Return to Transcripts main page


Paris Terror Investigation Heats Up; ISIS Vows to Terrorize Washington. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 16, 2015 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:10] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Jake Tapper, live in Paris, France, right near the Place de la Republique. This is THE LEAD.

We are in a country at war, that according to its president today, after ISIS terrorists wearing suicide belts and carrying automatic weapons murdered 129 people and wounded 350 others who were just out on a Friday night, having dinner, seeing a show, watching the game.

And right now, an urgent international search is under way for a possible eighth attacker, an eighth terrorist, the brother of one of the dead seven Paris terrorists, Belgian-born French citizen Salah Abdeslam.

Belgian special ops apparently failed to catch him during a raid in a Brussels neighborhood this morning. ISIS has, of course, claimed responsibility for the atrocities committed here on Friday.

And according to CNN French affiliate BFM, six of the Paris terrorists spent time in Syria, six of the eight. Two ISIS members are thought to have masterminded the terrorist acts. They are believed to be in Iraq or Syria. We will have more on them later.

Today in France, President Francois Hollande said France must change its constitution to try to fight terrorism more effectively. And President Obama at the G20 summit in Turkey called the Paris attacks a sickening setback, but he insisted his military strategy to destroy ISIS is not changing.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There have been a few who suggested that we should put large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground. It is not just my view, but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers, that that would be a mistake.


TAPPER: Throughout his remarks, President Obama stressed his belief that the United States cannot turn its back on Syrian refugees, even as more than a dozen states back in the United States slammed the door on that possibility today, all of this coming just hours after ISIS released a chilling new video warning Washington, D.C., you're next.

CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward is also in Paris. Clarissa, police apparently let their man get away in the hours after

the attack. Now they have still not been able to detain Salah Abdeslam.

What do your sources tell you about what authorities think? Do they think he's still in France? Do they think he managed to slip into Belgium? Where might he be?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's really the million-dollar question, Jake. And it appears from all these raids that we're seeing across the country and also in neighboring Belgium that they don't necessarily know.

What we do know is that just a few hours after the attacks, French police did stop and question Salah Abdeslam. They decided that there was nothing more to discuss and he was allowed to go on his way. He was believed to be driving towards the Belgium border. And then, of course, this morning, we saw that massive raid in Molenbeek, a Brussels suburb, seven people arrested in that raid, five of them subsequently released, including the brother of Salah Abdeslam, also the brother of one of the bombers who blew himself up in the Bataclan theater.

He said that he knew nothing about these attacks, that he knew nothing about his brother who blew himself up's involvement and also knew nothing about the whereabouts of Salah Abdeslam, who is now the primary suspect as being possibly the eighth attacker. But the manhunt continues. And it's not limited to Belgium. It's across France too, Jake.

TAPPER: Clarissa, elite members of the French National Guard, the French national police, rather, swarmed cities across the nation of France last night.

They rounded up potential terror suspects. Do we know right now if any of those operations were directly connected to Friday's terror attacks? And can we expect even more of these raids in the coming days and weeks?

WARD: I think we can certainly expect, Jake, to see more raids in the coming days and weeks, because while the primary focus might be currently on trying to find that eighth attack who are is still at large, there is a larger search going on here, a larger search to drill down on the network that must have existed to facilitate and help orchestrate attacks of this level.

So French police went on more than 150 raids today. They arrested 23 people, more than 100 people under house arrest. They found weapons, including a rocket launcher. They found military clothing. And essentially they're really trying to canvass the entire country to make sure this doesn't happen again, to try to get a better concept of who this network is and how it was functioning.


And as President Francois Hollande said, Jake, it is very complicated. This is an attack that was conceived of in Syria. It was organized in Belgium and then it was executed here in France. So, it's a vast picture and a lot of doors to knock on, Jake.

TAPPER: Clarissa Ward, thank you so much.

CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto joins me now here in the Place de la Republique, where Parisians have built a massive makeshift memorial to the 129 victims. It's quite a sight to behold.

Jim, do police have a working theory as to how the terrorists put this nefarious plan into place last Friday?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They do. Sadly, one of the headlines is that the terrorists put this plan into place with people that the police were aware of. Several of them were on police radar. That's one thing.

Two, that they used Belgium as kind of a staging area for this, taking advantage of Belgium that has fewer counterterror resources than France does, but then also that the trail leads all the way back to Syria and they have a good idea now of not just one, but two masterminds of this attack, one of whom, and this is significant, goes right up to close relationship with the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): This, say French officials, is one of the possible ringleaders of the Paris attacks, heard saying in this terror video he enjoys spilling the blood of infidels.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian citizen now believed in Syria and, crucially, a close confidant of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Jean-Louis Bruguiere is France's former top counterterror judge.

JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE, FORMER FRENCH TERRORISM JUDGE: This guy is actually very close to the chief, with the caliph, of Baghdadi himself. For me, for me, but I have not evidence about that, but this huge attack has been issued or approved by Abdelhamid himself.

SCIUTTO: Now in a terror video, ISIS is threatening to bring bloodshed to the streets of the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I swear to God a similar day that France went through, you will go through. I swear to God as we struck France and its stronghold, Paris, we will strike America and its stronghold, Washington.

SCIUTTO: Today, CIA Director John Brennan said the U.S. is taking the threats seriously.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA DIRECTOR: I would anticipate that this is not the only operation that ISIL has in the pipeline. And security intelligence services right now in Europe and other places are working feverishly to see what else they can do in terms of uncovering it.

SCIUTTO: As the U.S. and Europe prepare for more plots, France is now counting the missed signals for Friday's deadly rampage. At least two of the attackers were known to French police, one for terror offensives, the other for being radicalized.

Six of the attackers are believed to have traveled to Syria and returned to Europe. One crossed along with thousands of Syrian refugees through a major migrant entry point in Greece. In addition, the suspected ring leader, Abaaoud, seen on the right was directing an attack by these two ISIS fighters who were later killed in a shoot-out with Belgium police in January.

But French authorities say they are simply overwhelmed. Today, the list of suspected terrorists and others who've been radicalized in France has grown to some 11,000.

BRUNO LE MAIRE, FORMER FRENCH MINISTER: We know that French citizen coming back from Syria that might be a threat against French citizen. We know also that there are French citizen in France that have never been to Syria or to Iraq that might also be a threat against French citizen.


SCIUTTO: There are now hard questions here in France about whether France's terror surveillance system is simply broken. You have these 11,000 names, Jake, 5,000 of them suspected for terror connections, another 4,000 or so for radicalization.

They have different levels of monitoring, but the fact is they can't monitor all these people. And you do have -- and this has become part of the presidential campaign because the person speaking right then is a conservative candidate for president, who is talking about what is in effect preventative detention, that you should take some of these guys before they even commit terrorism.

And I will tell you in the last 24 hours you have had more than 100 raids. You now have 100 people under house arrest in France. They haven't committed terror offenses, but in light of the terror threat right now, that is very much part of the debate here. When you bring them in? And do you have to bring them in before they have committed a terror crime?

It's a hard question.

TAPPER: Tough questions.

Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Let's bring in our panel of experts to analyze the terror attacks and the ongoing threat in Paris and across the globe.


We have CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd, CNN national security analyst and former Congressman Mike Rogers, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. And with me here in Paris, CNN terror analyst Paul Cruickshank.

Congressman, let me start with you. ISIS claims to have blown a Russian passenger jet out of the sky, killed scores of innocent people in Beirut with suicide bombs, and now this horrific massacre in Paris. Do three external operations in rapid succession represent a change in strategy for the terrorists? Or is it just now they're capable of it?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's probably a little bit of both.

And I'm never one that believes in just coincidence as a former FBI agent, but I can tell you this. Those operations all had a thread back to Syria in some way. So they took an external op or planned an external operation from Syria and made them happen in third countries, in Egypt, in Lebanon, now in France and Paris.

So that in and of itself is a change that they have been telling us they're going to engage in for some time. And if you remember, Jake, the big fight between Zawahri, the head of al Qaeda, and the head of ISIS, Baghdadi, was not about the brutality of their tactics. It was that Baghdadi wanted to attack Europe. He was very aggressive about wanting to get operations from Syria into Europe.

They split over that because Zawahri wanted him to stay focused in Syria. You're seeing the fruit of all of that planning, all of that training and lots of space to operate. As a matter of fact, a state the size of Indiana, they have the option to plan these type of events, recruit, train and then now deploy operatives to these countries. That's a change that's concerning.

TAPPER: Phil, you used to be a top official of the CIA. CIA Director John Brennan today with some very sobering words, basically the United States' top spy saying that other ISIS plots are already in the works. How concerning an admission is this?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: You got to look at this as pretty high spectrum. The reasons are simple. Look at a couple characteristics of groups you have to focus on. In nearly 15 years of post-9/11 plotting, we have seen plotting in Africa, Asia, the Middle East.

The characteristics here are unique. That's a group that's had time to plot. They have been in place now for a year, two years, three years. The unrest started in Syria in 2011. Number two, leadership that has said it is their intent to attack overseas. Number three, a leadership that's been successful, as Mike Rogers said, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in France. And the final and most disturbing point if you're looking at the United States is the numbers game.

If you're talking about hundreds of people from Canada and the United States traveling overseas to fight, you have got to assume that there are thousands left behind who are viewing this who are sympathetic who have not had the courage, the money, the intent to travel yet and who are sitting in their rooms tonight saying maybe I should do the same thing. There are a lot of characteristics for ISIS that put them on the top of the list, Jake.

TAPPER: Paul Cruickshank, a source close to the investigation told CNN that this man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is the mastermind behind the Paris terrorist attacks. You see him featured here in the ISIS magazine "Dabiq."

What do we know about him?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: He's a very capable operational planner who is also thought to be behind that plot thwarted in Belgium in January, a gunman, bomb, followed by similar plots to the one we saw play out in Paris.

He's a Belgian, Moroccan from Molenbeek who traveled to Syria in 2013, moved up the ISIS hierarchy and has been playing this key operational role for them, the kind of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed role where he is the operational planner. He's very good at persuading recruits to go and launch attacks, to organizer training for them. And he's been a sort of point person communicating with these cells in Europe.

The concern is he's plotting a string of attacks against France, against Europe, Jake.

TAPPER: Paul Cruickshank, Phil Mudd, Congressman, stick around.

When we come back, we have much more on this story, an increase in security in the United States as this brand-new ISIS video threatens Washington, D.C., by name. Law enforcement officials right now reacting to that specific threat -- that story next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper, live in Paris, France.

ISIS threatens the United States, saying essentially, you're next. As we speak, police departments in major cities throughout the United States such as New York City, Washington, D.C., are ramping up their patrols.

Today, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency said Paris, France, is not the only target that the terrorist group ISIS has in the pipeline. His comments came just as ISIS put out a chilling new video threatening to strike America and specifically mentioned the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

But the feds are treating the claims as a scare tactic. That, of course, is not stopping law enforcement from closely monitoring potential threats to the United States.

I want to bring in CNN's Deborah Feyerick.

Deborah, do police headquarters -- police departments throughout the country see the ISIS threat as legitimate?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, what they know is ISIS tends to put out these videos, sort of aspirational videos, but there's always the risk, always the threat that they could go from aspirational to operational. That's really what they're protecting against.

So, there is an increased awareness. It doesn't mean that the threat level has gone up. What it does mean is there's a hypersensitivity to anything that might appear out of the normal.


FEYERICK (voice-over): In its latest video, ISIS continues its threats against the West, setting its sights squarely on the United States.

ISIS (through translator): We will strike America and its stronghold, Washington.

FEYERICK: CIA Chief John Brennan today warned the terror group now has a lethal external operations agenda.

[16:20:03] And what happened in Paris will likely be attempted elsewhere.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA DIRECTOR: So I would anticipate that this is not the only operation that ISIL has in the pipeline.

FEYERICK: Following the attacks in Paris, police departments in several major cities across the United States have ramped up security. In Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Transit Police stepping up patrols on public transportation using bomb sniffing dogs and additional bag screening. In New York City, 200 highly trained elite counterterror forces deployed to protect crowded places, a force that will ultimately total 500 tactical officers.

WILLIAM BRATTON, NYPD COMMISSIONER: The assignment for which you have volunteered, that assignment is now no more essential assignment in the world of policing.

FEYERICK: So-called soft target venues are also increasing security. The NFL which already uses counterterror tactics like metal detectors and bag screening asked its members to further tighten its efforts. The CIA director acknowledged ISIS has learned how to stay off the grid to help avoid detection.

The attorney general said today these encrypted communications are a major concern.

LORETTA LYNCH, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We are pursuing a number of options. We're in discussion with industry looking for ways in which they can lawfully provide us information while still preserving privacy.


FEYERICK: And the Justice Department estimates that there are about 250 people who have gone to Syria and attempted to go to Syria and Iraq, some stopped before they were able to get there, others got there and killed. But they take the threat extremely seriously.

And I speak with some of -- I'm out in Los Angeles, an official with the port police who told me that they're actually looking to seeing who is getting on and off cruises. They're checking ships and they're boarding just to make sure that nobody is slipping in intentionally to try to do any harm. Finally, you know, I did speak to an NYPD official and it was interesting, he said, you know, in Israel, they check bags going in. Here in America we check bags going out. So, whether there will be a change there, that is something that is under consideration -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Deb, thank you so much.

Let's bring back our panel of experts to talk about this. With me in Paris, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank. We also have with us CNN national security commentator, former Congressman Mike Rogers, and CNN counterterrorism analyst, Phil Mudd.

Phil, let me start with you. You heard from Deb Feyerick, all the plans in New York City, all the plans in Washington, D.C. to try to protect as many soft targets as possible, but the bottom line there are more -- far more soft targets in the United States than there can ever be law enforcement officers.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: You cannot control this. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the Paris event is despite the planning that went into event and scope of the operation with what we know to be eight attackers, eight terrorists, they went after targets that aren't iconic. That is targets you can't sit back and say, we can secure those.

I don't know how if you're in New York, Washington, et cetera, you can sit back and say we can defend every cafe, every restaurant. It's simply not possible with the numbers we're dealing with here, Jake.

TAPPER: That's right. I visited four of those locations earlier today and they're just, pardon the expression, run of the mill cafes and restaurants. Nothing anybody had ever heard of.

Paul, CNN has counted more than 50 Americans have been arrested since January charged with ISIS-related crimes, whether it's going there or aspiring to go there or helping the terrorist group in some way. Do you expect more arrests? ISIS-related arrests in the United States tied to this increase terror threat?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: I think we could see more arrests because there's going to be some concern now that there could be copycat attacks by people inspired by the ISIS ideology. Of course, it's really in the United States to go and legally bound it by extremely powerful weapons. So, that's a concern. Also concern that ISIS increasingly getting into the international terrorism business. They got some capable operational planners. They've got all those Westerners.

Don't think just about Americans, by the way, when you think about the ISIS threat to the United States. Think about Canadians joining ISIS. And also think about Europeans joining is. More than 6,000 Europeans traveling to Syria and Iraq to join jihadi groups. They can get back into the United States or to the United States under the visa waiver program. That could be a vulnerability.

TAPPER: Mike Rogers, Congressman, terrorists clearly ran an operation with contacts in Europe. Several states back in the U.S. have stated they no longer want any Syrian refugees, but there are clearly other ways as Paul was just discussing for terrorists, for ISIS to get into the United States beyond embedding themselves with Syrian refugees.

MIKE ROGERS (R), FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Right. Syria refugees is clearly one way. As a matter of fact, ISIS foreshadowed that they would in fact do that and of course did pull that off. Secondly, you have terrorists that are here that are already in the United States.

[16:25:00] They just need to either, A, be fully radicalized to the point of doing a terrorist -- an act and those are much more difficult to catch.

You also have a porous border in the south that we know other Middle East countries have used to infiltrate people into the United States. All of those are real. And all of them are concerning to law enforcement. And it's just a big net to try to put around to catch that next big event. That's why aggressive intelligence is the one way we're going to stop these.

TAPPER: Paul Cruickshank, Congressman Mike Rogers, Phil Mudd, thanks to all of you.

President Obama defiant and a bit defensive today as he's asked over and over the question many Americans are thinking.


REPORTER: Why can't we take out these bastards?


TAPPER: President Obama's response, next.