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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

ISIS #2 Killed By U.S. Special Forces; Two Americans Confirmed Dead in Brussels; Trump vs. Cruz; Terror Investigation. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 25, 2016 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:15]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: A key kill and new arrests, but are more attacks already in the works?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Explosions and gunfire, a suspect shot and arrested and a new terror raid sparked by the Brussels terror attacks.

Plus, he had a $7 million price tag on his head, and now he is dead, the man being called the number two terrorist in ISIS killed in Syria by U.S. troops.

Also, instead of talking terror, they're trading insults, and now Ted Cruz is blaming Donald Trump for a tabloid shocker.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Pamela Brown, in for Jake Tapper.

The Western world engaging the terrorists on two fronts and two continents. The Pentagon is confirming the military killed a high- level ISIS operative, a man analysts believe was the group's number two. At the same time, we're learning police in Europe are working at a frenzied pace to stop the next ISIS attack.

U.S. intelligence indicates there are multiple ISIS plots in various stages of planning. We have seen raids in three countries, France, Germany and Belgium, including an hour-long operation in Schaerbeek. This is all fallout from the twin terror attacks Tuesday in Brussels that killed 30-plus people.

And, today, the State Department confirmed two of the dead are Americans.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is in Brussels for us with the very latest.

What have you uncovered today with all these raids going on, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pam, since last night, there's been an uptick clearly in police activity here.

A total of nine individuals arrested in the last 24 hours here in Brussels alone, three since released, but we were ourselves at the site of one of the most intense instances of police intervention today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH (voice-over): Tonight, dramatic video taken during a raid on an alleged armed individual, shot in the leg by police. As he laid on the ground, a police robot was sent in to inspect his backpack before police dragged him away, all of this as an explosion and gunfire hit the city of Brussels.

Heavily armed police conducting an operation in the district of Schaerbeek, the same area where a taxi driver picked up three men suspected in carrying out the Tuesday airport bombings. Belgian prosecutors have now confirmed the second airport bomber was Najim Laachraoui. He was also wanted for his involvement in the deadly Paris attacks.

CHARLES MICHEL, BELGIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): We accept that we need to improve in the fight against terrorism in Europe and Belgium.

WALSH: U.S. authorities believe they know the name of this man seen wearing a hat and light-colored clothing in airport surveillance footage. He allegedly left a bomb behind, then fled. U.S. officials have shared this information with Belgian authorities.

German authorities arrested a 28-year-old Moroccan man that allegedly received two text messages before the attack, one with a name of the Brussels metro bomber, Khalid El Bakraoui, and the other text saying -- quote -- "Fin," French for end, just three minutes before Bakraoui Detonated his bomb, according to a source briefed by German officials.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): We have had success in finding the terrorists, and both in Brussels and in Paris, there have been some arrests and we know there are other networks, because even though the one that carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels is in the process of being wiped out, with a number of its members arrested, there is still a threat looming.

WALSH: French officials believe they foiled a planned attack after police raids in the outskirts of Paris recovered TATP explosive and a Kalashnikov rifle and caused the arrest of a terror plot suspect, Reda Kriket.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH: Now, the key thing, of course, is there is some sense of comfort potentially for those in Brussels and around Europe because of the volume of activity by police, but also for concern as well, because you saw there how a text message sent to somebody in Germany by Khalid El Bakraoui three minutes -- or someone by the name of Khalid El Bakraoui -- three minutes before the detonation in the metro.

Well, that suggests a link to Germany and now an arrest in France led to a further arrest this morning here inside of Brussels. That across Europe, pan-European network here increasing the evidence and police I'm sure struggling to act on every piece of information they're getting as they continue to detain people -- Pam.

BROWN: Yes, some of that information too fragmentary to really act on. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you very much.

Now I want to bring in our panel, CNN justice reporter Evan Perez, CNN counterterrorism analyst and former CIA official Phil Mudd, and CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

[16:05:00]

Gentlemen, a lot has gone on since we spoke 24 hours ago.

Evan, we were talking yesterday about the fact that there were these imminent ISIS-related plots in Europe. Since then, there has been this man arrested in Paris who apparently was in the final stages of planning. What's the sense you're getting from talking to folks involved with the investigation in terms of how many other people out there are in Europe?

(CROSSTALK)

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It really is a remarkable thing.

It seems like every arrest seems to beget another list of names they have to go after and it really gives the sense of not only the fact that there's this big network that they had no idea about, but also that it is, as Nick just talked about, a pan-European problem, a problem that spans not only France and Brussels and Belgium, but also the Netherlands and Germany.

And really one of the things that they're worried about obviously is the holiday weekend, a big weekend for travel and for people in Europe taking the weekend off. It's a big focus. They want to try to make sure they wrap as many -- these people up before the travel happens this weekend for Europeans all over the continent.

BROWN: And this is so similar to what we saw after, Phil, the Paris attacks. We saw all these raids and people being arrested. What's going on behind the scenes? Are some of these people subjects that they were already keeping an eye on or now after the Brussels attacks they have gained intelligence to be able to sort of act on it now? What's your take?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Both of these are happening.

Look, you don't roll up these many people this quickly just because they came up on the radar yesterday. These people would have been under some sort of surveillance before, but what's happening here is sort of an intelligence avalanche. That is, when you're conducting these raids, cell phones, hard drives, pieces of paper, for example, maps, those are going into 24/7 operations centers.

You have got software to analyze these mounds of data. Out of that information comes the next raid target. Do we have people who are identified off of cell phones that we hadn't known of before? Do we have e-mails from people on hard drives we hadn't seen before? That's why you're seeing this roll.

They're picking up all this data, triaging it overnight and scheduling the next raids.

BROWN: And I know just from people I have spoken to there's a lot of concern in the intelligence community that these people, they were monitoring some of the Brussels attackers after Paris, but yet didn't actually know this was in the works.

MUDD: One of the challenges when you're dealing with this number of people is how you prioritize targets. When you're dealing with five, 10 targets, that is not that difficult. When you're dealing with 500 targets, you're going through a series of questions. Who has access to weapons and explosives, who has access to training, who may have acquired TATP?

And then the toughest question. Among all these 500 or 1,000, who has the intent to do something tomorrow? When you have got 500 cases at once, you're going to miss some.

BROWN: And they found one of those suspects, Paul, French law enforcement said they uncovered explosives and a rifle in that raid near Paris we were talking about. That suspect was convicted on terror charges, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but authorities apparently couldn't track him down until now, obviously, as he was planning another attack. How big of a problem is that?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, his name is Reda Kriket.

He was sentenced in absentia for terrorism charges. He's believed to have traveled to Syria and to have made his way back to Europe. And the big problem, one of the very big problems is these European extremists, some of them know that they're on the radar screen of European security services.

But what they're doing is they're exploiting these extraordinary refugee flows from Syria, from the region into Europe to come into Europe. On October 3, before the Paris attacks, a boat arrived in Leros with 200 people on board. Two of the Paris attackers were onboard that boat, Pam, and they were then processed as Syrian refugees.

Look, every day in just one little Greek island, 400 refugees coming in and 950,000 through the whole Aegean over the last year or so. Just recently, the European Commission had a withering report for Greek border security. It's the soft underbelly of Europe.

BROWN: And, you know, what is alarming to officials too is that they can't really give a number in terms of those that are coming and going, Evan, because there's so many going to Syria, coming back. They don't even know they left in the first place.

But let's talk about this man on the run who could be anywhere at this point, the man in the white that we have seen in that airport picture. What do we know about him? There's been some information exchanges about him between the U.S. and Belgium. Are we getting closer to being able to capture him?

PEREZ: Well, the Belgians provided a list of names to the Americans to try to see if they can use to try to figure out who he was. They really did not know.

And the U.S. has been working, using its databases. The U.S. -- it's a controversial issue in Europe. The Americans have been building a database of Europeans who are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq and who may have come back.

[16:10:03]

But right now that database is becoming very useful. And we're told that U.S. authorities believe that they have identified the guy and that they provided some leads to the Belgians.

Now, the question is, where is he, are they going to be able to use this information to find him because obviously he is one of the most wanted men in the world right now?

BROWN: Absolutely, along with the other man that was in the metro station that was part of the bombing.

Phil, this is sort of related, the fact that the second in command of ISIS, he's been called that by analysts, was killed by U.S. forces. This is someone who was in charge or part of external operations, I should say, for ISIS. How big of a blow is that to the terror group?

MUDD: In context, it's a pretty significant operation. Let's look back to where we were in the summer of 2014, ISIS making land advances in Iraq and we're saying maybe even is Baghdad threatened.

A year-and-a-half, two years later, you're saying, not only is ISIS losing territory in Iraq, losing some territory in Syria, but a series of raids over time, this is not the only one, has taken out leadership. When you look at terror threats, you have to focus at leadership and whether they own space. They're losing both. This is significant.

BROWN: Paul, on that note, the Pentagon says the terrorist killed handled finances. He was a finance minister. How critical was that job and could others take over the operation for him?

MUDD: Oh, no doubt others could take over from him in terms of running ISIS' finances.

But the finances have come under strain in recent weeks. There was a document recovered from Raqqa indicating that they cut the salaries in half, so they are under more financial constraints now than they were just a few months ago because of the pressure of the anti-ISIS coalition.

But he's believed to be one of the very top leaders in the group, the key deputy and the number two to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The fact that they have managed to get him is very significant. There are three ISIS operatives, ISIS leaders they really, really want. He's one of them. The other two are Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He's the leader. And Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who is the leader of the international attack planning. The fact they got him may signify that they could get the others. This is a huge get.

BROWN: All right, Paul Cruickshank, Phil Mudd, Evan Perez, we will leave it there. Thank you so much.

And coming up, we have some new details about how the U.S. killed ISIS' second in command, why the special forces operation didn't go exactly as planned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:19] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome back to THE LEAD.

Breaking news in our world lead: the Pentagon say U.S. Special Forces have killed this man considered by experts to be ISIS' second in command during an operation in Syria.

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

Barbara, what more do we know about this operation?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Pamela. This was a secret operation by U.S. commandos. It didn't go as planned, but they got results.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): U.S. Special Operations Forces secretly sent into Syria trying to carry this man alive, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter bluntly described the target.

ASH CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: He was an ISIL leader, senior leader serving as a finance minister and who also is responsible for some external affairs and plots.

STARR: Somebody the U.S. government put a high priority on grabbing, including a $7 million bounty on his head.

COL. STEVE WARREN, SPOKESMAN, OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE: We know that he was actively planning external attacks, presumably in the West or even in the United States.

STARR: But even though the U.S. forces went in to capture him, they killed him in a highly dangerous mission, about which little is being revealed. The troops were part of the Pentagon's covert expeditionary targeting force, a team of 200 Special Operations Forces with orders to kill or capture ISIS leaders.

The unit had been tracking Qaduli, from helicopters overhead, they prepared to land and grab him from a vehicle on the road. Fighter jets overhead ready to act if the troops needed more fire power.

But sources tell CNN something went wrong. The commandos ended up having to open fire from their helicopters and killed Qaduli.

CARTER: The removal of this ISIL leader will hamper the organization's ability to conduct operations both inside and outside of Iraq and Syria.

STARR: Qaduli, who some analysts call the number two in ISIS, would have had crucial intelligence.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: This is somebody with significant credentials in global jihad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, if they had been able to capture him alive, the plan was to take him back to Iraq, interrogate him there for everything he knew and then turn him over to Iraqi forces for detention -- Pamela.

BROWN: As we've seen in other cases.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon -- thank you so much.

And joining me now is Admiral James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and he is currently dean of the Tufts Fletcher School.

Admiral, thanks so much for being here with us.

So, you know, the big debate today is how big of a deal is this. Is this a big blow to ISIS or is this just a game of whack-a-mole and they'll just replace him with someone else?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET), FMR. NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: I kind of put it in between those two outcomes, Pamela. It is a big deal for all the reasons you heard Secretary of Defense Ash Carter articulate. But we do need to remember, as we saw with al Qaeda, we killed the number three in al Qaeda over and over again. Someone will pop up, will fill these jobs. The key kill would be al Baghdadi, the head of the organization.

BROWN: So, this makes you wonder if we're better at gathering intelligence and are closer to getting Baghdadi.

STAVRIDIS: I think that may be the key thing that we take away from this, is finding and fixing and killing repeatedly now some of the leading figures really starts to add up to an improvement in the campaign, which has been stalled for a while.

BROWN: And in terms of intelligence gathering, what do you think it shows as far as our capabilities now? More human sources, better capabilities with electronic interceptions, what do you think?

STAVRIDIS: I think it's all of the above, as well as our increasing ability to use our Arab allies in the region. [16:20:02] Let's face it -- they can gather that human intelligence.

When you fuse that with the cellphones, with the cyber, with the social networks, with the overhead sensors, you have a very devastating package to apply.

BROWN: So, President Obama has said there's no need for a plan b that the U.S. is having success going after ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But then you have Senator Lindsey Graham who put out a statement today saying that missions like this, quote, "are no substitute for a sustained ground campaign which ultimately destroys the organization. Raids like these help, but at the end of the day, it will take an army to defeat an army."

Do you agree with that?

STAVRIDIS: I think it will take substantial ground forces eventually to go in. I'm not sure we need an army in the context of the 150,000 we had in Iraq, the 140,000 troops that were in Afghanistan. We probably nee 15,000 U.S. and NATO troops. We're going to need to get boots on the ground from the Iraqi security forces and the Kurds in the north.

When you put that package together, it is an army. But it doesn't require 150,000 U.S. troops. Probably in the vicinity of 15,000, I would say.

BROWN: What is your view, though, when it comes to other Arab and Gulf states and their role in the anti-ISIS coalition? What more needs to be done to get them involved, because they're so key here.

STAVRIDIS: They absolutely are. As you have seen, they have contributed to the air campaign thus far. They're working a bit on intel and special forces, but as we just discussed, we're going to need them to provide real boots on the ground. A good thing that's just happened is that the Saudis just conducted a massive exercise, northern wind, which put together an awful lot of the Sunni Arab states. I think it's the beginning of a coalition that could ultimately be very helpful.

BROWN: OK, I want to ask you quickly. Donald Trump says that we should re-evaluate U.S. involvement with NATO, calling it, quote, "obsolete", and that it needs to shed focus more on its Cold War mentality and focus more on fighting terror threats from ISIS.

You're a former supreme allied commander of NATO. What's your take on what he said?

STAVRIDIS: I think he's wrong. I think the key point that we need to focus on is that transatlantic bridge. Here you have 28 nations that represent over 50 percent of the world's GDP. It's an extraordinary capability.

We don't want to renegotiate, we don't want to give up our leadership position. What we should do is encourage the Europeans to spend more. They're already spending $300 billion, about half of what we do. That number could go up. We've got to put that kind of pressure on. But in terms of re-evaluating our presence in NATO, that would be a

mistake.

BROWN: All right, Admiral Stavridis, always great to hear your perspective. Thank you.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Pamela.

BROWN: Well, as raids continue for suspects tied to the Brussels terror attacks, we're learning more about the victims of those bombings, including two Americans.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:22] BROWN: And welcome back to THE LEAD.

Anguish for those who have been desperately praying for their loved ones return has now turned into heart-wrenching grief and despair. Officials confirm at least two Americans are among the 31 people killed in the Brussels explosions.

And we're also learning others with close ties to the U.S. lost their lives.

I'm going to bring in CNN correspondent Brynn Gingras.

And, Bren, U.S. officials confirmed two Americans died. How many people are still unaccounted for?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela, it's still sort of unclear how many people are still missing given just the sheer scope of all of these attacks. But Belgian authorities confirm they are on the ground, they are still working to identify the victims. For some families holding out hope, their worst fears have been confirmed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS (voice-over): A sobering confirmation from Secretary of State John Kerry, Americans among those killed in Tuesday's attacks.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States, I want you to know, is praying and grieving with you. For the loved ones of those who have been very cruelly taken from us.

GINGRAS: A senior U.S. official confirmed two Americans are among the 31 people who died. Their names have not been released. We do know, though, the identities of three more victims with American ties. Alex and Sascha Pinczowski were checking into their flight headed to New York. The family received a list of survivors at a Brussels hospital and the siblings were not on it.

In a statement the family said, "We received confirmation this morning from Belgian authorities and the Dutch embassy of the positive identification of the remains of Alexander and Sascha. We are grateful to have closure on this tragic situation and are thankful for the thoughts and prayers from all." Bart Migom was also killed. His family identified the 21-year-old's body at a Brussels hospital. They believe he was checking in for a flight to the U.S. to visit his girlfriend when one of the airport bombs exploded.

EMILY EISENMAN, GIRLFRIEND OF BART MIGOM: I'm going to miss the fact that he was my best friend and I just feel like I could spend the rest of my life with him. And I always told this to him at the end of our phone calls.

(SPEAKING FOREING LANGUAGE)

Which means Bart is always in Emily's heart.

GINGRAS: Two Americans are among those still missing. Justin and Stephanie Shults from Tennessee were dropping off Stephanie's mother Carolyn Moore at the airport. Moore was visiting the couple who live in Brussels. She survived the blast but says she has still not heard from her daughter or son-in-law.

And an emotional reunion for surviving victim Mason Wells and his parents.