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At Least 141 Killed in Pakistan School Attack; Most Victims Under 16 Years Old; Taliban Claims Attack Is Revenge Killing; Jeb Bush Explores Running; New Details about Sydney Siege; Terrorism in Australia

Aired December 16, 2014 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 6:00 p.m. in London, 11:00 p.m. in Islamabad, 5:00 a.m. Wednesday in Sydney. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We start with a horrific attack in Pakistan with militants on a suicide mission. They slaughtered more than 130 school children. Mostly sons and daughters of military families in the area. Our Atika Shubert has more on the coordinated terror attack and on the innocent victims.


ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): Gunmen stormed the military-run school at around 10:00 a.m. local time just as some of the children were taking their exams.

MUDASSAR ABBAS, LAB ASSISTANT, ARMY PUBLIC SCHOOL AND DEGREE COLLEGE: (translated): The men entered into the rooms one by one and started indiscriminately firing at the staff members and students.

SHUBERT: The militants carrying suicide vests scaled the walls of the school. They rounded up children and staff, killing many instantly. Pakistan's education minister told CNN it was a planned effort by terrorists.

MUHAMMAD BALIGH UR REHMAN, PAKISTAN STATE MINISTER OF EDUCATION: They had a plot from behind the -- from the backyard of the school. They blew up a car and diverted attention and then crossed the wall and the security got their attention diverted. Somehow they managed and got inside.

SHUBERT: The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack saying it was in retaliation for the military killing hundreds of tribesmen along the restive border with Pakistan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (translated): We were doing our schoolwork and suddenly we heard firing and the teacher told us, do not be afraid, maybe a drill has started. Then we saw army officers coming in the school. Suddenly, an army officer came and told us, you go out the school's back door. SHUBERT: The military moved in and after a six-hour standoff had

secured the site. All the gunmen were killed but the ordeal was not over. At the local hospital, chaotic scenes as the scale of the bloodshed became clearer, the death toll climbed. Sorrow for some boiled over into anguish. The nation is in shock, asking why so many innocent lives had to be lost. And for many parents, the realization that their children will never be coming home from school.

Atika Shubert, CNN, London.



JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The images are absolutely gut- wrenching. Young children carried away in ambulances. A teacher burned alive in front of the students. A house of learning turned into a house of unspeakable horror. And Prime Minister Sharif said, these are my children, it is my loss. Well, this morning, wherever you live, wherever you are, those are our children.


BLITZER: That was the secretary of state, John Kerry, earlier today in London, responding to that brutal terror attack in Pakistan. President Obama also condemned the attack saying, and I'm quoting now, "By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity. We stand with the people of Pakistan."

Let's bring in our guests, our CNN Law Enforcement Analyst, the former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes. Our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto. CNN Global Affairs Analyst, the Managing Editor of "Quartz", Bobby Ghosh. Guys, thanks very much. What a horrific report that we've got to even mention these savages what they did to these little kids. But you're getting more information, Jim. What are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's a sickening time for sure. But new information from Pakistani military officials that the attack could have been worse. The military believes these attackers had ammunition and supplies, food and water to last days. The Pakistani military believes that had those commandos not killed the attackers that the siege of the school would have lasted much longer.

The military says that this was certainly a suicide operation, that the attackers came to kill and to die themselves. And also the latest death toll now, 132 children, nine teachers, including the school's principal, 141 total. It puts it in a special category in Pakistan where you already have attacks with -- you know, with the death tolls 80, 100 and more, in recent years. This one, you know, it's a special category.

BLITZER: Yes, and special because they're going after little school kids, it's, you know, not even adults. This is really sick. Bobby, tell us a little bit more about this Pakistani Taliban. It's known as the TTR (ph). How powerful are they? Why do they do these things?

BOBBY GHOSH, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, they've been around in different guises for several years now. And at various points, elements of the Pakistani military and the Pakistani spy agency have encouraged them, have given them -- have supplied them. But in the last two or three years, their wrath, if you like, has been turned directly at the Pakistani state. They -- their grievances are quite complex. There are some tribal grievances, some ethnic grievances. Many of them are (INAUDIBLE.) And they have this view of the world, that we are now familiar with from Islamic terrorist groups around the world, they want to return to this idea of pure Islamic state as it existed during the time of the prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago. Their views about women, about girls, about modern education, these are all too familiar. They are very, very retrograde. And they have shown, demonstrated over and over again that they have no qualms about targeting children, targeting schools. They have, in the past few years, targeted over a thousand different schools, many of them much, much smaller than this one. They don't want any schools at all. They don't want their children or Pakistani children, in general, to receive what they would regard as a modern, secular education.

BLITZER: Our National Security Analyst, the former Homeland Security Advisor during the Bush administration, Fran Townsend, is also joining us. Tell us about the links, Fran, between this Taliban terror group in Pakistan and ISIS. Are there links there?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, there are, Wolf. In fact, some leaders have recently defected from the Pakistani Taliban to ISIS, including -- you know, they just replaced their spokesman. The spokesman who took plain (ph) credit for today's attack was only there about a month, because the prior spokesman had gone over to ISIS.

This is a group, by the way, that has been somewhat of a threat to the United States. They claimed responsibility for the failed Times Square bombing. They were responsible for the murder of seven CIA officers at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan and have threatened, directly, the United States and British and U.S. interests. And they claimed they wanted to take revenge for the killing -- the raid against -- that killed Bin Laden.

So, this is a group that -- you know, as Jim Sciutto has said to you, this is a group that really is not only quite radical but has directly challenged the Pakistani government and the Pakistani military, in particular.

BLITZER: You know, Tom Fuentes, I can't tell you how many U.S. law enforcement intelligence -- national security officials have said to me, you know, just recently, in the aftermath of just learning about what happened in Pakistan today, if these terrorists are willing to commit such a heinous massacre against school kids, fellow Muslims, if you will, you can imagine what they would do to Americans if they were given a chance. I assume that motivates the U.S. national security community.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's true. But I think the community was already well motivated. These series of attacks, as Jim mentioned, they go back more than a decade in Pakistan where, in the past, they've killed hundreds at a time of police officers, hundreds at a time of military officers. And, of course, that's just business as usual. This time, when they attack children, they know that they're getting to our hearts all over the country -- all over the world, I should say, by killing young children.

And it goes back to what Bobby mentioned is that they are against modern education. So, if you don't have a school that's a Madrasah teaching hate of the west, hate of infidels, then they don't want that education. And they're willing to kill children and shoot them in the head, if necessary, to prevent it.

FUENTES: And that's been the issue because the U.S. has been pressing Pakistan to take on the Pakistani Taliban more aggressively. And they've been doing that, in recent months, with a very aggressive military operation up in those tribal areas. But then, the open question is, what about all the other things that fuel this kind of thinking in that part of the country? And I've been to the Madrasahs up on those border areas. And they are teaching a view of the world that helps turn young kids into terrorists.

BLITZER: Bobby, if you're an American diplomat right now or any American in Islamabad or Karachi or someplace in Pakistan, you've got to wonder how safe is it over there? What do you say to folks who may be there, not only Americans, but Europeans and others?

GHOSH: Well, certainly very few foreigners dare to venture into Peshawar anymore. And I'm sure people around the country -- foreigners around the country are feeling that much -- that much more, in fact. But, truth be told, all Pakistanis now are feeling threatened. And any child -- any parent who's sending their kid to school, whether it's in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad, there must be a twinge of fear there.

Now, Peshawar is worth pointing out as a fairly unique case. Peshawar is -- you remember the sort of crucible in which modern Islamist militancy was created in the 1980s. This is where the CIA, the Pakistani military recruited young men to go across the border to Afghanistan and fight against the Soviet Union. And that Frankenstein's monster, once it was released, has never been a -- never brought back into control again. And Peshawar has become, unfortunately, used to this kind of violence. Only a year ago, there were a couple of suicide attacks on a single church. Nearly 130 Christians were killed. This number today breaks that horrific record.

BLITZER: And, Fran, I know there have been ups and downs in the U.S.- Pakistani relationship, the cooperation in terms of fighting terror. What is it like right now? How good or not so good is that relationship?

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, the Pakistani government has had its own sort of domestic political problems. And they're being attacked from their right flank from extremists within Pakistan. I mean, there has been an uptick in their willingness to confront, as Jim mentioned, the Pakistani Taliban. But I will tell you, what I worry most about, Wolf, is a tendency in national security circles to view this as an away problem, right? You remember the times when we heard about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula being only a regional threat.

And I think, too often, people say we're dealing with ISIS, the Pakistani Taliban is more of a regional threat. Well, they're not. They've said they're going to target the United States and they've taken credit for the failed Times Square bombing. And so, I think we have to remember, it's important to work through this counterterrorism relationship with the Pakistanis, because we have our own U.S. national security interest at stake here.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, what is the FBI -- you used to be the assistant director.


BLITZER: What does the FBI -- they're trying to protect the homeland, the Department of Homeland Security. What do they do about this?

FUENTES: Well, what they try to do is have the closest relation possible with the Pakistani military police and ISIS, their security service. And when I ran international operations, I traveled to Islamabad where the FBI has an office. And I should add that the level of cooperation or the relationship has been a tricky one publicly with Pakistan because there were many times they provided the coordinates of where the drone attack should be done. And then, after it was done by the United States, turned around and screamed in public, oh, our sovereignty been violated. We're against this. Behind the scenes saying, congratulations, you killed some Taliban members.

So, a lot of what they've said publicly is playing to their political audience in Pakistan even though they know the Taliban is a direct threat to all of Pakistan.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we're going to have much more on this developing story coming up later this hour. A horrific, horrific story. More than 130 school kids, schoolchildren slaughtered by these Pakistani Taliban terrorists. Much more coming up.

Also, other news we're following, including the terror threat that hit home for Australians. We're going to have the latest on the aftermath of that deadly hostage standoff.

And on a domestic political issue here in the United States, the brother of a president, the son of another president, now says he is actively considering running for president himself. There he is, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor. He's getting ready to run for the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, now very, very close to running for president of the United States. He's about as close as you get without formally tossing his hat into the ring. Bush announced today on social media, and I'm quoting now, "I am excited to announce I will actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States." On his FaceBook page, the former Florida governor says he made the decision after talking it over with family during the Thanksgiving holiday. Just yesterday, Jeb Bush delivered the winter commencement address at the University of South Carolina, one of the key early primary states.

Let's talk about what all this means, how Bush's decision could impact the 2016 race. Joining us, Ryan Lizza, our CNN political commentator, he's the Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine, and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Gloria, he'd be hinting for days now.


BLITZER: But I think all of us were surprised that the announcement came today.

BORGER: Right. I mean we thought he might have waited till after the new year. But, look, this - he -- we learned that he was releasing 250,000 e-mails from his time as governor, that he was going to pen an e-book, clear sign. And then, of course, today, that he's established a leadership pack. Six months ago, Wolf, I would have said to you, this man was not going to run for the presidency. But I think he took a look at the field and he sees a place for himself in this field. And also he took a look at the Democratic field and took a look at Hillary Clinton and said, you know what, I think this time maybe a Bush can beat a Clinton, and that's why he's getting in.

BLITZER: And he also, as a former Florida governor, two-term governor, pretty popular in Florida, speaks Spanish, had a lot of Hispanic support, Florida is critical. If a Republican wants to be elected president of the United States, he or she needs to carry Florida because the Democrats probably going to carry New York and California. Republicans will carry Texas. But Florida and Ohio, that's where that decision could be directly impacted, who's the president.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Great point, both in the primaries and in the general election, right? So in the last few cycles, Florida has come right after the three big states, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. And if you can put it away in Florida, you can win the nomination. And in the general election, as you point out, Wolf, if the Republicans need to steal one of the big states from the Democrat, and Florida has been trending in the general elections more and more towards the Democrats, and Jeb Bush is the one person that is running on the Republican field that could actually win that state in a general election.

BLITZER: And I've heard in recent days as the speculation about Jeb Bush was growing and growing and growing to the point that today he announces he's creating this committee to explore the possibility, I've already heard a lot of speculation from Republican insiders, if Jeb Bush were to get the Republican nomination, he would then go to Ohio, like the governor, John Kasich, somebody along those lines, as a --

BORGER: Rob Portman.

BLITZER: Rob Portman.

BORGER: Rob Portman.

BLITZER: A vice presidential running mate, knowing that Ohio is critical as well.

BORGER: Right. Sure. Up -- he might be very smart to do that. But first he's got to get the nomination.


BORGER: What he said last week - and, you know, he's been talking about this publicly. And what I'm told by his close advisers is that actually what he's been saying publicly is what he's saying privately. And he said publicly, you know, sometimes you have to lose a primary in order to win the general election. What he's saying is that maybe he does lose a state like Iowa, but then he can go on to win a state like Florida, which, of course, Rudy Giuliani could not do when he ran.

Look, Jeb Bush is out of touch with a great part of the Republican Party right now. They don't like his positions on immigration. They don't like his positions on education. Tea Partiers don't have much use for him, he's a Bush. They believe the Bushes began the end of Reaganism, right, and so they don't like him. However, what he is saying is, you know what, these are the things I believe in and they're going to have resonance with other Republicans and with the general electorate.

LIZZA: Hey, look, he's got -- he realizes that the hard right candidate has not won a Republican nomination since Barry Goldwater.

BORGER: That's right.

LIZZA: You know, arguably, you could make a case for Reagan. But when you have Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush and Mitt Romney and John McCain, they were all candidates of the establishment who were seen - who were seen skeptically by many of the right for certain issues. And Jeb probably looks at that history and says, he's not that far out of the mainstream to win this nomination.

BORGER: Right.

LIZZA: Immigration and education are the two big - the two big issues where he's (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: That's right, common core principle as far as education is concerned.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: And on immigration, he's got a much more moderate stance than many of the so-called Tea Party -

BORGER: He does.

BLITZER: That base of the Republican Party.

BORGER: And he's -

LIZZA: So he's got to make an electability argument on his immigration. He's got to say, look, I am married to a woman who was born in Mexico. I speak Spanish. I have a view of immigration that will be popular in the general election and that will enrich and grow the Republican Party. And that's the way he can overcome that.

BORGER: And, you know, I'm told that there are a couple of reasons he's releasing all these records right now. One is the transparency issue, which is, OK, everybody else in the Republican field -

LIZZA: Yes, yes.

BORGER: Chris Christie, Scott Walker, you've got lots of e-mails -

LIZZA: It puts pressure on those guys, yes.

BORGER: Pressure on those guys to be transparent. The other reason he's releasing these e-mails --

LIZZA: And Hillary Clinton, by the way.

BORGER: And Hillary. And Hillary.

The other reason he's releasing all this stuff is to remind people that he's actually quite conservative and that he stood up for conservative issues, conservative causes when he was governor of the state of Florida. And that's why he's writing his book to remind people that he's not just a so-called moderate, but he is actually conservative on an awful lot of social issues that he'd like to remind those voters and say, Iowa and South Carolina, about.


BLITZER: All right, well, it's a major political announcement today.

LIZZA: And one final thing. On Hillary, I hear from a lot of Hillary people, they want Jeb to be the Republican nominee -


LIZZA: Because it takes away her big vulnerability, which is, maybe she's yesterday's news. If it's Bush versus Clinton, they're both these candidates of the past.

BLITZER: Well, --

BORGER: Yes, but she looks different. She looks more like change than he did - does, because she's a woman and that's his problem.

LIZZA: She's a woman. She's a woman, yes, yes.


BLITZER: All right, a lot of political news today. We'll see what happens. All right, guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead, other news we're following, including the day after that deadly hostage standoff in Sydney, Australia. New details emerging now about the victims and a look at how Australia is now coping with the threat of terrorism.


BLITZER: Just want to update you on our discussion we just had on Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, announcing the creation of an exploratory committee in effect to consider a run for the White House in 2016. We just learned from a source close to the Florida senator, Marco Rubio, that Rubio himself is on track to run for president in 2016, this source saying even if Jeb Bush jumps into the race. That's a source close to Senator Rubio. We're getting this from our correspondent, our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash and Eric Bradner (ph) from CNN. So we're following this part of the story. The political scene here in the United States heating up dramatically as everyone gets ready for the race for the White House now that the midterms are history.

Other news we're following, it's just before 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning in Sydney, Australia. People there will be waking up to the aftermath of that deadly hostage standoff. Authorities are investigating what happened during that nearly 17-hour siege that left two hostages and the gunman dead. Reports say the victims, a prominent attorney and the cafe manager, died while trying to protect others inside. We get more now on the standoff, the victims and a country in mourning from CNN's Andrew Stevens.


ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A bed of hundreds of flowers blanket Martin Place, the site of a deadly police standoff that claimed the lives of two hostages. Each bouquet a tribute to the bravery that occurred here.

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: This has been an absolutely appalling and ugly incident. That's the only way to describe it.

STEVENS: We're learning more about the harrowing story amidst this terrifying ordeal. After a firestorm of gunshots rang out in the heart of downtown Sydney, authorities still piecing together what set off the chain of events, forcing heavily armed police to storm the Lindt chocolate cafe, freeing the hostages inside.

COMMISSIONER ANDREW P. SCIPIONE, NEW SOUTH WALES POLICE: They made the call because they believed at that time if they didn't enter, there would have been many more lives lost. STEVENS: Some have said 34-year-old Tori Johnson, the cafe's manager,

may have grabbed the hostage-taker's gun, but authorities wouldn't comment on those accounts. Shots were heard from the street. During the struggle, Johnson was killed. Thirty-eight-year-old Katrina Dawson, a lawyer and mother of three, also died. Johnson's family said in a statement, "we are so proud of our beautiful boy, Tori, gone from this earth, but forever in our memories as the most amazing life partner, son and brother we could ever wish for."

For nearly 17 hours before the crisis ended, hostages remained on edge, visible through the cafe's windows, forced to hold a black flag with Arabic writing. Some held at gunpoint managing to escape, their mad dash to safety captured on local news. A full investigation into the mind and motives of the gunman, a self-proclaimed Muslim cleric, is underway.

Fearing a potential backlash, fellow Australians are showing support to the Muslim community online. Under the hashtag, #I'llridewithyou, Australian Twitter showing solidarity, offering to accompany Muslims wearing religious clothes on public transport as Sydney works to return to normalcy.

Andrew Stevens, CNN, Sydney.


BLITZER: It certainly was a shocking, shocking 17 hours, hostage drama in the heart of Sydney. Australia's prime minister says it sent shockwaves across the country and indeed around the world.


TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: This is an incident which has echoed around the world. And not only millions of people here in Australia, but tens if not hundreds of millions of people right around the world have been focused on the city of Sydney, which has been touched by terrorism for the first time in more than 35 years.


BLITZER: Emma Dallimore is a reporter for Australia's Seven Network. She's joining us now from Los Angeles.

Emma, we spoke yesterday as well. And now, as you just heard, we heard the prime minister say Australia has been touched by terrorism. Has there been a sense in your country, Australia, over these years, because of its geography, it really was removed from that terror threat which clearly has affected Europe and the United States?

EMMA DALLIMORE, REPORTER, SEVEN NETWORK AUSTRALIA: Well, Wolf, we certainly had hoped that that was the case. I mean fears certainly had substantially grown over the past years and those past months where we've seen the Islamic state beheadings, we've seen Americans, Brits. And our prime minister had warned us and kept us briefed that no country was immune. Certainly Australians feared that one day it would come to our shores. But our Muslim community makes up 2 percent of Australia's population. The vast majority live in the state of New South Wales, so around that city of Sydney, that we've sadly been watching for the past 48 hours or so.