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Parishioners Fight Back against Gunman in Texas Church; Man Stabs Several During Jewish Service in New York; CEO of Anti- Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, is Interviewed about Recent Anti-Semitic Attacks; U.S. Airstrikes Hit Iran-Backed Militia in Iraq & Syria. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired December 30, 2019 - 06:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Breaking news out of Texas, after a gunman opened fire during a Sunday morning church service.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two parishioners returned fire. And within six seconds, the suspect is taken down.

JEFF WILLIAMS, TEXAS DPS: The citizens who were inside that church, undoubtedly, saved 242 other parishioners.

BRITT FARMER, SENIOR PASTOR: Two men today left a legacy. But the congregation is going to build on that legacy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was during the moment that the rabbi was lighting the menorah, Thomas allegedly began his stabbing spree.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): I consider this an act of domestic terrorism.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If there was ever a time that we say no to religious bigotry, this is the time.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Monday, December 30. It's 6 a.m. here in New York. Alisyn is off. Poppy Harlow here with me this morning.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good to be with you.

BERMAN: Happy almost new year.

HARLOW: Happy almost new year. I wish we had better news today. BERMAN: I know. It is really a grim morning here. We begin with two

horrifying attacks on people at worship. The latest in Texas where a gunman opened fire inside a church during Sunday services. The gunman killed two people before being shot and killed by parishioners. The church's livestream captured the exchange of fire. It was all over in just six seconds. We're going to show you the video and the latest on the suspect and motive coming up.

HARLOW: The Texas attack happening in the wake of the stabbing rampage inside a rabbi's home right near New York City. That attack left five people wounded. And it could have been even more deadly if the people inside were not the heroes that they were and did not fight back in the way that they did.

Police say the suspect was covered in blood when they caught him two hours later. He has pleaded not guilty. Overnight his lawyer releasing a statement, noting that he has a long history of mental illness.

New York's governor is calling the act an act of domestic terrorism. It is the latest in a string of violent anti-Semitic incidents across the area.

Let's begin our coverage, though, with our Lucy Kavanaugh, live in White Settlement, Texas, where parishioners were attacked inside of a church.

Good morning. What can you tell us?

LUCY KAVANAUGH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, this morning the community here is grappling with the aftermath of yet another senseless act of violence. The attack taking place just before 11 a.m. during the Sunday services at that church behind me yesterday.

You see in the video, because the service was livestreamed, the video shows a man sitting in the back. He's dressed in all black. He then gets up and walks to the front of the church, appearing to talk to somebody else before pulling out a shotgun and opening fire.

Two parishioners, volunteer security guards, they were armed. They immediately opened fire back. The whole thing open -- over, pardon me, in just six seconds, captured on camera.

I want to show you that clip and warn our viewers that it is difficult and disturbing to watch. Keep your eyes on the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Let's play that video.




KAVANAUGH: I know that's difficult to watch. This was, unfortunately, not the first attack against a church here in Texas. Twenty-six people died in the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs. In the wake of that mass shooting, Texas enacted a new law, allowing licensed handgun owners to carry weapons inside houses of worship.

The pastor here praising that law, saying that's why this attack was over so swiftly. Those two armed volunteer security guards taking that suspect down in six seconds. They are being praised as heroes by the pastor, as well as law enforcement. Take a listen.


WILLIAMS: The citizens who were inside that church undoubtedly saved 242 other parishioners.

FARMER: Today is one sermon I'll never preach. It'll go away. It was called leaving a legacy. And two men today left a legacy. But a congregation is going to build on that legacy.


KAVANAUGH: Authorities are not releasing the identity of the shooter or the two victims. He is known to be a transient with roots to the area. He's been arrested in multiple municipalities, but he is not on any sort of terror watch list. That's all we have for you right now, Poppy.

HARLOW: Wow. Just, you know, seeing the video and the silence and then the gunshots. And it's tragic. Thank you very, very much for your reporting. We appreciate it.

Now to the stabbing spree at a rabbi's home outside of New York City, where nearly 100 Orthodox Jews were celebrating Hanukkah. This attack is the latest in a string of anti-Semitic violence in the area.

Let's go live to Brynn Gingras. She is live in Monsey, New York, where the stabbings unfolded.

Brynn, what do we know about what happened and also the motive?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy. Well, we know that a hundred people were gathered in this home here behind me, celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah. It was supposed to be a night of peace and reflection, and really, it just turned into a night of terror.

Reports are that people were actually throwing furniture at this attacker, grabbing their loved ones, trying to get out of this house as the suspect allegedly pulled out a knife so big it was described as looking like a broomstick.


GINGRAS (voice-over): A gruesome stabbing on the seventh night of Hanukkah leaving five people injured just as Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg was lighting the menorah in his home right outside of New York City. Police say Grafton Thomas entered, pulled out a large knife, and began his stabbing spree. Nearly 100 people were gathered in the home celebrating the holiday. [06:05:12]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw him walking in by the door. I asked who is coming in in the middle of the night with an umbrella? While I was saying that, he pulled it out from the thing, and I'm throwing tables and chairs, that he should get out of here.

GINGRAS: After the attack, a witness tells CNN the attacker tried to go to a nearby synagogue, but the worshippers inside locked the door.

This surveillance video captures the suspect fleeing the rabbi's home, running toward his car moments after the attack. Witnesses gave police a license plate number.

A plate reader located the suspect's car crossing over the Georg Washington Bridge in New York City nearly two hours after the attack, where he was apprehended by police.

Thomas was arraigned Sunday morning, charged with five counts of attempted murder and one count of first-degree burglary. He pleaded not guilty.

In a statement, Thomas's family lawyer says that he has "no history of violent acts" and "has a long history of mental illness and hospitalizations."

Thomas's pastor, who says she has known him for more than ten years, echoed the sentiment.

PASTOR WENDY PAIGE, KNEW SUSPECT FOR MORE THAN TEN YEARS: Grafton is not a terrorist. He is a man who has mental illness in America, and the systems that be, have not served him well.

GINGRAS: All five victims are Hasidic Jews. They are being treated at area hospitals. One of them was the son of the rabbi.

DANI DAYAN, CONSUL GENERAL OF ISRAEL IN NEW YORK: In this Hanukkah, we suffered more anti-Semitic incidents that the -- that we live. And that it's impossible to bear. We are in a completely different day.

GINGRAS: This attack comes just weeks after a deadly terror attack at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. Over the last week, there have been at least nine attacks on Jews in the New York area.

Governor Andrew Cuomo says he wants to classify hate-crime attacks against religious groups as domestic terrorism.

CUOMO: And I want this state to be the first state to have a domestic terrorism law. To express how ignorant this is, how intolerant it is, and how criminal it is. And I'll be proposing that law for this state.


GINGRAS: Now, while Thomas's family points to a history of mental illness, authorities have not released any details on a motive. We know Thomas is being held behind bars right now on $5 million bail. He's set to be back in court on Friday.

Now, John, this town, Monsey, is in Rockland County. It has the highest, largest Jewish population per capita in the entire United States. This has rocked this community. And we know authorities are really stepping up patrols at synagogues, other places of worship, not just here but really across the state -- John.

BERMAN: On the seventh night of Hanukkah. Bryn Gingras for us in Monsey. Thank you very much.

The Anti-Defamation League has issued a stark warning after the latest string of anti-Semitic attacks. New York has a, quote, "growing problem." We're going to speak to the head of the ADL next.



BERMAN: The Jewish community in New York is on edge this morning after this weekend's stabbing spree at a rabbi's home in a suburb of New York City. The Anti-Defamation League says, quote, "New York has a growing problem. This is at least the tenth anti-Semitic incident to hit New York area in just the last week. When will enough be enough?"

Joining me now to discuss is the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt.

What's going on here?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT, CEO, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: It's a climate of fear that's been created, John, in the Orthodox community. Not just over the past week and a half but over the past several years. Because the number of incidents, of acts of vandalism and violence, have been growing against the Orthodox community in particular.

We see it in places like Brooklyn, neighborhoods like Crown Heights, in Borough Park, in Williamsburg, and now in Monsey. Earlier this month in Jersey City. There's a pattern that's undeniable. Whether it's shopping in their supermarkets or worshipping in synagogues, or even celebrating in their homes, the Jewish community is under attack, and it's got to stop.

BERMAN: You've mentioned just some of the attacks recently in the New York area, but it's not just the New York area. And it has been over the last year or two we've seen the attack, the house in Monsey. We saw Jersey City.


BERMAN: You said you were just doing Shiva visits --


BERMAN: -- for people who were killed there. And now you're up in Monsey, dealing with that. April 27, the person was killed in Poway, California. And back on October 27, 2018, the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

And this corresponds to a rise in anti-Semitic incidents that you've tracked, up 99 percent since, what? 2015?

GREENBLATT: That's correct.

BERMAN: That's a big rise.

GREENBLATT: Look, we have almost double the number of incidents, as you said, in just a few years. You can't open up your browser without seeing anti-Semitic slander on social media. It's disgusting. You can't open up the headlines without politicians and elected officials making comments about dual loyalty and Zionists and whatnot. It all has to stop.

BERMAN: Is it all connected, though? Because, look, the attack in Monsey, the attack in the Hasidic community there in Jersey City, is that part and parcel to the other things we've seen also?

GREENBLATT: Anti-Semitism comes in many forms. So we have the kind of violent, white nationalist anti-Semitism, which is highly- organized. We have this kind of anti-Semitism, which is a little bit less difficult to sort of characterize. But the climate is the same, and the outcome is the same. Jewish people feel insecure, and they are.

BERMAN: Has there been a mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in a way over the last few years?

GREENBLATT: No doubt. I describe this as the normalization of anti- Semitism. People feel like it's permissible to say things like there are conspiracies being created by invisible Jewish financiers or people like George Soros or Sheldon Adelson or others. So you have a climate in which these stereotypes, which have long been out there, have suddenly moved from the margins into the mainstream.

And that's why we need -- you know, thoughts and prayers, that time is over. We need action now.

BERMAN: What action? Do you need a federal domestic terror law?

GREENBLATT: We sure do. I mean, I think when Congress comes into session next month, we want them to pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. We want them to pass the No Hate Act. So those things need to happen so the federal level --

BERMAN: They don't exist. I don't think people realize they don't exist now at the federal level.

GREENBLATT: Yes. It's really quite remarkable that we don't take this kind of domestic terrorism seriously, and we need to. We need all law enforcement to be trained.

But at the state and local level, I'm really glad Governor Cuomo said what he did yesterday. We need a greater police presence in the places where Jews are, again, vulnerable. And I'll say one other thing. I feel very strongly about criminal

justice reform. And we've talked about things like, you know, -- and you've seen politicians, like Governor Cuomo, talk about bail reform, which is really important. If you jump a turnstile or you shoplift a pack of chewing gum, I'm not sure bail is the most important thing.

But if you brutalize a person because of the way they pray, if you attack an individual because of where they're from, that should not be something where you're immediately getting released without bail.


BERMAN: I want to ask about this case in particular. The suspect here, you heard people close to him in that piece claiming some kind of a mental illness. Now, we have a lot to learn here.


BERMAN: And it will all come out, but I do think it's important to note that just because there is mental illness doesn't mean there can't be a tie to anti-Semitism.

Couldn't the mentally ill be particularly vulnerable to the anti- Semitic themes and messages that exist in our society?

GREENBLATT: Of course. I mean, look, I have sympathy and compassion for those who are mentally ill. But that doesn't excuse bursting into someone's home with a machete and trying to slaughter them while they're lighting a Hanukkah menorah. This isn't normal.

And that's why, you know, we need politicians to act. We need legislation to be passed.

But I will say this: Silicon Valley needs to stop allowing social media to be a breeding ground for bigotry. The mentally ill are exposed to the kind of hate you couldn't find in print media or broadcast. That seems to me to be a big part of the problem.

BERMAN: Jonathan, you say it isn't normal. And I'm struck by the fact that I've spoken to you now I don't know how many times --

GREENBLATT: Right, right.

BERMAN: -- in the last year or two. You keep coming back to have to talk about this. If it's not normal, yet you keep coming back, how does it get stopped?

GREENBLATT: Well, again, this is what we do. We need our leaders to lead. We need people in public places to speak out. But also ordinary citizens need to stand up and say, we won't tolerate intolerance. Because you're right, John. When we see hate being normalized, all of us lose.

BERMAN: And one more question. The stuff that you were talking about with Poppy in the break and so -- and I think it's important. The ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic community -- Hasidic community here in the United States, you think they're particular targets because of the way they look, often.

GREENBLATT: Yes, look, it's easy to spot someone wearing a black hat or a kippot. It's easy to see them and pick them out of a crowd.

But I'll say two things. No. 1, I might not wear a black hat myself. I might, you know, worship at a different synagogue, but we're all brothers and sisters in the Jewish community. That's an attack on one Jewish community; it's an attack on all of us.

And secondly, keep in mind, anti-Semitism may start with the Jews; it never ends with the Jews. It's a sign of rot and decay in democracy and in broader society. That's why all Americans were affected by this crime.

BERMAN: And I think that's such an important message from the ADL over the decades. Thank you so much for being with us this morning, Jonathan Greenblatt. Great to see you.

GREENBLATT: Thank you.

HARLOW: It really is a powerful, important message this morning for all of us to consider.

Ahead for us, an Iranian-backed militia vowing revenge this morning after being hit by multiple U.S. airstrikes. We're going to tell you what you need to know about the growing tension in the region, ahead.



BERMAN: Developing overnight, Iranian-backed militia in Iraq now calling for U.S. forces to be pushed out of that country. This comes after a series of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting these militias.

CNN's Arwa Damon is live in Istanbul with the very latest. Rising tensions in an already tense region -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and that might even be an understatement, John, given how serious the situation is, with Iraq basically telling both Washington and Tehran to stop using it as a proxy battlefield.

Iran also has now warned of grave consequences following these strikes, which according to the Pentagon, targeted five areas: three of them in Iraq, two of them in Syria. The Pentagon saying that they were going after arms depots, weapons depots, as well as command and control centers belonging to this Shia militia known as Kataib Hezbollah.

It is backed by Iran and was, in fact, one of the militias that the U.S. put under this umbrella called the special groups that were especially actively in targeting the U.S. Military back during the days of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The militia itself has said that at least some 25 people were killed,

another 51 injured in these strikes. They put out a statement, calling on their forces to begin preparing and planning for more operations to push, as they said, the enemy America out of the country.

Now, Iraq's caretaker prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, has called these strikes a violation of Iraq's sovereignty. He was informed that the strikes would take place about half an hour before they did. He then asked that the U.S. restrain. America, however, as we know, did not. And he is warning of a grave escalation.

Now, the U.S. has come close to retaliating against Iran in the past. If you'll remember, there were those strikes against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and then Iran's downing of a U.S. drone. America, however, did restrain itself on those occasions.

In this case, these particular attacks were in response to an attack outside of Kirkuk on a facility that was housing U.S. military personnel that ended up killing one U.S. contractor.

Of course, the great concern in all of this is that, if this situation escalates, that is detrimental not just to the stability of Iraq but that of the region as a whole.

HARLOW: Arwa, thank you very much. And the broader picture here and the stability of the region is critical.

Let's talk to CNN military and diplomatic analyst Rear Admiral John Kirby. He is, of course, former press secretary at the Pentagon, as well.

Good morning to you. We'll get to the stability question in the region in a moment. But just talking about this group, because this is a group responsible for 11 rocket attacks in two months, places where Americans are based in Iraq. The attack, the most recent one in Kirkuk, killed a U.S. contractor, wounded four American troops. Explain the significance of these strikes.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, what these -- the airstrikes by the U.S. --


KIRBY: -- were meant to retaliate against this group and their ability to conduct these kinds of attacks in the future. So they hit ammunition facilities. They hit a command and control facility, all trying to take out their ability to do this. Again, and also to send a very strong message that we're not going to -- we're not going to accept it.

Now, we have to see where the reaction is. I mean, this group is supported by Iran through their proxy organizations. So we'll have to see, you know, how not only the militia groups react, but how Iran reacts, as well. HARLOW: I wonder what your read is on the "Wall Street Journal"

editorial board writing, "Trump finally fires back at Iran." Let me read part of their opinion piece. It struck me. Quote, "It's about time," they write. "Mr. Trump's reluctance to use force in response to previous Iranian attacks is one reason why General Soleimani" -- of course, the Quds Force -- "may feel that he can get away with more attacks."

Do you agree? And will this now, these strikes from the U.S. now deter any future potential attacks?

KIRBY: Well, certainly we're meant to deter. I think that's a very open question, Poppy, whether or not they'll be successful.

I suspect Iran -- will will try to respond in some way. It most likely won't be in kind. But what we'll have to see.

And -- and look, and I understand where "The Wall Street Journal" is coming from. The president has shown more restraint than I think some people would like him to -- to have shown in going after Iran in the past.

This one is a little different, though. We're not talking about them shooting down a drone or attacking tankers. We're talking about Shia- backed -- Iranian-backed Shia militia. So not Iranian forces.

HARLOW: Right.

KIRBY: Not Iranian armed forces but militias on the ground. And this strike was very proportional. They struck at facilities that they know were involved in those prior 11 rocket attacks that we've seen over the last two months. So it was very proportional. Very discreetly done.

HARLOW: Listen to this from Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He was speaking yesterday and did not -- notably did not -- rule out further action. Here he was.


MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.


HARLOW: What does that tell you, Admiral Kirby, about where the administration's mindset is now? Because "The Wall Street Journal" was referencing the fact that they did not respond in June after the drone was downed or after the Saudi oil field attacks back in September.

KIRBY: Yes. So the key phrase in what that -- that clip you just showed was "as necessary." So I suspect what's happening now is U.S. Central Command in charge of our forces in the region are looking at their force protection measures and taking necessary precautions to increase it as appropriate, including perhaps even forced posture changes we don't know right now. But they're getting ready for whatever reaction that will come from Iran.

I think there's very little appetite by this administration and certainly by the military to escalate this further. And I think it's important to remember that when we talk about escalation, it was the Iranian -- the Shia-backed militias, really, that have been the ones escalating, you know, the level of tension --


KIRBY: -- over the last couple of months.

HARLOW: Absolutely. Finally, before you go, what is your take on the response from Iraq's prime minister, calling it a violation of Iraq sovereignty?


HARLOW: As we understand it, there was no coordination with Iraq, but they were notified before the strikes. What do you make of this?

KIRBY: Well, two things. One, I mean, they've got their own domestic politics to deal with. They've had huge protests by a disaffected young population in Iraq that accuses their government of corruption and mismanagement. So they have a domestic issue there to deal with.

They also want to keep a good relationship with Iran. That's their neighbor. The prime minister and the government are Shia, so they are tied, you know, at least from a religious perspective, to Iran. They know they have to have that relationship in good standing.

But I found it ironic that, you know, the Iraqi prime minister is accusing the Americans of violating their sovereignty when, "A," we're on the ground at their request to help support them in their fight against ISIS. And "B," they haven't said boo about the Iranian support from militia groups inside their country, which has been firing on those very same coalition forces that they want, you know, to be there. So I find it -- I find it highly ironic.

HARLOW: Admiral Kirby, thank you for being here this morning. Appreciate it.

KIRBY: You bet. You bet.

BERMAN: So new emails related to the Ukraine scandal show the concern inside the Trump administration about freezing aid for months this summer. These new details in a live report, next.