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Trump Under Fire; Russian Warplane Shot Down; Paris Terror Investigation; French Uncover New Links to Attacks; State Department Issues Worldwide Travel Alert. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 24, 2015 - 16:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN GUEST HOST: A plane shot down, the rhetoric ramps up.

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

The world lead. New white, hot tension after Turkey, a NATO member, shoots down a Russian jet. Did Russia ignore repeated warnings? And what will happen next, with Moscow vowing retaliation?

Also in the world lead, uncovering an even larger terror network behind the Paris attacks than previously thought. Startling new evidence suggests the ringleader actually returned to the scene of his crime while it was still playing out.

And the politics lead. Donald Trump refuses to back down after claiming he saw crowds cheer when the Twin Towers fell. And a major shift in poll position. Will his old best friend be his new worst enemy?

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

We begin with our world lead, the battle against ISIS. The most dangerous and complicated conflict on Earth just got more dangerous and more complicated. Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near its border with Syria, saying the Russian jet violated Turkish airspace and ignored 10 warnings in five minutes.

A search-and-rescue mission has been launched, but the fate of two ejected pilots is still unclear. Russia is claiming one of them is dead, and there are reports the other has been captured. Russia's also saying one of its marines was killed in the rescue operation.

Moscow is furious. Russian President Putin called this "a stab in the back that will have serious consequences."

Want to get right to CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, what are U.S. officials telling you?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, they are monitoring those Russian reports that at least one of the Russian pilots is dead, but, clearly, Washington wanting this situation not to escalate out of control, trying to keep it calm, and one reason may be that right now, at this hour, the Pentagon cannot say for sure that the Russian plane was shot down inside Turkish airspace.


STARR (voice-over): Turkey says it warned the Russian jet 10 times it was violating Turkish airspace before ordering its F-16s to shoot down the Russian aircraft.

President Obama putting his full support behind the NATO ally.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace.

STARR: The U.S. calculates the Russians may have been inside Turkey for less than 30 seconds. Less clear is exactly where the border may be.

COL. STEVE WARREN, U.S. SPOKESMAN FOR OPERATION AGAINST ISIS: The incident happened, you know, at the border. That much, I can tell you. But beyond that, we're still trying to collect and sift through all the data.

STARR: The Russian plane took off from the Syrian airfield at Latakia heading north, the U.S. monitoring the entire time, using radars and radios.

WARREN: We were able to hear everything that was going on. Obviously, these are on open channels.

STARR: As the plane went down, video posted on social media shows Turkish-supported rebels shooting at the two Russian pilots, heavy fire from the ground, rebels calling for the pilots' capture, a Russian helicopter searching for the second pilot also apparently under attack, and crashing, a Russian marine killed on the failed rescue mission. CNN could not independently confirm the video.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the shoot-down a stab in the back.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): In any case, neither our pilots nor our jet posed any threat to the Turkish republic.

STARR: Putin says his planes were targeting ISIS. But the U.S. says the Russians only started flying in this area in the last few days, and were targeting rebels that Turkey supports. Turkey defending its actions.

AHMET DAVUTOGLU, TURKISH PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Everyone should know that Turkey has the right to response if its airspace is violated despite repeated warnings.

STARR: The question now, is Putin really angry or does he have a more immediate goal? COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: He believes that, if he

maintains his cool, that countries like France, Great Britain, and he hopes also the United States will allow him at the big table and that he will then gain a de facto sphere of influence over Syria.


STARR: U.S. officials say they hope this incident will finally convince Putin to stop fighting the rebels who are fighting Bashar al- Assad and instead fight ISIS. That's the change in strategy that Washington wants to see. But don't hold your breath just yet -- John.


BERMAN: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks so much. Remarkable video of that incident.

Now, CNN senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is just back from the front lines of the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Now Nick is in Istanbul, in Turkey, which oddly enough -- Turkey now the front line in the battle against Syria, with this plane shot down.

Nick, what's the reaction there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Turkey, frankly, staunchly defiant about what it did today.

And I think in their justification, they say this is not the first time Russia has, in their opinion, openly flaunted a violation of their airspace. At the beginning of Russian raids back in late September, there were a number of similar instances. Russian and Turkish officials met and tried to hammer out any confusion there may have been.

And it clearly seems today to be seems to be a very defiant move by the Turkish military here, saying they made these 10 warnings in five minutes, showing a map, showing where they violated airspace. It seems, if you look at the map, actually, potentially, they came in twice, hard to properly define, and finding NATO standing officially behind them, too, although many NATO members being quite de-escalatory in their rhetoric.

But Turkey has a broader game here. The Turkmen rebels you saw in Barbara's report firing at both the plane and the rescue helicopters. They are closely allied to the Turkish government. And there's a sense of protection that the state here wants to yield towards, although they are inside Syria, and there's been a lot of heavy bombing in the area around where those Turkmens are in the past week or so, prompting in fact the Turkish to consider taking a complaint about that to the U.N. Security Council.

Turkey has a much broader agenda here than just that one airspace violation. But they clearly wanted to send a message to Moscow. That message may have been heard, potentially. We are seeing mostly diplomatic and economic responses from the Kremlin at this stage. Vladimir Putin, his venture into Syria, many see as a response to how the things in Ukraine hadn't gone well for him.

Well, moving into Syria, they had a big initial launch, a lot of state media pumping up their success, but then there was the downing of the airliner over the Sinai. Now they have lost their first two airmen, one marine, one pilot, I should say, possibly more, in this incident.

It's not going particularly well. But perhaps, I think, many hope maybe this may focus Putin against ISIS. I have to be honest, though. A NATO member blasting a Russian jet out of the sky, that just awakens all of Putin's old animosity towards the NATO bloc. I think we could see more complications in what is already a very complicated piece of airspace already, John.

BERMAN: No, it's an alarming headline when a NATO member shoots down a Russian plane. We're hearing it was only over Turkish airspace for about 30 seconds. Is that enough time, is that enough warning to give to that Russian jet, Nick?

WALSH: Hard to tell.

In defense of the Turkish here, the Russians have put videos of their planes buzzing U.S. drones over Syrian airspace. They have been very clear to tell the world they're there and they want to be there and they want to be wherever they want to be, to some degree.

We probably will never know with great transparency precisely how long they were in Turkish airspace. And obviously Russians the say they never were in the first place and the strike occurred inside Syrian airspace. Yes, you could argue that those warnings in the five minutes may not all have been given while the jet was in Turkish airspace.

But it's moving around, it's moving in and out. The border itself can, some say, be hard to define in many stages, but it doesn't take away the escalatory rhetoric here. We have to step back and forget -- remind ourselves we're not in the '80s, but the idea of NATO and Russian aircraft duking it out in the skies over a war zone is terrifying, to say the least, John.

BERMAN: And as you point out, it was about more than just this one incident. Nick Paton Walsh for us in Istanbul, thank you so much, Nick.

Now, earlier today, I spoke with retired General Wesley Clark, who is also the former supreme allied commander of NATO. I asked him about the significance of this incident.


WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: When a NATO nation shoots down a Russian aircraft, it's still an act by Turkey, not by NATO.

These aircraft are not under NATO control. They're under Turkish operational control. They're flying as a result of Turkish air missions and NATO is not running an air defense umbrella. It's integrated, to the best of my knowledge.

BERMAN: Bigger picture, this, though, has to do with the complexity of the conflict in Syria. President Obama said today this illustrates the ongoing problem with the Russian operations. The president suggested, if Russia was actually targeting ISIS in areas that ISIS controlled, this might not have happened.

CLARK: Well, that's exactly right.

But this is the larger context. What you have here is no political agreement. And so we have these people -- these countries trying to work together and obfuscate the fundamental underlying disagreement.


Let's be very clear. ISIS is not just a terrorist organization. It's a Sunni terrorist organization. That means it blocks and targets Shia, and that means it's serving the interests of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, even as it poses a threat to them, because neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia want an Iran/Iraq/Syria/Lebanon bridge that isolates Turkey and cuts Saudi Arabia off.

BERMAN: General, are you suggesting...

CLARK: And so there's a geostrategic context.

BERMAN: General, are you suggesting that Vladimir Putin had a point then when he suggested that Turkey, in a way, was aiding ISIS?

CLARK: Well, all along, there have always been -- there's always been the idea that Turkey was supporting ISIS in some way. We know they funneled people going through Turkey to ISIS.

Someone's buying that oil that ISIS is selling. It's going through somewhere. It looks to me like it's probably going through Turkey. But the Turks haven't acknowledged that.

When ISIS got started, it was put together because a group of Sunni zealots were fighting against Bashar Assad, who is aligned with Iran. This is part of the broader struggle in the Middle East. Now, Putin would like to dirty Turkey by saying it's supporting terrorists, but the truth is that he's supporting terrorists.

The tactics used by the Assad regime have been terror tactics. They're dropping barrel bombs on innocent civilians. So, there's no there's no, let's say, good guy in this. This is a power struggle for the future of the Middle East, using terror tactics and terrorists.

BERMAN: Well, it's just one more complication in an area that is already a powder keg.

General Wesley Clark, thank you so much.

CLARK: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BERMAN: New clues into the whereabouts of the suspected ringleader of Paris terror attacks on the very night of the killings.

Our Martin Savidge is in Paris.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, John, this is some really troubling stuff. French authorities believe by tracking the cell phone of the leader, he went back to the scenes of the carnage immediately afterwards, maybe for the purpose of taking pictures. I will have more after this.


[16:16:39] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

A new target and new name in the rapidly moving investigation into the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead. That name is Mohamed Abrini, seen days before the attacks with other man on the run, Salah Abdeslam, the man police believe drove suicide bombers to the stadium, just one of the sites targeted that night.

Today, a tip led police to an address in Western Germany, was Abdeslam of there? Did he ditch a suicide vest along the way?

French President Francois Hollande met with President Obama at the White House today. He vowed to destroy the ISIS terrorists who targeted his country.


FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): France came under attack for what it represents, for what it stands for, for its culture, a way of living, as well as our values, our principles. But by targeting France the terrorists, the murderers were targeting the world.


BERMAN: I want to go to CNN's Martin Savidge live in Paris.

Martin, there's been a flurry of information and developments just over the last few minutes.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly right, John. You know, this is a story, though we are 11 days after the tragedy that took place in Paris, the number of suspects continues to grow. The geographic area where they're searching continues to grow. Now, we get word of a follow-on terror plot that was planned. It's no wonder people in this city and beyond have still very much on edge.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): A second manhunt under way. Officials issued an arrest warrant for Mohamed Abrini, a driver who allegedly dropped off one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Paris soccer stadium. He's seen on camera two days before the attacks, at this French gas station, with the other attacker, Salah Abdeslam.

Tonight, the manhunt for Abdeslam has extended to Germany. But police there came up empty-handed, after conducting a certain of the northwestern part of the country, prompted by a tip from French officials.

And, a chilling revelation in Paris. Investigator says the leader of the ISIS terrorist cell that carried out the deadly Friday 13th attacks was on the verge of carrying out a second wave of death and destruction. The target this time: a busy work and shopping district known as Le de France (ph).

According to the Paris prosecutor, the plan wiped out last Wednesday, along with those who were poised to carry it out in this violent police raid in Saint-Denis. Late this afternoon, French investigators also revealed that the ISIS cell leader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was in cell phone contact directing his team of killers and suicide bombers even as they went about striking their targets.

Then, authorities Abaaoud returned to the scenes to see the carnage firsthand. Questions are now being raised about the cell phone video that was posted by ISIS, was it from Abaaoud's own phone?

Even though a second attack was thwarted, Paris still remains on alert. Subway stations in the central part of the city closed, one even evacuated. According to Paris police, it was triggered as result of information they received.

[16:20:02] By day's end, all of those stations have reopened.


BERMAN: So, Martin, we're also learning new information about DNA, possibly linked to the terrorists behind these attacks?

SAVIDGE: Yes. This is an issue, it's ongoing, because the authorities are trying to make sure that they have everyone, or they know of everyone that was involved in the attack here.

So, there has been DNA that's been identified in that apartment that was raided that they still don't know who that belongs to. And then they have also -- and this was announced today -- uncovered that there was DNA on one of the Kalashnikovs, one of the weapons that was found one of the abandoned vehicles.

Does it suggest that it's connected to somebody in that apartment, or is it somebody else? The real fear is that there is another attacker or attackers out that could do harm, or someone else still on the run someplace else. They've got to account for everyone and figure out how they got here, where they are now, John.

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

We're going to have much more on these latest developments out of Paris. Could there be another team still on the loose planning new attacks? And why would the ring leader return to the scene of the crime?

Plus, a brand-new warning from the U.S. State Department for Americans planning to travel this week, which is pretty much all Americans.


[16:25:54] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper.

The national lead: a new worldwide travel alert from the State Department with concerns over the possibility of a Paris-style attack. Americans are being warned to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, especially as they crowd airport terminals and train stations for holiday travel this week.

CNN's Rene Marsh joins me now.

Rene, so, is this related to a specific terror threat?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, when you really look at this big picture here, you have a Russian passenger plane that's blown out of the sky, and attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Mali. So, absolutely, the increased terror activity triggered this new State Department travel alert, this happening just as millions of Americans are traveling for the holiday season.

They are being told to remain on alert and avoid large crowds. Now, we've seen this alert issued for a specific region. But what's different here is this is a worldwide alert. Meaning, there's a potential for an attack wherever you travel. It is important to note, though, this does not mean people shouldn't travel, but it does mean you should be vigilant, because the threat is real. We do know that airlines continue to fly to places like Brussels and Paris, John.

BERMAN: Rene, so I'm sitting here in New York, just outside where I am right now, Macy's parade goes right by here, thousands of people lining the streets, maybe millions of people lining the streets. One of the plans to keep this city safe during the parade.

MARSH: Well, they are expecting record breaking crowd and that's all because of the weather. It's going to be pretty warm.

But NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said, just said, there is no direct, credible threat against the Thanksgiving Day parade.

That said, there will be a show of force like never before. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We employ counterterrorism overlay that includes elements of visible police presence at and around the Thanksgiving festivities. This will include extra uniformed police officers and traffic agents, plus additional mobile cameras, helicopters, canine, mounted units.


MARSH: All right. And specially trained dogs will sniff for traces of explosives in the air. Radiation detectors will be used to find any evidence of a dirty bomb. Meantime, NYPD is boosting the number of detectives assigned to investigating a flood of suspicious incidents reports, this happening in the wake of the Paris attacks. They are saying that reports are 200 percent the volume of a normal week.

BERMAN: And, Rene, I understand the New York Police Department is sharing what kind of tips they're getting. What are they hearing?

MARSH: Well, they say some of the tips, they're coming in on tonight 911, others flagged doing key word searches on social media, on the Internet, they're ranging between someone reporting a man abandoning a car on a bridge, to someone posting video on the Internet, posing with guns. It really runs a wide range here.

The NYPD is saying some of these will be credible, may be credible, some may not, but the bottom line is they are checking all of them out, John.

BERMAN: All right. Rene Marsh for us in Washington -- thank you so much.

I want to talk about the threat here in the United States and across the globe with CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank, and former assistant director of the FBI, Shawn Henry.

Shawn, let's first talk about this global warning, this travel warning out from the State Department. What goes into making that decision to issue that? And what is the FBI doing behind the scenes right now to help keep things safe.

SHAWN HENRY, FORMER EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, FBI: You know, John, it is the totality of what we're seeing throughout western Europe and through the Middle East.

The FBI working with state and local law enforcement agencies through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces. There are more than 100 JTTFs around the country that are staffed with multiple federal, state, local agencies.

They're going out now and they have really turned up the heat in the course of their investigations. While they're investigating terrorists, jihadists and those that they believe are aligned with terror, they're pretty passive. They're collecting intelligence. They're trying to determine the full scope of the organizations that somebody might be involved in, if they're planning a threat.

But now, sense what we've seen in Paris, they're out there being much more proactive, much more aggressive, really turning over every rock, trying to develop credible intelligence to help them assess if there's a pending threat.