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Iraq Protestors Try to Storm U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; Prosecutors: Stabbing Suspect Researched Hitler, Synagogues; Firearms Instructor Took Out Texas Church Gunman; Federal Hate Crimes Charges Filed Against Hanukkah Attack Suspect. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Tuesday, December 31, last day of the year. I'm Jim Sciutto along with Poppy Harlow. Nice to be here on this Tuesday morning.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: John and Alisyn are off.

SCIUTTO: We begin with breaking news. Hundreds of Iraqis tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. This after funerals were held for 25 fighters from an Iranian-backed Shiite militia. They were killed by U.S. airstrikes on Sunday.

HARLOW: The protesters are gathered right now outside of the United States' largest embassy in the world. It is in the Iraqi capital. There are reports of tear gas being fired at demonstrators.

Let's find out exactly what is going on the ground. Let's get to our Arwa Damon. She joins us with all the breaking details. This is in response to those U.S. airstrikes. What can you tell us about what is happening right now?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, these are not your ordinary demonstrators. These are mostly individuals who are part of what's known as these popular mobilization forces. This is a paramilitary force that is predominantly Shiite and mostly made up of former Shia militia members.

Among those who were just outside the gates of the U.S. embassy are three very prominent leaders of the three most powerful or among the most powerful paramilitary forces within Iraq and included among them is the leader of the pro-Iranian militia group that the U.S. was targeting in these strikes.

These protesters attempted, according to numerous reports, to try to storm the U.S. Embassy. They were throwing rocks, taking out the security cameras. They were pushed back, not based on what we're hearing, from the necessarily front area of the embassy but from where they're attempting to breach the wall around the back with the use of tear gas.

Up until this moment, this situation has not escalated any further, but the fact that they made it to this location means that the Iraqi security forces did not stop this protest from moving forward.

The area that the Green Zone encompasses in Baghdad has, yes, shrunk dramatically, but this particular part of it where the U.S. embassy is located is still fairly well-secured and meant to be fairly fortified. Normally, to get in, you need a special badge or some sort of an escort. But the Iraqi government views this paramilitary force, again, that is made up -- that includes that militia that the U.S. was targeting, as being a member of the Iraqi security forces. From the government's perspective, these strikes by the United States were not against a pro-Iranian militia; they were actually against their own forces, as well.

The prime minister yesterday saying that the strikes also wounded some policemen and also wounded some Iraqi soldiers, as well as members of that militia, Kataib Hezbollah. So a lot of concern right now, Jim, that the situation could escalate, and if it does, those consequences would potentially have very, very severe repercussions.

SCIUTTO: Arwa Damon, thanks very much. Sure spent a lot of time on the ground in Iraq herself.

Joining me now, Thomas Pickering. He's the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Russia, and other countries. He's also a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Ambassador, thanks for joining us this morning.

First, based on your experience in the region there, what danger do you see today and going forward to U.S. diplomatic staff in Iraq but also, crucially, to U.S. soldiers there?


Certainly, the danger is self-evident that mobs gathered and I just couldn't help but recalling that many years ago in 1979, we had a similar event in Iran with, I hope, much different outcome.

But nevertheless, that kind of danger, we understand the ambassador and the staff have been evacuated; and that will be a help in removing what we would call high-value American targets.

One wonders, however, how much consideration was given to the bombing of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq. And the bigger question is our long-term and, I think, very important relationships with Iraq and how and in what way we move ahead.

If this is part of an extreme pressure campaign against Iran, and it appears to be, it doesn't appear as if, yet, it has developed the kind of deterrent function that it's supposed to. And one hopes that it will. But nevertheless, the continued ongoing nature of this particular

conflict -- and one has to call it a conflict now -- of escalating pressure with no apparent apparent basis for finding a way to turn that pressure into a diplomatic outcome does seem to be, once again, risking something that some of us call the bluff trap.

You use military force. If one of the sides doesn't back down, and that's the only option, then in fact, you keep raising military force. And you know, sooner or later that looks like a war, acts like a war, and becomes a war.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And listen, what's interesting here is to you have your allies, Iraq among them, on your side as you're raising the pressure here? Because the protests we've seen and deadly protests often we've seen across Iraq in recent weeks, Iran had been a target of many of those protesters here. Now you have the U.S. as a target.

Has the U.S. miscalculated here, in your view, with these recent airstrikes?

PICKERING: Jim, your words about miscalculation. But I wouldn't disagree with you on that. I think the question is whenever you use military force and escalate up a notch, you want to be very sure that the full range of consequences is looked at very, very carefully, that you know and understand what they are, and that you have in mind the plans that take account of those, prepare for that, and are executable when that kind of situation occurs.

We had plenty of time if this is in answer either to the killing of an American, which I think we all regret, or indeed something longer term like the attack on that pike, the shootdown of the drone, the influence that Iraq had and Iran had, certainly, in the tanker conflict earlier this year. All of those are things that are obviously not in our interest to have happen, whether using American air power, principally, against Shia militia inside Iraq.

Heretofore a country which we have enjoyed, put it this way, important and interesting relationships but not totally negative, and that is now turned in a public square against us. Do we and have we made the right decision here? One can only question that.

SCIUTTO: Coming off the story of Iraq for a moment, we have the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, visiting Ukraine now, he says to deliver a message of American support for Ukraine. Of course, one that has been called into question by the president's own decisions, public comments, and of course, withdrawal or withholding of crucial military aid there.

I wonder from your perspective, and again, your experience, particularly as ambassador to the U.N., who does Ukraine listen to? Who does Russia listen to? Do they listen to what the president says and does regarding Ukraine, or do they listen to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others who are trying to, you know, issue these messages of confidence there?

PICKERING: Well, Jim, it's a very interesting question. It appears in a sense that the Ukraine/Russia/U.S. triangle has never been harmonious as a cacophony. We have wanted to support Ukraine for very good reason. They were invaded.

But the other interesting thing is, is Pompeo going there to convince someone that the president argues, President Zelensky is entirely on his side on the very sensitive issue of what happened in the July phone call and who was bringing pressure against whom to achieve what objective.

Pompeo is moving in to try to improve and repair our relationships with Ukraine can only mean that they made a conclusion that those relationships are deteriorating, and the principal source for that deterioration has to be an event which the president claims is totally supportive of his own activities with respect to Ukraine.

So it plays, I would say, a very bad hand in the middle of a U.S. political controversy that probably hasn't been equal for a very long time in our history.

SCIUTTO: Of course, in the midst of that, the president speaking to Vladimir Putin. It was a call we learned about from the Kremlin first on Sunday, that President Putin called President Trump. The White House finally acknowledging that call yesterday and giving something of a readout.

But I wonder from your perspective, what's the problem with that, when you learn first about a key call between the U.S. and a principal adversary in Russia, the leader after those two countries, not from the U.S. but from Russia. And in light of the fact, as well, that the White House track record on describing what actually takes place in these calls is not good. I mean, there was a previous readout of a call between Trump and Zelensky in which the readout said he raised corruption when the transcript showed that he did not raise corruption.

What's the White House's credibility here?

PICKERING: Jim, for a long time I've worried about U.S. credibility as a whole all around the globe, and one has a sense that it's declining, whether it is big demonstrations in the heart of Baghdad, Pompeo flying to Ukraine to try to shore up a relationship there.

The telephone call with President Putin was clearly an effort by President Putin, one, to thank us for something we did but also to open the door to a conversation which has not seemed to have been possible up to now. A deterioration of U.S.-Russian relationships -- I was there three or four weeks ago is obvious and patently as serious. And the more it involves the unhinging and the undoing of U.S. relationships with Russia over how and in what way to deal with the nuclear deterrent on both sides, the more important it is that we speak to Russia and the more significant it is that something gets started. And some of the reports of that call have seemingly touched on that important issue.

But it is very unusual that the secretary of state should be one day headed to shore up relationships with an ally who has been and continues to be in conflict with Russia, and the president should take what seemed to be a hug-'em-up call with President Putin at a very -- very much the same time.



PICKERING: I do think it's important not that we hug up to Russia but that we have contacts with and communications with Russia. It's a very important country, whether we like it or not. You don't get a chance to choose the people you have to work out the problems with. They're usually the people that, on one side or the other, are the people that at least your public has learned to dislike very greatly, and that's -- that's painful.

But it is important to be in touch with Russia.


PICKERING: It's important that our policy has some strategic harmony. and it's important that we get off the dime if you can put it this way, and seek to do things that support American interests.

SCIUTTO: Ambassador Pickering, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

PICKERING: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Happy new year to you and your family.

PICKERING: Happy new year to you and all at CNN and around the world. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: It's interesting you made the comparison there to 1979 and Iran when, of course, there was the takeover of the U.S. embassy there 40 years ago.

HARLOW: Right. And talking about the potential of a bluff draft, what happens if one side doesn't back down. We're just hearing from the first U.S. official, it appears, on this morning, Senator Marco Rubio of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writing this morning, "Iran is directly responsible for orchestrating the storming of the U.S. embassy in Iraq and must be held accountable for it and the safety of every American serving there."

Remember, there are Americans serving in that embassy.


HARLOW: And as Arwa said, big security question, how did they get that far inside the Green Zone.

SCIUTTO: And soldiers on the ground, as well.

HARLOW: Yes, absolutely. OK. Prosecutors revealing a trail of clues from the man they say

stabbed five Orthodox Jews celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah. What we are learning about the attacker and his ties to a fringe extremist group.


HARLOW: The suspect in the Hanukkah stabbing spree at a rabbi's home near New York City has been charged with federal hate crimes as investigators reveal an extensive trail of online searches and journal entries about Hitler and synagogues and American companies founded by Jews.


Our Bryn Gingras joins us again this morning in Monsey, New York, with more.

The criminal complaint here outlines an incredibly troubling mindset.

BRYN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, definitely, Poppy, there's a lot of evidence in that criminal complaint.

Now, about those online searches, one of those was about increased police patrols at synagogues. And according to authorities, that was done the day of this attack.

And that these online searches, as you just mentioned, Poppy, along with journal entries, are just some of the evidence that authorities say they found in Thomas's car and in his home.

Now, Thomas appeared in court on those federal hate crime charges yesterday, and he told a judge he understood why he was there.


GINGRAS (voice-over): Grafton Thomas, the man accused of stabbing five Hasidic Jews at a Hanukkah celebration, now charged with federal hate crimes. The suspect remains in custody after being charged with obstructing the free exercise of religion and an attempt to kill.

Thomas already pleaded not guilty to state charges Sunday of five counts of attempted murder and one count of first-degree burglary.

According to a criminal complaint, prosecutors say Thomas's Internet history on his cell phone included searches of "Why did Hitler hate the Jews" and "German Jewish temples near me." There was also reportedly a search for "prominent companies founded by Jews in America."

The criminal complaint against Thomas also says a journal found by authorities shows that he expressed anti-Semitic sentiments, with some entries referring to Hitler and Nazi culture, with drawings of a swastika and a star of David. One entry, "Hebrew Israelites took from the powerful ppl(Ebinoid Israelites," apparently a reference to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. According to a law enforcement source, that group has been linked to the terror attack at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City three weeks ago.

The complaint also details the moments leading up to the Hanukkah attack, alleging Thomas entered the rabbi's home with his face covered by a scarf and proclaimed to those inside, "No one is leaving," and then used an 18-inch machete to start stabbing and slashing people.

JOSEF GLUCK, SURVIVED STABBING ATTACK IN RABBI'S HOME: I kept on screaming, everybody run. Everybody move away. Everybody run. Go, go, go the guy's coming. The guy's coming.

And he said, Hey, you, I'll get you. That's -- that's the only thing that -- that's the only exchange that he had, I think, with anyone.

GINGRAS: Thomas was apprehended by police two hours later in New York City. Police say he was found with blood on his clothes and a smell of bleach in the car, with a machete and another knife that had apparent traces of dried blood on them.

His attorney and family say he's a former Marine who suffers from mental illness, and they claim he had no history of anti-Semitism.

MICHAEL H. SUSSMAN, GRAFTON THOMAS'S ATTORNEY: There is no suggestion in any of those ramblings and pages of writing of an anti-Semitic motive, of any anti-Semitism.


GINGRAS: Now Thomas is going to remain in federal custody, but he does appear back in court this Friday on those state five attempted murder charges along with that burglary charge -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Bryn Gingras in Monsey, New York.

Now to another attack on a house of worship. The man who fatally shot a gunman inside a Texas church during Sunday services is being credited with taking him out with just one shot.

Volunteer security guard Jack Wilson was a former reserve sheriff's deputy as well as an Army veteran. Says he began watching the attacker from the moment he walked into church.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov live near Fort Worth, Texas, with more this morning. What are we learning about those crucial six seconds where those volunteer security guards took down the shooter?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, Jack Wilson says alarms went off in his head the moment the shooter walked in wearing a fake beard and a wig.

He is, as you mentioned, a former reserve deputy sheriff. He's also a firearms instructor who has trained many members of this congregation to defend themselves, to prepare for just this kind of a worst-case scenario. So when that gunman walked in and opened fire, Jack Wilson was ready. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JACK WILSON, FORMER RESERVE DEPUTY SHERIFF: My training, you know, says that if I see a weapon, especially in that scenario, because I do my job. You train, but you hope you never have to go to that extreme. But if you do, your training will kick in, and that was evident yesterday.


KAFANOV: We're also learning more about the shooter, Keith Thomas Kinnunen, 43 years old. According to his sister he lived on the streets for a long time. He has a string of arrests and convictions over the past decade, including assault with a deadly weapon, also theft.

The pastor yesterday telling us that Kinnunen had been to the church before, that he had seen him there. He's been offered food. No word yet on motive, but the sister mentioned this.

She said the pair had a younger sibling who took his life several years ago. Sunday, the day of that shooting, was the anniversary of that sibling's birthday. Again, authorities are still investigating. No confirmation, no new details on the motive, but it does seem these personal factors could be at play -- Poppy.


HARLOW: Lucy, thank you very, very much for your reporting. Keep us posted as you learn more.

So the Hanukkah attack that we just talked about outside of New York City, it is just the latest in a string of anti-Semitic incidents across the country. Next, we will speak to an Anti-Defamation League official about the alarming trend and what is being done to stop it.


HARLOW: All right. Welcome back. We do have several developments on that tragic stabbing attack on Orthodox Jews celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah.

Authorities this morning are revealing the suspect had handwritten journals in his home that appear to express hateful and anti-Semitic sentiments. This is just the latest in a string of anti-Semitic attacks in and around New York City in just the last few weeks.

With me now is Oren Segal. He is the director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

Thank you for being here. Of course, I wish it were under different circumstances. But let's begin with the journal entries. Things like searches of Hitler and Nazi culture and anti-Semitic writings in his journal. What is your reaction to that being found?

OREN SEGAL, DIRECTOR, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE'S CENTER ON EXTREMISM: Yes, and apparently, there was also searches for "Zionist temples nearby." HARLOW: Yes.

SEGAL: And so to me that suggests that is not somebody who is just spontaneously deciding to go after someone's house who is celebrating Hanukkah; that this may have been potentially premeditated. Of course, we need more information.

HARLOW: New York City -- New York Congresswoman, rather, Nita Lowey, I don't know if you read her op-ed this morning in the "New York Times," but it was very powerful. And this is the part that struck me. She calls this an epidemic in New York and across the country and writes, "The resurgence of anti-Semitism could be a result, in part, of the vanishing legacy of the Holocaust. Recent surveys reveal abysmal levels of knowledge among young people about what happened to the Jewish people in the Second World War."

Do you agree with her?

SEGAL: I think that's part of it. And this is why ADL education programs are very much focused on learning the lessons from the Holocaust and applying them today.



SEGAL: One of the things that we can't forget is that there were a lot of bystanders, people who did not speak out, people who did not reject anti-Semitism at the time of the Holocaust.

So when we train and teach kids about how to identify bias and to speak out, part of that is to empower them to say they have a role to play in pushing back against hate.

HARLOW: And right, the saying if you don't speak up, who will be there when they come for you?

I'd like to talk specifically about a group that's getting a lot of attention right now in the wake of the Jersey City attack and this attack in New York. The suspect's journal referenced Ebinoid Israelites. The criminal complaint on him says they believe that's a reference to the group the Black Hebrew Israelites, that movement.

The New York attorney general, who has opened this Hate Crimes Task Force about this, is investigating hate groups, including some parts of the Black Hebrew Israelites. What do we know about that group? How does the ADL view that group?

SEGAL: So we've been tracking and monitoring the Black Hebrew Israelites since, you know, the '70s and '80s.


SEGAL: And I should say that there are many different groups that make up that movement, offshoots, really. Many of them have no anti- Semitic intent at all. They believe in a very sort of apocalyptic, sort of they are the true Israelites.

But there is a section of them -- and many people may have come across them in Times Square or at the harbor in Baltimore, where there are street preachers expressing anti-Semitism, anti-LGBT sentiment. And so there are pockets of anti-Semitic offshoots of the Black Hebrew Israelites.

HARLOW: What does it tell you that one of the attackers in the Jersey City attack just a few weeks ago is believed to be tied to that movement? And that this attacker is believed to be tied to the movement?

SEGAL: Yes, I'm not clear, frankly, how this shooting [SIC] in Monsey is necessarily connected. I understand there was a reference that was made in one of his journals. Is it possible that he was referring to the Jersey City incident?


SEGAL: I think more remains before we say there's a direct connection between this individual and the Hebrew Israelites.

HARLOW: Yesterday we had Rabbi Jeffrey Myers from the Tree of Life Synagogue on the program. Of course, they suffered the massacre just last year. Listen to something that he told John and I that just stunned us.


RABBI JEFFREY MYERS, TREE OF LIFE SYNAGOGUE: I don't recall them selling licenses to have open hunting season on Jews, but it sure can make Jews feel that way.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Do you feel that way now? That's quite a statement.

MYERS: It sure makes you pause and wonder what's going on in our society that people feel that they have a God-given right to attack any human being for whatever reason they choose to.


HARLOW: Those words open, "hunting season on Jews," and couple that with him saying that many of his Jewish friends are hiding their faith. There was a survey in October before the recent attacks that found that 31 percent of American Jews are trying to hide their Judaism in America in 2019.

SEGAL: It's -- it's disturbing. The community is suffering. You know, there's a sense of anxiety and fear. Whether it's Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, a rise in anti-Semitic incidents that we're tracking. I mean, these are serious issues. The data proves that.

But I think the narrative can't just be of Jews being victimized and Jews feeling unsafe. The Jews are coming together. Other communities are providing support and allyship, and the narrative has to be overcoming this, not just about being a victim.

HARLOW: I'm glad you make that point. I hear that. What do we do for the children? Because listen to this. Josef Gluck, who's being hailed as a hero for going after the attacker in Monsey, here's what he told us yesterday.


JOSEF GLUCK, SURVIVED STABBING ATTACK IN RABBI'S HOME: There are a lot of local kids that are so shaking, vomiting blood a few hours later from -- from fear. There was one kid hiding in the entry room behind the coats. He just threw a pile of coats on his head to hide from him. I believe he didn't come out from his home until now.


HARLOW: Traumatized children vomiting blood in reaction to this. They can't comprehend this. They don't understand all of it, but they're terrified. What do we do for our children?

SEGAL: Well, first of all, I think parents need to hug their children a little bit tighter; need to tell them that the Jewish experience is one that's filled with these types of incidents over long periods of time; and that the Jewish community, the Jewish people, are resilient and have continued.

And in America, 2019, it's not the best time for Jews, but we know that if, in any country and around the world, that Jews can find a way to make their children feel safer, it's this one. Keeping that hope and keeping that spirit alive, I think, is going to make 2020, hopefully, a little bit safer and better, at least for the children.

HARLOW: Let's hope so. Oren Segal, thank you.

SEGAL: Thank you.

HARLOW: Happy new year. We appreciate it very much -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: The breaking news, former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn has escaped from Japan, where he was facing financial misconduct charges.