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Paris Attacks' Suspect Captured; CNN Confirms Capture. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2016 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We begin with breaking news. The fugitive suspect in the Paris terror attacks captured alive in Belgium. CNN has now confirmed that the suspect, Salah Abdeslam, has been captured in a shootout in the Belgium district of Mulumbi (ph). He's reported to be injured but he is alive.

Let's bring in our CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto, our CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruickshank, he's joining us from New York, CNN International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson in London, and our CNN Contributor, and co-author of "ISIS inside the army of terror," Michael Weiss. Paul Cruickshank, first of all, tell us about this raid. What do we know has -- that has just happened?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, really just minutes ago, as part of an armed police operation in Brussels, they captured two suspected terrorists alive. Those two suspected terrorists received injuries as a result of that operation. But they have now confirmed the identity of one of those individuals -- was and is Salah Abdeslam, the so-called 10th Paris attacker who participated in the Paris attacks, dropped off the stadium bombers that night.

But his suicide device, he didn't carry through with that. He didn't become a suicide bomber that night and he managed to smuggle himself back to Brussels. The trail had gone completely cold until Tuesday when police went to an address in Brussels that they believed was linked to the Paris attack.

So, they had no idea that Salah Abdeslam or any other terrorists were inside. There was a big fire fight and two of the terrorists managed to escape. They believed that one of those was probably Salah Abdeslam, and then they've been working, really, 24-7 to try and get him. And they have just got him into custody. They've got him alive.

He will now be put on trial for those Paris attacks. A big moment for the families who lost loved ones that day and big moment for European security services, because I think he represented still a significant potential threat for some kind of follow-on attack, somewhere in Europe.

He was inside the safe house with a senior Algerian ISIS operative who was one of the ring masters of the Paris attacks. That Algerian operative, Mohamed Belkaid, was killed by a Belgium police sniper in that operation on Tuesday afternoon. He'd been giving orders to the Paris attackers during the Paris attacks, including to Abdul Hamid Bhat, coordinating that whole operation. So, very significant moments indeed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Nic Robertson, let's not forget 130 people were killed in that November 13th attack in Paris, hundreds more were injured. And Salah Abdeslam, he's been often described as at least as one of the ring leaders in all of this. Remind our viewers how he managed to escape.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, for whatever reason, following the attacks, and, again, there was that suicide vest that was found near the site of one of the attacks that had his DNA on it. But late in the night, after the attacks had finished, he called friends in Belgium asking to be picked up to come and help him and bring him back from Paris.

According to some accounts at the time, he was in tears. It's not clear if that -- if that actually is correct. But as he fled back, they drove down from Belgium. They picked him up on the outskirts of Paris. They got on the (INAUDIBLE) route and headed back to Belgium. And at the border, the French police stopped them, at the border.

But at that stage, the French police still did not have the knowledge that Salah Abdeslam was connected to the attacks, so they let the three men go on their way back to Belgium. Obviously, the car was then -- authorities were able to track this vehicle. Fifty minutes later, they find out that Salah Abdeslam has literally just slipped through their fingers. But the result was that he was able to go into hiding in Belgium.

I mean, this is such a significant moment for the Belgian authorities but for the French as well. And that's why I think, you know, remembering today in Brussels, there's a heads of state. A heads of the 28-member countries of the European union are meeting in Brussels where all this has been going down today.

We had the French president, Francois Hollande, step out of that meeting to talk to reporters. He had the Belgium prime minister at his side. And he said, look, we cannot tell you all the details, at the moment. But his words were -- are, right now, we are living an important moment. This is the level of significance. So many of the people that died in Paris of course were French, and many others. But for the French president, this is, for him at least, a moment not of conclusion but at least it's a significant step in bringing to account those responsible -- Wolf.

[13:05:07] BLITZER: It's a good point. And Jim Sciutto is with me as well. Actually, let's go to the White House. Press secretary, Josh Earnest, he's speaking about this right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (live): -- be more aggressive and act more aggressively and to stop this deal from happening? JOSH EARNEST, U.S. PRESS SECRETARY: Well, (INAUDIBLE), I can't

comment on any specific, private financial transaction. I will just say, as a general matter, that this administration now for years has been urging Congress to take steps to close the inversion's loophole that essentially allows large --

BLITZER: All right, so we're going to replay what he just said. He was just at the White House. He was asked about what happened in Belgium. We're going to get that sound for you. Stand by for a moment.

But Jim Sciutto is with me here in Washington, our Chief National Correspondent. Jim, the U.S. has been deeply involved in all of this as well. U.S. counterterrorism intelligence officials, they're looking to see what happened in Paris and in Belgium to try to make sure it doesn't happen here in the United States.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. In fact, you have U.S. counterterror officials, including with the FBI, on the ground in Paris posted there permanently to continue this intelligence sharing relationship to prevent attacks there but also prevent attacks here.

Now, interestingly, where he was taken, ostensibly, this is a surprise. He was hiding in plain sight in Belgium where he went the very night of the attacks fleeing Paris. As Nic Robertson mentioned, he was actually stopped on the way but let go.

But I spoke with a senior French counterterror official just a short time ago. I asked him, is he surprised that this is where Abdeslam would be found? And said, no, because the greater risk is to move, to try to cross through border crossings, to communicate, to do the things you need that would be necessary to get yourself from Paris or Belgium, say perhaps back to Syria. That in many ways, it's easier to stay in place. Move around. You don't communicate. You move from safe house to safe house. And this is what it appears he's managed to do for a number of months since those Paris attacks.

The other thing I would mention, and Paul mentioned, that he will be tried, of course, for these crimes. But I'll tell you, France, right now, has enormous emergency power laws. Before they go through the legal process here, they will be able to interrogate him. And that's really going to be their focus in this early stage, interrogate, get intelligence about further ISIS members in and around there to prevent further plots, and also get all of tendrils from this Paris plot. We know there were many others involved. That's going to be their priority.

BLITZER: Well, we know, Paul Cruickshank, that there's been, at least over the years, some friction between French authorities and Belgium authorities. In these kinds of issues, intelligence cooperation has not always been perfect. I know French officials have often complained about what's going on in Brussels right now.

But right now, Salah Abdeslam, he's in the custody of Belgium officials. But, as you know, the French will want to question him and maybe even try him in Paris. How does that work?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, yes, he's in the custody of the Belgium authorities right now. There may well be an extradition request from the French. There's a European arrest warrant. It's pretty automatic if he's wanted for crimes. He may well end up being tried in France, given that the attack took place in France. And so many French people, people in Paris, lost their lives that night.

But I've got to say, in the last few months, there has been very strong cooperation between Belgian and French counterterrorism investigators. The Belgians have been playing a very, very big role in all of this. There have been 11 people, in total, who have been arrested, suspected of a role in the Paris conspiracy who are going to face trial, including some people playing senior roles in the conspiracy.

There have been a lot of breakthroughs on the Belgian side, a lot of breakthroughs on the French side. They really have been working hand in glove over the last few months. This is through a counterterrorism coordination as it's meant to work.

And what we've seen now is this lucky break in the investigation. When they went into this safe house on Tuesday afternoon, just thinking that it was an address of interest related to the Paris attacks, not expecting it to be a terrorist den and not expecting it to have Salah Abdeslam, one of the most wanted man -- men in the world, perhaps the most wanted man in the entire world right now inside that apartment.

He managed to get away because one of his colleagues, one of his terrorist colleagues, provided covering fire, was firing at the police as they trying to get through the door. He appears to have escaped, if he was indeed there at the moment, through the roofs. The two terrorist suspects, who managed to get away, fled through the roofs. And (INAUDIBLE) is another location in Belgium.

But, clearly, Belgium security services were hot on their trail and managed to sort of pin them down just a few moments ago -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, the individuals who have been arrested in Belgium, as you point out, Paul, have they been -- they were involved in the Paris attacks, allegedly. Were -- have they been extradited to France or are they still in Belgium custody?

[13:10:09] CRUICKSHANK: They are still in Belgium custody, as of now. And of one of their number, we're told by a senior Belgian counterterrorism official, is somebody called Mohammed Bakkali who, I am told and we've reported before, played a very senior role in the planning of the Paris attacks, that he was arrested a few weeks after the Paris attacks in Brussels.

In his residence in Brussels, they found video footage of a Belgian nuclear scientist, some surveillance that had been shot, suggesting that there were other plans that they had in the works in Belgium, in Europe. Bigger plans perhaps in the works to launch other attacks. All very, very concerning. Clearly, a key breakthrough now that they've managed to get Salah Abdeslam. He could be a treasure trove of intelligence.

And also, I really should underline this, the fact they were able to kill one of the senior members of this conspiracy on Tuesday, Mohamed Belkaid, somebody who was giving orders to the Paris attackers during the time of the Paris attack. It was a very, very big breakthrough as well. There are still a number of suspects still believed to be a large, including a Belgian Moroccan called Mohammad Abrini who ferried some of the attackers from Belgium to France and played a logistical role in the attacks. And there are a few others as well that they are still looking for.

But this, a huge breakthrough for the Belgians and the French today.

BLITZER: All right, good point. Stand by. Everyone stand by. We're going to stay on top of the breaking news. We'll take a quick break. Much more right after this.

[13:11:45]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:15:34] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get an update now on the breaking news we're following in the Paris terror attack investigation. CNN has now confirmed that the Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam has been captured in a shootout in the Belgian district of Molenbeek. He's reportedly injured, but is alive. You're looking at live pictures coming in - actually, these are moments ago from our affiliate UTM there in Belgium. You see a drone flying over the streets of Belgium right now in the Molenbeek area. Molenbeek just outside of Brussels. The drone, you can see it moving over there, obviously taking video, live pictures for law enforcement, counterterrorism officials there. This is a drone flying over Molenbeek.

Let's bring in our CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruikshank, who's joining us from New York, our international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson is in London, CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, our national security analyst, Juliette Kayyam, and our senior law enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes.

Paul, for viewers who are just tuning in right now, the capture alive of Salah Abdeslam potentially represents a major breakthrough if he talks. What are the rules there, though, in Belgium if he decides - can he retain an attorney? Does he have the right to remain silent? In other words, can he shut up and not cooperate or are - are there ways for them to force him to tell all, if you will?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: No, I mean, it's the rule of law and so he will be able to remain silent. He doesn't have to cooperate. In past terrorism investigations in Brussels, notably after a terrorist plot was thwarted in January, some of the suspects that they arrested stayed completely silent, refused to cooperate at all with investigators, providing a lot of frustration. And so he may decide, if he's a true believer, just to shut his mouth and not to tell them anything at all. But, of course, skilled interrogators have all sorts of techniques,

confidence building, that they can use to try and get people to open up. After a while they may just sort of be bored and want to talk to somebody about what they've done. They may feel proud of what they've done.

It appears that Salah Abdeslam was still very much part of the ISIS setup. There was some thought that he might be persona non grata. Well, he was with two other ISIS terrorists hold up in a safe house. He had Kalashnikovs. It appears he was very much still a true believe. But they're hoping to get as much intelligence out of these guys, the two guys that they've arrested, as possible, clearly, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's 26-years-old, Salah Abdeslam, so we don't know if he will talk or he won't talk.

Juliette Kayyam, what do we know about the actual role that ISIS, the leader of ISIS, let's say in Iraq, Syria or someplace else, played in this Paris terror attack that killed 130 people last November 13th?

JULIETTE KAYYAM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, we know that they had operational knowledge that something like this was going to occur. And over the course of - what was just described as an interrogation, how much they knew will probably be told or at least disclosed in the months ahead.

But what I - that's an essential question because there's a belief out I think in - in - for people who follow ISIS that ISIS is just this big blob that's taking over, you know, Iraq and Syria and launching attacks in western Europe. The truth is, is that there is some coordination and control and the - this arrest is significant. Even though there are likely other ISIS masterminds right behind this one - we certainly know that's true, the absence of an arrest would have meant that western Europe looked sort of weak in light of what happened in Paris.

So while we know that there's probably other attacks planned, we know that there's other ISIS masterminds behind the ones we've already captured, this is a significant arrest if only for a sense that western Europe can actually show some success against this growing threat.

BLITZER: Let me bring Peter Bergen into this reporting that we're getting.

What do you think, Peter, are they going to be able to get this guy to talk and perhaps reveal details of other plots that may be in the works, or do you think it's likely, based on what we know about his history, this 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, that he will remain silent in prison?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I mean it's hard to tell. I mean, as Paul said, I mean he may well be a true believer and say nothing. And he's legally entitled to do that.

[13:20:04] On the other hand, you know, you get the right interrogator in there, somebody who can build confidence and somebody who can, you know, illicit some kind of discussion of what happened, you know, maybe - you know, maybe we'll get something. But, you know, it's - at the end of the day, you know, that's very hard to tell right now.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes is with us as well.

Tom, what, if any, role will the U.S. law enforcement intelligence officials, counterterrorism officials, play in all of this - this investigation into the Paris terror attack?

TOM FUENTES, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: They'll have a big role, Wolf. And they have had for more than two decades in western Europe. You know, the FBI has offices in Paris, and in Brussels, and the Hague and 12 other major western capitals - or capitals of western Europe, and they work very, very closely, as well as other components of the U.S. intelligence community working there very diligently.

The problem is, and I think that much - much of the reporting about the bad relationship between the authorities in Paris and the authorities in Brussels, much of that is based on the fact that they don't have a lot of intelligence. So they share what they have, but it's pretty weak. And that's been the biggest problem. Their outreach programs in the Muslim communities are largely ineffective and that's how these guys can get safe houses and hide in places like Molenbeek in Brussels and nobody goes to the police, nobody goes to the authorities and said, hey, these jihadists are, you know, living next door to me or above me in the apartment building. And that's been the biggest problem. It's not the - it's not the lack of sharing, it's the lack of collecting in the first place.

BLITZER: Well, Nic Robertson, I've been told by French officials over the years that they've been pretty disappointed in the level of cooperation, what the Belgium authorities do as far as fighting terrorism inside Belgium. As Paul Cruickshank says, maybe that has improved recently. But what are you hearing?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, we hear all the time that there are frustrations. And it's not just between France and Belgium, but inside Europe. Europe has a common external border, but it doesn't have common policies in sharing information between intelligence agencies. And one of the principle reasons for that is, intelligence agencies are designed and grown to look after national interests and at times, particularly in the past, national interest don't always align as much as they do now in this era of ISIS.

We are in a new phase. We are in a new phase of cooperation inside Europe. But this is - this is, you know, a new development and the groundwork has to be laid for that. I mean we - we - we talk about the sort of stove piping individual countries if wee - if we look at, you know, the 9/11 Commission, they examined the way information perhaps wasn't shared between departments as much as it might be internally in the United States. We hear about similar situations in Britain and in other parts of Europe. So then you have to bring it together as nations. It's not easy, it's not complicated, but the - but what we continue to hear from officials is that it is - that it's improving. I think we need to look at one other thing tonight here in Europe, as

well, Wolf. Salah Abdeslam, as Paul has said, certainly appears now to - to be liked by ISIS enough to be, if you will, in a safe house with other senior players within ISIS. He's been on the run for four months. I don't think it can be overlooked by intelligence agencies in Europe that are waiting his capture knowing that that was always potentially going to happen, that that could perhaps be something that could trigger some kind of reaction in Europe from ISIS in the coming days.

I think we can understand that counterterrorism officials here are going to be on a heightened state of alert, as they were after the Paris attack here in London. Special forces were at the ready. We've seen in the last few weeks in the U.K., U.S. and British counterterrorism special forces training for the eventuality - the potential of a - of a Paris-style attack here in the U.K. So I think in - going into this weekend, we're going to be looking at a situation where counterterrorism authorities all over Europe are going to be on a more heightened alert than they perhaps might have been last week, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, because ISIS wants to show that it's still very capable. So that's totally understandable.

We're looking at these pictures coming in from Brussels right now, the Molenbeek area, just outside Brussels, how law enforcement there moving - it looks like they still have suspects at large. They're looking for other cells, presumably.

We'll take a quick break. We'll resume the breaking news coverage in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:29:12] BLITZER: We're just getting this - in this statement from the Belgium justice minister telling reporters, quote, "we got him," referring to the terror suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was captured, injured, but is alive, 26-year-old French national captured in the Molenbeek area of Belgium, just outside of Brussels.

Our senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward is joining us now.

And, Clarissa, you were there in Paris. You covered the terror attacks on the stadium over at the theater. It was an awful situation. One hundred and thirty people were killed. Many of them young people. Hundreds more were injured. And they've been on the lookout for this terrorist, Salah Abdeslam, ever since. But the fear is, though, that there are other cells, terror cells, ISIS connected still at large, right?

[13:30:00] CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, i think there are a lot of concerns. Obviously this is a moment - you just heard the Belgium justice minister saying, "we got him." this is a triumphant moment. It's an important moment. It's important for people in Belgium and France and across Europe to feel a little be safer knowing that this man is --