Return to Transcripts main page


Naked Anger; Brussels Terror Investigation; Officials: Bombmaker Believed to Be Dead; Interview with Congressman Mike Turner. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 23, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN GUEST HOST: The alleged bomb-maker blows himself up.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news in the Brussels terror attacks. Investigators now believe the alleged bomb-maker behind the carnage in Brussels and Paris, and Paris, is dead. But are other attacks still in the works?

Also, airports, subways, sports arenas, tourist traps, the State Department warning Americans in Europe to avoid crowded places that could become the next war zone.

Plus, naked anger. Donald Trump makes an ominous threat to spill the beans on Mrs. Ted Cruz after an ad shows Mrs. Trump leaving little to the imagination.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

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

Breaking news in our world lead. A major development in the Brussels terror attacks. The man suspected of building the bombs that tore through Paris in November and Brussels yesterday, he may in fact be dead.

CNN has learned that Najim Laachraoui is believed to have been one of the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the Brussels Airport, killing at least 10 people, injuring dozens more. This comes as the search is intensifying for this unidentified third terror suspect who failed to detonate his suitcase bomb inside the airport terminal.

CNN's Nima Elbagir and Clarissa Ward are both on the ground in the Belgian capital.

Nima, let's start with you. This development over just the last few minutes, word from Belgian officials that Laachraoui, the bomb-maker, he may be dead.

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Belgian and French officials are telling CNN, John, that they believe Najim Laachraoui, the man implicated in building the bombs that were detonated in the Paris attacks, is dead.

Belgian counterterror officials are stressing they're still in the process of cross-referencing his DNA, but at the moment their working belief, John, is that he is dead. Identifying Najim Laachraoui at the scene, placing him at the airport bombing scene is key, because it closes that loop on bringing together the overlapping between the networks that carried out the Paris attack and carried out this attack.

Just to recap a little bit for our viewers how important, how dangerous this man was believed to be, his DNA was found on the suicide belt of the Paris attackers detonated in the Stade de France. Back in January, Belgian counterterror officials told us that they intercepted phone calls between him and Abaaoud, the Paris attack ringleader, in which he appeared to be giving the instructions.

They believed him to be a key conspirator. He studied electromechanical engineering at university and that knowledge has so far been of great value of ISIS. But now, John, the latticework of the networks at play here are really coming together. Investigators are overlapping them to try and figure out who else is out there.

BERMAN: Nima, stand by. That's the latest.

Najim Laachraoui believed to have been the bomb-maker in Brussels and Paris, but what about that third man in that picture we were just looking at, the man in the light-colored jacket, the man believed to have left the bomb at the airport?

Clarissa Ward is with us now.

Clarissa, what are you learning about the search for that person?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, earlier we heard from Belgium's prosecutor that there are still a number of people at large. These people may be armed, they may be dangerous.

Among them, the primary focus of the manhunt is, as you said, the man on the right in that surveillance video. He is particularly distinctive because he is wearing a light jacket, he is wearing a cap and glasses. And you also might notice he is the only one of the three of them who is not wearing one glove.

Authorities believe that glove may have been used to conceal a detonator. We know that, in his suitcase, which did not explode, there was a particularly large bomb, larger than the explosives that were in the other two suitcases of the two suicide bombers.

It's not clear yet, did he get cold feet, did the bomb not go off? Authorities arrived on the scene afterwards and were able to do a controlled detonation, so the explosives did not actually harm anyone. But at this stage, we still don't know where that man is. There are a lot of questions now, John.

We are learning more and more. Najim Laachraoui was wanted by Interpol. He was on a red alert. The two brothers who are also attackers in these vicious attacks also had extensive rap sheets, so a lot of questions here as to why all of these men who were well known to authorities were able to slip under the radar and go undetected and carry out these attacks, when this country was already on a state of very high alert, John.


BERMAN: Indeed, a lot of questions, as you say, Clarissa Ward. Thank you so much, Clarissa Ward, Nima Elbagir. Stand by in Brussels.

We're also learning the identities, as Clarissa said, of two of the bombers. They are brothers. One blew himself up at the airport, the other behind the attack on the subway.

Let's bring in CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, what is the latest on the investigation?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, as Clarissa alluded to, there were warning signs about both brothers.

In fact, Turkish authorities are saying one of them was deported back to Belgium last year for his ties to terrorism and the other brother has an Interpol red notice that was issued this year for terrorism charges, yet both of them were able to wreak havoc in Brussels yesterday morning.


BROWN (voice-over): New details are emerging about the Brussels suicide bombers, brothers and Belgian nationals, Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui.

Belgian says Ibrahim, pictured in the middle of this surveillance photo, detonated one of the bombs at the airport in Brussels. The suicide bomber on the left has not yet been publicly identified and the unidentified man on the right dropped off a large bag of explosives before fleeing.

FREDERIC VAN LEEUW, BELGIAN FEDERAL PROSECUTOR (through translator): His bag had the strongest explosives. A few moments after the bomb squad arrived at the scene, the bag exploded. Fortunately, no one was hurt by that bomb.

BROWN: An hour after Ibrahim El Bakraoui set off his bomb at the airport, his brother, Khalid, detonated his own deadly bomb at a metro station in downtown Brussels.

The taxi driver who drove the three attackers to the airport led police to the Brussels residence where he picked them up. Inside, investigators found bomb-making materials, including acetone and hydrogen peroxide, also detonators, a suitcase full of nails and screws and about 33 pounds of the explosive called TATP, enough to make multiple bombs. In a trash can on the street nearby, investigators found a laptop, on

it, messages from Ibrahim before the attack stating he was "in a rush" and if he takes too long, he will end up with him in jail. Belgian investigators believe he was referring to Salah Abdeslam, one of the ringleaders of the November Paris attacks who was captured last week.

Investigators believe Abdeslam was likely supposed to take part in the Brussels attack, and after his arrest, the cell accelerated their plans. As the manhunt continues for additional suspects, officials warn the threat is not over.

MANUEL VALLS, FRENCH PRIME MINISTER (through translator): A war has been waged against us and we must be totally determined in fighting this scourge.


BROWN: And we have learned from sources there was chatter prior to these attacks, electronic interceptions indicating something was about to happen, but there wasn't anything specific enough for authorities to prevent the attacks from happening.

The concern now is that others in the men's network will try to launch more attacks in Europe in the days to come -- John.

BERMAN: Pamela Brown, thanks so much.

Let's discuss this further.

Joining us now, our panel of terrorism experts, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and former member of Congress Jane Harman from the House Intelligence Committee, also in charge of the Wilson Center.

Thank you all for being with us.

Juliette, just over the last few minutes, so many more things have come to light. A lot of these threads starting to come together. The idea that the bomb-maker, Najim Laachraoui, blew himself up at the airport. The idea that another one of the bombers left a will saying he was afraid of being caught and he left behind 40 pounds of explosives unused in the apartment.

What does this all tell you?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It all means that last Friday was incredibly significant, the arrest of Abdeslam alive, right, that he's not captured dead, and the suggestions throughout the weekend by Brussels officials that he was not only cooperating, but they were actually using the term collaborating, meant, as we saw -- read in the suicide note, that they felt that they were about to get caught.

Now, these are suicide bombers. They do not care if they die. They care if they are detained, because it means that they will not accomplish what they want to accomplish. So this just -- the arrest on Friday sped everything up.

And, in particular, terrorist groups are organized in different ways, but generally they have an operational wing and they have a technical and more sort of policy substantive wing. You never kill the bomb- maker. It's a specialized skill. It must have been very clear to them that they did not have many moves left and he was willing to sacrifice himself.

BERMAN: Daveed, do you see it like that? You never kill the bomb- maker. Juliette was drawing a distinction between suicide bombers, the soldiers on the ground, and the people behind the scenes developing the process to carry out the attacks.

If this guy was behind the TATP bombs in Paris, behind these bombs here, that is a sacrifice to that organization to lose him in these attacks.



Obviously, he was a skilled bomb-maker. His bombs worked in two different major terrorist attacks, which not a whole lot of bomb- makers out there can say that. The fact that he did die as a suicide bomber, as far as we know, seems to suggest that really they felt the noose closing in on them just as soon as Abdeslam was picked up by the authorities.

BERMAN: Representative Harman, there is something else now coming to light. The idea that three of these attackers from the attacks the other day, the two brothers and now Laachraoui, will all known to officials.

Laachraoui and one of the Bakraoui brothers, there were red notices on them from Interpol. Ibrahim El Bakraoui was deported from Turkey to Belgium. So, three guys well known to authorities were able to pull out a terror attack. What does that tell you?


First, you never kill the bomb-maker unless you have more bomb-makers. Possibly, this guy who was, as I understand it, mentored by a Brit in Syria named Hamun Tarik (ph), was one of a classroom of A students who can carry this on.

There may be more waves of attack. But on your second point, that's very significant. Retired General John Allen, who was head of the coalition, the effort to form a coalition against the Assad regime and others in ISIS and Syria, said that the criminal element has played a much bigger role in these attacks than we understand.

These are not just trained terrorists. These are criminals. And the fact that these people weren't picked up, even though they apparently had rap sheets, as you just reported, shows me that we're not casting the net broadly enough. And if we did -- not we, but the Belgians aren't -- and if they had,

we would have picked these guys up or certainly investigated these guys and found some really bad stuff.

BERMAN: You never kill the bomb-maker unless there are more bomb- makers. I want to explore that in a little bit, so, guys, stick around.

Plus, coming up for us next, now that we know the suspected bomb-maker from Brussels and Paris, the bomb-maker may be dead, the question is, what did U.S. intelligence know about this suspect and the other suspects beforehand? A member of the House Intelligence Committee who has been briefed, he joins us next.


[16:16:05] BERMAN: All right. Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Belgian officials warning that other suspects in the deadly terror attacks could still be on the run and they could strike again.

Joining me now is Republican Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thank you very much for being with us.

Let me start with the breaking news, CNN learning over the halftime half hour that Najim Laachraoui, believed to have been the bombmaker behind the Paris attacks and making some of the bombs in the Brussels attack as well, officials from Belgium tell us that he is dead.

Are you hearing the same thing?

REP. MIKE TURNER (R), OHIO: Well, certainly, I'm hearing from your reports. But I think, you know, your previous panel and my good friend Jane Harman made an excellent point. You don't lose the bombmaker unless you have more bombmakers. And that really I think is the issue here. The United States needs to turn its attention to.

There's been lots of criticism on Capitol Hill for the president's strategy as looking at ISIS as contained. They're clearly not contained. Their training camps where these gentlemen and other terrorists have gathered. We need to take them out and make certain that their ability to attack the West is diminished.

BERMAN: Congressman, you're privy to information that we are not. Do you believe there are other bombmakers on the loose right now in Belgium poised to attack?

TURNER: I think absolutely. I think the public is very much aware of that. I think the thing that's important here that we know is that Belgium is just not prepared to be able to undertake the type of investigative look at tracking down these terrorists and bringing them to justice. They are going to need our help. They're going to need the help of their NATO allies. We're certainly going to be there to assist them and track these people down, take down these terrorist networks and eliminate their ability to both execute terrorist attacks in Belgium and, of course, the United States.

BERMAN: There was an Interpol red notice for Laachraoui and one of for one of the Bakraoui brothers and one of the Bakraoui brothers was deported from Turkey to Belgium. These three people, were they known to U.S. law enforcement?

TURNER: But I can't speak to that, but clearly by the rap sheet you read they were known by the Belgian authorities. I think there's going to be a lot of second guessing today in Belgium as they look to what actions they have been taking to people they know will pose a threat and what they need to do tomorrow to continue to protect the citizens in Belgium and Brussels.

BERMAN: So, David Nunez of the House Intelligence Committee says he believes Americans were the likely target given that the attack may have happened near a U.S. airlines ticket counter.

Do you think Americans were targeted specifically in these attacks?

TURNER: Well, certainly, if they sought out a specific counter with the symbolism of the name American, it certainly shows they're looking to try to hurt us. I was just at that ticket counter on Sunday morning, and I can tell you my heart goes out to thinking of all the innocent people who work there that they have targeted.

But this really goes to the viciousness of the terrorists and the immediate issue of why we need to take them down. People are at risk, they need to be stopped.

BERMAN: You know what, I know everyone is hesitant to criticize in a situation like this when Belgium is still very much involved in a manhunt right now, but do you think Belgium based on what you know and your connections within the intelligence community, do you believe they're up to this task?

TURNER: Not currently. I think with the United States help and others they can be.

But, certainly, we saw from the attacks perpetrated from there in Paris, it was chosen because of the difficulty that authorities have of tracking them down and taking them down. We need to do this. Certainly not just Europe is at risk, the United States is at risk.

We need to go further. We need to get the president to get a full- scale strategy together to take down ISIS. These gentlemen that went to training camps in ISIS in Syria, we can find those training camps, we can shut them down and prevent future bombmakers and future terrorists from going to Europe and the United States.

BERMAN: Congressman Mike Turner, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it, sir.

TURNER: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Coming up, a rare and frightening warning for Americans following the Brussels terror attacks. The State Department issuing a travel alert for the entire continent of Europe.

Then, carpet bombing or banning Syrians.

[16:20:02] What the 2016 presidential candidates have to say about fighting terror in the wake of the bombings.


BERMAN: All right. New urgent warning for Americans in Europe in the wake of the terror attacks in Brussels. The U.S. State Department says ISIS and other terror groups are still planning attacks, especially in crowded places. The new travel alert comes as we learn more U.S. citizens -- more U.S. citizens were caught up in the carnage yesterday.

Let's go to CNN's global affairs correspondent Elise Labott. Elise, this travel alert, they happen, but this one feels maybe more significant.

[16:25:00] ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, it's not unprecedented but it's rare. It's a big deal. The State Department does not issue a caution of this nature lightly, particularly ahead of the summer travel season, Europe's busiest tourist period.

But with about a dozen Americans injured in the Brussels attack and many more missing, officials warning ISIS attacks could be coming in Europe and Americans need to be extremely vigilant.


LABOTT (voice-over): With officials warning ISIS is on the loose and a massive manhunt under way, the State Department is taking the rare step of urging Americans to think twice about traveling to Europe, warning that terrorists, quote, "continue to plan near term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants and transportation." A dire assessment ahead of the summer travel season.

A former House intelligence chair says such a dramatic warning is likely the result of alarming intel, pointing to the possibility of more terror.

MIKE ROGERS, FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: What they know is that probably Brussels was not the only target set, Paris was not the only target set. There are likely other target sets in Europe.

LABOTT: ISIS fighters, many trained on the battlefields of Syria, are returning home to carry out their jihad in the West, sometimes infiltrating the influx of migrants fleeing the violence.

Brussels, the headquarters of the Europeans Union and NATO has important symbolic value and has emerged as a hub for jihadists planning European attacks. The Paris attackers capitalizing on lax security crossed into France from Brussels, and the weapons used in the "Charlie Hebdo" attack last January were also smuggled from across the border.

Steps to shore up security not coming fast enough.

JOHAN VERBEKE, BELGIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Europe is a Europe without borders and Brussels indeed as a capital of Europe is centrally located. And that means that it is perhaps a platform where people come, meet, arrange, plan and that kind of thing.

LABOTT: Intel experts say Belgium remains ill-equipped to tackle the problem.

ROGERS: They have nine different police districts. Some of them don't speak the same language. They have a hard time sharing. Their signals intelligence is very old.

LABOTT: The European Union with no common defense or intelligence body has failed to share vital intel with Belgium and the U.S.

GILLES DE KERCHOVE, E.U. COUNTERTERRORISM COORDINATOR: We're likely to have more plots. That doesn't mean they will succeed. We need to scale up extremely quickly the European response.


LABOTT: And the State Department just announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Brussels on Friday. In addition to offering condolences for the Belgian people, he will also meet with Belgian and European union officials to talk about the investigation and efforts to fight ISIS, including how the U.S. and E.U. can better work together to share intel on these threats, John.

LABOTT: All right. Elise Labott, thanks so much.

I want to bring back our panel of experts now. Joining us, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem, and former member of Congress, Jane Harman, is also the director and president of the Wilson Center.

Paul, I want to start with you. You're new to our panel. You're also deeply sourced in the Belgian intelligence community.

The news coming in just a short time ago, Najim Laachraoui, the suspected bombmaker in Brussels and Paris, may be dead. Not 100 percent confirmed, but if it is confirmed, explain to me what you're hearing about the significance.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, EDITOR IN CHIEF, CTC SENTINEL: Well, it would certainly be significant and the Belgians think he's probably being killed, that he probably died at the airport, but they're testing DNA and so on and so forth to be 100 percent certain. They actually do have his DNA on file because they were able to establish his DNA was at that bomb factory in Schaerbeek in Belgium, used by the Paris attackers to use those devices.

They aren't 100 percent sure yet, by the way, he was the bombmaker. They think he's possibly the bombmaker but they haven't conclusively made that determination yet. But if they have got the bombmaker, that he's dead, that would be extremely significant because this is the most dangerous guy in a cell, the guy that can build these powerful TATP devices which can create so much carnage and equip people to use it.

I think if he was indeed killed, it may have been him cornered with the rest of the cell because they felt that the dragnet was closing in and this was a sort of, quote/unquote, "glorious last stand" for them.

BERMAN: Juliette, I want to talk about the State Department warning to Americans traveling to Europe, all of Europe, warning Americans to be careful. If you are an American who's got plans to go to Europe for spring break coming up, how do you deal with this?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY, FEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY: So, it's -- the question I've been asked by every friend of mine, every cousin, everyone, and I'm sure all of us get that is, what should I do?

So, the way to put it in perspective is there is always a level of risk when we travel. That's just the case, right, because you're away from home, you're in airplanes and in places that are unfamiliar. The risk is slightly higher. It's not exceptional. It's not something we should run for but it's slight low higher.