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Terror in Germany. Truck Plows Through Christmas Market in Berlin; Gunman Assassinates Russian Ambassador to Turkey. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired December 19, 2016 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

And we will begin today with breaking news out of Germany. A man driving a truck barrelled through a Christmas market into a crowd in the heart of western Berlin this evening. This incident is now being investigated as an act of terrorism, an intelligence official tells CNN.

You're looking right now at horrific pictures from the aftermath. German police are reporting at least nine people have been killed, dozens more injured, perhaps as many as 50.

Let's get right to CNN's Frederik Pleitgen. He's on the scene in Berlin.

Fred, what's the latest on the ground there?


I'm actually standing right in front of the police cordon, and I can tell you there's still ambulances coming in and out of that cordoned- off area. I'm counting at least 20, maybe 25 ambulances.

Also, of course, a lot of police vehicles are on the scene here. I have been able to speak to a couple eyewitnesses, and they just described the Christmas market, which is one of the biggest here in the city, was absolutely jampacked with people.

Of course, this happened around 8:00 p.m. local time. People would have just come back from shopping, would have gone to the Christmas market to enjoy themselves. This truck just barrelled through apparently going around 40 miles an hour. Didn't make any sort of efforts to stop.

They say it barrelled through several market stalls, which are sort of small, little wooden shacks where things are sold, also knocked over a Christmas tree and then just also plowed through a lot of people.

Eyewitnesses describing that there were people trapped underneath the truck. Just absolute carnage that was described here. So, right now, obviously a lot of shocked people and the police trying to bring things to order here.

TAPPER: And, Fred, German police say they believe they have the driver of the truck in custody. Do we know anything about him? Do we know anything about the truck?

PLEITGEN: Nothing yet.

We know that the truck was a fairly large truck, so it wasn't like a bigger van. It was a proper truck that went through here, several tons of truck. We don't know anything yet about the man who was driving the truck from the authorities just yet.

We also don't know, quite frankly, whether or not there might have been someone else in the truck, whether there might have been a passenger in the truck as well. The police obviously still very much at the beginning of their investigation.

And you mentioned they said they had captured or arrested who they believed to be the driver of the truck. It seems as though that person was arrested actually a couple of blocks away from here, so not exactly at the scene.

You wonder whether that person may have run away, may have initially made an escape, but was then caught, but certainly the German police here definitely cordoning off the entire area. I have been covering this country for a very, very long time, Jake, and I have never seen a police operation of this magnitude.

TAPPER: And, Fred, viewers may not know the tradition in Germany of Christmas markets. Tell us about that and tell us about the significance of the square where you are.

PLEITGEN: Yes. It's absolutely significant.

First of all, Christmas markets are huge in Germany around this time of year. It's something many international tourists would have come here as well, and especially this one. It's right in the heart of West Berlin. It's right in the heart of one of West Berlin's largest shopping areas.

And it's also in a pedestrian zone where many, many people would have gathered. The place that this happened on is what used to be really the center of West Berlin when the city was still divided. The Church of Remembrance is here, which is a bombed-out church from World War II that has been restored to be a memorial.

This area is one that also in the past couple of years, Jake, has really gained in significance and drawn a lot more people. There is a lot of construction that happened here, a lot of new shops that opened, specifically to try and draw people to that specific pedestrian zone.

And, of course, around the Christmas market time is when that area would have been and was certainly packed when this incident happened. TAPPER: And, Fred, the U.S. State Department put out an alert at the

end of November, a Europe travel alert cautioning American citizens to exercise caution when anywhere near any holiday-themed market or any outdoor market.

We don't know what is going on. This is being investigated as an act of terrorism. But the police have not announced any clear motive. But it would seem to be those were the areas that would be -- people would be very vulnerable.

PLEITGEN: Well, you know what, Jake?

In the run-up to Christmas, there was a lot of talk here, a lot of the fear and anxiety in Germany that, first of all, there could be terror attacks around Christmas, and that, second of all, they could specifically be targeting these Christmas markets, because in almost every city in Germany you will have a major Christmas market that at this time of year is the center of that town.


It's the place where everybody goes. It's the place where people meet up, where people meet friends, so there was a lot of talk of tightening security measures around Christmas markets like this one.

I know from this specific area around here that there is actually still some construction going on, so I'm not sure whether or not any barriers were put up. After the Nice attacks, where of course a man plowed through a place there and hit bystanders, there have been additional security measures that were put in place.

I'm not sure if they were put in place here because this place, there was still a lot of construction going on here. But, yes, this is something people feared. They feared attacks around Christmastime and they specifically feared attacks on Christmas markets, especially the big Christmas markets like this one.

TAPPER: Fred Pleitgen in Berlin, stay with us.

I want to bring in CNN's Max Foster, who is also monitoring the situation. He is in London.

Max, there is news you're going to bring us now from the Berlin police about a second individual associated with this what appears to be a terrorist attack. Tell us what it is.

MAX FOSTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A very fast-moving progress here.

Very important, of course, in these incidents to do that, to try to act as quickly as possible. We know one suspended driver has been apprehended by the police. We now hear a second person in the vehicle has been found dead. That might suggest the immediate threat has been dealt with.

But we have also heard that residents in Berlin have been asked to stay indoors, which suggests the police are investigating whether or not there is a wider network here, whether there are more people involved. There's certainly a huge amount of concern over there in Berlin.

And we have also just heard that Chancellor Angela Merkel has just been briefed by the interior minister and the Berlin mayor suggesting -- really indicating the level of concern on this one.

TAPPER: Max, tell us about the threat level in Europe right now.

We have been hearing for a while that U.K. officials have been worried about a possible terrorist attack hitting close to home.


I was in a briefing just last week with the head of MI-6, the head of foreign intelligence in this country. He works very, very closely with his German and French counterparts, but also particularly the U.S. State Department officials as well and the CIA, of course.

He described to me that the scale of the threat is unprecedented. He said -- I'm just looking at my notes here -- a highly organized external attack planning structures within Da'esh, ISIS, even as they face military threat, are plotting ways to project violence against the U.K. and our allies without ever leaving Syria.

He very much links all the latest threat concerns here in Europe and the U.S. with what is going on in Syria. It's interesting to note that just last month the State Department put out a note warning U.S. tourists away from outdoor markets in this holiday season, pointing to credible information that ISIS was planning attacks here.

TAPPER: All right. Max Foster, stay with us.

Right now, let's bring in CNN contributor Michael Weiss, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem, and CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

Paul, obviously, this immediately conjures up images of the Nice Bastille Day attack over the summer in France.

Now, last month, in its magazine, ISIS called for more attacks like that, using trucks to drive into crowds. But at this point, do we know of anybody claiming responsibility for this?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Jake, there's been no claim of responsibility yet.

We're obviously in the early hours of this. But German authorities are investigating this as a potential act of terrorism. We understand that from German intelligence officials as they see the M.O. of this attack, very similar to Nice in terms of a truck being used.

There were 86 people who were killed in that attack in July. That really was not lost on ISIS. And ever since then, they have been trying to get their followers in the West to launch exactly that kind of attack again. We saw a similar kind of attack in the United States just last month at Ohio State. But in that case, the extremists used a car rather than a truck. ISIS telling their supporters that the carnage could be all that greater if their supporters used larger vehicles.

They have really been trying to suppress this with their supporters. Too early to tell who was responsible here. But certainly the M.O. starts pointing you potentially in the direction of some kind of terrorist attack.

Jake, this comes at a time when German officials are speaking of an unprecedented threat against their country. There are 820 Germans, people living in Germany who travel to fight with ISIS and other groups in Syria and Iraq, and more than 270 have come back.

They're very worried about ISIS-directed plot, ISIS-instigated plots or also ISIS-inspired plots. We have seen a string of these in German in the past few months. I believe this would be the first fatal Islamist terrorist attack in Germany if, indeed, it is an act of terrorism.


TAPPER: Michael Weiss, this is now being investigated as an act of terrorism. Let me just read from the magazine that's been alluded to.

It's "Rumiyah." And this is a description and a quote from a story in "The New Yorker" by Robin Wright. An article in the November issue of the ISIS magazine urged jihadis to attack outdoor festivals, markets, and the like.

And then I'm quoting from the magazine now, from the ISIS magazine -- quote -- "The method of such an attack is that a vehicle is plunged at a high speed into a large congregation of kuffar" -- that's non- believers -- "smashing their bodies with the vehicle's strong outer frame while advancing forward."

It gets more graphic from there.

Michael, I have heard some people suggest that the reason ISIS is doing this is because they no longer have the capability to carry out attacks with bombs. But they will use anything.

MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I wouldn't say they don't have the capability to carry out bomb attacks, but this is much easier.

Cruder methods of killing as many people as possible is what ISIS prefers, because in that way they can inspire other people who have not linked up with their so-called caliphate in Raqqa or Mosul to carry out these kinds of operations.

This goes out to what Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was up until recently the ISIS spokesman, the U.S. took him out in an airstrike several months ago, he said this in 2014 -- or 2013, excuse me.

He said, look, you don't have to come here and be trained up by us. As a Muslim, you have a religious obligation to kill the kuffar, kill the crusaders and the Zionists and so on. Take a knife. Stab somebody in the chest. Take a gun. Shoot them at point-blank range. Or get in a car and drive over them.

Since then, we have seen these attempts to do exactly that. And actually even Adnani wasn't original on this point. Al Qaeda had been suggesting low-grade vehicular manslaughter, vehicular homicide attacks going back several years now.

And I can tell you, having talked to ISIS defectors, including one guy I profiled a year ago who was part of the security services or the Amniyat, he had said to me that Germany was a huge, huge target for ISIS. France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain are the main countries in Europe that ISIS is looking to strike in.

TAPPER: And, Juliette Kayyem, last month, the U.S. State Department warned Americans about the heightened risk of terror attacks in Europe and advised caution specifically at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets.

That information seemed to be focused in Europe, not necessarily in the United States, but should Americans at home here in the United States be concerned with the holidays approaching?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think there is a legitimate sort of concern for what we're about to face I think in the next six weeks, because you have a sort of three-part threat environment.

The first is the holiday season. We have always sort of ramped up in terms of our threat concerns and security around the holidays. Second, you have a presidential transition, and in most Western democracies, transition times are sort of high alert times, not because of any personalities, but simply transitions in democracies are of concern, because you have new people coming on.

And then, third, now you have this more specific ISIS agenda that Paul and Michael were just talking about. So, what you will see, I have no doubt, having been part of this, you will see mayors coming forward in the next couple days talking about barriers to big events, mobile barriers to big events to try to assure people to still from forward.

I don't think you will see cancellations unless we get specific threats, but it's safe to say that the threat environment should be higher given what we're seeing in the last couple weeks and specifically today, but we also have done a lot of training to get law enforcement and public safety ready for this.

TAPPER: And that State Department alert was based on credible information about possible ISIS attacks in Europe with a focus on the upcoming holiday season and associated events.

I want to go back right now to CNN international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, who is on the scene of the attack on Berlin.

Fred, tell us what you're seeing there. PLEITGEN: Hi, Jake.

As you can see behind me, there is a lot of ambulance vehicles here. You can also see that even about two hours and 15 minutes after this attack took place, there are still new ambulances coming in here. And you can see there is a fire truck also coming out.

So there's still a lot of movement here on the part of the authorities trying to get to grips with the situation. We have been speaking to a couple of eyewitnesses here on the ground. And they just described how horrible those moments were when that truck came through there.

They said that it came in at around 40 miles an hour. It didn't make any sort of effort to stop, just simply plowed through several market stalls.

And it's interesting now, Jake, because we have just gotten that new information that apparently someone on the passenger seat was dead at the scene, died on the scene, and that they have apprehended who they believe is the driver of the truck.

I spoke to one eyewitness a little earlier, and she said that she saw the truck after it came to the stop and that there was a big hole in the windshield.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And it's interesting now, Jake, because we just gotten that new information that apparently someone on the passenger seat was dead on the scene, died on the scene, and that they apprehended who they believe is the driver of the truck.

[16:15:05] I spoke to one eyewitness a little earlier, and she said that she saw the truck after it came to a stop and that there was a big hole in the windshield. There were some items stuck in the windshield, apparently, from hitting things, but there was also a big hole, and she wondered whether somebody had fired at the truck, possibly a police officer. I'm sure in the next couple hours, we'll get more detail on that.

But as you can see here -- and I've covered a lot of events here in Germany, Jake, as I said. This is being treated as a mass casualty event. You can see the amount of ambulances that are coming through, fire trucks are here. I've seen search and rescue dogs here as well. Obviously, the police making a big effort to search for any sort of clues that might be in the area. This is, of course, a very crush crime scene, but one where the authorities have moved in a lot of personnel, a lot of assets very, very quickly to come to terms with this situation.

And, you know, some of what your guests were saying is absolutely correct. This is, of course, in many ways unprecedented attack here in Germany, certainly what many, many people had be fearing and many hope would never happen. And it also hit a very iconic place. I don't know if we can fan a little.

You can see that building we keep talking about. It's the Church of Remembrance. It is arguably the most iconic sight or attraction here in West Berlin. It's a church that was bombed in World War II and was sort of preserved as a ruin. Many, many people come here and this Christmas market here is one that would have been very packed, of course, as this happened around 8:00 p.m. local time, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Fred, Max, Juliette, Michael and Paul, thank you so much.

Now to our other breaking news, a Russian ambassador gunned down on tape, the shooter yelling, "God is the greatest" in Arabic, "Allahu Akbar" and saying, do not forget Aleppo. New information in that story is coming in. We're going to have that next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You're looking at live pictures from Berlin. Ambulances crowding the streets there in West Berlin, trying to get to victims of what is being investigated as a terrorist attack on a Christmas market.

[16:20:08] A truck being plowed into a crowd there. Nine people have been killed, dozens more wounded. We will continue to monitor the situation and bring you new details as we get them.

But we are also learning more right now about a different attack and what the Russian government is calling an act of terror. An assassination in Ankara, the Turkish capital, this afternoon. The Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was shot and killed by an assailant who Turkey's interior minister now tells us was an off-duty police Turkish officer.

This happened at the opening of an art exhibit as which Karlov had spoken. And video cameras were there and they captured all of it.

Now, let me caution you at home if you have children watching right now, you might want to send them out of the room. The video we are about to show you is disturbing and graphic. You're about to see the moment when the assassin's gunfire hits Karlov in the back.


TAPPER: Now, immediately after the ambassador drops to the floor, you can hear the assassin shot "Allahu Akbar" several times. That's an Islamic phrase roughly translating as "God is the greatest". And then he says in Turkish, "Do not forget Aleppo, do not forget Syria, do not forget Aleppo, do not forget Syria."

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon and is covering this for us.

And, Barbara, judging by the rant after the assassin shot the ambassador, this would seem to be a politically motivated act, seemingly opposing Russia's partnership with the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad who has been killing hundreds of thousands of his fellow Syrians. But has any group said the assassin did this in the group's name? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Right now, Jake, there is

no official claim of responsibility tying any group in particular to this assassin. But it may be worth reflecting. This is the kind of act of sudden violence that shakes the world, that maybe the sudden kind of act President-elect trump will have to deal with from day one.


STARR (voice-over): The shocking assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey caught on video. Ambassador Andrey Karlov was shot dead while making a speech at an art exhibition in Turkish capital, Ankara. The horrifying moment when the ambassador is hit and falls to the ground after being shot in the back with multiple rounds.

As onlookers scramble for safety, the gunman shouted defiantly.

GUNMAN (translated): God is greatest. Do not forget Aleppo. Do not forget Syria. Do not forget Aleppo. Do not forget Syria.

Get back, get back. Only death will remove me from here. Everyone who has taken part in this oppression will one by one pay for it.

STARR: Turkish authority said the attacker was, quote, "neutralized". Turkey's interior minister said the gunman was a law enforcement officer, a 22-year-old member of the riot police who was born in Turkey, off duty on the night of the attack.

The State Department condemned it.

JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We stand ready to offer any assistance that may be required to Russia and Turkey as they investigate this despicable attack, which was, as the secretary noted, also an assault on the right of all diplomats to safely and securely advance and represent their nations around the world.

STARR: A journalist took these stunning photographs moments after the carnage began.

After the attack, as the ambassador was quickly taken to the hospital, Turkish security forces swarmed the area.

It is not clear what impact the killing may have now on Turkey's sometimes fragile relations with Russia which hit an all-time low after Turkish forces shot down a Russian war plane near the Syrian border in November 2015.

Russia also is widely blamed by many in the region for its part in supporting Syria's Assad regime amid a humanitarian crisis taking place in war-torn Aleppo. Following the ambassador's assassination, Turkey's President Erdogan and Russian President Putin spoke by phone, according to a Russian news agency. Both countries along with Iran expected to hold a summit on Syria in Moscow Tuesday. The slain ambassador had served as Russia's ambassador to Turkey since 2013. He was married and had one son, according to the Russian embassy.

(END VIDEOTAPE) STARR: For Moscow, the evaluation may now have to be made to what extent its involvement in Syria has now resulted in a trend towards more violence next door in Turkey -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Let's bring in CNN correspondent Muhammad Lila from Hatay, Turkey.

Muhammad, what are we learning about the gunman?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we're starting to get a clear picture of who this gunman, this assassin was.

[16:25:02] He was a 22-year-old Turkish national who was a riot squad police officer, and that explains why he was able to handle a firearm in that chilling video so well, because he had that training that might also explain why he was able to infiltrate that crowd without being noticed.

Now, we understand from Turkish officials that both his father and his mother and his sister have all been detained. Investigators are now combing through the belongings in his house looking for that trail of electronics, communications devices, trying to figure out who he was in touch with. But Turkish officials have gone on record to say that they are investigating him for links to the Gulenist group.

And this is how what's happening here in this part of the world could affect Turkey's relationship with the United States as well, because the head of that group, Fethullah Gulen, is living in the United States. Turkey has been asking for his extradition. Turkey blames that Gulenist movement for being behind the failed coup earlier this year. So, if these links are proven and this gunman was part of that Gulenist group, you're going to start to see a lot more action and a lot more strong messaging coming from Turkey demanding the extradition of that group's leader.

TAPPER: That's right. The aging cleric is leaving in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Muhammad Lila, thank you so much.

Moscow was quick to condemn the assassination of its ambassador. But an ally of Vladimir Putin was going further than Moscow and blaming the West for the assassination. Alexey Pushkov, the ex-head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee and a Putin ally claimed the media hysteria about the atrocities in Aleppo pushed by opponents of Russia led to the assassination.

CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward is in Moscow for us.

And, Clarissa, does this reflect larger Russian thinking right now or it's just one man?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think to a certain extent it probably does, Jake. I mean, it's too early to say exactly how Muscovites are going to react to this and Russians at large. But we did see a tweet from another Russian lawmaker. He tweeted

somewhat conspiratorially. "The West is afraid of the friendship of Russia and Turkey," perhaps implying that the West could somehow have had some role in this, either deliberately or inadvertently. As you said, we saw that tweet from Alexey Pushkov, saying essentially the media propaganda has riled people up, has whipped people into a fervor.

And I think it's true to say at the moment, if you're looking on your Twitter feed or your Facebook feed, there is a proliferation at the moment of pro-Russian media organizations that have essentially been leveling this accusation at the larger media, at the Western media, saying the accounts of what's happening in Aleppo are exaggerated and that they are potentially whipping people up or riling them into a frenzy, as Pushkov himself tweeted.

From the president, though, Jake, President Putin, we're seeing a relatively cool, level-headed response. President Putin said the only response we should offer to this murder is stepping up our fight against terror. He said it was an attack on the normalization of Russia-Turkish relationship, an attack on the Syrian peace process, and, of course, there is a summit taking place here tomorrow. In attendance will be the Turkish foreign minister, the Iranian foreign minister, the Russian foreign minister. The focus of that summit is Syria. That summit is still expected to go on.

So, I wouldn't expect to see any hasty reaction from Moscow, from the Kremlin. More likely, they will watch to see what the results of this investigation will bring in terms of identifying whether this perpetrator had a larger network, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Clarissa Ward in Moscow for us, thank you.

How the assassination of the Russian ambassador could need the help of international intelligence officials working together. How might that work? Stay with us.