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THE SITUATION ROOM
War on Terror: Strikes in Syria; Syria's U.N. Ambassador Weighs in on Strikes; U.S. Strikes to Thwart 'Imminent' Terror Plot; U.S., Arab Allies Strike ISIS in Syria
Aired September 23, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: A SITUATION ROOM special report: "War on Terror: Strikes in Syria."
Breaking news: The United States promises more strikes against terrorist targets in Syria, now a warning of potential danger to Americans right here at home. Stand by for new details on the air assault and what happens next.
We are also learning more about the surprise U.S. strike on a shadowy al Qaeda cell. Authorities now saying they were plotting to attack Americans and other Westerners. Some U.S. officials believe the threat was imminent.
President Obama says this is not America's fight alone, but on this, the eve of his big speech before the United Nations, can he persuade holdouts to join this new U.S. war?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the United Nations. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Just hours after the first waves of U.S. and coalition airstrikes against ISIS and other terrorist targets in Syria, the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., has just issued a new terror alert, warning of a heightened risk of revenge attacks on American soil.
Here at the United Nations in New York, President Obama has been thanking five Arab countries for taking part in the assault against ISIS in Syria. American forces also took action on their own against veteran al Qaeda terrorists in Syria. Some U.S. officials believe they posed an imminent threat to the United States and the West.
We have our correspondents, our analysts, the newsmakers standing by with new information and reaction to the expanding war on terror.
Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's here with me at the United Nations. He has the very latest.
What are you learning?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, now know that it is not one, but two terrorist threats emanating from Syria that led the U.S. and its coalition part mothers act urgently with these airstrikes, ISIS and Khorasan, an al Qaeda-tied group, both of them with aspirations and plans to attack outside of Syria, a direct threat, U.S. officials believe, to the U.S. homeland.
And one thing Pentagon officials making very clear tonight is that the strikes we have seen over these last 24 hours are just the beginning of a sustained air campaign.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Under the cover of night, the American war with terror groups in the Middle East entered a new, more aggressive phase, striking ISIS in its home base inside Syria.
OBAMA: Last night, on my orders, America's armed forces began strikes against ISIL targets in Syria.
SCIUTTO: And there was another surprise target, a little known terror organization known as the Khorasan group, an al Qaeda offshoot which officials say was in the final stages of planning attacks on U.S. targets, including on the homeland. Even more alarming, the group was recruiting Westerners to carry out the attacks.
LT. GEN. WILLIAM MAYVILLE JR., JOINT STAFF DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS: We have been watching this group closely for some time. We believe the Khorasan group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.
And we know that the Khorasan group has attempted to recruit Westerners to serve as operatives or to infiltrate back into their homelands.
SCIUTTO: The operation began with a devastating barrage of more than 40 Tomahawk missiles launched from U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, those cruise missiles aimed mostly at Khorasan targets.
More than 40 fighter jets and bombers, crucially, including aircraft from four Arab nations, continued the through the night, taking on a broad array of ISIS positions, the strikes focusing on the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa in and the north and eastern parts of Syria.
While the Pentagon is still assessing the damage, it called the strikes a success. Video released shows punishing blows to an ISIS command post and training camp. The assault is an unprecedented collaboration between the U.S. and Arab partners with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates carrying out airstrikes, Qatar supporting the air campaign.
OBAMA: I also made clear that America would act as part of a broad coalition. And that's exactly what we've done. The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America's fight alone.
SCIUTTO: And it will be a sustained fight, the U.S. and its partners vowing this was only the beginning. REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: I think the airstrikes will
certainly disrupt ISIL, may damage the Khorasan group, which is very significant, but it won't degrade ISIL very much and it certainly is not going to defeat them. We have to be realistic about what we can hope to achieve.
SCIUTTO: We now know the coalition taking part in these airstrikes is even bigger than we knew. Just a short time ago, all five Arab nations that have joined this coalition, I'm told, are flying strike aircraft, ready to drop bombs on ISIS targets as they find them.
Of course, the president's also going to ask for more international help at the UNGA, the General Assembly, this week, Wolf, when he is asking for binding resolution before the U.N. Security Council, calling on nations to stop the flow of fighters and funding into Syria, which really fuel these terrorist groups, whether you are talking about ISIS or Khorasan or al-Nusra and others.
BLITZER: Yes. He's addressing the U.N. General Assembly here tomorrow morning and then in the afternoon, he's presiding over a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. is president of the Security Council this month, as you know.
Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
Just hours after President Obama gave the order to strike in Syria, he is now getting ready for that major speech before the U.N. General Assembly.
Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's here in New York as well.
This is going to be a very important and presumably powerful speech that the president will deliver, Jim.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That right, Wolf.
And in this city where the war on terror essentially began 13 years ago with attacks on 9/11, the president is here in New York, trying to expand this coalition for this new battlefront in the war against terrorism. Earlier this afternoon, he met with those five nations -- or representatives from those five nations that took part in those airstrikes in Syria last night.
The president saying during that meeting with those Arab countries that this proves that the world is united in the fight against terrorism and the fight against ISIS. And it was interesting, Wolf. There was one point during this exchange. A reporter who is with the small pool of reporters following the president during this event asked the president if he is at ease being a wartime president. The president only smiled and said, thank you, and then that was it.
But not all Democrats are smiling when it comes to what's happening with this new fight against ISIS and Syria, Wolf. Earlier today, Senator Tim Kaine, a fellow Democrat, was raising questions about whether or not the president has the authorization, the legal authorization, to expand this war against ISIS. He said it sets a horrible precedent that the U.S. and these partners have now moved into Syria after the Congress basically punted on the issue and did not vote to authorize any expansion of this mission.
The White House is maintaining, Wolf, and there was a background call with senior administration officials earlier today, that the president does have the legal authorization to conduct this battle based on that authorization vote that occurred after the 9/11 attacks back in 2001, Wolf.
BLITZER: And we do know also at the same time the Department of Homeland Security, together with the FBI, they have issued a new warning to all law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to be on the lookout for revenge attacks by lone wolves, as they say.
Today, DHS and FBI a joint bulletin to provide state, local and federal law enforcement with the latest intelligence related to these threats. "We will continue," the statement says, "to adjust security measures as appropriate to protect the American people."
What else do we know about the possibility of revenge attacks now coming from ISIS terrorists?
ACOSTA: Well, you know earlier this week, Wolf, we asked the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, if they had any response to the ISIS call for attacks on coalition countries before these airstrikes took place.
They didn't have a comment, but it is important to note that the administration has said all along they don't believe ISIS has the capability to conduct airstrikes -- or conduct terrorist attacks, I should say, on the U.S. homeland. They are very worried though, however, about the group Khorasan that we have been talking about so much today.
They do worry very much that this al Qaeda-linked group, which is composed, administration officials say, of al Qaeda veterans who have found a safe haven in Syria after operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that they can carry out attacks, and it's based on that premise that they are an offshoot of al Qaeda that they say the president has the legal authorization to conduct these airstrikes against Khorasan, and they say he's going to continue to do so.
The president indicated at that meeting with those Arab partners earlier today that this fight is only beginning, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta here at the United Nations, thanks very much. He is traveling with the president.
Meanwhile, a Syrian human rights group now says at least 70 ISIS militants were killed in these you U.S.-led airstrikes, more than 300 wounded. There's no independent confirmation of that, but many of the casualties were likely in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. That's in the north-central part of Syria.
Brian Todd is joining us now with more on this part of the story.
What are you learning, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we are getting new accounts of life inside the city of Raqqa, which ISIS has been controlling since January.
Now, this is really ISIS' fortress, activists, other witnesses risking their lives getting information and pictures out of the city of Raqqa. Now, we are told public executions in Raqqa are commonplace. Nonbelievers are sometimes crucified in the street. At one point, ISIS displayed the heads of Syrian soldiers that it had killed on poles inside a city circle.
Residents describe Raqqa as an Islamic police state. Women who don't wear veils head to toe are sometimes lashed. And we're told by one woman they are sometimes executed. Music is banned in the city. Even minor things are punished severely. One resident says if they see anyone even holding a pack of cigarettes, that person could get lashed.
Cigarette and alcohol packages, as you see there in that video, they are taken from stores, piled on the street, burned on the street. CNN cannot independently verify some of this information, but a U.S. official does tell us tonight people who run afoul of ISIS rules sometimes risk summary execution in that city of Raqqa.
This official also says ISIS enforcers inside Raqqa use threats, violence and informants to intimidate residents. Wolf, we are told informants are all over that city. Witnesses say teenaged boys are often recruited as informants, even told to inform on their own families.
Wolf, that whole situation tonight could get worse now that the airstrikes are focused on the city of Raqqa.
BLITZER: Brian, how is all this information getting out of Raqqa?
TODD: We are told that activists, Wolf, and other witnesses are secretly moving around, videotaping some of the public executions, videotaping some of the other things, taking witness accounts.
They are they are communicating you with each other through encrypted communications on the Internet and elsewhere. They don't move around together. They move around just in single -- you know, just single people moving around by themselves, very secretly. It is very dangerous work.
They are doing that to get the word out, but they are also, we are told, living in safe houses around the city, which ISIS is looking for right now.
BLITZER: Brian Todd with that report, chilling indeed. While five Arab nations took part in the military operation in Syria,
some important U.S. allies did not, including Turkey, even though it has a very big stake in this fight against ISIS and is a NATO ally.
Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is joining us now live from Turkey. She is near the Syrian border.
Are they giving any explanation over there, Arwa, why Turkey, a NATO ally, has not joined in the military strikes against ISIS in Syria?
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the government has been saying that the rationale behind that, the reluctance to join this U.S.-brought-together coalition stemmed from the fact that up until this weekend, there were 49 Turkish citizens in ISIS custody held hostage.
The government over the weekend able to negotiate their release, not disclosing details as to how they managed to do that, but the president did come out on Sunday, coming out today, saying that they did support what the U.S. was doing. So, presumably, we could be seeing Turkey taking a more aggressive stance at this stage, moving forward, now that those hostages have been released, Wolf.
BLITZER: Because one of the things I'm sure the U.S. would like, probably some of the other coalition partners, is be able to launch those airstrikes from nearby air bases inside Turkey, Incirlik, some of the other NATO bases.
Any indication Turkey might be ready to allow these airstrikes to emanate from Turkey?
DAMON: No indication of that publicly just yet, Wolf.
And, of course, these airstrikes have been an incredibly sensitive issue, not just for Turkey, but also taking a look what is happening inside Syria. You are hearing the reports of what the situation and life used to be like inside Raqqa. We spoke to a Syrian activist in Raqqa earlier today right after those airstrikes happened overnight.
And he said that, if he could, he would dance for joy in the streets, but he couldn't because ISIS had been changing its tactics, much more visible in the streets, even moving more amongst the civilian population and taking up residence, basically, embedding themselves in some civilian homes. Now, that was the reaction to the airstrikes from a resident inside Raqqa, starkly different to some of the reaction we are getting from Syrian activists in other part of the country, who are saying that the U.S. is wrong and that it is targeting other extremist groups, yes, like the Nusra Front, but in doing that, it is really serving to change the sentiment when it comes to these non-ISIS-controlled opposition areas as to what the U.S.' intent might really be at this stage, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, be careful over there, Arwa Damon, near the border of Syria in Turkey joining us. Arwa, thanks very much.
Let's continue the breaking news. Joining us now, the top spokesman for the kingdom of Jordan, one of the five Arab nations that took part in these U.S.-led military options, the minister, Mohammed Al Momani, is joining us now from Amman.
Minister, thanks very much for joining us.
What role did Jordan specifically play in these airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria?
MOHAMMED AL MOMANI, JORDAN GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: Well, Wolf, this morning, early this morning, Amman time, we actually launched an airstrike inside the Syrian borders to bomb selected ISIS targets. We have done this early in the morning. It took like three hours of time. And then our air jets came back safe.
And we announced, actually, this officially through a military communique.
What we are saying at this point is that it is important that five Arab nations are coming together collaboratively and declaring that there is a regional effort to -- to stop and fight terrorism in partnership with the United States.
I think this is an important political point to be noticed. I think it sends the right message everywhere, that this region had enough of the spread of terrorism and somebody needs to take the right stand and to do the right thing. It's the right thing to do. It's the moral thing to do, to fight terrorism and to stop terrorism from spreading --
BLITZER: All right --
MOMANI: -- all around the region.
BLITZER: Will you keep launching airstrikes against these targets in Syria?
MOMANI: Yes. This is an ongoing operation. In the last couple of days, there has been several attacks on our borders. Syria has been unable to protect the borders from its side. So we're saying that this is going to be an ongoing operation through which we will preempt any attempt to try to cross our borders and infiltrate our borders and to make sure that our borders are secure and safe. And this is the high interest of the Jordanian state, to ensure the security and stability of our borders and our soil.
BLITZER: What about ISIS targets in Iraq?
Is that something you're likely to launch airstrikes against, as well?
MOMANI: My understanding, this has not been discussed at this point because there is a -- a good level of cooperation going on between the United States and the Iraqi officials and the Iraqi military. So it seems that this might be a good effort going on there. The problem is the areas near to -- near borders in Syria, next to Jordan borders in Syria. That's the problem. That's very close to Jordan. This is where we have been getting the most of the attacks on our borders.
BLITZER: I heard your king, King Abdullah, say over the weekend, that one of the problems, why ISIS is so powerful is because they have so much money. They've robbed a lot of banks. They're exporting oil through the black market.
Do you have any idea how much money these ISIS terrorists have?
MOMANI: The estimations we have is that we're talking about almost a billion dollars at this point. And this is a lot of money for a terrorist organization. And this money continues to be increased due to the fact that they do control oil and do sell oil.
So this is a problem and makes ISIS a self-financing organization, which makes it further -- more dangerous.
So it is important to look at this and to see this differently, because other terrorist organizations struggle financing their operations. This one is -- is not. So they can finance their operations. They can buy operatives. They can pay salaries to terrorists.
So that all puts ISIS in a completely different category that needs to be focused on.
BLITZER: What is your intelligence telling you, Minister, about how long we should expect this war to continue?
The president of the United States says the U.S. goal is to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS, destroy ISIS.
What are we talking about, months, years?
Any idea how long this will take to destroy ISIS in both Syria and Iraq?
MOMANI: I think over the couple of months, the assessment is that ISIS will be significantly degraded and weakened. But this -- this fight is going to take some time. And that's why we're saying this is an ongoing operation that will continue for the coming period of time.
I think it's very difficult to pinpoint a specific time through which we can achieve our declared objective of finishing ISIS completely.
But I think over the couple of months, we will see a significant weakness and degrading of this terrorist organization. And then the period after that, we will see further success in cracking down on terrorism and ISIS in specific, especially that this regional, collaborative effort, actually, is -- is quite significant and quite important. You're talking about five countries coming together, in addition to Iraq, of course, and the United States joining their efforts collectively to crack down on this terrorist organization. This will succeed eventually.
BLITZER: And what has been so impressive to me and to so many of our viewers, Minister, in the United States and around the world, we know that Jordan has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and now Jordan is going forward with the United States and these four other Arab partners in going after ISIS targets in Syria.
Thank you very much, Minister Mohammed Al Momani, very much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Good luck to you.
Good luck to all the people in the kingdom of Jordan.
Mohammed Al Momani is a Jordanian state minister and chief spokesman.
BLITZER: Still ahead: the possible risks to Americans now that the U.S. has launched airstrikes in Syria. Stand by. We have new details of a new U.S. homeland security terror alert.
And we are also learning more about the surprise attack on an al Qaeda cell in Syria, why some U.S. officials now say that the threat to the United States was imminent.
BLITZER: We are following the breaking news, airstrikes on ISIS and an al Qaeda group inside Syria carried out by the U.S. and five Arab allies.
I want to bring in our senior United Nations correspondent, Richard Roth. He is here with me at the U.N.
Richard, I understand you just spoke exclusively with Syria's ambassador to the U.N. What did you learn?
RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, was the representative for Syria, who was met by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador, yesterday morning here at the U.N. and told that Washington was going to go after ISIL and al-Nusra militant Islam fighters inside Syrian territory.
He told her he would have liked that she went to the Security Council for international legitimacy. The White House was not going to go do that. Nevertheless, the Syrians now have to accept that there are going to be attacks on their soil for weeks to come.
He has a message for Washington about them.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BASHAR JA'AFARI, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We advise our American counterparts not to repeat the American fiasco in Iraq by undertaking the same kind of blind military attacks. Combating terrorism requires having many tracks, a political track, a
military track, a diplomatic track. So, so far, Washington prefer to follow only one track.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROTH: The Syrian ambassador told me that Syria and the United States were fighting the same issue, terrorism. They're on the same side, but Washington decided to act unilaterally.
Wolf, the Syrian representative's real anger is for Arab neighbors of Syria who joined with the U.S., Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, real anger for those countries, saying they were in effect two-faced, they were supporting ISIS and other extremists against the Assad government, which they opposed, and now they're getting cover from the United States to join in a military assault on Syria.
BLITZER: And so he described to you in detail the meeting that Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., had with him? They actually met and she told him, get ready, the U.S. is about to strike?
ROTH: That's right.
The State Department got a letter -- the State Department issued letter to the Iraqi government, but he got in-person meeting --
BLITZER: To the Syrian government.
ROTH: Yes, to the Syrian government -- getting a little complicated, with all these conflicts going on.
But, also, the U.S. sent a letter to the United Nations today, proving, in their opinion, the international justification for going into a member U.N. country, saying they don't really, in effect, need to go through the Security Council, that Iraq was threatened by Syria and that is why the U.S. acted under the U.N. charter.
BLITZER: It's interesting that the U.S. didn't ask for permission from the government of Syria, didn't coordinate, but did give them a heads-up and gave the Iranians a heads-up as well.
ROTH: That's right. It doesn't hurt to let countries know that your planes are entering their territory.
The ISIS militants are in a different part of the country primarily, but I think the U.S. felt, look, they might as well just do that. But it's clear the Syrians are not going to be kept operationally in the fold as these attacks continue.
BLITZER: Richard Roth, thanks very much. Richard Roth is our senior U.N. correspondent.
More now own the al Qaeda cell targeted by the U.S. and the threat of attacks to Americans.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, she is here in New York as well. She has got more on this part of the story.
Pamela, what are you learning?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're learning that U.S. officials have known al Qaeda operatives were in Syria plotting attacks since at least the spring, but more recent intelligence suggested they were in the endgame of planning an attack, possibly against the U.S., using Western recruits.
And U.S. officials say they had to act fast to disrupt them.
BROWN (voice-over): The U.S. officials say one of the goals of American-led air strikes in Syria was to eliminate the command and control structures of a terrorist group called Khorasan.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In terms of the Khorasan group, which is a network of seasoned Al Qaeda veterans. These strikes were undertaken to disrupt imminent attack plotting against the United States and western targets.
BROWN: A U.S. intelligence source says the group had already acquired materials and was in the advance stage of planning to carry out an attack, though no specific targets are known.
Senior U.S. officials tell CNN that in July, security at international airports was increased after intelligence suggested Khorasan was creating easily-concealed bombs for western recruits to smuggle onto airplanes. What makes the threat of Khorasan's attack so worrying is their ties to Al Qaeda's master bomb maker in Yemen, Ibrahim al-Asiri.
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: The concern is that al-Asiri has trained a number of apprentices in these techniques, and these apprentices, some of them have migrated to Syria. The fear is that some of them have joined this group, Khorasan, there and are helping them develop these -- these new techniques.
BROWN: Al-Asiri is thought to have built the failed underwear bomb brought aboard this plane from Amsterdam to Detroit and is behind the plot to blow up planes using explosives in printer cartridges.
Now, as the initial smoke clears in Syria, the question remains: Did the air strikes stop Khorasan's plot?
CRUICKSHANK: What's not clear yet is whether the leadership has been taken out, whether the bomb makers have been taken out and whether the operatives they were control outing into these plots were taken out. If all those people are still around, it's possible that they could still carry through with this plot.
BROWN: And U.S. officials say they are still assessing the results of the strike, trying to figure out if they were able to take out the key leaders in the Khorasan group -- Wolf. BLITZER: Pamela Brown reporting for us. Pamela, thanks very, very much.
First, a surprise U.S. strike on an Al Qaeda spinoff in Syria said to have been plotting attacks on the United States. Now there's word the homeland security -- Department of Homeland Security in Washington is warning of possible revenge attacks here in the United States by what they describe as lone extremists.
Let's get some more with CNN counterterrorism analyst, the former CIA official, Philip Mudd.
Philip, what do you make of this fear now that local, state, federal law enforcement agencies across the country have been told there could be revenge attacks by these lone wolves?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I wouldn't call it fear, Wolf. I'd call it prudent planning.
If you've seen what we saw out of Australia over the past week, when there was an effort by Australian extremists linked to Syria to capture somebody for a beheading, not in Iraq or Syria but in Australia, we've seen the British security service raise its threat level. We've seen the FBI talk about 100-plus people going over for fighting in Syria and Iraq.
I think it's only prudent for the FBI and others to say in the wake of these attacks, we'd better be careful about what we're going to see here in the United States.
BLITZER: When you hear U.S. officials, Philip -- and you've been on the inside of the CIA, elsewhere in the government -- when you hear them say that an attack was probably imminent, what does that mean exactly from a security point of view?
MUDD: They better have some pretty darn good intelligence, because you don't use that word "imminent" without having something from the inside of the Khorasan group that suggests they're nearing execution stage for something like a weapon against a cargo aircraft, a passenger aircraft, something like inserting an operative in Europe or the United States to attack a passenger rail car, for example.
That tells me they're not just talking to the American public about sort of shady intelligence that suggests planning is under way. They're talking about pretty specific intelligence that points directly to a threat to western Europe, the United States.
BLITZER: And all of a sudden, we're hearing about this great threat that Khorasan, the Khorasan group, as it's called, an Al Qaeda spinoff, is posing to the United States.
Until a few days ago, most people never heard of Khorasan, but all of a sudden, the U.S. is launching Tomahawk cruise missiles going after this Khorasan site near Aleppo in Syria. What do you make of this development? MUDD: All of a sudden, Wolf, it's a public assumption. This is not
what has been going on in private government circles. You remember, as Pamela said, a couple months ago there was a warning based on intelligence about new ways for Al Qaeda to use electronic devices like phones to get into aircraft. This is based on intelligence.
I suspect that of that bomb maker, Syria out of Yemen, same bomb maker, by the way, who was creative enough to build that underwear bomb that almost went off over Detroit. That was four or five years ago.
What I take out of this is that the U.S. intelligence community has been following the Al Qaeda element, Khorasan in Syria, for some time. They've now got to talk about it to the U.S. population because now, we've got air strikes and the president has got to say why we're in there?
And the answer is not only ISIS. It's a very small element of Al Qaeda, looking like the Al Qaeda I faced five, ten years ago, that's targeting Europe and the United States.
BLITZER: And they have sanctuary in Syria right now, and the U.S. is trying to destroy that sanctuary, together with these Arab partners. Philip Mudd, thanks very much for joining us.
Just ahead, how long will the U.S.-led air war against ISIS last? We're about to go behind the scenes and tell you what's going on.
Also, we're going live to Iraq, not far from the latest air strikes. Much more of the breaking news coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news: air strikes on ISIS and Al Qaeda groups inside Syria carried out by the U.S. and five Arab allies.
Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is joining us. He's nearby in northern Iraq, near the autonomous Kurdish region. It's actually right there in the middle of what's going on.
What are you seeing, Ben? What's the aftermath of these strikes that have been going on, first of all, in Iraq, now expanding into Syria?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're hearing here in Irbil, Wolf, is that very positive reaction to that series of strikes in Syria. Keeping in mind, of course, that this American-led campaign against ISIS or the Islamic State began here in Iraq in August.
Now, there have been about 190 U.S. strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq in addition to several French strikes over the weekend. And certainly, many Kurdish officials we've spoken to have said that they would like to see an intensification of air strikes on ISIS targets because, of course, in some areas, Kurdish forces and Iraqi army forces have regained territory from ISIS, but they are still perilously close to this city, Irbil in the north, and Baghdad in the south.
And so there's still a lot of need in the opinion of many people here for this offensive against ISIS to intensify in Iraq, as well -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Ben Wedeman on the scene for us in northern Iraq in Irbil. Thanks very much.
Let's dig a little bit deeper now. Joining us, three guests: retired U.S. Army Colonel Derek Harvey; Douglas Ollivant, he's the former national Security Council Iraq director for both presidents Bush and Obama; and our CNN military analyst, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.
General Hertling, the Pentagon called this a sustainable campaign. What exactly does that mean? How long could this last?
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, as we saw this begin last night, I think you're going to see a continuous action on the part of the coalition forces, potentially some new coalition members joining within the next few days. I think we're going to see a continued strike. This wasn't a one-night affair.
When they say "sustainable," they mean that the bombing is going to continue. That there will be other actions, follow-on actions based on intercepts of intelligence that they could strike new targets, both in Syria and Iraq. And I think, you know, it's just going to continue on, and we should be prepared for it to continue on a very long time.
BLITZER: Well, Douglas Ollivant, you know, there's a lot of concern out there that the U.S. could be dragged into some sort of quagmire in Syria and once again in Iraq. What do you think?
DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL IRAQ DIRECTOR: I think the odds of that are not terribly high.
First, we are still maintaining our red line and, for that matter, the Iraqis' red line, that there are no American boots on the ground. That said, you know, we have a good plan, we have here a plan that could work, but there's no such thing as a military plan that absolutely will work. And we do need to be cautious. You never know how a war is going to take you.
BLITZER: Colonel Harvey, "The New York Times" reports that the air strikes have stopped ISIS's move towards Baghdad, but ISIS is still taking over smaller towns not far from the Iraqi capital, overpowering Iraqi forces, even though the U.S. has launched almost 200 air strikes in Iraq. What does that say to you about the effectiveness of air power?
COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, the air Power has not really been unleashed in Iraq. Two hundred air strikes is a very small number, compared to a day in the Balkans campaign or sustained operations with intensity that we saw at the beginning of the Gulf War.
So the tactical (AUDIO GAP) of fighting amongst people, amongst a population in these cities is to the Islamic state's advantage. And the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga still have a very long ways to go to be prepared to take advantage of the air strikes.
BLITZER: All right. I want everybody to stand by. We want to dig deeper. We're going to go behind the scenes of these air strikes in Syria: how are they being coordinated? The U.S., five Arab allies, what are the challenges?
Much more of the breaking news coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We are following the breaking news.
Airstrikes on ISIS and an al Qaeda offshoot inside Syria carried out by the United States and five Arab allies.
We're back with retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey, Douglas Ollivant, former National Security Council Iraq director for Presidents Bush and Obama, and our CNN military analyst, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.
General Hertling, take us behind the scenes. You got the U.S. Air Force, five Arab air forces. How do you coordinate strikes like this in Syria when you got a Syrian air defense system not exactly friendly to what's going on?
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's the perfect question to ask, Wolf. Any time you're building a coalition, it is extremely difficult, and no matter what type of conflict it is. And this dates back through the history of war.
As soldiers, we study that, because it's hard to glom a group of forces together to get certain kind of forces going after certain kind of targets. I think that's what Bill may be able to address this morning during the brief, right countries going against the right targets. That in and of itself is tough, but just the exercise of the operation, not only the strike force, but the tanker forces, the intelligence gathering, the jamming forces, all of that comes together, too.
This is extremely complex in the air. It's even harder on the ground. It's tough government work.
BLITZER: It's politically very significant but militarily, it could be a lot more complicated trying to coordinate, even though all of these five air forces are largely U.S. trained. Those air pilots trained, I suspect, most of them if not all of them in the United States, right, General?
HERTLING: Well, that's exactly right, Wolf. That's the power, truthfully of what goes on in peace time with not only the training of other forces but also the exercises together. I'm sure every one of those air forces have at one time or another actually conducted exercises with the U.S. Air Force. It's relatively easy to come together, but extremely difficult.
And that's the tactical and operational part as you just mentioned. The strategic part of getting the government diplomacy work and actually getting people to sign up, especially in these circumstances, where you have Muslim countries against an extremist Muslim group is extremely difficult.
BLITZER: What about selecting targets, Douglas, how difficult is that without U.S. or friendly forces really on -- there's a Free Syrian Army, but they're not that significant in many of these areas. How difficult is it to find targets, legitimate targets and avoid civilian casualties?
DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL IRAQ DIRECTOR FOR PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA: Well, in this opening round I suspect it's relatively easy. As we've seen from the footage that's been released, they struck large buildings where we know that ISIS has either command and control centers or training centers or logistic sites. And if they were in a big building two weeks ago, they're probably still in a big building now and that building didn't move in the intervening weeks.
Now, as we go into successive phases and move past the low-hanging fruit of big, obvious buildings, then it will become more difficult.
BLITZER: Colonel Harvey, when they're picking these kinds of targets in Syria, how do you make sure that these ISIS elements, especially their commanders, don't go into these heavily populated areas and a lot of innocent civilians are going to wind up dead if the U.S. and these coalition partners launch these air strikes?
COL. DEREK HARVEY, U.S. ARMY (RET): Well, Wolf, in point of fact I think except for the Khorasan group, I think most of the Islamic State targets, the leadership there, they weren't in those buildings. They were already dispersed. They had seen this coming and they had prepared.
This is a group that's going to be amongst the population. It takes advantage of its knowledge of the social cultural environment and it's going to be tough to root out. That's why intelligence is going to be really important as we go forward.
BLITZER: Was there a risk, General Hertling, when the U.S. here at the United Nations, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, actually notified the Syrian ambassador, the Iranian ambassador, that the U.S. and these friendly countries were about to launch these airstrikes, was there a risk that that word could spread and that ISIS itself might find out about that?
HERTLING: I don't think so, Wolf. I think certainly there was dismay on the part of both the Syrian ambassador and the Iranian ambassador, but I also think they also likely expected it.
And I don't think they had that close of contact with this Sunni Muslim extremist group. This is an organization that both of them want to see damaged and hurt on the battlefield as well. So, I think whereas they might have expressed surprise that we were actually going into sovereign Syrian territory, they were also probably quite pleased that it was happening as well.
BLITZER: Do you think there will be, Douglas, revenge attacks by these groups that were targeted in Syria, these al Qaeda offshoots, if you will?
OLLIVANT: I can't imagine that's really going to change their decision calculus. These groups live to attack the United States, live to attack the West. If they had the capability to do it, they'd be doing it. In fact, we're told that's exactly why we struck this group was they were planning to do it.
So, I can't imagine that this is going to significantly increase the odds of an attack. They want to attack the United States, whether they have that capability or not, we're not quite certain.
BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much. Good decision.
Just ahead, we're here live at the United Nations. Tomorrow is a critical day. President Obama and war on ISIS will be in the spotlight. Stand by. We'll have a little preview.
BLITZER: A very busy critical day ahead of tomorrow's major events going on right here at the United Nations.
With the U.S.-led war against ISIS now underway, President Obama will address the U.N. General Assembly in the morning, trying to rally international support for his efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy the terror group. He'll also chair a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council, just for the second time. He'll urge members to back a resolution that will crack down on foreign fighters. If approved, it will oblige countries to prosecute citizens who go to the Middle East to join ISIS forces. It's believed, by the way, there are some 15,000 foreigners, mostly Westerners, who are currently fighting for ISIS, including maybe 100 Americans in both Iraq and Syria.
President Obama will not seek a formal resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria. Syria has a very close ally, that would be Russia, and Russia has veto power at the U.N. Security Council.
We will certainly have complete coverage for all of you tomorrow, including my interview with the Egyptian foreign minister. What role will his country play in the efforts to stop the ISIS onslaught?
That's it for me. Thanks for watching.
The news continues next on CNN.