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Bloody Yemen Power Struggle Aids Terrorists; Palestinian Stabs Israeli Bus Driver, Passengers

Aired January 21, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, on the brink. A critical U.S. ally in the war against al Qaeda overrun by rebel forces with hundreds of American lives at risk. Can a last-minute deal avert disaster?

ISIS expanding. The terror group is now active inside Yemen, clashing with al Qaeda but posing an even greater threat to the U.S. and its allies in the region.

Terror attack. Dramatic new video as a Palestinian stabs an Israeli bus driver and passengers, then continues his rampage in the street.

And stall warning. New reports offering frightening details of the final minutes of AirAsia Flight 8501. An impossibly steep climb, then alarms sounding before a final dive into the sea.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Hundreds of American lives at risk right now as rebels seize the capital of U.S. ally, a crucial partner in the fight against al Qaeda. Suddenly, amid Yemen's chaos, a tentative deal to try to defuse the crisis, but a chilling new threat may be emerging. A Yemeni official tells CNN ISIS is now active and is recruiting in Yemen in a head-on rivalry with al Qaeda's Arabian affiliate that has even led to gun battles.

The spokesman for Yemen's embassy here in Washington is standing by, along with our correspondents and analysts, and we have the only western TV reporter on the ground in Yemen.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has the very latest -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight Yemen's capital, Sana'a, is still on edge with violence and uncertainty, but for now, at least for now, the State Department is holding firm. No immediate plans to evacuate the embassy.


STARR (voice-over): Even as Houthi rebels surround the presidential palace in Sana'a, the U.S. is uncertain it can or will work with the rebel group. For now, the assessment, the Houthi rebels are not anti- American. But what happens next is the question. The U.S. says President Hadi is still the leader of Yemen. He and the

rebels appear headed towards some type of agreement. That has led the State Department to hope it will not have to evacuate the embassy just a day after an embassy car was shot at.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Our personnel are well-protected. We have strong and multiple security personnel there. We've been building that up over a period of time.

STARR: But not everyone agrees staying put is a good idea.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I think we ought to get our people out. I don't want to see a hostage situation.

STARR: the fate of the U.S. embassy, just one crisis point for Washington in Yemen's unraveling.

REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: We cannot permanently disengage with Yemen so I think that we should be constantly evaluating.

STARR: The U.S. worry: with no clear control by President Hadi's government, the U.S. risks losing its partner in the fight to stop al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Obama administration has been trying to increase counterterrorism funding to Yemen. Since 2006, more than $400 million has gone to training Yemen's commando forces, helping improve its air force surveillance capabilities, as well as coast guard patrol forces.

Even before the Houthi takeover, the violence in Yemen had made it impossible for much of the cooperation to continue, other than drone strikes against al Qaeda fighters. Many U.S. officials point out U.S. embassies in Libya, Syria and Somalia have already been shuttered due to threats of terrorism and ongoing conflict. The State Department for now doesn't want Yemen to be the next.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We believe that it's in our national security interests to have a presence there, and a strong presence there, which is one that we continue to have.


STARR: But, Wolf, make no mistake, tonight two U.S. Navy warships are still offshore, ready to go if an order was to come to the Pentagon to evacuate the embassy.

BLITZER: The USS Fort McHenry and the USS Iowa Jima. But there are other ships nearby, as well, right?

STARR: There are other ships nearby just in case. The Pentagon is saying they will take their cues from the State Department. It will be up to the State Department to decide, but we also know President Obama is getting regular updates, regular briefings, about the intelligence, about what is going on in Yemen, and the potential risk there to the U.S. Embassy -- Wolf. BLITZER: Thanks very much, Barbara Starr. Let's go to Yemen right

now. Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is the only western TV correspondent on the ground in Yemen.

Nick, you and your team, you had a chance to check out the president's residence today. What did you see there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What a remarkable sign, really. After all the dealing we've heard in the last few hours and which, effectively, it seems, the Houthis have agreed to pull away from the key buildings like the presidential residence we were at this morning and the presidential palace they overran yesterday, in exchange for releasing the chief of staff of the president, they will be able, it seems, to have a hand in rewriting lots of the new constitution that was supposed to come in and get their hands on power, too.

But really, power seems to be being decided on the streets today. And there are many cabinet official levels actually concerned this is a terrifying precedent, frankly, for the future of Yemen.

Around the presidential residence, as you see there, we were talking to the men on top of the tank, these young Houthis, very young, some of them. Some of them a bit dazed by the power they seem to have got on the streets, about who is the president. And one of them, as you saw there, just pointed to himself. The people are the president.

Now of course, President Hadi is still president on paper, still president, frankly, in the eyes of the Houthis. But the Houthis, it seems, have managed to craft a very powerful political compromise here, which some are concerned leaves Hadi as a figurehead but the Houthis really controlling the shots here. That must be concerning for Washington, because as Barbara mentioned, they are pro-Iranian. They're not necessarily out to harm the U.S. But they may have different designs on the level of cooperation Yemen has with Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, one of those Houthi slogans, very popular with the Houthis, "Death to America."

As you know, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they released a chilling new video. And you're there on the ground for us, Nick. Tell us about this video.

WALSH: This video was released a few days ago, in fact, and it doesn't really directly address the Paris attacks, but it does call for more lone-wolf attacks. It does suggest, in fact, that if somebody has a desire to carry out attacks against the west, against the infidels, it's in fact, better if they can stay in those western countries and carry out attacks there, rather than leave the country and move themselves away from the infidels they so despise. So an overt call for lone wolves, frankly, across western countries to stay in place and launch attacks.

That's, of course, deeply terrifying for many western agencies, because they saw the "Charlie Hebdo" attacks. They're still trying to assess how close the Kouachi brothers were here in Yemen, how much preparation they had here and how much distance they had when they went back to France.

He goes on to say in that particular video that you're seeing, goes on to say that, in fact, they've had a success now, and the level of campaigning means 60 embassies have been closed around the world.

Clearly, AQAP keeping a tally of the impact of their actions in this region and other regions, too, and how that limits the U.S. diplomatic capability in some areas.

We do know they are concerned here, but I should point out, evacuation seems pretty far off. The embassy here has been on a low footing in terms of staff since September, only essential personnel, heightened security profile. But frankly, it's going to take a lot for them to be calling the U.S. Marines in to take them out of here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Nick Paton Walsh on the ground for us in Yemen. Be careful over there. Even as the United States worries about al Qaeda growing stronger and stronger and the chaos of Yemen, there's also a chilling new threat emerging there with potentially grave implications for the United States and its allies.

Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM getting new information. What are you hearing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight we're told that ISIS has established a presence inside Yemen and has already engaged in at least one fight against its rivals from al Qaeda there. If this escalates, it could further destabilize a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.


TODD (voice-over): Disturbing new information tonight on the most dangerous terrorist groups taking advantage of the chaos in Yemen. CNN has learned ISIS is now active and recruiting inside Yemen. That's according to a Yemeni official, who says ISIS militants engaged in a gun battle against rivals from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the eastern provinces of Yemen last month.

KATHERINE ZIMMERMAN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: ISIS may be in Yemen to compete with the al Qaeda group there. Yemen is significant in Islam. It is a place where we have seen attacks against the United States. It also has been a major feeder for foreign fighters.

TODD: For years, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has dominated the terrorist foothold in Yemen, and a Yemeni official says AQAP still far outnumbers ISIS there, with hundreds of fighters compared to dozens for ISIS. A U.S. counterterrorism official tells CNN AQAP's leadership and key technical experts remain committed to plotting against western targets. In a new video, a top AQAP leader renewed the group's call to launch attacks.

KIRK LEOPOLD, FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: I think the target as we unusually saw is going to be the Europeans simply because of their ease to get onto the continent, but ultimately, their aim is the United States.

TODD: A U.S. official tells us American intelligence is working intensively to track AQAP's leaders. The most wanted? Nasr al-Inisi, AQAP's founder, the man who approves targets and orders attacks. And Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group's master bomb maker, who was behind the Christmas day underwear bomb plot and the attempt to place bombs in printer cartridges. Both attacks targeted the United States. Both almost succeeded.

Asiri once placed a bomb inside the body of his own brother in an attempt to kill Saudi Arabia's interior minister.

BRIAN FISHMAN, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: And he detonated it in a meeting where he was, in theory, surrendering to the Saudi prince. And so this was an assassination attempt that failed, but it illustrates the lengths to which somebody like Asiri will go to try to achieve their target.

TODD: Now officials and analysts worry AQAP and ISIS will compete inside Yemen to see who can strike America and its allies first and hardest.

ZIMMERMAN: They could lead an attack against the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, which is vulnerable. It could also direct its attention northward to Saudi Arabia.


TODD: The foothold ISIS has in Yemen is still very small, according to the Yemeni official we spoke with, but ISIS is trying to lure recruits from AQAP, promising them that ISIS has more money to fund operations. We're told AQAP is struggling to raise money right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, you've also received some new information on how AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, has changed its tactics recently, right?

TODD: That's right. The Yemeni official says that AQAP responding to the pressure it's under from U.S. drone strikes and from Yemeni forces, is now operating in smaller cells, dispersing its fighters more. Its main tactics now are targeted assassinations of Yemeni officials and Houthi leaders.

BLITZER: All right. Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you.

So the stakes clearly are huge in Yemen. A lot is riding on this so- called tentative deal, especially the U.S.-led fight against al Qaeda.

Joining us now is the spokesman for Yemen's embassy here in Washington, Mohammed Albasha.

Mohammed, thanks very much for coming in.

MOHAMMED ALBASHA, SPOKESMAN FOR YEMEN'S EMBASSY IN THE U.S.: Thank you, Wolf. BLITZER: So what do you make about this notion, Brian just reporting that ISIS, in addition to AQAP, ISIS is now on the ground in Yemen, sort of competing with al Qaeda for influence, for prestige, for recruits?

ALBASHA: ISIS started recruiting a few months ago. They're competing with AQAP. This is not new information. It's been going on for months.

But things are getting more intense, especially with the recent events in the capital Sana'a, as you have been reporting throughout the day. The situation is fluid; it's critical. The government was paralyzed. Parts of the government is dysfunctional, but we did not reach the point of no return. Things are difficult, but there are things that are moving forward...

BLITZER: But ISIS is operating in Yemen. AQAP obviously is operating in Yemen.


BLITZER: These are the two big threats to the United States.


BLITZER: I don't think a lot of Americans care if Houthis are involved in Yemen or whatever. They're worried about al Qaeda. They're worried about ISIS, and they should be, right?

ALBASHA: Yes. Americans should care about the Houthis, because the Houthis are now a component of the Yemeni political structure. And it's also a component that's challenging the government at times. And we need to figure out a way for both the Houthis and the government to co-exist and to work together.

BLITZER: Is it possible?

ALBASHA: It is possible. Today we signed -- we inked an agreement, the president with his advisors and the Houthis, nine to ten point agreement, and it will give them access.

But that adds just to a disarray of the country. I mean, Yemen has a weakened economy and political upheaval. AQAP is very active. Personally, my family were affected by an extended relative, who was executed point-blank in the military hospital.


ALBASHA: By AQAP. By a foreign militant.

BLITZER: How do you know these ISIS so-called terrorists who are now in Yemen are really ISIS?

ALBASHA: They're promoting themselves as ISIS. It's the rebranding of a new militant group. They're understanding that we have is they initially started recruiting from in the AQAP ranks, but now they're expanding and trying to recruit within the tribal areas.

BLITZER: I know we've been reporting that there are hundreds of Americans, U.S. citizens, diplomats, military, expatriates, private citizens working for NGOs in Yemen right now, but there may be a whole lot more than that, right?


BLITZER: How many American citizens would you estimate are in Yemen right now?

ALBASHA: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Yemeni-American citizens.

BLITZER: In addition to diplomats and military?

ALBASHA: These are the dual nationals.

BLITZER: Well, they're U.S. citizens from the U.S. perspective. They may be Yemeni citizens, as well, but they're also United States citizens. When you say thousands, how many thousands of Yemeni- Americans are there living in Yemen right now?

ALBASHA: Our estimates is there's around a quarter of a million Yemeni-American citizens.

BLITZER: In the United States, most of them.

ALBASHA: We're not sure who's now in the country and who's here in the U.S. They travel back and forth freely.

BLITZER: So you -- there's a quarter of a million dual citizens. I assume most of them are here in the United States, but what you're saying is there are several thousand who are in Yemen right now.

ALBASHA: The State Department would have better statistics, because they're the ones who ask the Yemeni -- the American citizens in Yemen to register with the State Department.

BLITZER: So how safe are these people? Is it time for the U.S. to get them out of there?

ALBASHA: Today, we have a bold new opportunity for us to work with our friends in the international community, particularly the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States. This is not the time to back out and leave. We have -- unfortunately, we may not have tomorrow.

BLITZER: Because of this semi-tentative deal with the Houthis, the government?


BLITZER: But the Saudis don't like this deal. They don't like these Shia Houthis, do they?

ALBASHA: A lot of people don't like the Houthis at this point, but like I said earlier in my conversation with you, they are now a fact of life. They're now a dominant force in many of the northern provinces. We're going to have to co-exist and live with them.

BLITZER: Mohammad AlBasha, I want you to stand by. We have more to discuss, but you're giving us good information. There are thousands of American citizens in Yemen right now, and the U.S. State Department clearly has to worry about all those American citizens.

We'll take a quick break. Much more when we come back.


BLITZER: We're following the news out of Yemen, and it's not good news. The tension obviously escalating, even in the midst of, supposedly, some sort of cease-fire deal that is very, very tentative.

We're back with the spokesman for Yemen's embassy here in Washington, Mohammad AlBasha.

Mohammad, thanks very much. I want you to listen to what President Obama said a few months ago. This is September 10, 2014. Listen to what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.


BLITZER: And that was only a few months ago. That doesn't seem to be so successful, this operation, right now. Somalia, the U.S. had to shut down the embassy and get all Americans out of Somalia, and there's a potential that could happen in Yemen now, too.

ALBASHA: I think President Obama was mentioning Yemen in the context that U.S. had minimum footprint. Boots on the ground was very limited to Marines protecting the embassy and advisors helping the Yemeni military equip and train. That's the difference.

BLITZER: There are hundreds of U.S. military personnel on the ground in Yemen right now, not just 100 Marines who protect the embassy, but a lot of others who work with Yemen, these drone strikes. They target for killing al Qaeda suspects and others. There are a lot of American military personnel on the ground.

ALBASHA: I don't have the exact number of U.S. personnel that are linked to the U.S. government on the ground, but it's fair to say with the diplomats and advisors and NGOs, that it could be close to 100.

BLITZER: Close to what?

ALBASHA: To a hundred.

BLITZER: Two hundred?

ALBASHA: To 100.

BLITZER: In addition to the hundred Marines, you mean?

ALBASHA: I mean, the entire staff at this point, I think it's safe to say...

BLITZER: You're just talking about diplomats or you're talking about diplomats and military?

ALBASHA: And staff.

BLITZER: I think it's a lot more. That's what I've heard. But we can double -- double-check that. Obviously, they're in a very vulnerable situation.

Senator Angus King -- he's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- he raised the possibility this morning when he was on CNN's "NEW DAY" that the great fear is that many of these Americans could be taken hostage. That's a real problem, isn't it?

ALBASHA: U.S. embassy in Sana'a is very well protected.

BLITZER: Well, forget about the U.S. embassy. What about the Americans who are outside of the U.S. embassy?

ALBASHA: Most of them are in the U.S. embassy and in the residence for the U.S. embassy, which is in the same area. So they're very well protected by Yemeni forces, and there's enough security personnel...

BLITZER: But the Yemeni forces can't even protect the president of Yemen. The chief of staff has been taken by these Houthi rebels.

ALBASHA: What happened with the chief of staff with the Houthi rebels and what happened with the presidential palace, this falls under this deeply rooted political crisis which has been going on for some time. I think the U.S. presence in Yemen is not related directly to the political crisis at this point.

BLITZER: If there is a deal between the government and the rebels, the Houthi rebels, the Saudis hate that, what do they do?

ALBASHA: I think it's the best thing for the Saudi government and for the GCC (ph) government to do, is to continue supporting President Hadi. He's the legitimate constitutional leader of Yemen; and Khaled Bahah, the prime minister and chairman for the council. So without the Saudi support, Yemen -- put it this way, Wolf. Yemen will become a failed state.

BLITZER: Some people say it already is a failed state.

ALBASHA: It's not yet a failed state. Yemen will be a failed state not because of terrorism or political upheaval. It's not going to be because of the current situation. Yemen will be a failed state if the economy collapses. If the economy collapses, there's no turning back. So this is a golden opportunity for us to work on. And we have

reached so far with the transition process. We are inching towards finishing the constitution, holding a referendum and general elections, and then the people of Yemen will decide who their next leaders will be.

BLITZER: Here's what worries the U.S. in particular. There's a bomb maker for AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ibrahim al-Asiri. He's on the loose right now. He's at large, and apparently, he's giving instructions on how to build hard-to-detect bombs to take down aircraft, right?


BLITZER: Why is he so hard to find, because I know your government has been looking for him. The U.S. has been looking for him. If the U.S. had an idea where he was, they'd send a drone over him with a Hellfire missile and kill him.

ALBASHA: AQAP and the bomb-making capabilities, they worry us more than just the Americans. And the same day that the "Charlie Hebdo" attack happened and 12 Parisians were killed, 42 police cadets were brutally killed. So this is not just an issue about the U.S. is being targeted or the French. The Yemenis are being killed day in and day out by AQAP and their supporters.

BLITZER: You saw this new video they released today, saying to people around the world, "You don't have to come here. Just go ahead and kill Americans."

ALBASHA: They are promoting the lone-wolf tactic. And this is something that it's very troubling. But al Qaeda is a mutual enemy, and we're going to continue working with our regional allies, with the U.S. and other friends of Yemen to counter this threat.

BLITZER: Good luck, Mohammed AlBasha. Let's hope for the best. Very worried, as you probably know, about what's going on in Yemen right now. And obviously, we're all worried about those, as you point out, thousands of American citizens who are in Yemen right now. Obviously, very, very vulnerable. Thanks very much for joining us.

ALBASHA: Thank you so much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, a bus ride turns to terror. Details about the attacker who went after passengers and pedestrians with a knife.

Also, troubling new reports about those final minutes before that AirAsia jet crashed into the sea. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Israel is reeling from another bloody terror attack. Once again, carried out by a lone assailant, a Palestinian who stabbed a driver and passengers on a Tel Aviv bus, then continued the rampage on the street. A top Hamas official calls the mass stabbing heroic. Let's go live to our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.

She's reporting from Jerusalem right now.

So Elise, what happened here?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, authorities say the 22-year-old Palestinian arrived in Tel Aviv on the West Bank this morning. He took a bus into central Tel Aviv, rode two stops before he pulled out a knife and started stabbing, turning the morning rush hour into a terrorist rampage.


LABOTT (voice-over): An urgent call to emergency services, reporting a woman, quote, "stabbed in the head." Witnesses and police say the attacker boarded a bus in Tel Aviv, stabbing the driver and several passengers before fleeing on foot. As passengers scrambled out, the assailant runs from the scene. Dramatic video shows him stabbing another woman, who falls to the ground.

In all, nine wounded, four seriously.

Before he can make a getaway, the attacker, a 22-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank, is shot in the leg and cuffed by two prison authority guards before he was arrested and interrogated by police.

Moses Collins said he already is haunted by what I heard coming from the bus.

MOSES COLLINS, WITNESS: A lot of shouting, a lot of shouting for police, for ambulance. It's not something easy to see. Ten people plus stabbed and a lot of, lot of, lot of blood.

LABOTT: In calls to emergency services, victims make desperate pleas for help. One woman says she was stabbed in the back and is covered in blood.

The family of the attacker, told CNN and Israeli authorities he is not affiliated with any groups and was driven by the suffering of Palestinians killed by Israel during last summer's war in Gaza. Such lone-wolf attacks, the latest terror tactic by Palestinians against Israelis in recent months.

Last November, two Palestinians stormed a Jerusalem synagogue with butcher knives, killing five Jews. A week earlier, an Israeli soldier was stabbed to death in Tel Aviv, along with three more Israelis near a West Bank settlement.

In separate attacks, Palestinian drivers plowed cars into pedestrians and railway commuters, killing three Israelis, including a baby, and wounding several others.

Hamas called today's stabbing a daring and heroic act; a natural response to Israeli aggression. But Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu blamed the attack on both Palestinian incitement against Israel and global anti-Semitism on display in recent attacks against Jewish targets in Paris and Brussels.

And Wolf, in light of the attack, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv is restating its ban for U.S. government employees not to take buses in Israel and the West Bank, in effect warning Americans to follow suit -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise, thanks very much. We're going to have a full analysis of what's going on. Joining us, our terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes -- he's a former FBI assistant director; our CNN intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer -- he's a former CIA operative; and our global affairs analyst James Reese, he's a former Army Delta Force commander. Actually, guys, I want all of you to stand by just a moment.

Let's take a quick break. We'll resume the breaking news coverage right after this.


BLITZER: Dramatic and shocking new video as a Palestinian establishes an Israel bus driver and passengers and continues his rampage in the street. Take a look at this. You see him chasing this woman and then just takes out his knife and stabs her in the back and keeps on running.

We're back with our terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes; our CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer; and our global affairs analyst, James Reese.

Tom, how do you prevent somebody, a lone individual, a lone wolf, as he is usually called, from getting on a bus with a knife and starting to stab people?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: You don't. there's no way to prevent that. Everybody has cutlery in their kitchen and can take out a butcher knife, theoretically, and everybody can get on a bus, and everybody can start stabbing people. There's no way to do it.

BLITZER: What do you think, Colonel Reese? Is there anything significant about the -- it seems so simple, a guy just gets a knife and goes on a bus and starts killing.

LT. COL. JAMES REESE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: He does, Wolf, and there's not much you can do about it. We have talked about it several times. The best thing we can do in the populace is just be aware and like I always say, if you're walking around, look for people's hands. They don't lie.

BLITZER: The other thing -- and Bob, I want you to weigh in on this. This is new video of Amedy Coulibaly. He's the guy who carried out that attack on that kosher supermarket in Paris, killing four, and his partner Hayat Boumeddiene, reportedly scoping out, together with him, some Jewish institutions earlier. Talk a little bit about the significance of Hayat Boumeddiene's clothing here.

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I mean, all of these people, when you're doing surveillance, you don't want to draw attention to what you're doing; and as Frenchmen, it's very easy for them to move in a foreign culture. And they can adapt very easily, and there's no way to spot surveillance in a situation like this. It's very difficult to spot surveillance in the first place unless somebody's really making it obvious.

So I think that, you know, we can talk about the French, you know, protecting these places, but how do you know they're really being surveilled? There's nothing like four guys sitting in a car watching a place with dark glasses on. So this is what French police are up against.

You see what she's wearing, Tom. She's wearing basically hot pants. Not exactly the traditional Muslim garb, if you will.

FUENTES: No. They're told to hide in plain sight. We had that with the 9/11 hijackers here. They were going to bars, drinking, chasing women like average Americans, I guess, and they did not stand out. And that's what they're taught when they go to terrorism camp, that when you go back home, don't attract attention to yourself. Don't even go to mosques. Just be normal.

BLITZER: Paul, you reported earlier this week on the suspected ringleader of the Belgium terror cell that was disrupted last week. Are authorities any closer to finding this man?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: No. There's still a big international manhunt. He was last thought to be operating in Greece, calling up the cell in Belgium who were plotting this imminent major terrorist attack, but the trail for him has gone cold at the moment.

One line of inquiry that's emerging, though, is that he may have tried to fake his own death last year. The families have said that, in October, they received word that he had been killed in Syria.

Of course, that turns out not to be true, because he then went on to Greece to be the ringleader in this plot in Belgium, allegedly. So very interesting live inquiry that he might have tried to fake his own death to go off the radar screen so that he could move across to Greece and direct this plot, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, guys, everybody stand by. Hold on. We've got more coming up.

We also have some frightening new details about what happened in the cockpit during that desperate -- those desperate minutes just before the AirAsia jet crashed.


BLITZER: New reports paint a terrifying picture of the final minutes before the AirAsia jet crashed with cockpit alarms going off as the jet fell out of the sky before crashing into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

Let's bring in our national correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux. She is getting new information.

What are you learning?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're learning today that Indonesian officials say the cockpit voice recorder reveals alarms and warnings that were going off indicating that the plane was possibly stalling. The flight data recorder contains the plane's speed and the altitude during that time. It reveals a steep climb and then a descent.

So earlier today, I got into a flight simulator to learn firsthand what might have taken place in Flight 8501's last moments.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): In the terrifying last moments of AirAsia Flight 8501, sounds of alarms going off in the cockpit can be heard on the plane's black boxes, according to the Indonesian Transportation minister. At first, the plane rapidly climbs at a rate of 6,000 feet per minute.

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Passengers would have been driven down into their seats. They would have felt very heavy. They would have felt like they weighed twice what they do but they wouldn't have blacked out.

MALVEAUX: Seconds later, the aircraft stalls, then starts to fall. In an A-320, a stall warning sounds like this.


IGNASIUS JOHAN, INDONESIA MINISTER OF TRANSPORTATION (Through Translator): It's descending 1500 feet within six seconds, so the flight keeps descending faster until the point of 24,000 feet and radar cannot detect it.

MALVEAUX: At that point, Flight 8501 crashes into the Java Sea.


MALVEAUX: Using a flight simulator, flying instructor Curt Tucker of Freeway Aviation shows me what happens when a plane stalls.

(On camera): OK. This is the stall?

TUCKER: That's the stall warning and now regardless of how much we pull back, we cannot get the airplane to stay flying.


TUCKER: So now we have to push down.

MALVEAUX: And this is unnatural, right, for a pilot to put this nose down towards the ground to get out of a stall? That needs -- that requires training because it's pretty scary.

TUCKER: It does require training. And it's a little bit counterintuitive.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Tucker says the treacherous weather could have made recovering from the stall impossible.

TUCKER: It's not uncommon to get severe updrafts inside of a thunderstorm or something like that where it can be very disorienting to the pilot.

MALVEAUX: The biggest piece of wreckage from the plane remains at the bottom of the ocean where investigators suspect many of the bodies are trapped inside. Bad weather continues to make the recovery effort difficult.

SUPRIYADI, INDONESIAN SEARCH AND RESCUE (Through Translator): Still quite high wind speeds out there, 10 to 20 knots, and waves two to three meters high. We still can dive, but it's hard to reach the sea bed.


MALVEAUX: Meanwhile, the head of Indonesia's National Transport Safety Committee tells CNN the preliminary report on AirAsia Flight 8501 will be issued next week. That is 30 days after the crash, as required by the International Civil Aviation Organization. But it is not going to be made public. Only the final report must be shared.

And investigators, Wolf, they have up to a year to complete that. So still a lot of unanswered questions.

BLITZER: There certainly are. And there's still a lot of the recovery work to find the bodies, too, down there.

MALVEAUX: Many of them.

BLITZER: And so much of the wreckage.

Suzanne, thanks very much.

Joining us now our aviation correspondent Richard Quest.

Richard, what might have caused this plane suddenly to start climbing reportedly six to eight times the normal rate? Is this potentially a mechanical problem in an Airbus A-320? Because there are so many of those flying around the world right now?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: We just don't know. It could be an updraft. A very powerful updraft. But we know the -- we know the pilot had requested permission to climb.

So you could end up, Wolf, with a combination of events. He could be doing a climb -- a commanded climb, at the same time as you get to an updraft, there could be all sorts of reasons. But it does seem highly likely that the climb is related to the stall and a drop in the speed which, of course, eventually takes the aircraft out of the sky.

And what we heard in Suzanne Malveaux's report there about stall warnings, we've heard very similar things in many other incidents notably Air France 447, Wolf, where the plane was climbing, it stalled, we heard the warnings and the plane crashed.

BLITZER: Yes. This sounds very similar to that Air France Flight 447 with the stall. You see a similar scenario unfolding?

QUEST: In a sense that it's -- if it is a stall, you're talking about a high altitude stall. The plane is flying in the cruise. The pilots are commanding an altitude increase, they're climbing, and the plane loses speed.

Now this is very unusual, Wolf. Let's put this into full context so the passengers aren't necessarily concerned about this. High altitude stalls or high altitude are very few and far between. But the margin for error at altitude is much tighter than it is further down. So this is why this is so serious, this incident.

And this is why, frankly, listening to what Suzanne was saying, I'm absolutely staggered tonight, Wolf, that the Indonesians are not prepared to release the preliminary report. They don't have to release it. But it was released in 370, it was released in 17, the NTSB releases. There's no reason or justification for not releasing the interim preliminary report.

BLITZER: The Indonesian Transportation minister says the pilots' voices were drowned out by the sound of the alarms, including the one indicating the plane was stalling. Why was there no mayday, mayday call if there were prolonged warnings that something was wrong?

QUEST: Because there'd be no need to, Wolf. At that particular point, if the aircraft is stalled and you are falling out of the sky -- I mean, first of all, you're concentration, you remember the old rule? Aviate, navigate, communicate. They are flying the plane. The last thing they are concerning themselves with is mayday, mayday. I mean, there's no purpose. There's nothing the ground can do other than maybe clear airspace.

But no, at this particular point, you're talking about an aircraft that is in extremis. The end is close unless they do something very fast. And even then, it might not be possible.

So, Wolf, you're not looking at doing a mayday.

BLITZER: All right.

QUEST: You're talking about just flying the plane.

BLITZER: You had a chance to speak with Tony Fernandes, the AirAsia CEO about that moment when he found out the plane had crashed.

Let me play a little clip from your interview.


TONY FERNANDES, AIRASIA CEO?: There is no amount of rehearsal or practice or reading that can actually prep you for this moment. It is a single worst feeling I have ever had in my life. And it continues to be that moment of that phone call will haunt me forever.


BLITZER: That's a pretty powerful statement. What was your reaction when you heard him say it?

QUEST: It was -- you see, I have known Tony for years. And to see him, he is humbled. He is clearly shaken by everything. Then who wouldn't be? My initial thought was, this is a man who always knew the academic possibility of this sort of incident. Every airline CEO knows that. But he faced it firsthand. And most importantly, he rose to the occasion.

He even gave his personal phone number to every family member who wanted it. That's how important it was, that it's his airline, his plane, his responsibility.

BLITZER: All right. Richard Quest, thanks very much.

Coming up, ISIS moves into Yemen clashing with al Qaeda rivals, but posing an even greater threat to the U.S. and its allies in the region.

And new information that the Paris gunman may have urged associates to flee before their plot was carried out raising the possibility of new attacks at any time.


BLITZER: Happening now, ISIS terrorists take on al Qaeda, and moving into dangerous new territory and competing for recruits and power. I'll ask the top State Department spokeswoman about the breaking story.

Plus terror manhunt. Urgent new raids in Europe and new evidence that several cohorts of the Paris attackers may be hiding in plain sight right now getting ready to strike.