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U.S. Airstrikes Hit ISIS In Syria; "Imminent Attack" Against U.S. Disrupted; Five Arab Nations Join U.S. Airstrikes

Aired September 23, 2014 - 06:00   ET



CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news, the war against ISIS inside Syria begins. A powerful display by sea and by air. Pounding the terror group's home base, aiming to destroy its command and control structure, and the U.S. not doing it alone.

In a historic shift, five Arab nations participating in the strikes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is much bigger than anything we've seen so far.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Thwarted attack. The U.S. also hitting a group of al Qaeda veterans inside Syria, saying a potential attack against the U.S. was stopped. How real was the threat?

This as President Obama heads to the United Nations today. We have all angles covered this morning.

CUOMO: A special edition of NEW DAY starts right now.


CUOMO: Good morning, welcome to NEW DAY. Its Tuesday, September 23 rd, 6:00 in the East. Kate is on maternity leave. Brianna Keilar joins us this morning. Thank you for being with us.

And obviously, major breaking news. U.S. air strikes pounding ISIS targets inside Syria for the first time. A little bit of the sound of the situation, you're looking at brand-new video as well, just in, tomahawk missiles being launched from U.S. ships at ISIS targets, the mission is clear -- to degrade and destroy ISIS.

The attacks described as intense with those tomahawk missiles, as well as fighter jets and bombers. The targets? We're told as many as 20, mostly in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

That's a word you're going to be hearing a lot today. That's in northern Syria and very important this was not just the U.S. We did not go it alone -- Brianna.

KEILAR: That's right. Five Arab nations joined this campaign, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Take a look at this new video of a separate U.S. strike against a network of al Qaeda terrorists, veterans, known as the Corazon Group in Syria. Officials say they disrupted an imminent attack that was being plotted against the U.S. and western interests.

CUOMO: All right, we're going to have complete coverage of this throughout the morning. Let's get to the Pentagon with correspondent, Barbara Starr. Barbara, what do we know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. The U.S. picked its targets very carefully. Hitting what mattered to ISIS the most.


STARR (voice-over): Overnight, U.S. and partner nations carried out 14 intense strikes against ISIS strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and other northern cities. The attacks destroying or damaging multiple targets, including training compounds, headquarters, and command and control facilities and briefly knocking out power in the region.

U.S. forces launching tomahawk land attack missiles from the sea. Bombers, drones and fighter jets continuing the assault by air including an F-22 raptor. A new Air Force tactical plane that can conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground combat with near impunity.

The air strikes targeting key ISIS positions, including the city of Raqqa where they are essentially based. The attacks meant to degrade their ability to command and control, resupply and train, according to a U.S. military official.

Five Arab nations, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, joining in the fight, four of them helping attack by air alongside U.S. war planes.

In January, ISIS turned Raqqa into their home base, creating a terrorist safe haven, the militants controlling the city, power, water, schools and banks. Two countries not taking part in the attacks at present?

Turkey, who had previously joined the global coalition against the terrorist group and Syria itself. Then there is this, buried in the press release from the military, a report that an imminent attack against the U.S. was thwarted in Syria overnight according to U.S. officials.

Air strikes were conducted by the U.S., west of Aleppo against the terrorist group, Corazon, a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans.


CUOMO: We wait to learn about the effectiveness of these attacks. Two big headlines coming out of them, one will be this coalition and why Britain wasn't part of it.

The second part, though, Barbara, question for you, as you said, buried in this press release, what may be the biggest surprise, certainly for Americans, an imminent attack against the U.S., thwarted by this group, the Corazon Group. What do we know? STARR: Yes, Chris, just before we got -- came on the air, I got off the phone with a senior U.S. official, who said indeed that there was active plotting by this group, a group of al Qaeda veterans inside Syria, what did they hit?

Let me go through this with everybody. They hit Corazon training camps and explosives, ammunitions, production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.

But this was near Aleppo on the western side of Syria, where air defenses are very heavy. So that was quite a different military challenge for the U.S. to go against those Corazon targets.

But this official telling me they had very good intelligence, words of the official, that the Corazon Group had been actively plotting an imminent threat against western and possible U.S. interests.

What the official would not say is whether these U.S. interests were in the United States or U.S. interests overseas. But they did have information and apparently they had it for some time, because the officials said the separate attacks against the Corazon Group were pre-planned. They had been in the works for days -- Chris.

CUOMO: And Barbara, as you're speaking, we are showing you videos of those attacks in the Aleppo area against the so-called Corazon Group. And remember, the key phrase is imminent threat. That's what they're using there, so obviously it was a very specific U.S. interest that they went after there. Barbara Starr, thank you very much. Let us know what you develop throughout the morning -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Well, the president ordering the strikes less than two weeks after his address to the nation where he announced the U.S. would hit ISIS wherever they are including Syria.

Let's go now to the White House where CNN's Michelle Kosinski is covering this. Tell us a little bit, Michelle, about the timing here. Why order these strikes now?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's the question and right now, we are not hearing from the administration on that. We may hear more today. We expect to be able to ask those questions now that the sun is coming up.

But you know, the question is why not wait until say after the U.N.? The president is leaving for the U.N. today? Why not wait until you have that show of support from the world.

And that was going to be not just symbolic but tangible. One of the reasons the president is going there is to get more support for the war against ISIS. Think it's telling, seeing the coalition as it is now, we've been asking this question over the last few days.

When are we going to see other countries besides the U.S. and as of a couple of days ago, France, contribute to air strikes? Because the administration keeps hitting upon the fact that ISIS is a greater threat to that region and the people of that region, than it is to the United States.

And the administration has told us, well, we will see other countries stepping up and likely soon. Well, here it is, we're seeing Arab countries, and it's possible that that kind of support and that ready action is more significant than getting the greater and broader support at the U.N. over the next couple of days.

And look at the targets, these are buildings, training camps. They are fixed targets. They're not going anywhere. Why the urgency? It may have been intelligence, whether the Pentagon decided now is the time, the time is right and the president agreed.

And also we've been seeing greater threats and stepped-up propaganda from ISIS over the last couple of days. Even yesterday, ISIS group, the group calling on its supporters around the world to hit out at citizens and members of the coalition, wherever they live -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Michelle Kosinski for us at the White House, thank you.

CUOMO: The U.S.-led operation against ISIS is being carried out with unprecedented regional cooperation we are told. So who in the region? Well, at least five Arab countries, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates and Jordan taking part in some way.

Let's get to CNN's Arwa Damon live along the Turkey-Syria border, an important place to be. Arwa, good to have friends, but which friends matter? Turkey, Egypt, the United Kingdom, where were they?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Turkey will tell you that they were up until this weekend, very concerned about the fate of 49 hostages in ISIS' custody. Released over the last few days, with the Turkish president coming out and saying that they would perhaps be ready to take more aggressive action.

Turkey right now trying to deal with this influx of refugees, Egypt, you mentioned, could also play a very critical role. And these roles don't necessarily have to be military.

But countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that are the birth places of this Wahabi extremist ideology. If they can get their religious clergy to the forefront, standing alongside this coalition, standing against ISIS that can perhaps help in the effort to try to lure these young, youth.

Whether they're Arabs, whether they're Syrians, whether they're westerners from joining ISIS' ranks because that is going to be just one of the many facets of this multi-faceted battle.

In terms of the impact that the airstrikes are having inside Syria, we heard from one Syrian activist inside Raqqa, he said ISIS had mostly evacuated a lot of the buildings that were targeted by the U.S. That their presence was being felt very heavily in the streets.

It seemed as if they were trying to further entrench themselves amongst the civilian population. He did say he went out into the street, to the market saying he saw some dead ISIS fighters. Others wounded, as well. He welcoming this development.

But saying look, America and its allies, they should have tried to build this coalition years ago. If they had, we would not have found ourselves in this situation -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Arwa, thank you very much. As we see behind you, a lot of people affected by this, there's going to be a big humanitarian situation as well. That will have to be managed as part of this ongoing conflict to be sure.

Thank you, Arwa Damon, stay safe. Let's make sense of what's going on. We have great military analyst. We have retired major-General James "Spider" Marks and retired Lt. Colonel Rick Francona, also a CNN military analyst. Thank you very much for joining us, Gentlemen.

Let's talk first, Spider, about timing and what is really a hidden headline. The Corazon Group, this was supposed to be about ISIS, Spider. Now we hear not only are they in a different area of the country than where we expected them, here in Aleppo in the northwest corner, but also an imminent threat to the U.S. was thwarted? What do you think of this?

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think what clearly has happen is the United States intelligence community had some really good targetable intelligence. And the fact that we initiated strikes in Syria, allowed us complete authority to go after targets that we deemed were necessary for us to protect national security.

So the fact that we're in Syria and the fact we're going after ISIS really opens the door for a very broad swath of opportunities for us to attack targets that we need to attack that really brings down all the supporting elements not only for ISIS, but other activities that are clearly in this ungoverned space.

Syria only exists on a map and not very effectively. The borders really mean nothing. So the United States needs to continue to do this type of attack.

CUOMO: They mean less right now with what ISIS has been doing in and around borders. Rick, let me bring you in here, timing, why now? The U.N. General Assembly is happening. Why didn't Obama wait?

We're told this is not a one-sided situation. ISIS is going to start responding to what they see as an imminent threat as well. What was hit now and why did it make sense?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In addition to what General Marks says, ISIS is starting to disburse their assets. They're moving things and we've got pictures before and after. They've spread things out so it takes more weapons to destroy the same amount of equipment.

They've relocated some equipment. Raqqa, which was the primary target last night, has a huge military installation just north of it. ISIS was using that for storage, for command and control, for housing, for training, it's all moved out of there now.

CUOMO: Start us at Raqqa.

FRANCONA: Raqqa is right in the center. And that's, that's the capital of the Islamic State. What they claim to be the Islamic State.

CUOMO: That's their stronghold, that's where they feel nobody will touch them. So that is even more important to hit first.

FRANCONA: That's where we saw all of the brutality, the heads on spikes, and things like that, that's in Raqqa. That's their capital for right now. As you go down the Euphrates River, you go to another strong point of theirs. A big oil area. So they've taken all the oil fields around --

CUOMO: That's important because the money for ISIS is particular importance.

FRANCONA: You have to stop them selling on the black market.

CUOMO: We still don't know who's buying the oil.

FRANCONA: That's the gateway into Syria, the border at Abu Canal. This is an interesting target up here in the northeast part. This is Hasequi. This is where ISIS is putting pressure on the Kurds. So this is an effort to release pressure on the Kurds in the northeast.

CUOMO: Spider, how do you figure out how effective these attacks have been? I know that we have the drones and we are dealing with different types of intelligence because there's no real ground presence though coordinated with the attacks. How do you know whether or not you've knocked out what you needed to?

MARKS: Well, every strike has what's called a bomb damage assessment or an affects that have been achieved. In fact, these operations are called affects operations. The United States has this methodology and they will do great intelligence in advance of the strike.

Last-second type of confirmation. A strike occurs and then you have another capability that loiters over the target to try to do the bomb damage assessment of what took place.

In addition to that, we do have some sources on the ground, and I can't confirm that they're in those exact locations, but I would hazard a guess that we have some type of assessment that is taking place on the ground from sources, local sources that are, that are reporting back in saying this is the type of stuff they see.

Not very precise type of ground reporting, but at least some, some notion of how effective the strike has been.

FRANCONA: And remember, what this target set is these are fixed facilities so we can get a good look at them and find out what the bomb damage assessment is from strategic assets or drones or aircraft. We don't need to have people on the ground say if you were looking at troops, things that move.

CUOMO: Right. So that's important to note this was about hitting physical structures, not human beings so much. So that's the way you'll also calculate your success. Let's move to now the "who did this."

The U.S. is touting a very unusual amount of information given out by the military in the United States here by the way about what they've done, usually they tell you very little.

I think they're trying to make a point and impress upon the American people how much they're getting done as well as who did it with them. Are you impressed by this group?

FRANCONA: I am. This is a real achievement for the administration to bolt together this coalition of five Arab countries when a few days ago all of us were a bit skeptical on who was going to participate.

But to get five countries to drop bombs on another Arab country, going after a Sunni Arab group this is unprecedented. This is really success story for coalition-building.

CUOMO: So, that would be the plus.

Spider, let's end on what could be a minus here, on who wasn't involved. I'm standing on one right now. Turkey not involved with this. Egypt not involved with this. And probably most notably, Britain not involved in this.

Why not?

MARKS: Well, I think the real point is not yet in the case of Britain. Maybe not yet in the case of Egypt. Maybe not at all in the case of Turkey. There are different interests involved, clearly.

Turkey would tell you it has this massive humanitarian concern and that their primary focus is trying to achieve what we could call a humanitarian corridor. So, refugees can leave Syria and come into Turkey and they can be taken care of there. And that would be a primary task. Turkey would raise its hand and say I've got to get this thing accomplished and accomplished well. I want to assist, but this is most important.

What they won't tell you is, look, we don't want to poke this tiger in our region right across our border until we are certain that it has been degraded to a certain level where we can now pile on. But it is important, and Rick knows the region better than anyone else that the first strikes that occurred against ISIS, and in Syria, were by neighbors that are very much interested in degrading and defeating ISIS. That's an important first step.

CUOMO: Major General, thank you very much.

Lieutenant Colonel, thank you very much.

We're going to need you guys, and some -- don't forget those hidden headlines, we hit the oil site. U.S. and its friends hit the oil site, why? Because that's a big money source for ISIS. Who's buying that oil, we still have to figure that out, and again, the U.S. went alone, hitting where Rick is standing right now. An imminent threat was thwarted, they said, by this al Qaeda group. That was taken out as well. They were expecting it to be just ISIS.

So, we're going to have more about this coalition about the Arab nations that are joining the mission. We have Christiane Amanpour who is going to help explain who is helping and why, and again, not just ISIS. More analysis on this al Qaeda offshoot in Syria, who that was also on the target. What was this imminent threat? We'll get into it.


KEILAR: Breaking news this morning, we are seeing the first pictures of airstrikes launched against ISIS targets in Syria overnight. You can see the drama yourself with missiles launched first from the sea, and then by air, five Arab nations helping the U.S. with this military action -- Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

So, why these countries? And what do we make of the ones that did not take part?

We're joined now by chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour.

So, you look at the five nations that are in this with the U.S. -- what is, I guess how significant is this coalition?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is significant, because as Spider Marks said and General Francona, it's very, very difficult to get Arab states on board to bomb other Arab/Muslim states, so this is very significant.

And particularly, these countries have been incredibly involved in trying to get intervention in Syria over the last several years. And a problem of course, these countries often back different groups and some have been backing you know, all sorts of nefarious groups, whether it's official by the governments or indeed allowing wealthy people to fund some of these groups.

So, the vacuum that's been created there over the last three years, has now threatened the whole region. So, a lot of them want to show that they're actually, you know, need to take a stand now.

KEILAR: But noticeably absent is Turkey. Why is Turkey not involved?

AMANPOUR: Look, Turkey has been taking brunt of the humanitarian disaster for years. It's got hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees inside. When I spoke to the Turkish prime minister, now president, Erdogan, a couple of years ago, he was desperate that the world should intervene in Syria and said that they would join as well.

Well, the world didn't and Turkey is on the border of Syria and bear as huge brunt of the fallout. And, you know, that they just had their 49 or 50 diplomats, women, chilled, kidnapped by ISIS. It took a long time to get them out. For all we know, Turkey told them, you know, we won't be involved in the military campaign, who knows how they got their people out of is custody.

But, you know, they might do other things in this, what's going to be a very long campaign. Britain, France, they've said publicly, they've said we've been asked by the Iraqis to come in and help their forces and to help the fight against ISIS there. But we're not yet at the point we're going to do that in Syria.

KEILAR: Airstrikes, many have said that that's not enough, there are other steps, at the same time, the U.S. making clear no U.S. boots on the ground. That that's what they're saying. How does the U.S. and its allies, how do they capitalize on these air strikes?

AMANPOUR: Well, enormously quickly, rapidly and seriously, they have to start really building up the Free Syrian Army and whatever other moderate groups they have identified there, because those are going to be the ground forces -- I've spoken to many of the Free Syrian Army leaders, the commanders. Already, they're reacting, they have told their people that finally the world is intervening against ISIS.

They may be acting as some of the sort of intel on the ground, some of the bomb damage assessments, some of the -- I doubt forward air control, that's a very specific military task. But they're probably helping in some way that they can.

And they, without western or external support for years kept is and Assad at bay. They were fighting a two-front war. But then it got too much, they didn't get any support. Now, if you talk to American generals, commanders, they'll say, if you want boots on the ground, you're going to have to seriously train, arm and equip these people who you've identified.

KEILAR: And you will be speaking this week, we'll be looking forward to it you'll be interviewing the emir of Qatar, but you're also going to be speaking today right, with the new foreign minister --

AMANPOUR: The prime minister of Iraq.

KEILAR: The prime minister, pardon me, of Iraq.

AMANPOUR: Indeed, and this is very important, and with Secretary Kerry tomorrow. So, we'll get a good picture of what happened to bring us to this point this morning.

KEILAR: Now, the U.S. involved in Syria. The U.S. involved in Iraq. What is so key for the new prime minister of Iraq in really following up on what the U.S. has done and really fulfilling its piece of the bargain here?

AMANPOUR: Two huge pieces. Certainly for Iraq, it's the political piece, this new prime minister has got to ditch the sectarian policies of his predecessor and make it an inclusive Iraq for all Iraqis. Part of what happened is that the vacuum created by Assad and the West not getting involved in Syria allowed ISIS to flourish, and the political dysfunction in Iraq, found willing supporters in Iraq.

KEILAR: And the Sunnis --

AMANPOUR: Exactly.

KEILAR: Can he reverse that?

AMANPOUR: He has to. The entire operation depends on that.

KEILAR: Is it possible?

AMANPOUR: There's no way an air campaign is going to solve this problem. The entire operation rests on two things -- a political solution in Iraq and eventually Syria, although Assad is not interested at all, and cutting off ISIS funding. All these Arab states, who are taking part in these airpowers, they have to stop their citizens, proselytizing, funding and actually really encouraging all of these terrorists.

KEILAR: And that is the big part of the puzzle.

AMANPOUR: Absolutely.

KEILAR: Christiane Amanpour, thank you so much.

Well, it wasn't just ISIS coming under fire in Syria overnight. Another terror group, an extension of al Qaeda also targeted in Syria. U.S. officials say they acted over concerns of an imminent threat and that is a quote.

Our national security analysts are breaking down who they are, why they were targeted. That's next as our breaking news coverage continues.