would be right up there with something that AQAP could do. Officials I've spoken to today say there's been no evidence thus far that this group has the same capabilities as AQAP and has the sophistication level to do something like this.

So this would be pretty significant if in fact it did pull this off. Officials I've spoken to say one of the theories they're looking at is that the bomb was actually planted on the plane rather than a suicide bomber because they've looked through the passenger manifest.

And there aren't any red flags from looking through all the passengers or any connections they may have had to terrorists. That is why they're looking at this theory that perhaps a bomb could have been placed on the plane and then detonated once it reached a certain altitude, which again would take a certain level of sophistication there -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Pamela brown, Thank you so much. Joining me now is CNN national security analyst, Bob Baer. He is a former CIA operative. Bob, thanks for joining us.

What do you make of this news cautioned as it were with caveats from U.S. intelligence suggesting that they believe ISIS or one of its affiliates in all likelihood placed this bomb, a bomb, on a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula?

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, joke, it's looking more and more like they're convinced of it. They don't go on the record like this downing straight and U.S. intelligence it was a bomb unless they have pretty good evidence.

By the way, a lot of this chatter doesn't make sense until after the event occurred. So they could have seen signs of this. It wasn't actionable intelligence, but the plane goes down, they see that heat signature over the Sinai and the evidence is mounting.

And the fact that Sharm El-Sheikh's airport is not particularly secure. But I'd also like to add and what everybody seems to be missing is in 2003 the world's most adept airplane bomber was in Baghdad.

And a lot of his equipment was taken including explosives by Iraqi intelligence officers. Many of who right now are working with the Islamic State. So this is just a total hypothesis, but the possibility that they took this technology and took it to the Sinai to take down a Russian airplane we can't rule out.

I mean, ISIS can ramp up its sophistication very quickly because it has widespread support across the Middle East including people know what they're doing when it comes to terrorism. TAPPER: Bob Baer, very quickly, how sophisticated a bomb maker need one be to get a bomb onto a flight like this in a place like Shram el- Sheikh?

BAER: With a timer you could even get through security very easy. I asked a technician who reconstructs these bombs. And I said, you know, for instance TSA, what is the chances of getting a bomb through a very -- a good airport, and he said about 65 percent.

TAPPER: At 65 percent in good airport security. Bob Baer, thank you so much. Stay tuned to CNN. Wolf Blitzer's going to have a lot more on this. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. "THE SITUATION ROOM" starts right now.