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Raids Foil "Imminent" Terror Attacks; Interview with Marie Harf; Belgium Raids Thwarted Attacks; Hunt for Most-Wanted Female Terrorist; Plot to Attack U.S. Capitol

Aired January 15, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: A deadly raid thwarts what officials say were major imminent attacks by jihadis back from Syria.

What were their ties to ISIS?

Growing threat -- fear of terror attacks across Europe, as militants return from training with the Islamic State.

How many cells are waiting to strike?

And most wanted woman -- new details of the intense search for the girlfriend of one of the Paris terrorists.

What important clues are investigators picking up from her cell phone?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news. A deadly anti- terror raid in Belgium, where officials now say jihadis who had returned from Syria were poised to launch major terror attacks on orders from ISIS. There was a fierce shootout and two terror suspects were killed. A third was taken into custody. And a Belgian official now tells CNN anti-terrorism operations are underway right now in other cities throughout Belgium.

We're covering breaking news with our correspondents, our guests, including the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf.

Let's begin with CNN's John Berman.

He's in Paris and has just obtained new information on the Belgium terror raid.

What are you finding out -- John?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, 10 separate raids in four Belgian cities, one specifically targeted at what officials are calling an operational terror cell planning an imminent major attack on Belgian targets. And not only that, the members of this cell, the individuals had returned from Syria, where they had been fighting alongside ISIS. This is the exact scenario that so many intelligence officials in so many countries have feared.


BERMAN (voice-over): In the dark of night, gunfire breaks out as police stage an anti-terror operation in Belgium. Belgian authorities say the terror suspects, who had returned from Syria, were armed with AK-47s and were about to launch terror attacks on a grand scale.

ERIC VAN DER SYPT, BELGIUM FEDERAL PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE (through translator): The investigation made it possible to determine that the group was about to carry out major terrorist attacks in Belgium imminently.

BERMAN: That prompted Belgium to raise its terror alert level. This raid comes amid heightened alerts across Europe following the terror attacks in France. Investigators are looking for clues left behind by the Paris gunmen to see if there are any potential accomplices still on the loose.

CNN has learned that 10 days before his siege on the kosher market in Paris, Amedy Coulibaly and his girlfriend drove from France to Spain. They stayed in Madrid for three days before Coulibaly drove back to France.

That same day, Hayat Boumeddiene flew to Istanbul with another man, seen in this airport video. French media reports investigators found a stash of weapons, explosives and two ISIS flags when they raided Coulibaly's suspected hideout over the weekend. Authorities also found keys to a motorbike. And that helped them identify a suspected accomplice, who is believed to have driven Coulibaly to the market where he later shot and killed four people.

Officials also following the money trail. A French newspaper reports Coulibaly got a loan for $7,000 from a bank in Northern France in December. The bank told the paper he provided the documents needed, including a valid ID card.

JONATHAN SCHANZER, DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: The question is, what were the other sources of funds that this individual had?

Was somebody providing funds to be able to sustain him month to month?

BERMAN: Coulibaly was friends of Cherif and Said Kouachi, the gunmen in the "Charlie Hebdo" shooting. U.S. officials have told CNN the brothers may have received up to $20,000 from al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula to fund their attack.


BERMAN: The raid against the operational cell in Belgium took place in the town of Verviers. That's about four hours from where I'm standing right now. Two terror suspects are dead. One terror suspect is in custody. The news conference where they announced this raid and the one person in custody was kept deliberately short, officials say. They did not want to release too many details because these operations are continuing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John Berman in Paris for us.

Thank you.

Let's get some more now on the breaking news from Belgium. The journalist Chris Burns is joining us on the phone from Brussels.

Chris used to work with us here at CNN.

What else are you hearing, Chris?

CHRIS BURNS, JOURNALIST: Well, Wolf, yes, these operations are continuing. In fact, just in the last hour or so, we have seen through Belgian media that the police have moved in on a building in Azerlach (ph). That's a neighborhood in Brussels. They found explosives. But the people who were there, who had been living there, were not. And they are at large. The police are looking for them.

There was a second police operation in Verviers this evening after that first one. They moved in on a building there. No further details at this point. But so these operations continue. Ten -- about 10 different searches were done. And this is really not the first time. This has been going on for weeks that the police were looking for people who had been coming back from Syria, who had connections with Islamic extremists. This is just the most dramatic one that has happened so far.

And because this happened today, because, also, they found that Amedy Coulibaly had come here to buy weapons for those attacks in Paris, that they decided to move in on these suspects in Verviers and also to raise the terror threat level up to three. That's three out of four. So is this a -- the police alert is much higher now this evening than it was earlier today.

BLITZER: So clearly, Chris, the sweeping operations throughout Belgium today are connected with what happened in Paris last week, even if there's no direct connection between the terror suspects being arrested today or having been killed to those Paris shootings?

BURNS: Yes, exactly, Wolf. This is the missing link that we're all kind of wondering about -- is there a link there?

I mean we -- we do know that Coulibaly came here and bought weapons. We know that the police have been moving up and stepping up and ramping up their searches today in the wake of what happened in Paris.

So could there be a connection there?

We don't know. Again, the press conference this evening said we don't want to give you too many details, we don't want to blow the cover of what we're doing now, but we'll talk to you tomorrow and give you more details. So we might find out more tomorrow.

BLITZER: I've heard some reports, Chris, that the operations were intended to go after Belgian police.

But do you know anything else about potential targets of these terrorists?

BURNS: No. That's another thing. It's really not known, though, keep in mind, you know, for instance, back in May, the Jewish Museum here in Brussels was attacked and four people were killed. So it's anybody's guess what could be targets here.

There are European institutions here. There's NATO here. There are all kinds of potential imaginary targets that could be gone after. But so far, officials have not named any direct targets yet. But obviously, they are very nervous about what can happen.

BLITZER: We know how the people of France reacted last week.

How are the people of Belgium reacting today?

BURNS: Well, you know, things could change in the next day or so. So far, what I've seen on the streets is that people are quite calm. The subways are running, although there was an incident today on the subway where some crazed gentleman was yelling "Allahu Akbar" and was arrested by police because he had a weapon in his hand. But nothing went further than that.

People have been going on with their business and that's how it's been up to now.

Now, in the -- after what happened in Verviers, perhaps people will be a little more edgy from now on.

BLITZER: I assume Jewish schools, museums, institutions, kosher supermarkets, they're getting extra security in Belgium, right?

BURNS: I've seen some places, ever since the May attack on the Jewish museum, there has been stepped up security. But I think most of it is quite -- quite discrete. It's not heavy, heavy security. But then again, that could change after what's happened in the last week or so.

BLITZER: All right, Chris Burns on the scene in Brussels for us.

We're going to get back to you, Chris.

Thank you very much for your reporting.

BURNS: Thank you.

BLITZER: The Belgium raid is underscoring the growing concern about militants returning from Syria to carry out attacks in Europe.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is getting new information, as well -- Barbara, the strategy against ISIS in Syria, how is it playing out?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it starts with who's involved here?

And what the U.S. intelligence community now believes is more than 3,000 foreign fighters, many of them Westerners, a small amount -- but, pardon me, let me start again. I want to be very clear. About 3,000 Westerners have, in fact, gone to Syria in recent months. And that alone is reason for plenty of concern.

STARR (voice-over): In the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, airstrikes by drones or fighter jets can only do so much to suppress the threat of terrorism.

GEN. MARK WELSH, AIR FORCE CHIEF OF STAFF: The DOD approach is not to defeat ISIS from the air. The intent is to inhibit ISIS, to attrit ISIS, to slow ISIS down, to give a ground force time to be trained, because a ground force will be required.

STARR: In Syria, where ISIS still controls that swath of territory, it could take years to get Syrian opposition forces on the ground fully trained and committed to the fight. But the Obama administration has said any ground forces won't come from the US.

So the answer for now is airstrikes that punish the enemy, but fail to land a knockout punch.

WELSH: You can't control territory. You can't influence people. You can't maintain lines of control after you have established them. That will take a ground force.

STARR: Even before al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Pentagon was quietly trying to figure out new ways to thwart al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate. But a frustrating answer came back -- no new military options are really out there.

The major military tool against al Qaeda in Yemen remains unchanged -- drone attacks using HELLFIRE missiles.

Drones have killed nearly 1,000 militants in Yemen during the Obama administration, according to the New America Foundation. The biggest success, September 2011, when American-born cleric, Anwar al- Awlaki, was killed.

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: If you look at all these places, there's a common thread, and that's governance. If you have good governance, if you have a government that can control its territory, then extremist groups have a difficult time operating. You can't get it with drone strikes. Drone strikes is equivalent to mowing the grass. You can kill some extremists that way. You can keep, perhaps, a lid on their capabilities, but you cannot eliminate the groups.


STARR: Now, there may be a bright spot in all of this, believe it or not. U.S. officials believe that ISIS' progress across the border in Iraq has been stalled somewhat by the airstrikes. They say the real difference is they are able to work with Iraqi units on the ground. There are problems with those Iraqi units, but at least they have them on the ground and that has helped -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They have Kurdish forces, as well, who are trying to be helpful, more so, I suspect, in Iraq than in Syria, right?

STARR: Absolutely. There's a very different picture -- airstrikes in Syria having very limited effect because, of course, you can't really do much in Syria other than try and degrade, if you will, stop ISIS in its tracks a little bit, across the border in Syria between the Iraqi forces the Peshmerga and coalition airstrikes. They believe they are having more success.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Thank you.

Let's talk about all of this with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, who's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Marie, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: I assume there's very close coordination between the United States and Belgium on what's going on right now.

What can you tell us?

HARF: Absolutely. And there are still a lot of unknowns about what's happened here, if there was any link to what happened in Paris and exactly who these people were that the Belgian government was targeting. But certainly close cooperation. We're working with all of our European partners on this issue of foreign fighters.

BLITZER: The working assumption is -- the Belgian authorities decided to sweep down on these suspected terrorists because of what happened in Paris last week.

Is that the U.S. assumption?

HARF: Well, I think the Belgians can probably speak to why they decided now was the right time to undertake this counterterrorism operation. We know our partners are tracking these foreign fighters who may have gone to Syria or Iraq and came back to Western Europe. And if they think they need to take action, certainly those are decisions they are going to make.

BLITZER: And these operations, we're also told, maybe in 10 or 12 different locations, they are still continuing?

HARF: It's my sense that they're ongoing, so I don't want to get too far ahead of it. But absolutely. If they feel like they need to move against these targets, then I'm sure they will explain why now and really give some more information as that comes up.

BLITZER: Now, the United States has a heavy diplomatic presence in Belgium, not only the U.S. ambassador in Brussels, to the country of Belgium, but a NATO facility, a U.S. ambassador to NATO, a separate ambassador to the Europeans.

I assume security is being tightened all over the place?

HARF: Well, we're looking at that right now. To my knowledge, there's been no change in terms of our security. Security is always pretty high around American facilities overseas. If we have to make adjustments, we will.

BLITZER: Has there been any change in the travel advisories for American citizens wanting to visit Belgium or France or other places in Europe?

HARF: There hasn't been. We put out, on a regular basis, advisories about Americans traveling overseas, what they should be on the lookout for, particularly since what we've seen in places like Sydney and Ottawa and Paris, some of these cities where we haven't had these attacks, really, before, for people to be on the lookout and be aware of what's going on.

But certainly, people should still travel there if they want to.

BLITZER: And I know your boss, the secretary of State, John Kerry, he's in Paris right now. I want to talk to you about that.

Stand by.

We're going to take a quick break.

We're following the breaking news, a sweep of terror operations underway in Belgium right now, even as we speak.

Much more right after this.



BLITZER: We are following the breaking news, the deadly raid in Belgium that officials say foiled imminent terror attacks. A source telling CNN the terrorist cell that was targeted was acting on orders directly from ISIS and that members have recently traveled to Syria and then found their way back to Belgium.

We're back with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf.

Marie, the secretary of state, John Kerry, he's in Paris right now. What's his mission?

HARF: He is. He's there to directly express condolences with the French government and the French people. I think he said today in a press availability to give a big hug to the French people.

BLITZER: Is this because the U.S. sort of neglected that rally last Sunday, he's trying to make up for that?

HARF: Well, I wouldn't put it that way. We have done a number of things to show solidarity with the French people since those awful attacks, and he will be meeting with French President Hollande, Foreign Minister Fabius, and really be saying very directly to them that "The U.S. stands by you." We've done a number of things to show that, though, certainly beyond that march that he mentioned.

BLITZER: Is he going to go from Paris to Brussels to meet with the Belgium leadership?

HARF: I don't have any travels to announce. He was scheduled to come home to the United States. Obviously, his schedule could always change. But he is looking forward to being in Paris. As you know, he has a long history with Paris, speaks French, spoke directly to the French people the day of the attack. So I think tomorrow will be a very moving day and one, really, for the U.S. to stand by France.

BLITZER: Given the border situation throughout Europe, you can travel from one country, from France into Belgium, into Germany, you don't need passports, you don't even go through border control.

There's a lot of concern here in Congress, as you know, I have heard many members of Congress. They're wondering if this non-visa provision, that Europeans can simply get on a plane and fly to the United States, is worthy of taking another look at right now, given what's going on.

HARF: Well, it's not as simple as just getting on a plane and coming to the U.S. Even if you have a passport of a country that has a visa waiver as part of that program, you still have to apply online for a visa. And if you are on some sort of watch list, you won't get one and you won't be able to travel.

So really, what the visa waiver program does is actually help focus us on people that really are threats. If you can imagine the number of people from France or other countries that travel to the U.S., it just is a huge number of people. This program really focuses us on people we think may be threats.

BLITZER: But I thought if it's a non-visa, if it's a waiver program, you don't need a visa. If you're a French citizen or a British citizen or a German citizen, you can just get on the plane and fly to the United States without a visa. You don't need a visa.

HARF: You actually can't. I've done a little digging into this recently because of some of the comments that have been made. You have to go online. It's basically you have to do it online instead of going into a U.S. Embassy and if there's no red flags, then you're able to travel. You're absolutely right.

But if there are red flags, you cannot get on a plane and come to the United States. So there are still ways to track people. And again, it really focuses us on those tough cases, those red flagged cases that we really need to focus on.

BLITZER: So let's hypothetically say these two terrorists who were killed, these two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, they were both French citizens, both born in France. If they had wanted to come to the United States, would they have been allowed to come to the United States?

HARF: Well...

BLITZER: Were they on a terror watch list or no-fly list or anything like that?

HARF: As I've said before, we don't always confirm publicly who was on those lists, but if they had been on those lists...

BLITZER: These guys are dead now.

HARF: I understand that. But if they had been on those lists, they would not have been able to travel to the United States.

BLITZER: But do we know? Can you tell us if they were on that "do not enter" list into the United States? Even though they were French citizens?

HARF: For a variety of reasons, we don't confirm who is on that list publicly. But again, to be very clear, if they were on the list, they couldn't travel.

BLITZER: Because we reported they were on those lists. The only question, maybe I'm -- I don't understand why the State Department would not want to simply confirm that.

HARF: Well, first of all, it's not a State Department list. But we don't for a variety of reasons, some of which involve privacy but some of which involve intelligence sources, method gathering of information. We don't make those lists public. But if they had been on them, they wouldn't have been able to travel here.

BLITZER: If an American citizen goes to Syria now and comes back to the United States, is he or she automatically under surveillance?

HARF: Well, without going into specifics, I can assure you and assure the American people that, if people travel to Syria that are Americans, if we know about it, we're going to keep a pretty close eye on them. Obviously, I think for pretty common sense reasons.

BLITZER: And so they could simply assume they're going to be watched by the United States?

HARF: Well, I don't want to get into specifics on that, obviously. But we would clearly have concerns if someone went to Syria that was an American and we have information that they may have been involved in terrorist activities. Certainly, we would have concerns and I'm sure want to follow up with them.

BLITZER: Would they at a minimum be questioned by FBI or law enforcement authorities upon their return?

HARF: Well, I don't want to speak for my law enforcement colleagues, but I'm confident that if someone went to Syria and we thought they had fought with terrorist organizations, we would probably have some questions for them.

BLITZER: Marie Harf, as usual, thanks very much for coming in.

HARF: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Marie Harf is the deputy spokeswoman at the State Department.

More breaking news coming up. We're going back live to Paris for the latest on the terror raid that officials say foiled imminent attacks.

Plus the hunt for the world's most wanted woman right now. Are investigators closing in on this -- this suspected terrorist? There she is.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Officials now say they foiled an imminent -- imminent -- terror attack linked directly to ISIS. Anti-terror raids across Belgium today resulted in a deadly shootout with jihadists reports say had returned from Syria and were armed with automatic weapons.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto is keeping track of these late-breaking developments. What are you hearing, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was a national operation, ten raids across four cities, including the capital, Belgium -- capital of Brussels, rather, acting now because, as you say, they were concerned that an attack was in the final stages of planning. The target, a police station and they knew that these suspects had guns. That's where in Verviers you had that gun battle result from this raid.

The concern is that many of these were returning fighters from Syria with direct ties to ISIS. This has been the nightmare scenario in Europe, the front lines of that war in Syria and Iraq, extended to western Europe, and that appears to be the case tonight. Great concern, but police feeling that they might have foiled a plot at least with this activity tonight. They've had these groups under surveillance for a number of weeks.

And one thing to note: police saying no tie between these raids tonight and the Paris attacks. But I can tell you, Wolf, that it could be a sign of just how counterterror forces in Europe are on much higher alert following the attacks here, taking steps they might not have taken in the past because of the heightened concern of terror -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is true.

Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

Let's get some more now on the breaking news. Joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank, CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer, he's a former CIA operative. Our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, he's a former assistant director of the FBI. And Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle East Studies at the Paris School of International Affairs.

To all of you, gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.

Paul, I know you have been working your sources in Belgium very, very carefully. I understand recently European intelligence reports warned of ISIS attacks coming from European extremists who recently came back from Syria.

What more can you tell us?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, Wolf, I have been talking to a senior Belgium counterterrorism official. And he tells me that they suspect that this group traveled to Syria, came back from Syria, that when they were in Syria that they connected with ISIS there. And they also suspect that ISIS directed them to launch an attack in Belgium, in Europe, to retaliate for these airstrikes.

And of course, Belgium has been part of that coalition. Belgium has been launching airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq. So that's their assessment.

There is real concern that ISIS is pivoting now towards launching attacks in the West using that very considerable resources, their training camps, their access to European recruits in Syria, the large cash reserves that they have to launch a campaign of attacks in Europe and this just may be the start.

There is also concern of returning fighters to other countries, not just Belgium. I was told about Britain and France as well, there being high concern about ISIS directed plots potentially in those countries. This is all a very fluid situation. It's far from clear if the danger has yet been neutralized in Belgium. They've been trying to round up as many people as they can. The concern was that they may have been accelerating their plans because of what we saw play out on the streets of France a week ago.

And I think there may be some one-upmanship as well because France appears to be connected to AQAP in some way and their big rival, ISIS, well, these guys in Brussels may have wanted to also launch their attack to show the relevance of ISIS as well here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I want to bring Tom Fuentes in.

Tom, as you know, last May, a Frenchman, he left France, went to Belgium, wound up shooting people at the Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people. How do authorities deal with this kind of terror threat?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, they hope they can identify who the threat is, who went, who came back, Wolf. In most cases, they are able to, but many they're not. And when you look at the sheer volume of hundreds and hundreds going from Europe to Syria and Iraq, and then, you know, really thousands from 50 different countries in the world, that means these individuals are going to go back to their home countries or a neighboring country if they can speak the language, and pose a threat.

And the authorities have to figure out who's going to do it, when are they going to do it, how do they follow them, who do they follow, who do they wiretap, and it's not easy. They are making hard choices.

BLITZER: Jean-Pierre, I spoke with Congressman Ed Royce the other day. He's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He told me the U.S. originally told France about Said Kouachi but France eventually stopped surveillance of him after about four years.

What was going on? Why would France stop monitoring this guy, who as we all know together with his brother, went into that magazine and killed all those people?

Jean-Pierre, can you hear me OK?


BLITZER: Let me repeat the question. Why would France stop surveillance of the Kouachi brothers? They were surveilling at least one of them for about four years but eventually stopped that kind of surveillance.

FILIU: You know, apparently they were eavesdropping for two years until they came back from Yemen and nothing suspicious was seen. But what I wanted to say is that I have been warning against European 9/11 for already a year and when I was speaking about 9/11, I was not speaking about the sheer number of casualties but about what is going on now which is a coordinated campaign from all over Europe, and it started in Paris and it was foiled by the mass demonstration last Sunday.

It was foiled tonight and I'm so relieved by the preemptive action of the Belgian police, and I'm really afraid now about attacks taking place in other places in Europe, Germany, Italy. I don't know where. But that is really the name of the game today. ISIS is on the initiative and unfortunately, they are going to try back again and again.

BLITZER: So, Bob Baer, it sounds what the professor is saying, this is only just the beginning, not only in France or Belgium, but in many other parts of Europe right now.

ROBERT BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Wolf, he is absolutely right. French law enforcement officials have told me that they suspect a wave of attacks, if you like, an ISIS offensive.

You and I have been for six months now talking about since we started bombarding ISIS that this is -- there's going to be blowback and I think this is what we're seeing. And I think the Belgians pulled the trigger on this raid, they realized these people are serious and that they realized there's an offensive under way, and I think we're going to see a lot more of these raids, as we're seeing tonight and we're going to see in other countries all over Europe.

BLITZER: How confident, Paul Cruickshank, are officials in Belgium, and I know you are in touch with them, how confident are they that the terrorist suspects there, including the two who were killed, one was picked up, were not connected to the Kouachi brothers or Amedy Coulibaly or the terrorists who were killed in France?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, there's no evidence of that that they've found yet. I think there was more of a concern that they might be inspired by the events in Paris rather than being connected to that terrorist cell in any shape, way or form. After all, the Kouachi brothers have that link back to Yemen. With this group, the link was to Syria. They were among the 150 Belgians believed to have traveled there, 70 back in Belgium.

Every month in Belgium, another 15 people, they estimate, are going off to fight in Syria and Iraq. And the longer this terrorist safe haven exists there in Syria and Iraq, the more of this kind of thing we are going to see. And right now, when it comes to U.S. airstrikes and by other countries in the coalition, we are seeing five, 10, 15 airstrikes a day.

This is not a concerted campaign yet to get rid of this terrorist safe haven in Syria and Iraq and I think there are big questions now, should more be done to combat ISIS, to drain the safe haven over there of all these terrorist groups?

There is also the Khorasan Group, there's al Qaeda there as well, and it's posing an unprecedented threat to Europe and also potentially a significant threat to the United States. Because these Europeans, they can get on planes to the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by. Everyone, stand by. Key question, will the Europeans step up their game right now or simply rely on the United States to get the job done?

Stand by. We're going to watch what's going on. We're also learning new information about that female companion of the Paris supermarket gunman. She has been to more countries than we first suspected.

New information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also a surprising new revelation about what led to the arrest of a man who allegedly wanted to bomb the United States capitol.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We are following breaking news, dramatic and deadly

anti-terror raids across Belgium. Officials say they foiled imminent attacks.

But we also have new details about the international hunt for that female companion of the man who attacked the kosher grocery store in Paris, killing four Jews.

We also now know that shortly before the attack, Hayat Boumeddiene passed through Spain and Turkey on her way to Syria.

Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd, he's working this story for us.

Brian, new information coming in.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Critical new information tonight, Wolf, on Hayat Boumeddiene's whereabouts. Her timeline, her actions in those crucial days before the "Charlie Hebdo" attack.

A source close to Spanish Security Services is telling CNN that exactly one week before the magazine attack that puts it on December 31st, Boumeddiene and her boyfriend, Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly, drove from Paris to Madrid. They stayed there a couple of days, then he drives back to France, she flies from Madrid to Istanbul, and then later makes her way to Turkey's border with Syria.

The hunt is now focused on Syria but it's just gotten a lot tougher.


TODD (voice-over): She may be the only person close to the Paris attack plot still alive, and tonight, the hunt for Hayat Boumeddiene is intensifying.

RON HOSKO, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Right now she looks like the key player in this story. She's alive, as far as we know, and her information is vital to cracking this thing open.

TODD: Boumeddiene's movements and her transactions are now coming into clearer focus. Prosecutors say a Belgian man arrested for arms trafficking recently bought a car from Boumeddiene. Inside his residence, documents that refer to the same type of gun used in Paris by Amedy Coulibaly, Boumeddiene's boyfriend. That's according to Belgian media.

A source close to Spain's security services tells CNN Coulibaly and Boumeddiene drove from France to Madrid on December 31st. The source says Coulibaly stayed there until January 2nd, five days before the "Charlie Hebdo" attack, then drove back to France. Boumeddiene flew that same day from Madrid to Istanbul, according to security sources and Turkish media.

The man with her in this surveillance video in Istanbul when she arrived, a Turkish official identifies him as 23-year-old Mahdi Belhoucine from Paris. The newspaper "Le Monde" says he may be connected to a separate jihadist cell. Turkish officials tell us cell phone pings show Boumeddiene slipped into Syria by January 8th, a day before Coulibaly's hostage standoff in the kosher market.

JEAN PAUL REY, FORMER FRENCH SECURITY SERVICES OFFICER: I think we will never see them. They will stay in Syria, in the Shaab, in the Islamic State. Maybe it will be back but I think she prepared the exit for a long time.

TODD: Coulibaly had pledged his support for ISIS but his lawyer has said the girlfriend was the more radical one. She may be under ISIS protection.

REY: She is an asset for ISIS. She is a very good asset. She is -- as we say in French, you know. And she speaks French. Maybe she can give advice for new targets.

TODD: If she's with ISIS it will be much harder to find her and capture her alive. But a U.S. official says law enforcement agencies from Turkey, France and the U.S. are working together to track her.

HOSKO: Intelligence there will be all sources. It will be collection of electronic emanations. It will be satellite coverage and it will certainly be human intelligence which is critical.


TODD: Ron Hosko, that former FBI assistant director, says Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies will also tap into another network. He says they will try to interrogate Western jihadists traveling into and out of Syria to see if any of them have spoken to or maybe even seen Hayat Boumeddiene -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, Brian, in addition to the Turks and the French, Spanish authorities also are trying to piece together her movements as best as they can, right?

TODD: That's right. Tonight, Spanish Security Services, Wolf, trying to piece together what Boumeddiene and Amedy Coulibaly did while they were in Madrid, where they stayed and crucially, who they were in contact with, whether they had any support while they were in Madrid. That complicates the investigation tonight.

BLITZER: This is a woman who as a young teenager used to wear bikinis, then wound up wearing a burqa. An amazing story indeed.

Brian, thanks very, very much.

Coming up, stopping terrorism in the United States. We have new details about the foiled plot to bomb the United States capitol.


BLITZER: We have new details tonight about the alleged plot to bomb the United States capitol. The FBI says the plot was ready to go.

CNN's Alexandra Field is joining us now from Cincinnati where the suspect was arrested.

What's the latest, Alexandra?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the FBI followed the suspect for months but they waited to make their move until he had the weapons in hand. Now his family is speaking out. They're coming to his defense saying that their son was not capable of enacting this kind of attack, that he wouldn't have the money for it, that he rarely left Cincinnati, that he wouldn't have been able to make it to Washington. They believe he was coerced into the whole thing.



FIELD (voice-over): John Cornell and Angel Carmen in their living room shocked at the realization that their son is custody arrested in a sting operation and charged with plotting to blow up the U.S. capitol.

CORNELL: Chris has never been out of Cincinnati. I believe he was coerced into a lot of this stuff. I believe that this so-called snitch filled his head with a lot of stuff.

FIELD: John Cornell says that his son recently took up an interest in Islam but emphasized its peaceful qualities and never mentioned ISIS.

CORNELL: My son is not a monster. I'm not just saying it because he's my son. If I thought he was up to something, I would have -- I would have beat his butt. And I would have been the first one to turn him in.

FIELD: The 20-year-old was first brought to the FBI's attention several months ago after social media posts talking about violent jihad. They say Cornell planned to detonate pipe bombs around the capitol and then shoot people as they fled. But a man Cornell believed would be his partner in the plot was actually an FBI informant. The FBI says Cornell told the informant he had contacts overseas, that he had aligned himself with ISIS and believed lawmakers were his enemy.

The criminal complaint says Cornell did not think he would receive ISIS authorization to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States. But he wanted to reach jihad on his own, writing, "I believe we should meet up and make our own group in alliance with the Islamic State here and plan operations ourselves."

According to investigators, he researched the targeted government buildings and the construction of pipe bombs. Wednesday, Cornell purchased two AR-15s and 600 rounds of ammunition from this gun store in Cincinnati before FBI agents arrested him in the parking lot.

The gun store owner, who was working with authorities, described Cornell's demeanor. JOHN DEAN, POINT BLANK GUN STORE OWNER: Well spoken but soft

spoken. Lots of questions. A little chatty. If I hadn't been given any kind of warning ahead of time, I probably would not have been suspected he was up to what he was doing.

FIELD: CNN has repeatedly reached out to Cornell's court appointed attorney but has not received any response.

Cornell's bedroom, which he shared with his brother, seemingly that of a typical young man with movie posters and video games. The principal at the high school he attended and where he wrestled described Cornell to CNN as a normal student, saying, "Christopher was not a disruption or a discipline problem in school. A quiet but not overly reserved student who would participate in class, did not withdraw from his class work."

But now authorities are tracing the steps of the young man accused of a plot to attack his own country.


FIELD: And focal police are now saying that this young man had been on their radar before. A couple of years ago he was the sole protester at a 9/11 Memorial ceremony, apparently holding a sign saying that 9/11 was an inside job. He was not arrested for demonstrating. He was also believed to be a suspect potentially in a vandalism case.

Of course, Wolf, he is facing much more serious charges now. And he'll be in court tomorrow for a detention hearing followed by a pretrial hearing next week.

BLITZER: All right, Alexandra, we will stay in touch with you. Thank you.

The breaking news coming up next. We're going back to Paris where new details on the terror raids taking place in multiple cities right now across Belgium as officials try to prevent what they are calling some major imminent attacks.