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U.S. Attack on al Qaeda Cell; Obama to Speak at U.N.; A Look Inside ISIS; The President's Latte Salute

Aired September 24, 2014 - 09:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The delegates are arriving here at the United Nations, getting ready for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly. Brazil will speak first; the United states will speak second. Representing the United States, the President of the United States. A major speech by President Obama focusing in on the ISIS threats in Iraq and Syria. But also he'll address other international issues including what's going on in Ukraine, the Ebola crisis, the nuclear negotiations that under way with Iran. A whole host of international issues on the agenda for the President of the United States. He'll be speaking in about a half an hour, we're told, or so from now.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We'll get back to you, Wolf. Thanks so much.

While the world has been expecting airstrike in Syria against ISIS, Tuesday's attacks against the Khorasan group came as quite a surprise. It was the United States going it alone, taking part in the first wave of airstrikes against this al Qaeda offshoot. No Arab coalition support here. Eight tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. warships at Khorasan targets in eastern and northern Syria before any attack took place on ISIS. Now the United States is defending its airstrikes on these seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria claiming the Khorasan group was actively plotting against the United States with an attack that was imminent. But were these so-called imminent threats? Why weren't Americans told about them in the first place? Paul Cruickshank is CNN's terrorism analyst. He joins us now with more.

Good morning.


COSTELLO: So do you believe there was an imminent threat from this Khorasan group?

CRUICKSHANK: I don't think that was a particularly smart form of words. I don't think there are any indications that this group was about to launch some sort of attack. But we are told that they were in the planning stage for an attack, that they were testing different kinds of devices that they could try and smuggle onto planes, either smuggle them into electronics or toiletries to target western passenger jets. So they were scheming, but they weren't about to pull the trigger.

COSTELLO: They were not about to pull the trigger. Well, the administration says there was an imminent threat. If there was an imminent threat, shouldn't the American people have been aware of that?

CRUICKSHANK: If the threat was imminent, absolutely you'd expect the American people be made aware, to try and prevent some sort of terrorist plot.

COSTELLO: So, of course, the administration also -- or the military, I should say, it says that Americans were not told about this imminent threat because they didn't want to scare away the Khorasan group. It would have like destroyed their military mission. And -- is any of that -- does that sit well with you?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, intelligence officials were talking openly about the Khorasan group. James Clapper, for example, the director of national intelligence, before these strikes. So it wasn't a lot of secrecy before they hit the group just this week, Carol.

COSTELLO: And, you know, I can't help but think there was a lot of chatter about Osama bin Laden, but that mission went off fine even though we were all talking about it. We didn't know specifically where it was, but it didn't scare them away from their hiding place.

CRUICKSHANK: That's absolutely right. But, in general, you don't want to tip off your adversaries that, you know, you may know things about them, their location, their plans and those kind of things because then they can change their behavior, perhaps move operatives away from training camps, make it more difficult to target them, more difficult to disrupt plots.

COSTELLO: So how many more Khorasan-like groups are there within Syria?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, there's a lot of concern about Syria because it's kind of the dream terror safe haven for all these groups. There's obviously ISIS there. There's another al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, which has a very strong presence in Syria. And then there are all sorts of ISIS subgroups, brigades of British fighters, German fighters, French fighters. The concern is some of these sub groups could take matters into their own hands and plot terror attacks back in their home countries.

COSTELLO: So, in light of what happened with the Khorasan group, is it crazy for me to believe that the United States could strike those groups as well and say they were posing an imminent threat?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, the United States already striking a variety of different groups in Syria, including Jabhat al Nusra, including ISIS, the Khorasan group. They're striking all sorts of different groups, Carol.

COSTELLO: And it's not that I think Americans object to attacking these groups, because, you know, they want the United States protected. It's just that not knowing is bothersome in light of past wars and what we didn't know.

CRUICKSHANK: I think that's right. I think the American public want to know what the threat is. They have a right to know. And it can really help counterterrorism services if they know what to look out for with these terror plots.

COSTELLO: Paul Cruickshank, thanks as always. I appreciate it.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, life under ISIS. Banned supplies burned. Residents intimidated. Teenagers recruited as informants. CNN's Brian Todd looks at the terror group's home base.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, that's all happening inside the city of Raqqa. We're not getting firsthand accounts from inside that city of how ISIS is ruling by terror and bending local residents to its will. We'll have that story just ahead.


BLITZER: Looking at arrivals here at the United Nations. The delegates are arriving. The president of the United States will be speaking shortly. The president will be making a major address on what's going on in Iraq and Syria, but also touching on other issues as well. I have to tell you, the security around the United Nations here in New York City has been especially intense. I come every year. It seems to be a little bit more intense this year. Perhaps -- perhaps because of all of the reaction, the potential fear of revenge as a result of the U.S. and several Arab countries launching airstrikes against ISIS targets. Not only in Iraq, but in Syria as well.

As we await the president, he should be speaking, we're told, in about a half an hour or so. We're getting some word on what the president may be getting ready to tell not only the people of the United States, but indeed the people of the world. Our senior Washington correspondent Jake Tapper, the anchor of "The Lead with Jake Tapper," is standing by in Washington.

Jake, what are you finding out?

JAKE TAPPER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "THE LEAD": Well, the White House aides with whom I've spoken describing the speech in terms of other major international addresses the president has given since his presidency began. Such as, for instance, the speech he gave in Cairo when he addressed the Muslim world in the first few months of his presidency. That's the context through which they're seeing this address at the United Nations Security Council.

The president will talk about the role that the United States is willing to play in this world during a very, very troubled time. And the phrase that I heard described from the speech is that the world is at the crossroads between integration and chaos. In other words, it's important for the world to work together to prevent, in some ways, insane things going on in the world from taking hold. And the president will cite as examples of this success the United States leading the coalition for airstrikes in Syria, along with five other Arab nations, and other countries, we're told, coming down the pike. Also the U.S. leadership when it comes to handling the Ebola crisis in western Africa, and the United States leading the charge against Putin and Russia's seizure of territory in Ukraine.

Now, you can debate how successful all of these incidents have been, all of this leadership has been, but that is the context in which President Obama is going to be discussing the role of the United States. The crossroads between integration and chaos, Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you know, and our viewers know, he's not only addressing the American public -- and, remember, we're only about five weeks or so away from midterm elections in the United States for the House and the Senate, but he's also addressing the world. It's also, Jake, sensitive. It's a sensitive way to have to deal with these important issues knowing you've got this worldwide audience that will react literally to every nuance in a major speech like this.

TAPPER: I think that the president, according to aides, believes that there is a hunger for leadership on the world stage and that the president wants to lay out ways in which the United States is eager to play a role, but not bear the burden itself entirely. Such as, for instance, what's going on in Syria with the U.S. leading the air strike campaign, but not the only ones involved in the air strike campaign. That's the message that I'm getting from the president's aides, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we'll be hearing the president's speech shortly, we suspect within about a half an hour or so from now. Jake, thanks very much.

The airstrikes by the U.S. and the five Arab partners against these ISIS targets in Syria centered on the city of Raqqa. That's in northern city -- northern Syria. ISIS has controlled Raqqa now for months, making it the group's defacto capital of their self-declared Islamic State or Caliphate. While Raqqa residents are split over how effective an air campaign will be against ISIS, there is no disagreement over how life has changed dramatically under the group's iron rule. CNN's Brian Todd is in Washington. He's got more.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the city of Raqqa has been ISIS' main fortress for several months now and now we're getting new accounts from people inside that city. They tell us how ISIS has ruled over them with brute force. A U.S. official tells CNN, people who run afoul of ISIS rules risk summary execution. Now we have to warn you, some viewers might find some images in this story disturbing.


TODD (voice-over): Inside the main ISIS stronghold, one witness relayed what it was like as allied missiles struck. The witness, who requested anonymity, said ISIS leaders in the city of Raqqa vanished from site.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They fled out of fear, but previously some of them were living among civilians and this is something very dangerous. TODD: This Syrian city is the center of ISIS's power. According to

accounts of people inside Raqqa, ISIS terrorizes them every day. This is what residents routinely see, crucifixions of nonbelievers. The severed heads of ISIS enemies displayed on poles.

TODD (on camera): Are scenes like this and public crucifixions still commonplace in Raqqa?

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Yes, they are. Unfortunately, the number of crucifixions have gone up, as well as decapitations. And they're for anyone who opposes the Islamic State.

TODD (voice-over): Residents describe an Islamic police state where music's been banned, where ISIS carries out a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women have to dress head to toe in veils. If they don't, one woman says, they could be lashed or worse.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Some women were even executed because of this, because of the veil.

TODD: Smoking is outlawed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If they see anyone holding a pack of cigarettes, he will get a couple of lashes.

TODD: For merchants selling cigarettes or alcohol in Raqqa, their supplies are often burned on the street. Shopkeepers selling clothes have to be careful as well. In this ISIS propaganda video, a merchant is told he can't display women's clothes which don't conform to dress codes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): You have to display this inside. Whoever wants to buy this will wear it for her husband. No problem, she can wear it, but you can't display it on the street.

TODD: CNN cannot independently verify these accounts, but a U.S. official tells us, inside Raqqa, ISIS enforcers use threats, violence, and informants to intimidate residents. Witnesses say teenage boys are recruited as informants.

TABLER: It gives them money. It says, please inform on your parents, on your family members, on your tribes and in exchange for that we will give you influence.


TODD (on camera): Now, how did ISIS come to control this major city? Andrew Tabler says because Raqqa is in Eastern Syria and was not a priority for the Assad regime or some of the other opposition forces it was fighting against. He says they were concentrating on Western Syria. And in Raqqa, ISIS stepped into that void.

Now with airstrikes targeting Raqqa, Tabler says, if the city falls, he thinks the Assad regime is the most likely force to sweep back in. Wolf? BLITZER: With ISIS controlling Raqqa with an iron grip, I take it

there are no journalists really allowed in the city. So here's the question, Brian -- how is this information, these pictures, getting out?

TODD: Well, according to some accounts, Wolf, local activists who oppose ISIS are getting all of this out somehow. They live in safe houses there. They move around. They secretly film public executions and things like that. They never move around together and they use complicated encrypted communications with each other to communicate and get the word out. It's very dangerous work.

BLITZER: Very dangerous indeed. Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Carol, as I throw it back to you, let's not forget that this ISIS terrorist group was considered even too much of a terrorist organization for core al Qaeda. You can imagine what these people in Iraq and elsewhere -- in Syria and Iraq are going through right now under the iron grip of these ISIS terrorists.

COSTELLO: I can't even imagine. Thank you, Wolf.

Still to come in NEWSROOM, it's the presidential salute that's gone viral. Critics pouncing on the chance to slam president Obama for something other than his strategy against ISIS. Coming up, the bad optics of the now infamous coffee cup salute.


COSTELLO: All right, you are looking live at the United Nations. President Obama expected to arrive in just about ten minutes or so. And of course he's going to address the United Nations, to tell leaders how important it is for the world to work together against ISIS to prevent further chaos. Later today, the president will chair the United Nations Security Council will he will be -- where he will urge nations to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria. He'll also urge nations to come up with ways to apprehend homegrown radicalized terrorists.

This critical meeting comes at a time some American pundits are spewing ridiculous bile at America's commander-in-chief.

I bring you what's being dubbed as the latte salute. I agree. This looks really bad. The president, as tradition requires, saluted two marines after Marine One landed in New York with a cup of coffee in his hands. That's bad. But what followed was just dumb.

Sarah Palin apologized for the president via Facebook. I can accept that. The dumb I'm talking about, the worst, came courtesy of Red State. Quote, this is on Red State, "This salute by Obama may serve as a metaphor for his entire administration: sloppy, ill thought out, inappropriate, callous, selfish and disrespectful. Though, in his defense, he may have been running from that thing, that thing covered in a red bag that seems to be pursuing him down the stairs."

Now if you notice in that picture, Michelle Obama was dressed in a red dress. So I assume "that thing" they're talking about is the First Lady of the United States.

So let's talk about this with CNN political commentator and Republican consultant Margaret Hoover. Brian Stelter too. He's CNN senior media correspondent and host of "RELIABLE SOURCES". And Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator Paul Begala joins us too. Welcome to all of you.

OK, so Brian, I want to start with you. This looked bad. And what's worse, the White House put it out.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It was on their Instagram account. I'm sure low level aide wishes they hadn't done it. I know for a fact they wish they hadn't posted it.

But the derangement that we see from some of the conservative media coverage of this is really fascinating to me. There was a clip from "Fox and Friends" that I hope we can show of how they reacted this morning.


BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX HOST: He said let me put the coffee in this hand and salute a marine. I think he was -- he's buddying his jacket with one hand. He had a coffee and he just -- obviously, he wants to have a back. I don't think he intentionally did that.

ANNA KOOIMAN, FOX HOST: Well, I think when you're not intending to do something, you could be intending to do something.


STELTER: So if you're not intending -- I can't tell what she was saying. But I just don't know where to begin with this one. Because, first of all, we don't even know if it was a latte.


STELTER: The president happened to drink tea. It just bothers me that one of these things become memes before we can even get the truth.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But the truth is, this has been a meme long before the President Obama became the president. This is -- there are memes, there is theater, there are narratives in American politics. And there are some times where Democrats have to try harder in some areas and Republicans have to try harder in other areas to counter those memes. It's a double standard, but you're fighting an uphill battle.

What happens is, as a hangover of the legacy of the Vietnam era, Democrats have to try harder on national defense because they're fighting against this notion that they're weak on national defense, whether it's fair or unfair.

Republicans have this too. We have to be super sensitive when it comes to very racial issues, very sensitive when it comes to poverty issues. But what happened here is Bill Clinton, and we'll talk to Paul Begala because he'll tell us all about this, also got the exact same criticism that he didn't even know how to salute the marines when he came out of Marine One.

COSTELLO: OK, cue Paul Begala.

HOOVER: Cue Paul Begala.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah, well, obviously, we have to impeach him.


BEGALA: I mean, Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution is very clear. We impeach the president for bribery, treason, high crimes, misdemeanors, or a clumsy salute forgetting you're holding a coffee.

I mean, it's just silly. There is actually -- President Clinton did in fact have to be taught how to salute because he'd been a civilian all his life, as had President Obama. Interestingly, Eisenhower, a five star general, the highest ranking military man ever to be President of the United States, did not salute when he was president because he was out of uniform. He did not believe that the president, while still commander-in-chief, should be saluting like a military officer.

So it's actually kind of a weird thing. I think Margaret makes a point. Those of us who spent all of our lives in civilian life being protected and defended by the military have a special duty I think to be respectful. And I'm sure the president wants that back. And I hope they find whoever put that on the Instagram.

COSTELLO: Yes, but in this tit for tat culture, I'm just going to put up a picture. Because you know Democrats are going to be pointing this to picture of President Bush with Barney or who was the -- what was the --


HOOVER: It was Barney. This is probably why I wish I could tell you -- that was more Barney because the other one --


COSTELLO: OK, we'll see the picture in a moment, I'm sure. There it is.

HOOVER: But here's the --

STELTER: Of course he was using the right hand.

HOOVER: Here's why you're not going to see you're not going to see that as much, though, because nobody is going to accuse a Republican president who took out Saddam Hussein, who overturned the Taliban, and who initiated the global war on terrorism --

COSTELLO: President Obama took out Osama bin Laden!

HOOVER: -- as being weak on national -- I know, but --

COSTELLO: It's ridiculous!

STELTER: But you are right about narratives, Margaret. You're right.

HOOVER: But we're talking about narratives; we're not talking about facts, right?

STELTER: He did -- it's always incumbent on the media, then, to get above the narratives and not to play into the narratives the way I think we've seen some conservative outlets do in the last few hours.

BEGALA: Bush saluted with --

COSTELLO: Paul, last word, then I got to go.

BEGALA: Bush saluted with the right hand but he invaded the wrong country, and I think that's a bigger problem.


HOOVER: And I would prefer if we were actually talking about the substantive policy of these issues rather than see the political posturing and the narrative and the theater.

COSTELLO: I know. We have been doing that heavy duty.

HOOVER: And we needed a break. We needed a break!

COSTELLO: We're getting a break, but we're going to get right back into substantiate issues right now. Brian, Margaret, Paul, thanks to all of you. I appreciate it.

Our special coverage of President Obama's address to the United Nations starts after a break.


BLITZER: The setting is the largest diplomatic gathering in the world and the topic today will be war.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's here at the U.N. with me. This is a speech that diplomats and people all over the world, friends of the United States and enemies of the United States, will be monitoring very closely.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. This is an enormously powerful moment for the president. He is bringing the nation to war, the president who intended to take the U.S. out of the wars in the Middle East; in fact, withdrew troops from Iraq. This was a key foreign policy goal of his. But he's also bringing an international coalition to war. In some ways, he's bringing the region to war and asking for more. He's going to ask for more today later this afternoon, not just for

help with the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but also a binding resolution, calling on the entire world really to stop the flow of fighters and financing to this group.