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Donald Trump Under Fire; Paris Terror Investigation; U.S. Intensifies Search for ISIS Officials; Cities Prepare for the Worst Before Holiday. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 23, 2015 - 16:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The war against terror has the whole world on alert.

I'm John Berman, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, a chilling discovery just 10 days after the Paris attacks, now what appears to be a suicide vest found packed with explosives, more evidence of threats as police unravel new disturbing signs of terror.

The national lead: stepping up security here at home just days away from Thanksgiving, the extra precautions to prevent an attack and keep millions of Americans safe.

The politics lead, he wants to create a data base of Muslims, bring back water-boarding, and with no proof, he even claimed that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers fell. Donald Trump once again ratcheting up the rhetoric in the Republican race, and with Iowa just around the corner, is this the language that might help him win the nomination?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper.

We begin today with breaking news in our world lead, a neighborhood in Paris sealed off after police discover what may be a suicide vest in a garbage can.

CNN affiliate BFM reporting the vest contained the same explosives used in the November 13 attacks, along with bolts that could turn into shrapnel, all this as an urgent international dragnet is still out for this man, Salah Abdeslam, the suspected eighth ISIS terrorist blamed for the deadly wave of carnage across Paris more than a week ago.

French police have launched 300 raids since the attacks. They have deployed 10,000 police officers, 6,500 soldiers throughout Paris and the rest of the country. And tonight from Belgium, we are learning of at least one person charged in connection with the Paris attacks.

CNN's Martin Savidge is live in Paris.

And, Martin, I want to start with this possible suicide vest. What is known at this point? MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, John, this was

just at a time when Parisians were starting to maybe relax a little bit. Now comes this news.

It was discovered late this afternoon by trash collectors in the Montrouge area, that is say the southern suburbs of Paris, a residential area, in a trash can. They don't say if it's one on the street or somebody's personal trash can, but the area was cordoned off, a bomb squad was called in and apparently it's been defused. They have now determined it has TATP. That is the explosive, as you point out, that was used in the Friday the 13th attacks.

So, the obvious question is, where did this vest come from, who did this vest come from? And right now those answers haven't been provided. But many are wondering is it related to the man who is so dearly sought out right now, not just in France, but in neighboring Belgium, where they have been brought to a standstill?


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Belgium remains on high alert, its main city, Brussels, at the highest security level still, with most told to stay home, schools and the subway shut down. Hundreds of Belgian security forces launched nearly two dozen raids in the last 24 hours, yielding one suspect authorities believe is connected to the Paris attack, but came up empty in the search for Europe's most wanted man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Salah Abdeslam is not, not among the persons arrested during the searches.

SAVIDGE: Twenty-six-year-old Salah Abdeslam was last seen hours after the Paris killings on this highway to Belgium in a car with two other men. French authorities checked I.D.s, but waved them on. Abdeslam vanished, but Belgian authorities have arrested the two men with him.

(on camera): The two men say hours after the attacks, they received a phone call from Salah Abdeslam and that he sounded very upset, saying that his car had broken down and he needed a ride back to Belgium. The two friends came to Paris here and picked him up. The attorney stresses they had no idea that he was involved in the attacks.

But the attorney also says the men noticed he was carrying something.

(voice-over): "A big jacket and other things, maybe like an explosive belt or something like that."

His family believes Abdeslam changed his mind at the last minute and didn't carry out his attack like the others. They point to a rental car in his name found abandoned on a Paris street. Meanwhile, French authorities have released this photo said to be from the travel documents of one of the suicide bombers who blew up outside the stadium in Paris.

They believe he used a fake name, so they're asking if anyone recognizes him. Also today, Britain's prime minister joined with French President Francois Hollande to pay respects at the Bataclan concert hall, where most of the Paris victims were murdered.

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I firmly support the action that President Hollande has taken to strike ISIL in Syria. And it's my firm conviction that Britain should do so too.


FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): We are going to intensify our strikes. We're going to choose targets that will make as much damage as possible to this terrorist army.

SAVIDGE: As he spoke, the just-arrived Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was beginning its first day of flight operations, sending more French jets against ISIS targets in Syria.


SAVIDGE: John, it should be pointed out the all-clear has now been given in that area where the suicide vest was discovered. But this is not an area that had suffered through any damage or attacks on that Friday the 13th. Again, the question, what was it doing there, John?

BERMAN: All right, Martin Savidge for us in Paris.

We're going to explore that question in just a minute, but first to Brussels, a city in lockdown amid warnings that an ISIS attack could be imminent there, and now word that at least one person there has been charged in connection to the Paris attacks.

CNN international correspondent Nima Elbagir joins me live now from Brussels.

Nima, let's start with the charges and the arrests today. What's the latest?

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a night and a morning of raids have yielded just one man still in custody that authorities believe they have enough evidence regarding to hold on charges of being associated or being part of the broader network linked to that Paris attack.

They are charging him with activities related to that attack. But this is from some nearly 20 people that were arrested. They have another three in custody that they're waiting to see if they actually do have anything to hold them on. And this comes after some pretty intensive raids, pretty intensive sweeps right here in the center of town, John.

There is a real concern amongst those intelligence sources that we have been speaking to that as this net does start to widen, given the amount of time that's elapsed since Brussels became the focal point of the investigation to the Paris attack, but also the focal point of fears about the security levels here, that you're potentially setting yourself up for a situation where anything can happen, John.

BERMAN: Nima, Brussels is a major European city. It's the capital of the European Union, NATO headquarters. What was it like to be there today when it was essentially completely shut down?

ELBAGIR: Well, in the early morning hours, it was extraordinarily haunting just to see those escalators going into the subways going up and down completely empty, but slowly people did begin to venture out. A few cafes filled up.

But by nightfall, people had started disappearing again. There is a sense they are trying very hard to establish some sort of normalcy. One person described this to me as some of the strangest procedures they have seen since the Second World War. People are very aware that this is a city under siege. But every once in a while, they try to get out there to try and do a little bit of shopping, meet some friends and forget for a moment about the threat level that hangs over here.

BERMAN: Truly extraordinary levels of security there and concern. Nima Elbagir, thank you so much, in Brussels. Appreciate it.

Joining me now, terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank. Phil Mudd is former deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization.

Thank you all so much for being with us.

Paul, I want to start with you. This suicide vest apparently found in Montrouge, what are your sources telling you?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, the big question is, did this belong to Salah Abdeslam?

It's believed he jettisoned his car in the 18th district of Paris that night, a car that he had been driving some of the attackers around, a rental, clear. Montrouge is in the south of Paris, but there's a direct metro line between the 18th arrondissement in the north of Paris and Montrouge in the south.

Also, just in the last few minutes, "Le Monde," a French newspaper, and BFM-TV reporting that Salah Abdeslam's cell phone was traced down to the Montrouge area of Paris. Some of these dots are now being connected, an indicator this may well have been his suicide vest that they have discovered in this area.

BERMAN: Obviously, Phil Mudd, the search for Salah Abdeslam one of the most important aspects of this investigation right now. What if they don't get him?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, at some point, this is going to have a transition from a law enforcement investigation to intelligence.

Over the course of time as they interview people, as they acquire more intelligence about a potential location in Brussels, if it turns out he's not there and we discover that he's in Syria, you're going to have to have the coalition, the French, British, the Americans, try to determine where he is with enough precision to put a missile on him. I think as time passes the likelihood we find him in Brussels slowly

starts to decline and the likelihood that intelligence professionals start to try to have to pick up information from ISIS central increases. This is going to change over the course of the next week.

BERMAN: Daveed, I want to ask you a big picture question now, because as this investigation continues and as they try to put to bed any possible terrorist threats that exist there in the city of Paris and around France, what about the bigger fight against the terrorist ideology? Is this something that France needs to do? What can they do?


Absolutely, they have to have in mind the broader ideology. Obviously, you can't completely kill an ideology in any way. The Nazis were firmly defeated and there are still people who subscribe to Nazism today.

But ISIS is much more than an ideology. It functions as a quasi-state organization and it mobilizes its supporters around the idea it's extraordinarily successful. Fortunately, a state-like entity is easier to severely weaken or defeat than is an ideology. As it weakens, it will have less capability to launch major attacks like this.

BERMAN: That's the hope, certainly.

Paul, again, I don't want to obscure the headline right now, a suicide vest believed to be found in Montrouge. That is south of the main center of Paris right now. Also just getting word now that cell phone traces that trace Salah Abdeslam perhaps to that area, so maybe there's a connection between his movements and that vest.

Is there evidence right now, Paul or what new evidence is there that these attacks were planned from say the ISIS headquarters in Syria and Iraq?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, the evidence so far is mostly that the claims of responsibility from ISIS which the whole organization have gotten behind.

There's been a massive effort to claim ownership of these attacks from ISIS. But, in particular, there's a senior French ISIS operative called Fabien Clain who a few hours after the attacks on the Saturday put out an audio message where he detailed the attack, said there were eight attackers and said that there was meticulous selection of targets, all pointing to his role in the attack and that he's likely the senior ringleader behind this, but European counterterrorism officials telling me that over the last year, he as the senior figure, and Abdelhamid Abaaoud as perhaps a slightly more junior figure, have been working in tandem to launch all these plots against Europe, against France.

Another note about Fabien Clain, before he left for Syria to join ISIS, he was involved in a threat against the Bataclan music hall back in 2009. So all of this suggests that the ISIS senior leadership designated this French-Belgian group to organize these attacks. This is just the start. The idea is there are more attacks in the pipeline. European security officials are really worried about that.

BERMAN: That's why you see the concern in Brussels today.

Phil, obviously, you were on the front lines in the battle against terror for much of the last 15 years. What is your level of concern that the types of attacks we just saw in France could happen here in the United States?

MUDD: I think the likelihood is pretty high if you look at the question simply of whether a few ISIS sympathizers could attack soft targets here.

Look, people said this couldn't happen here. Let's run through a few facts. People get a few weapons or explosives, they can build a homemade belt, they can get to a soft facility like a cafe. That's pretty easy to do. I think the question, John, is the magnitude of this. If you're talking about a dozen, 15 people involved in an operation, that's 15 people who don't talk to the wrong person, don't get on the wrong e-mail and don't get on the wrong phone.

The surprise in this operation to me is not that it happened. It's the operational security in the cell that led them not to be detected.

BERMAN: Yes, so how many people were involved.

Daveed, last question to you. French President Francois Hollande meets with President Obama at the White House tomorrow. Do you think anything concrete will come of that? Will that just be another one of these moments where leaders come out and say we're going to fight the battle against terror together? Or do you think they will say they will actually do something specific?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Publicly, I think it will be much more general, but I think there may be specific things that come out of it that are a little less public.

For example, what Hollande clearly wants is more intelligence sharing for the United States. And already the U.S. has provided France with intelligence on certain targets that it has already struck. I think that they may reach an intelligence sharing agreement. Certainly, Hollande will ask Obama to coordinate more with Putin, but that's unlikely to actually reach any sort of agreement.

You know, it's an important meeting, but not necessarily one that's important for there being some sort of grand bargain that is struck.

BERMAN: All right. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Paul Cruickshank, Phil Mudd, thanks to all of you.

As police hunt down terror cells in France and Belgium, coalition forces are going after the root of the problem, ISIS in Syria, ISIS in Iraq. U.S. intelligence says there is proof that an intense -- this intense fighting is having an impact there, but is it enough to destroy the attempts at building the Islamic State?


[16:18:47] BERMAN: All right. Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake Tapper.

Also in our world lead, we are learning the United States is intensifying the search now for key ISIS officials and also rallying allies to put more pressure on the terror group.

I want to turn now to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, we were talking about French President Francois Hollande going to the White House tomorrow to meet with President Obama. What do these two leaders want from each other?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, when they sit down, clearly, they want each other to make a commitment to more action, especially against ISIS in Syria. But don't look for President Obama to promise any wholesale changes.


STARR (voice-over): ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is long believed to be hiding inside ISIS Syria stronghold of Raqqa. But the U.S. has intelligence showing some ISIS leaders are trying to get out of Raqqa, CNN has learned.

Leaders moving their operations to safer locations outside the city.

MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: It shows the effect that our air strikes and the pressure that we're putting on ISIL is having.

STARR: The hunt is on for Baghdadi and at least six other senior ISIS officials, including this key man, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, an ISIS commander the U.S. believes may now be directing attacks outside Syria and Iraq.

[16:20:07] LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think they have become more decentralized outside of Syria and Iraq because they know they are getting beat in those two countries. So they have given the word, conduct attacks on your local soil.

STARR: Attacks outside Syria and Iraq perhaps ordered or inspired by ISIS include Paris, Beirut, and possibly the downing of the Russian airliner in Sinai, U.S. officials say.

The French sending their own response, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle launched its first airstrikes against ISIS targets.

ISIS released a video showing what it says is damage inside Raqqa. CNN cannot independently verify the images.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is to meet with his French counterpart Tuesday. In the wake of the Paris attacks, the Pentagon is hoping allies will increase their efforts in Syria all in an effort to break ISIS' grip on Raqqa.

The U.S. will press for France and Britain to send special forces to join with U.S. commandos due to arrive in northern Syria at any time.

The U.S. also hopes Turkey will agree to let allies not just the U.S. fly out of its Incirlik air base to challenge ISIS international networks.

BRETT MCGURK, SPECIAL PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY TO ANTI-ISIS COALITION: Never seen anything like this -- 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries around the world is almost twice as many that went into Afghanistan in the '80s.


STARR: One place where the U.S. is stepping up the action already is against ISIS' oil infrastructure. Over the weekend, another round of U.S. airstrikes hitting some nearly 300 oil smuggling trucks in Syria -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

The national lead: trying to prevent what happened in Paris from happening here. How the United States is ramping up security, trying to think of every possible scenario.

Plus, September 11th in the political conversation. Now another candidate joins Donald Trump in his questionable claim that thousands of American Muslims cheered in a video as the Twin Towers fell.


[16:26:45] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In our national lead, security tightening this holiday week in the wake of the French attacks. Communities across the United States conducting drills, checking their communications, preparing for any scenario.

I want to bring in CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

Rene, on top of all of this, we're expecting the busiest Thanksgiving travel week in years, right?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Right, John. This Thanksgiving, we will see the highest volume of travelers since 2007.

I want you to take a live look now at the view. Those are all of the airplanes in the sky right now over the United States. And as people are on the move, cities nationwide are on alert ready to respond to any potential attacks.


MARSH (voice-over): The frightening scene played out in an abandoned New York City subway. Two active shooters, one wearing a vest rigged with explosives.

This was only a drill, but it's a scenario police around the country have to prepare for.

JAMES WATERS, COUNTERTERRORISM CHIEF, NEW YORK POLICE DEPT.: Obviously, suicide belts in Afghanistan and Iraq and now most recently in Paris. So, I thought it was most appropriate to introduce that.

MARSH: The Department of Homeland Security tested first responders and NYPD's response to a terror attack on mass transit. The results of the training will be shared with law enforcement nationwide.

Nearly 47 million Americans are expected to travel by car this Thanksgiving, and an additional 25 million will fly on U.S. carriers.

As the volume of people on the move increases, more officers and canines have deployed to potentially vulnerable sites, at train and bus stations, there are increased patrols. In major cities like New York and Washington, riders should expect random bag checks, bridges and tunnels are also being closely monitored.

There's also concern ahead of New York's Thanksgiving Day parade and the city's tree lighting ceremony.

JEH JOHNSON, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We know of no specific credible threat of a Paris-like attack directed against the U.S. homeland. We are and we continue to be and we have been concerned about copycat like attacks.

MARSH: Outside major concert venues and stadiums, there's also more security. In Atlanta this weekend, bomb sniffing dogs and officers patrolled the WWE wrestling match at Phillips Arena.

JOHNSON: As long as terrorist organizations are calling for attacks in the homeland, we've got to all be vigilant and work overtime.

MARSH: Passengers traveling by air should expect longer than normal wait times. Expanded screening of items on planes began Friday at overseas airports with direct flights to the United States.

At domestic airports, expect TSA to spend more time inspecting passengers and luggage, random checks, hand swabs to test for explosive residue and additional checks at the gate. Even pre-checked passengers may be required to remove their shoes and laptops.


MARSH: Well, CNN has learned today that 13 passengers who got off a flight from Mexico to New York's JFK Airport on Friday bypassed U.S. screening.

Now, Customs and Border Protection is still trying to track down three of those passengers. We know an airline worker at the gate didn't realize it was an international flight and allowed those passengers to enter the domestic terminal.