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Attack Mastermind Close to ISIS Leader; Obama Defends U.S. Strategy Against ISIS; Paris Massacre Triggers Global Manhunt; Ground Troops in Syria Would Be a Mistake; France Hits ISIS Targets in Syria; Obama on Ground Troops. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired November 16, 2015 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The official describes him as very close to the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

Meanwhile, a new video said to be from ISIS is threatening the United States. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the video, but it says ISIS, and I'm quoting now, "will strike America in its own stronghold in Washington with god's will."

At the G20 summit in Turkey, meanwhile, President Obama was asked whether the United States needs to change its strategy against ISIS.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work. But as I said are from the start, it's going to take time. And what's been interesting is in the aftermath of Paris, as I listen to those who suggest something else needs to be done, typically the things they suggest need to be done are things we are already doing.

The one exception is that there had been a few who suggested that we should put large numbers of the 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.


BLITZER: Our correspondents are covering this story from every angle right now. Our International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson is standing by. He's got the very latest. In fact, Nic, let's begin with you right now. What is the very latest on this investigation? It seems to be expanding.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, the investigation so far seems to indicate that at least six of the attackers have spent time inside Syria, possibly had training. Certainly, the French president making it very clear that he believes that the planning for this took place -- the planning for this took place inside of Syria. The preparation for it took place inside Belgium.

The manhunt that is underway here in France and in neighboring Belgium, Falsilim (ph) Abdel Salim believed to be at least -- at the very least involved by giving a ride to one of the attackers in a vehicle, possibly involved in the attacks themselves. The manhunt for him is still ongoing at this time. The Belgians did have a raid earlier today. It failed to net him. There was an expectation that it might have caught him. It didn't. So, that continues.

The French also raided homes across the country here, in Marcei in the south, Leone in the center of the country, other cities as well. Netted such things as rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, pistols, ammunition, flat jackets, military equipment. The French president has said they will -- the French government will soon change the constitution in such a way to give the security services greater powers here to search houses and detain people at home under a sort of home arrest -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, what have we learned about the suspected mastermind behind these attacks? More information is coming out.

ROBERTSON: Yes, Abdelhamid Abaaoud who is in Syria, spent time -- believed to have spent time in Belgium before and has been closely associated with planning and preparation of other terror attacks. There is a possibility that he had a role in the -- following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, our audience will remember that the Belgian security forces had an armed confrontation with a group in Belgian, Impurvea (ph). They had a lot of ammunition, a lot of weapons.

They had an extensive shootout with the Belgian security forces. It is believed that Abaaoud had a role and connection to that, that he was part of one of the people, at least that the Belgian forces were searching for earlier this year. He was able to slip the net and it's believed that he is in Syria or in Iraq at this time.

But perhaps the greatest concern giving an indication of the intentions of ISIS going forward. That is not just an operator acting alone that's organizing cells here in Europe. He is closely connected to Omar Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS and the concern that, quite obviously, ISIS is sanctioning these types of attacks, possibly more, from the highest level -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that's what we've been told. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, this suspected ring leaders, is, in fact, very close to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

Nic, French authorities, they've carried out these raids all across the country today, do we know the outcome of these operations yet?

ROBERTSON: Well, there were over a hundred raids, over a hundred people arrested. The equipment, military equipment, weapons, ammunition, flat jackets, military clothing, a rocket-propelled grenade, computers taken from these houses. The French taking dozens of people into custody for questioning.

[13:05:11] No indications yet that these people have been charged or arrested. But this does seem to be something that the French president indicates will continue going forward and that there will be an amendment of the French laws under a new constitution that would make this process more easier for the security services to do. And he talked about the possibility of something that's used in Britain, control orders. When you have a terror suspect, you put a control order on that terror suspect. It ties that suspect to the house. It bans them from using the Internet. And it's an indication -- it seems to be an indication that the French president is headed in that direction in the future to control and limit these terror suspects -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nic, standby. Evan Perez is joining us as well. Evan, there's a new video out, said to be from ISIS that actually threatens an attack on the United States, specifically Washington, D.C. Have U.S. officials been able to authenticate this or other specific ISIS threats now emerging?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'll tell you this. They believe that that is exactly what ISIS wants to do. So, whether or not this message came from ISIS central, they are taking it very, very seriously. We just heard from the capital police here in Washington that they're increasing visible security around the capital complex, that's just a few blocks from here.

And we've talked to the FBI. The FBI says that -- they sent us a statement that says, at this time, there is no specific or credible threat to the United States. We will not hesitate to adjust our security posture as appropriate to protect the American people.

But, Wolf, what's really important that the FBI has been doing is simply making sure all of their agents around the country, they're talking to law enforcement, they're making sure that of the suspects that they are investigating, people who they believe are sympathizers, they're going -- they're making sure they know, first of all, where they are.

Secondly, they're increasing, monitoring, getting more wire taps in place to make sure that they can track these people. The -- if you might recall, Wolf, in May, there was an attack -- an attempted attack at a prophet Mohammed drawing contest in Garland, Texas. It's very similar to what has happened in France in that you had a couple of attackers who were on the radar but the FBI did not know they were about to carry out an attack. And that's what they're trying to prevent from happening here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the CIA director, John Brennan, today in a major speech said he fully anticipates more ISIS plots are in the works right now. We'll have more on that part of the story coming up. Evan, thanks very much.

Poppy Harlow is in Paris for us. Poppy, the city clearly in mourning but it's beginning to show its resilience. Tell us about the Eiffel Tower.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It absolutely is. I mean, let's just pull it up full screen so everybody can see what is, by far, the most beautiful image we have seen here in the last 72 hours. The Eiffel Tower fully lit in blue, white, red. The images -- the colors of the French flag. It was fully lit a moment ago. It will be again in just a minute. It will be this way until 1:00 in the morning, we are told by the mayor of Paris. It will remain that way throughout the week.

We also know, Wolf, and you can't see this, but the Latin phrase, Flatot Metagure (ph), which means, tossed but not sunk, will be projected on one side of the Eiffel Tower. And that says exactly what all the people behind me here at Place De Republique are saying. They are defiant. They are unwilling to let terrorism win. They have come out of their homes, despite the government wanting people to stay inside for safety. And they have united as one Paris.

As the governor of Paris told me last night at the mass at Notre Dame, be together. That is his message to the world. Be together. And the Eiffel Tower is lit in absolutely glory as these makeshift memorials here, at Place De Republique, and at all of the sites of the attacks across this city remember those 129 lives lost -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Poppy Harlow in Paris for us. Poppy, thanks very much.

I want to talk about all these latest development, the breaking news we're following. Joining us now is the Pentagon spokesman, Peter Cook. Peter, thanks very much for joining us. This latest threat from ISIS specifically saying Washington, D.C. is next on the ISIS terror agenda. How seriously is the U.S. military taking this threat?

PETER COOK, SPOKESMAN, U.S. PENTAGON: Well, obviously, Wolf, we hear these kinds of reports from that part of the world, and we have to take these things seriously. I'll defer to my colleagues in the U.S. government and Homeland Security and the Justice Department as to exactly what they make of the specific threat to the U.S. homeland.

But we've made clear, from the start, that ISIL poses a threat in the region overseas, and also, potentially, here in the United States and we're going to do everything we can, in terms of the U.S. military not only making sure that our personnel are as safe as possible but that we're doing what we can to take the fight to ISIL to prevent them from ever being able to strike the homeland in the first place.

[13:10:09] BLITZER: I know the U.S. military now, and you've confirmed this, correct me if I'm wrong, is stepping up intelligence cooperation with France, going after ISIS targets, sharing information that previously had not been shared, for example. What can you tell us about this?

COOK: Well, I think what you want to look at here, Wolf, is not so much that this is information we weren't sharing with the French. They've been close allies of ours, our oldest ally, in fact. We've been cooperating with them for years. We've been cooperating in this war against ISIL and the coalition efforts. And they've been seeing some of this information.

What's going to happen now is it's going to be shared with the French more quickly. And I think that's what we've been trying to do with the French. And this is actually something that's been in the works even before the attacks on Paris. They're a close ally. They've been working very cooperatively with us. They are flying, as you know, missions in Iraq and Syria. And this is just one more step that we can take to try and, again, stand shoulder to shoulder with the French and help them wage a more effective fight against ISIL as well.

BLITZER: We know the French launches, what, 20 airstrikes against various ISIS targets in Raqqah, their self-declared so-called caliphate capital. Did the U.S. provide intelligence to the French Air Force on which targets to hit?

COOK: Well, we did work with the French on the targets. This is part of the larger coalition effort, 65 nations in all, Wolf, you'll recall. Part of the larger air campaign that we've been waging. But the French did work with our folks and with other members of the coalition in determining some of these targets. And we're waiting to see exactly the assessments, in terms of what happened on the ground with these strikes. But the indications are they were successful. And we're going to do everything we can to help the French, our other coalition members, again, do more within the larger air campaign.

BLITZER: We know the French defense ministry announced that those French warplanes took off from bases in Jordan and United Arab Emirates, that launched those strikes against ISIS in Syria. The U.S. is using the Incirlik base, I take it, in Turkey. But does the U.S. have -- does the U.S. Air Force have access to those UAE and Jordan air bases as well?

COOK: Well, Wolf, I'm not going to get into all the operational details. Just rest assured that we have access. Our aircraft are flying from a host of locations right now. And we have been able to fly several flights from Incirlik. We had A10s, for example, flying in the last few days, specifically targeting some of ISIL's oil assets. And so, we have a lot of capabilities. We have a lot of coalition partners. Some of them providing, again, access to air fields. But I'm not going to get into all those details.

BLITZER: Are the Turks still flying airstrikes, launching airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria? And what about Jordan and the UAE? Because there have been reports they've basically stopped.

COOK: Yes, I mean, I'll let those countries speak for themselves, in terms of their contributions. But they have all made very vital contributions to our larger effort. I mentioned, of course, the access being given to the Incirlik air base. We've brought more F15s in just last week, in addition to the A10s that are flying out of there. Jordan and the UAE both also helping in this larger effort.

And I'll let them speak for themselves but we are pleased with the contributions we've seen from some of those partner nations and a long list of others, Wolf. And the French should make clear, they were number two in terms of airstrikes previously. So, this is just a continuation of their effort that's already been ongoing with regard to ISIL.

BLITZER: How do you coordinate when France launches an air strike and when the U.S. launches an airstrike?

COOK: There is close coordination. And it's all part of the larger coalition effort, Wolf. There's a special air tasking order. This is all compiled at a central hub, if you will in which all the coalition nations are represented, part of this larger effort. It is carefully planned and coordinated so that we don't have risks of problems in the air.

And, again, we've taken more than 8,000 airstrikes so far. We've coordinated carefully. We're going to continue to do so even as, perhaps, more nations consider getting further into the fight.

BLITZER: Are you also coordinating with the Russians? Because they are flying airstrikes as well. It could get pretty crowded in the skies over Syria right now with Russia, Turkey, the U.S., France, Israel occasionally launches airstrikes over various targets in Syria if they suspect Iran is moving weapons to Hezbollah, for example. How do you coordinate? It could be crowded skies over there?

COOK: Well, Wolf, as you know, we're not coordinating with the Russians. But we do have an understanding with the Russians that calls for a professional airmanship and certain rules of the air, if you will, for aircraft flying over Syria to avoid exactly that kind of situation.

[13:15:00] Since we've had that memorandum of understanding, we haven't had issues with the Russians. We don't expect to going forward. But we're not coordinating with the Russians and we're not cooperating with the Russians. They are flying their own missions, and right now they're basically - the two campaigns are operating separately.

BLITZER: One final question, Peter, before I let you go. The 50 U.S. special operations forces there were supposed to be on the ground in and around Raqqa in Syria to help coordinate the U.S. military activities, are they already there?

COOK: Wolf, I'm not going to get into details as to exactly where those forces are and what their activities are at this particular time, but it does represent part of our effort to intensify the fight against ISIL, to make more effective the local forces on the ground who are taking the fight to ISIL, as you said. These special operations forces will not be in the lead. They'll be advising, they'll be providing support to some of those other ground forces. And, remember, some of these ground forces are making some progress on the ground, particularly in Syria, the Ahal (ph) area. Some of the Syrian-Arab coalition forces. Likewise, we've seen Iraqi-Peshmerga forces, in the last few days, making progress around Sinjar. So we focus so much understandably on what's happened in Paris, but the fight against ISIL on the ground, we have seen local, capable, motivated forces makings progress in recent days.

BLITZER: All right, Peter Cook is the Pentagon spokesman. Peter, thanks very much for joining us.

COOK: You bet.

BLITZER: France's president spoke to a joint session of the French parliament just a little while ago. This is truly an historic speech. Just the third time this has happened since 1848. He made a very bold statement that his nation now is in a state of war against ISIS. So we have details on that. That's coming up.

Also, President Obama spoke around the same time facing some tough questions about his strategy in this war against ISIS, insisting this was the best chance to beat the terrorists. I'll speak with the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Ed Royce is standing by live.


[13:21:08] BLITZER: We are watching what's going on. There are several major developments unfolding right now. In Paris, the investigation clearly expanding. They're looking for the ringleader. The president of the United States has just spoken out on what's going on. Listen to what President Obama said just a little while ago at the G-20 Summit in Turkey.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But I have seen particular strategies that - that they would suggest that would make a real difference. Now, there are a few exceptions. And as I said, the primary exception is those who would deploy U.S. troops on the large scale to retake territory either in Iraq or now in Syria. And at least they have their honesty to go ahead and say that's what they would do. I just addressed why I think they're wrong.


BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our next guest. The California Republican Congressman Ed Royce is joining us. He's the chairman of the House committee on Foreign Affairs. Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.

He says they're wrong to - those of his critics who say you've got to deploy a lot of ground troops into Syria right now to fight ISIS. Is the president right?

REP. ED ROYCE (R-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE COMMITTEE OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well, Wolf, the point is, we've held 30 hearings on this. We have never suggested deploying U.S. ground troops. Through those 30 hearings, what we've - what we've suggested over and over and over again is that it's time for the president of the United States to arm the Kurds, to arm the Yazidis, to have the kind of support from the air that was necessary, especially during the first year of ISIS' operations when they took 14 cities without this administration once using air power against them. No, this is - that's a red herring argument. That is not where we need to go, but we certainly, certainly do need to be supporting those who are fighting ISIS with the heavy equipment that they need. We have yet to do that.

BLITZER: The arms that go to the Kurds, they go through still Baghdad? The U.S. does not provide the heavy weaponry that the Kurds need, the Peshmerga who are fierce fighters. The U.S. still is not providing them with the weapons directly? ROYCE: That is correct. And that's one of the issues which we try to

fix in the National Defense Authorization Act in order to force that issue with the president.

BLITZER: What does the White House, the Pentagon, the administration tell you when you make that complaint to them, give them the weapons they need? They're close allies of the U.S. They've led the battle in Sinjar, for example, in recent days. What do they say to you?

ROYCE: They share with us, Wolf, that the Shia that run the government in Baghdad object to that. And, of course, we know the Shia in Iran object to it too. But, unfortunately, the Shia are not doing the fighting. The fight -

BLITZER: You're talking about the prime minister of Iraq?

ROYCE: The prime minister of Iraq and the prime minister of Iran are - object to the idea that the United States would arm the Kurds, the Yazidis, the Christians, the others who are fighting ISIS up there. They want it all run through the Shia-led government in Baghdad. And I can tell you that after two years of us failing to be able to get any kind of cooperation there, they tell us they need, they must have, that artillery, the anti-tank weapons, the long range mortars, because they're dealing with - against ISIS. Although they have a large force, 190,000, 30 percent of them are women, are females in these battalions fighting against ISIS, but they don't have the weapons they need and this president needs to reverse his position on that and needs to reverse his position also in terms of the air strikes and give the close order support that we need on the battlefield, you know, to support those Kurdish troops.

BLITZER: Clearly you have no confidence in the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi.

ROYCE: None.

BLITZER: None at all, because the U.S. - the administration says there's a good working relationship with him. Not perfect, but there's a good, strong relationship.

ROYCE: No, I think the idea that we're going to cooperate with the Shia-led government in Iraq and unfortunately in Iran, that has been a cul-de-sac. They are not going to cooperate here in terms of supporting the Kurdish effort against ISIS and those are the only fighters that are effective on the ground. And so that's where our effort needs to be.

[13:25:10] BLITZER: See if this is a turning point right now what has happened in Paris, if it's a turning point in this overall war, the strategy against ISIS.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for coming in.

ROYCE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Royce is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The president of France gives a rare address to his full parliament,

vows to stop ISIS in its tracks. His strong words, when we come back.


BLITZER: France is at war. Those words today from the French president, Francois Hollande, in a rare speech before parliament. He says France and other nations will unite to defeat ISIS and wipe out terrorism.

[13:30:02] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, FRANCE: We will eradicate terrorism because the French want to continue to live together without fearing anything from their neighbors.