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THE SITUATION ROOM
New Olympic Terror Threat
Aired February 5, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: This is a SITUATION ROOM special report. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
The breaking news this hour: a new terror warning for airlines flying to Russia only about 24 hours before the start of the Winter Olympic Games. We're learning more about the potential threat, a threat that might involve explosives hidden in a chilling new way, in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes.
Our correspondents here in Washington and in Sochi, they are working the story. They're covering all the new threats, the setbacks in the Olympic city itself.
Let's check in with Nick Paton Walsh. He's standing by live in Sochi with the very latest.
What is the very latest, Nick?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we know that these threats, as you said, are about potentially explosives being put on aircraft in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes.
We do know that Russia has instituted a ban on liquids in hand luggage for quite some time now. When I flew from Moscow to Sochi, that was particularly of concern certainly. It's not clear how universal this applies are across Russia, but certainly this is something that's definitely been put in place when it comes to the Games here.
We do know also Russia has a pretty long history with this sort of threat. Back in 2004, two planes were blown out of the sky almost simultaneously by two female suicide bombers. Some of the speculation at the time was that they may have taken the explosives on board the aircraft in large tubs of face cream.
What we don't know is whether or not this threat is about explosives being transported here in toothpaste tubes on airliners or whether or not those devices may be used on board the aircraft. I would suspect probably the latter because it's a relatively anarchic part of Russia around here. There's a ring of steel around the Games, but frankly, if you needed to move explosives, it would be easier to bring them across land from restive Dagestan, where there are almost explosions every week over the past few years -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Dagestan a very disturbing and very tumultuous place right now in this continuing war, if you will, between the extremists and others in Russia. Stand by for a moment, Nick.
Barbara Starr is our Pentagon correspondent. She's getting new information on the breaking news as well.
What are you learning, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is the exact concern the intelligence community has had all the way along.
They feel the Russians have that ring of steel around the Olympic venues, tens of thousands in security forces. It's other targets the U.S. has been worried about, the so-called soft targets, hotels, restaurants, transportation hubs, and that now, this, of course, is extending to airliners.
So what they are going to be looking at, as they do in every one of these threats, who are the potential bomb makers, who has the expertise, who knows how to do this sort of thing? We talked about it before. There are elements of al Qaeda that are very expert in making these types of bombs, but, in addition, a lot of this type of information is on Web sites, chat rooms, out there in the Internet circles that jihadists frequent.
So it will be very tough for them to figure out. You know, it was just yesterday that the head of U.S. counterterrorism, Matthew Olsen, testified before Congress that the U.S. and the Russians were looking at some very specific threats of varying credibility, but they were looking at them and that they were trying to disrupt them, and now we have this -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And he also went on to say we're working closely, very closely with the Russians and other partners to monitor any threats we see and to disrupt those.
Barbara, stand by.
Ivan Watson is also on the ground for us in Sochi, Russia, right now.
Ivan, you have been there for several days now. Walk us through the security that you have had to endure, obviously, out of an abundance of caution. The Russians are being very, very determined to try to make sure that everyone remains safe.
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, I think the term that we have been throwing around the ring of steel is a very accurate one.
The Olympic venues are very fortified, not only by fences and barbed wire and barriers and metal detectors, and also these scanners that you have to run your accreditations and your travel passes through, but also by the tens of thousands of Russian security forces that have clearly been deployed here.
When you drive along highways here, you see police deployed roughly every quarter-mile. Vehicles here are severely restricted. Even bulldozers, even construction equipment, those type of vehicles, they need special permits, special accreditations to be able to operate here. You can't bring cars into this province, this region of Russia without a special permit, without it being previously registered here.
And if you have kept your car here from, say, another city like Moscow after January 7, you can't really drive it out easily either. So the Russian security restrictions are quite serious. The deployment is quite serious. And that's probably why people like U.S. counterterrorism officials are saying they believe the venues themselves will be quite safe.
Their concern, as Barbara mentioned, are softer targets outside of the immediate Olympic venues. And, of course, the question, what about other Russian cities and towns? They have been targeted in the past by insurgents, by terrorists. They could do so again potentially and still manage to raise great fear, cause great harm and principally embarrass greatly the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
BLITZER: As you know, they have had seven years to get ready for this, the Russian security forces, but also the terrorists who may be out there. Have you heard of concern about so-called sleeper cells, Ivan?
WATSON: You know, when you talk to ordinary Russians, for instance, who live around here, many of them say they're not worried at all about being targeted, which is perhaps unexpected considering that there have been direct threats coming from the principal Islamist insurgent group in the region, and also because we are so close to the Caucasus. We're basically in the Caucasus.
And this is one of the most volatile, politically charged and conflict-prone regions in the world. And yet, when you talk to ordinary Russians here, they seem to tell me that they're not very worried right now. Perhaps it's because of the massive deployment of uniformed Russian security officers, as well as probably the plainclothes officers.
And there are also other measures we're very sure are in force that we cannot see here. So it's surprising to hear Russians that don't seem to be very worried about this, the Russians who are living right next to this potential target here, the Olympic Park over my shoulder here.
BLITZER: All right, Ivan Watson in Sochi, Ivan, we're going to get back to you.
Elise Labott is our State Department security reporter. She's getting some new information.
What are you learning, Elise?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just about this constant communication that the U.S. has been having with the Russians, senior administration officials telling me just moments ago that the U.S. has been in touch with the Russians about this threat, about other threats and all information is being shared.
Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview just today with our own Jake Tapper was talking about the real coordinated way that the U.S. and the Russians have been working on leading up to the Olympics. There are about 150 U.S. personnel from the FBI, from the Department of Homeland Security, from the military, all working under the same way in a coordinated way under the same roof sharing real-time information with the Russians.
And, as you know, Barbara said also that the U.S. is tracking a number of threats, U.S. officials, counterterrorism officials in the last few days on the Hill talking about these threats that they have been working on, obviously don't want to talk too much about any specific threats, but certainly this is one of them.
BLITZER: Elise, stand by.
Tom Fuentes, the former assistant FBI law director, CNN law enforcement analyst, is also joining us.
Our sources are telling us, Tom, that these latest threats involving toothpaste or cosmetic devices or whatever to conceal, to conceal explosives, that these threats are -- quote -- "real," based on very good information.
You have been alarmed now for several weeks. You're not an alarmist by nature. You have been very cautious. But you're deeply worried about what's going on.
TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I am, Wolf, because this is completely an unprecedented situation from the beginning. We have not had an Olympic Games put on right in the middle of a very troubled region, as the reporters have said.
This has been a dangerous area for the last 25 years, since the Soviet Union dissolved and Chechnya and Dagestan wanted to become independent republics and the Russian Federation would not allow it. The Russians have used heavy-handed tactics to suppress any desire for their independence.
And so this has been basically a war zone-type situation and a terror zone situation for decades. So to have the Olympics right in the middle of that is problematic from the beginning. Then you have the terror groups starting last July saying, we're going to conduct an attack. Then they conduct two attacks, killing three dozen people, a month-and-a-half ago in Volgograd.
Now -- and releasing videotapes. They're looking for black widows. They're going door to door in Chechnya and Dagestan threatening families of known terrorist groups that they better not have something happen from one of their family members at the Olympics. They're killing stray dogs on the streets of Sochi.
They're taking every possible measure and using very harsh measures to try to suppress the possibility of a terrorist attack. But terrorism is a crime of stealth, not a military invasion. So, the fact that people could already be there, even as we speak, to conduct something has been the situation for a long time, and that's why this is particularly dangerous, compared to any other previous Olympic Games. BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, we will get back to you specifically on the question, because you know a lot about this region. Who potentially would be these terrorists who might want to disrupt these Winter Olympic Games?
We have much more coming up on the breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a new warning of a possible toothpaste terror plot targeting flights to the Olympic Games in Sochi.
We are also going to take you inside that so-called ring of steel in Sochi. Tom Foreman is standing by in our virtual studio.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. PETER KING (R-NY), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I would say that they are reasonably safe, but I would not go myself. If I were an athlete, that's one thing. But just as a spectator, I don't think it's worth the risk.
Odds are nothing is going to happen, but the odds are higher than for any other Olympics, I believe, that something could happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Strong words from Peter King, the chairman of the House HOMELAND SECURITY Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
Already plagued by terror bombings in its southern region, Russia has put up a so-called ring of steel around the Olympic venues, but can that keep athletes and all the visitors safe?
CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us now with a closer look.
What's going on, Tom?
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
I'm here with Peter Brookes. He's a senior fellow from the Heritage Foundation for national security, also advised the Bush administration and the Pentagon.
Let's talk about this region that Tom Fuentes mentioned just a minute ago, because you know a good bit about this. The North Caucasus region has been incredibly violent for a long time.
PETER BROOKES, SENIOR FELLOW, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Some of the most horrific terrorist attacks in Russian history have come out of this region. I'm talking about attacks against elementary schools, theaters, subways, aircraft, airports, trains.
FOREMAN: Most recently in Volgograd down here, that very same thing happened. BROOKES: Absolutely. We had just in late December two attacks, the train station and a trolley bus, killed dozens of people and that originated out of this part of the world.
FOREMAN: Not only have there been very violent terrorists here, but they have shown a willingness to go beyond their immediate zone. You may remember the Boston bombings. Those two young men had ties to this part of the region.
Let's move over here now and talk about Sochi. It's on the western side. It is something of an island in the midst of all this chaos because the mountains separated from the worst of it and the sea protects it from the other side. But that's not enough.
BROOKES: No, that's not enough at all. That's the reason the Russians have created a ring of steel around the Olympic venues.
FOREMAN: Let's bring in a closer look here and talk about what that ring of steel means because we have heard that term an awful lot. First of all, one of the things that have been done here is they basically limited the roads to one that runs along the shore to the main Olympic Village where the opening ceremony will begin, where the ice skating events, things like that will be, and then one more that runs up into the mountains to the alpine events, the skiing events, things like that.
And to create this ring of steel, one of the things they have done is flood this area with troops and with security officers.
BROOKES: Yes, this is a security sector. Inside of it, everything is going to be monitored, cell phone, Internet. There will be cameras, and they want to keep everybody outside of that who may do harm to the spectators.
FOREMAN: They are going to try to keep track of basically every soul in there, where they are, what they're doing, where they're going.
BROOKES: Entering --
FOREMAN: They will also have some big equipment in here. They will have anti-aircraft batteries, that sort of thing. They will have ships out at sea. And yet, you point out there is a very real threat despite all this.
They could have somebody inside of this ring of steel already, such as a black widow suicide bomber, a lone wolf. These Games have been around for a long time, since 2007. If you were a terrorist -- this insurgency has been going on for 20 years. If you were a terrorist leader, you may want to get somebody in there very early, set up an operation before these Games start. FOREMAN: So, when we talk about things like this, threat of people smuggling in something in toothpaste tubes, that sort of thing, that could be going into the heart of the Games into this very protected ring of steel or it could be about other targets.
BROOKES: Sure. I think this toothpaste threat is about aircraft. There are very few direct flights to Sochi from outside Russia. They will have to come in through Moscow. So, I think that is where that is directed.
Russia is a big place, nine time zones. If you're able to pull off a terrorist attack against Moscow during these Games, it's going to be a "victory" -- quote, unquote -- for these terrorists.
FOREMAN: No matter where it goes, it will be associated with the Olympics.
What do you think? Are the odds in favor or against an Olympic -- an attack during all this, with all your experience?
BROOKES: They said they were going to do it. We have to take them at their word. I expect an attempt. Hopefully, there won't be one.
FOREMAN: All right, Wolf, we will keep an eye on it.
BLITZER: Tom Foreman, Peter Brookes, thanks, guys, very much.
We're continuing to follow the breaking news. We have a team of reporters in Sochi. Right now, we're going there. We will have the latest on this so-called toothpaste terror threat right after this.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Want to update you on the breaking news we're following, the United States now formally advising all airlines flying to Russia, direct flights to Russia, to be aware of the possibility that explosive materials could be concealed in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes or something along those lines, this according to a law enforcement source.
Another government source tells CNN that this threat -- quote -- "It's real. It's real. We have got very good information about this so- called toothpaste bomb threat. Other types of concealed explosives in tubes as well," the source saying it's based on a credible source. "We're taking it seriously, so other countries are taking it very seriously as well."
They assume, by the way, that if it were to come on a plane, the plane would be coming to Russia from Europe, rather than the United States.
Let's go to Sochi right now, where correspondents Nick Paton Walsh and Ivan Watson, they're on the ground for us.
Ivan, first to you. This is pretty alarming right now and it comes only a few hours before the start of the Winter Olympic Games. And I know I'm worried. I assume you guys are as well. But what you're telling me is that, on the ground, folks are trying to go along with business as usual?
WATSON: Absolutely. I mean, you do not get the sense from the Russian volunteers here, even from the residents who live just a stone's throw away from the Olympic Park, that they feel any concern whatsoever.
But maybe I can give you a little context. I think many of our viewers, I think many people who would actually be coming to the Olympics have no idea that the Olympic Park over my shoulder is five minutes drive away from an international border, the border between Russia and a region called Abkhazia.
Now, 20 years ago, a war was fought there. There is still a frozen conflict there. Another country, Georgia, still claims that territory, while Russia supports what Georgia describes as Abkhazian separatists. Basically, that underscores how complicated this part of the world is, the Caucasus. There have been many, many, many conflicts here over ethnic lines, over religious lines, over political lines between states, and that's part of what is so unusual about putting these Olympics here, this Olympic Park just five minutes' drive away from a frozen conflict where there are more than 1,000 Russian peacekeepers stationed.
Abkhazia has been predominantly calm and stable, but, again, it just shows you what a complicated region these Winter Olympics will be held in less than 48 hours from now.
BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh, you were just in another dangerous part of that area, in Dagestan. And all of us remember the bombers in Boston. Their families came from Dagestan as well. That's not all that far away. So, here's the question, because you know this region well.
Let's hope this doesn't occur, but if there were some sort of terrorist attack at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, who would be the likely culprits, if you will?
WALSH: Well, if you presume they come from the North Caucasus, from Southern Russia, you're probably going to end up pointing a finger at a group called the Vilayat Dagestan.
That's kind of the brand used for an Islamist emirate kind of organization working out of the hotbed of the insurgency here. That's way across to the east of Southern Russia near the Caspian Sea. We're on the Black Sea Here. But they have the ones behind the Volgograd blast. They're not really kind of corporate structure.
They're separate cells, often very young, a lot younger than some of the militants we have seen in the past decades, often in their early 20s. The oldest ones get to kind of 30 before they're often killed by Russian Special Forces. But they have been the ones with the radical ideology, the organization, in a lot of cases the sheer will to die in situations like these. And we have seen a lot of these attacks involving people who have sought the culture, sought the kind of fundamentalist underground that they provide, and possibly if you see some of the more recent attacks they have done, the bomb making has seemed to be a little more sophisticated. Possibly this may be with where the concerns are emanating from, Wolf.
BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh on the ground in Sochi, Ivan Watson watching what's going on as well, thanks to both of you for your excellent eyewitness accounts of what is going on.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.