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Obama Asks Congress for ISIS War Powers; U.S. Shuts Yemen Embassy, Evacuates Staffers; Interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders; Obama Asks Congress for ISIS War Powers; U.S. Evacuates Staff from Yemen Embassy; Inside the Failed Hostage Rescue Attempts; Inside the Failed Hostage Rescue Attempts; Fighting Intensifies as Putin Talks Peace; Three Muslim Students Shot Dead in North Carolina

Aired February 11, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, MSNBC HOST: Happening now, war powers -- President Obama says a rapidly expanding ISIS is a threat to the United States and he's asking Congress for new authority to take the fight to the terror group.

Will Congress go along?

Rescue missions -- we have new details on the desperate efforts to free a young American woman held hostage by ISIS, ranging from a courageous bluff to a military commando raid.

And hate crime -- that's how the father of two of the three murdered Muslim students describes the execution-style killings in a quiet college town.

So what's behind this shocking incident?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, as bloody fighting rages against ISIS on a growing number of fronts, President Obama formally asks Congress for authorization to wage war against the terror group. You heard him spell out what he wants to do at the White House a little while ago, the go-ahead to keep pounding ISIS targets from the air along with strict limits on ground combat operations. The president calls for a vote. But it's not clear if a divide in Congress will buy into his strategy.

Senator Bernie Sanders. The Vermont Independent, he's standing by live, along with our correspondents and our analysts.

Let's begin with the very latest.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, joins us -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in the first call to Congress to authorize war in 13 years, President Obama is making it clear the battle against ISIS won't be a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the president is also leaving a lot of the details, in a word, fuzzy.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Obama's proposal to authorize the war on ISIS opens a new door to more than just airstrikes.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our coalition is on the offensive.

ISIL is on the defensive and ISIL is going to lose.

ACOSTA: Asking Congress for the green light on his war plan, the president charges ISIS with the deaths of American hostages, including their most recent known victim, Kayla Mueller.

If left unchecked, he warns ISIS could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. While the president says this battle won't be a flashback to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involving hundreds of thousands of troops, Mr. Obama's new authorization does seek ground forces for rescue operations, missions to kill ISIS leaders, intel collection and airstrikes.

OBAMA: If we have actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders and our partners didn't have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our Special Forces to take action.

ACOSTA: The president's fellow Democrats are nervous about the proposal's language, barring, quote, "enduring combat."

SEN. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: I'm concerned about the breadth and vagueness of the ground troop language.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: None of us really know what "enduring offensive combat operations" means, and deliberately, I think, drafted to be ambiguous.

ACOSTA: The White House responds to that.

(on camera): Well, the language is fuzzy, is it not?

JOSH EARNEST, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Intentionally so. And the intent is...

ACOSTA: Intentionally so?


ACOSTA: The wording is intentionally fuzzy?

EARNEST: Yes, Jim, because we believe it's important that there aren't overly burdensome constraints that are placed on the commander- in-chief, who needs the flexibility to be able to respond to contingencies that emerge in a chaotic military conflict like this. ACOSTA (voice-over): In other words, enough U.S. forces to help local Iraqis and Syrians take the fight to ISIS without breaking the president's pledge last fall.

OBAMA: As your commander-in-chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.

ACOSTA: That White House attempt to find a happy medium is already turning off Republicans.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The president's point is that he wants to dismantle and destroy ISIS. I haven't seen the strategy yet that I think, will accomplish that.


ACOSTA: Now the White House is not ruling out additional ground troops to carry out this war on ISIS.

When asked about whether or not more forces could be sent to fight ISIS, the answer was, quote, "not at this time" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House.

Thank you.

The president's request for formal war fighting authority comes as ISIS is extending its reach in the Middle East.

Let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

He's watching what's going on -- the president tried to underscore, Jim, he doesn't want another -- the United States in another ground war. But he did open the door, potentially, for more U.S. ground forces going in there.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: He did. In fact, he gave very specific circumstances. He said, for instance, if we have intelligence on a senior ISIS leader, we might send in Special Forces to go and take that leader out. In fact, his commanders have brought up other instances that are possible, the idea of forward ground controllers to call in airstrikes and to put some of these military advisers in Iraq on the front lines as they prepare -- Iraqi forces prepare to retake the ISIS stronghold of Mosul this spring.

All those possibilities on the table. But keep this in mind, as well. In addition to further combat operations in Iraq and Syria, which is where ISIS is concentrated now, the AUMF includes language for going after ISIS-associated forces, which are now showing up in other places, beyond Syria and Iraq, carrying out attacks against Egyptian military and police here in Egypt, carrying out an attack, or claiming to, against a hotel in Tripoli that killed 10 people, including an American.

And there are some AQAP fighters here in Yemen who have expressed some solidarity for ISIS. ISIS claiming a foothold here, as well. This AUMF conceivably gives the president authority to order military operations -- the president or his successor -- far outside of this area, to other areas around the world.

BLITZER: You mentioned Yemen, Jim. We know, what, six months or so ago, the president was citing Yemen as an example of a successful U.S. counterterrorism strategy. But it's turned out right now to be a disaster.

SCIUTTO: Well, the embassy is closed. And we've talked about this. An embassy is more than about issuing visas, it's about close political relationships with that partner government, or that former partner government in Yemen the president cited as a success. It's about military relationships, partnerships. It's about intelligence gathering.

That footprint is off the ground now in Yemen. We are told by the military that some military personnel remains on the ground in country, though not in the capital. They won't say where for security reasons. They will be able to keep up counterterror training. They will be able to keep up drone strikes against AQAP targets in the southwestern part of the country. But Pentagon officials acknowledge that removing that embassy will have an impact on the counterterror efforts.

BLITZER: The latest U.S. Embassy to be forced to shut down, not only in Yemen, but in Libya, Somalia, Syria. And we know the U.S. Embassy in Iran has been shut down since 1979.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

The president's war powers request is taking some heat from all sides. Let's get the latest from Senator Bernie Sanders. He's the independent senator from Vermont.

Senator Sanders, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: You say you cannot support the president's proposed legislation in its current form. That's the words -- those are the words you used.


SANDERS: Look, Wolf, I remember the war in Afghanistan, which was supposed to last a few months. The war in Iraq was going to be very easy. We were in those countries for over 10 years. We have lost close to 7,000 brave men and women. The country has spent trillions of dollars.

At the end of the day, if ISIS is going to be defeated -- and this is a brutal, horrible organization that needs to be defeated -- it is going to have to be defeated by the Muslim nations in the region.

Saudi Arabia has the fourth largest defense budget in the world. You've got billionaire families in Qatar, in the UAE. They have got to be increasingly involved in providing security in their region. The U.S. can be supportive. Western Europe can be supportive. But they're going to have to do the hard work.

BLITZER: What did it say to you, if anything, because I couldn't help but notice, remembering the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003, at the end of 2002, there was that resolution, that war powers resolution authorizing the use of force to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

When the president walked into the Roosevelt Room to make that speech, you see who's with him, the vice president, Joe Biden; the secretary of State, John Kerry; the secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. Now, they were all U.S. senators at the end of 2002. They all voted in favor of that war authorization. You opposed it at the time.

But what does it say to you that the president is surrounded by men who supported going to war at that time?

SANDERS: Look, I think the president is doing everything that he can in trying to defeat ISIS. But when I hear words like "enduring conflict," it makes me very, very nervous. I think it opens the door wider than it should be. I think we've got to continue airstrikes. I think we've got to use Special Operations Forces when we can.

But I do not want to see a never-ending quagmire in the Middle East where our troops die, come back with terrible illnesses and we end up spending trillions of dollars.

Once again, this war is a battle for the soul of Islam. And it's going to have to be the Muslim countries who are stepping up. These are billionaire families all over that region. They've got to get their hands dirty. They've got to get their troops on the ground. They've got to win that war with our support. We cannot be leading the effort.

BLITZER: Well, when the White House says, as you just heard the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, tell our own White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, that the president wants this language to be, in his words, "intentionally fuzzy" -- fuzzy, F-U-Z-Z-Y, what does that say to you?

SANDERS: Well, it says that the president and I have a disagreement on this issue and the language. And I will work very hard to try to change that language.

BLITZER: Specifically, what do you want to change?

SANDERS: I want to make sure that our young men and women are not fighting a never-ending war in the region and not getting killed. And I want to make sure that the leaders of the effort are, in fact, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Jordan and the UAE. I want the Muslim nations to take the lead. I want their troops to be on the ground. I want them to be aggressive. I want them to be spending the money necessary to defeat ISIS. I want us to be in a supportive role, but not leading the effort. BLITZER: But you -- you don't believe, do you, because you've studied this area for a long time, Senator, that any of these countries, whether Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait Bahrain, any of these moderate Arab countries are going to take the lead without the United States right at the front of that lead?

SANDERS: Well, but what you're saying is they've got these billionaire families and they're saying, hey, why do we want to sacrifice our kids?

Why do we want to spend our money?

We've got Uncle Sam there who is going to do the work for us. Let's just sit back. American troops will take out ISIS.

I disagree with that philosophy. I think they've got to jump in. We support them. And I believe that strongly.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, I want you to stand by.

We have much more to discuss.

Senator Bernie Sanders is with us. We're talking about the president's proposal. He's seeking war powers authorization for three years to fight ISIS, to launch this war, to continue the war and potentially expand the war in Iraq and Syria.

Stay with us.

Much more right after this.


BLITZER: Let's get back on the breaking news. President Obama formally asking the United States Congress for authorization to use military force against ISIS. We're back with Senator Bernie Sanders. He's the Vermont independent. He opposes the president's war powers request as it currently stands. There would have to be major changes for him to vote yea, in favor of this legislation.

If the legislation isn't approved, Senator, what happens next? Because in your statement that you released today, you did say that ISIS is a brutal and dangerous terrorist organization that must be defeated.

SANDERS: Absolutely. Look, these guys, it's literally unspeakable the things that they have done, the thousands of innocent men, women and children, including Americans, they have killed. They have got to be defeated.

But after ten years or over ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, I hope we have learned a lesson, that the people in the region, the people who are most threatened by ISIS, they have got to step up to the plate. These are not poor countries. Wolf, these are countries without exception run by multi-billionaire families. And they can put their military forces on the ground. They have got to lead the effort to take on ISIS. We have got to be supportive.

I support the airstrikes that the United States Air Force is now doing, and I think they've been reasonably effective. But the Muslim nations themselves are going to have to step up and defeat ISIS.

BLITZER: Let me quickly, Senator, turn to the situation in Yemen right now, which is turning out to be a total disaster. The State Department basically shut down the United States embassy in the capital of Sana'a today amid enormous security concerns. The Shiite- led Houthi rebels are taking charge over there.

And as you know, AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is based in Yemen. What's going on over here? Because this is yet another failed state in this part of the world.

SANDERS: I mean, that just talks about the instability in the region and the need for, again, in my view, the countries of the region to play a much more active role.

BLITZER: So obviously, it looks like Yemen is a failed state now. Libya, remember what the U.S. did launch a Tomahawk cruise missile to get rid of Gadhafi, spent a few billion dollars in U.S. taxpayer money to do so. So look what's going on in Libya right now. The U.S. embassy is shut down. The rebels are swimming in the swimming pool of the U.S. ambassador's residence. Take a look at these videos. Look at this video. They're diving into the pool, having a good time. This is the United States embassy residence in Tripoli.

Senator, go ahead.

SANDERS: You know, it is what it is. And it's a very, very bad and difficult situation. And it's going to require the entire world and the Muslim countries in the region to step up and address this issue.

The only point that I make is that the United States cannot continue to do it alone. The other countries cannot sit back and say, "We don't have to worry, because the soldiers of America and the American taxpayers will do it all."

BLITZER: One final political question, Senator, before I let you go. I know you're thinking about running for the Democratic presidential nomination. When do you think you will decide?

SANDERS: Well, as soon as I have to. We are going around the country. We're talking to a lot of people. We're getting a lot of support. But when you take on the billionaire class, that ain't an easy assignment. So I got to make sure the support is there, and that's what we're trying to ascertain.

BLITZER: When you say you're taking on the billionaire class, you would be taking on Hillary Clinton as your main Democratic opponent. As far as I know she's not a billionaire.

SANDERS: Well, no, I would be taking on the Koch brothers and Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry and the private insurance companies. My job is not to run against Hillary Clinton. My job is to take on the political, economic and media establishment which have so much power in this country.

BLITZER: Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, as usual, thanks for joining us.

SANDERS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, the desperate efforts to free a young American woman held hostage by ISIS, ranging from a courageous bluff to a military commando raid. We have new details.

And three Muslim students shot execution style in a quiet college town. The father of two of the students calls it a hate crime. We're going live to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to get the very latest. The mayor of Chapel Hill will join us.


BLITZER: We're learning new details tonight about a series of extraordinary efforts to try to free Kayla Mueller, the young American woman whose death in ISIS captivity has now been confirmed.

Let's go to Brian Todd. He's getting new information for us. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're getting some dramatic new information on some incredible efforts undertaken to rescue Kayla Mueller while she was in ISIS captivity from a daring bluff to a Special Forces raid. Many people put their lives at risk trying to bring her back to her family.


TODD (voice-over): Kayla Mueller was in captivity at an ISIS camp in Syria. Out of nowhere, a man appeared in the camp. He told her captors he was her husband and appealed for her release. It was a ruse that Mueller wasn't in on.

REP. PAUL GOSAR (R), ARIZONA: And of course, she said she wasn't -- she wasn't married, and she didn't lie to her captors that she was married, so that foiled that plan.

TODD: Congressman Paul Gosar doesn't know who the man was but says he could have been a fellow aid worker who had been captured with Mueller and later released.

GOSAR: I think this was orchestrated from the folks that she was associated with. People very concerned for a young lady caught behind militant lines, and her safety was paramount to them. So they wanted to try to get her home.

TODD: Gosar represents Mueller's home district in Arizona and has had extensive contact with her parents since she was captured in 2013. Gosar was briefed on that attempted rescue by State Department sources, members of Mueller's family, and fellow Arizonan Senator John McCain. Tonight, CNN is learning of exhaustive and daring efforts by Gosar,

McCain and others, to win the release of Kayla Mueller. McCain himself traveled to Iraq, Qatar, met with Syrian rebel leaders to try to get Mueller out. Gosar says his own chief of staff ventured into a refugee camp just across the Turkish border from the Syrian city of Kobani to try to get information on Mueller. It was an enormous risk.

GOSAR: It was overrun with a number of terrorist soldiers. So from that standpoint, he was being watched very carefully.

TODD: Gosar's aide came up empty. The U.S. military took on a dangerous mission to rescue Kayla Mueller.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I deployed an entire operation at significant risk to rescue not only her but the other individuals that had been held and probably missed them by a day or two.

TODD: July 2014, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos move in by helicopter to an abandoned oil refinery near the ISIS stronghold of Raqqah, Syria. They get to a building where they think Mueller, James Foley and other hostages are being held. No one is there, but they find strands of hair believed to be Mueller's. A firefight ensues. The mission lasts two hours.

Former SEAL John McGuire was not on that raid but knows how risky it was.

JOHN MCGUIRE, FORMER NAVY SEAL: Intelligence, we do the best we can with what we have. It's never perfect. It's not a perfect world. And the situations and the training are not exactly perfect.


TODD: Now, even with all of that, and with all the risks involved, both Congressmen Gosar and Senator McCain have told reporters they feel they failed Kayla Mueller's family, because despite those exhaustive efforts, she was not returned safely to her home.

BLITZER: Brian, were Senator McCain and Congressman Gosar satisfied with the way the Obama administration actually handled the Kayla Mueller case?

TODD: For the most part, they say they were. Both McCain and Gosar acknowledge that the administration had limited intelligence because of the situation in Syria about Kayla Mueller; but at one point there was frustration.

Gosar's aide met with an experienced State Department official at the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey, asking for help on the Mueller case. Gosar says that official did not give much help. He says he shrugged his shoulders and told him to deal with the issue in Washington. McCain also complained that he didn't get much information from the Obama administration.

We approached the State Department on those complaints. They did not respond.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Let's get some analysis. Joining us, our CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling; our CNN intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer -- he's a former CIA operative; our national security analyst Peter Bergen; and our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director.

Bob Baer, how common are these kinds of raids and the fact that very often they do fail?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: The military will do them when ordered. The techniques they use are -- they're wonderful. I have watched them at Fort Bragg and watched the SEALs, as well. They can't be beaten in the field of battle, but it's always the intelligence; because there's no way to absolutely confirm the hostages are where they're going when they're making the raid. That's why they're reluctant to do it. It's usually because the intelligence is not good enough, not because of soldiering.

BLITZER: Because you really risk those American lives going in for a raid if the intelligence isn't good. There could be a trap. That certainly is the highest concern.

General Hertling, you suggested to us yesterday you thought, when the president was speaking about the failed raid, he was maybe giving away too much information to the terrorists out there. I want you to elaborate and explain what you mean.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Let me jump into what Bob just said first, Wolf, if I can.

Over a 15-month period of time in Iraq, special operators worked for me, and they would conduct anywhere from five to 20 raids per day, usually at nighttime. And each one of those, the intelligence from human sources, from overhead platforms, from signals intelligence, as Bob said, has to be near perfect. And these guys can work miracles.

What I'm suggesting is over the last several months is we've had these kind of raids, and the president talked about him deploying forces to do this. We've probably talked about these things too much. It gives away too much operational security. Special Operations forces are magnificent at what they do, and part of what they do is very secretive. And we should keep it a little bit more secretive than what we have been lately.

BLITZER: You agree, Tom Fuentes?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Yes. I think I do. Because you know, these things are so sensitive to try to do that. And what happens is that the sympathy for the family, for the girl are so strong. The senators want to get involved. Other people want to get involved. They actually can make it more dangerous and risk the success of a military operation. The problem is, by keeping what's being planned secret, even from the family, it appears the government is doing nothing. And the less that show, probably the more they actually are trying to do. And that's just the nature of the business.

So it's been -- you know, the government, the president, the politicians need to be able to withstand the criticism of the family, who says they're doing nothing when they know they're doing everything possible and that eventually they're going to deploy a Delta team and a SEAL Team and risk their lives to try to effect a release.

BLITZER: The process, there could be political grief that they're worried about. And that's why they may go ahead, start spilling some of the secrets, for example, they sent someone in pretending to be her husband. That could be useful information next time around, so all of a sudden, that kind of operative presumably goes away, because that kind of plot has already been revealed.

FUENTES: That's true. That's true. The politics -- the politics shouldn't overrule the safety of this rescue or future rescues.

BLITZER: Future rescues, because that would reveal what they call methods which could be very, very dangerous.

Peter Bergen, let's talk about these reports out there that Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old hostage who was killed, may have actually been sold off to a leader of ISIS as a so-called bride. Would that be common for a young female hostage, an American young woman like this, to be given to someone as a bride, if you will?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Wolf, I'm skeptical of the report on two levels. First of all, ISIS has definitely enslaved people they consider to be enslavable, like the Yezidis; but Christians and Jews and Muslims, and Kayla of course, was a Christian, are accorded some protections. And so in their kind of warped view, I think this report of her being sold is something I would look at with some skepticism.

Let me add to that, how do we know this fact? We -- I think we're all agreeing with this discussion that we didn't know where Kayla was. So if we don't know where Kayla was, how do we know that she was married to somebody? If we knew that she was married to somebody, then we know where she was.

So I think it doesn't quite, the chain of logic here doesn't quite add up.

Certainly, the family was told by, you know, the top counterterrorism official in the United States that the government had this hypothesis, but this is intelligence; this is not a fact. It's an estimate; it's not a definite fact, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, Bob Baer, what do you think about that, the point that Peter is making that they would give a certain degree of respect to Christians and Jews, if you will, even though we know they're more than happy to go ahead and behead Christians and Jews who may be taken hostage. BAER: Well, Peter is absolutely right. The female hostages taken by

the Islamic state were treated well. I'm getting this from the released hostages, one removed. Kayla was not sold off as a bride, at least until May of last year.

She was -- she was treated differently from the men. She was not tortured. She was not used, given to a man, anything like that. And so these reports, I think, are just flat-out wrong. And Peter is absolutely right, that for whatever reason, these people treat Christian women, Jewish women, different than, for instance, Yezidis.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, I want all of you to stand by, because we have more coming up. Also coming up, shock and outrage over the killings of three Muslim students. The father of two of the students says it's a hate crime.


BLITZER: Breaking now, despite a long day of high-level negotiations, we're seeing absolutely no letup in the bloody fighting between Russian supported rebels and government forces in Ukraine.

An unsmiling Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko quickly shook hands with Russia's Vladimir Putin as they prepared to sit down with the leaders of Germany and France in an attempt to reach a peace deal.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is right near all the fighting that's going on in Ukraine. He's got more. What's the very latest?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, today started as possibly the worst possible backdrop for peace talks. A stray shell hitting a bus stop here in the very city center of Donetsk, a separatist-held area, killing four. The driver caught in the flames there in his bus, in fact. And many other things, as well.

We drove north to try and see exactly how the fight for that key town, Debaltseve, with both sides desperately wanting to seize before -- or have control of before these ceasefire talks, how that fight was going. We understand that, in fact, the militant separatists tried to take over a police station in the city center there. They failed, as far as we understand, but they still claim they have that town surrounded.

We saw ourselves how separatist artillery was firing a lot of hardware in the direction of that town. And also interestingly, too, amongst the ranks there, a device known as an SA-13 Gopher, an air defense system that the Russian military and other militaries, too, use as well, showing again the kind of high-tech equipment that these separatist rebels seem to be able to get their hands on.

And then later on today here in Donetsk, we have heard pretty consistent shelling. Deathly quiet now with the occasional thud of incoming artillery.

Those talks still going on in Minsk. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, telling Russian state media that he doesn't think there will be a signature today. Well, that was actually speaking yesterday. So there could be potential hopes for the hours ahead, but it looks like these talks are really dragging on, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the fighting is obviously still going on where you are. I want you to be really careful. Nick Paton Walsh on the ground for us, giving us the very, very latest. Critical moments right now in this entire war.

Up next, we have new details as investigators here in the United States, in North Carolina, they're looking into why three Arab- American college students were shot dead. The father of two of the victims calls it a hate crime, because they were Muslim.


BLITZER: There's growing outrage tonight over the shooting deaths of three Muslim students near the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The father of two of the students is calling it an execution- style hate crime.

Our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is in North Carolina for us.

Suzanne, this has been a horrendous, horrendous story. I know you are covering it -- covering it for us. Give us the very latest.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's tragic. It is also bizarre. I mean, you talk to people in the neighborhood, they just can't understand how something like this happened.

The car is still in the driveway, parked here. One of the neighbors as well as the condominium on the second floor where the alleged shooter came out and started shooting at those neighbors.

There is a big debate and there were dueling press conferences today from the victims' families as well as from the suspect's families regarding whether or not the motive was simply a parking dispute or a hate crime.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): Chilling 911 calls describe a horrifying scene.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I heard about eight shots go off in an apartment. I don't know the number. About three girls, more than one girl screaming, and then there was nothing.

MALVEAUX: Three Muslim students were shot in the head, sources told a CNN affiliate, near the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tuesday night. Chapel Hill Police say they are investigating the possibility the shooting was a hate crime, targeting the three students for their Muslim faith.

The preliminary investigation says the incident began as a dispute over parking but angry family members insist this had nothing to do with a parking spot. A family spokesperson says the suspect had threatened the victims before.

SUZANNE BARAKAT, DEAH BARAKAT'S SISTER: We ask that the authorities investigate these senseless and heinous murders as a hate crime.

MALVEAUX: But the suspect's wife has come out saying this has nothing to do with religion.

KAREN HICKS, CRAIG HICK'S WIFE: I can say with my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or victims' faith.

MALVEAUX: The alleged shooter, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, turned himself in last night and is being held without bond on three counts of first-degree murder. Hicks, who claims he is an atheist, allegedly posted anti-religious statements on his Facebook page, writing, quote, "When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I."

CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of the posts or his Facebook page.

The victims, a 23-year-old dentistry student, Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife of just over a month, Yusor Mohammad, and her 19- year-old sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Barakat was raising money on a fundraising site to provide dental care to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

DEAH SHADDY BARAKAT, VICTIM: Have you ever felt helpless about the situation in Syria and felt like you can't do anything about it?

MALVEAUX: We spoke with Asam Rahman (ph), a close friend of all three victims.

ASAM RAHMAN, VICTIM'S FRIEND: I mean, this is maybe a week or two ago, out of the blue he just said, this is the kind of guy he is, he just texted me, I love you, man.


MALVEAUX: Wolf, I had a chance to talk to many of their friends and some of the neighbors as well of the slain victims and they say it is a tight Muslim community, that friends of the victims, that they cannot speak to Hicks' motivations but they do say they never felt targeted as a community, that people are very supportive here in Chapel Hill, that they have gotten a lot of love, but the slain victims' families, they think that there is certainly more behind this than simply a parking dispute -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, there must be more. You know, you don't go ahead allegedly shoot someone in the head, three young people, like this simply because of a parking dispute. Obviously there is something horrendous going on.

So the community there, I assume, is in shock right now over what happened, Suzanne. MALVEAUX: They are absolutely in shock. They don't understand this.

I talked to so many of their friends who started posting and talking via text and Facebook. It was just, you know, a couple days ago that they received their last post from one of them, Barakat, who was saying how excited he was to be a part of the community, a community that was providing free dental care to the homeless as well as food, that this guy was a role model.

This is somebody that people just loved being around and that these two, the couple, they had just gotten married in December. They were still kind of celebrating, if you will, newlyweds, and the younger sister who happened to be in the condominium at the time, that it was just hard to understand how these three beautiful and very vibrant people, very much a part of this community, could be gone so quickly and so tragically.

BLITZER: All right, Suzanne. I know you will stay there for us and get more information.

I want to bring in our justice reporter, Evan Perez. He's been working his sources.

What are you learning about this investigation? I think federal authorities are now looking into it as well?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Everybody in Washington and down in Raleigh, Wolf, is monitoring this. They're looking at this very closely. There's obviously a lot of pressure on the federal government because of this allegation that it could be a hate crime.

Now we know that the police and the FBI have been looking at this suspect's computer all day today. They've been through looking every single thing to try to see if there's anything that he perhaps he thought about this and was planning to do this based on his bias or based on religion or against, you know, Muslims. And they have found absolutely nothing.

He has no criminal record. He's unemployed. And they said that there's nothing indicating any pattern of violence or anything that would suggest he would do this.

BLITZER: But no one really believes this was simply because of a dispute over a parking spot, right?

PEREZ: Well, you know, that's the thing, is that a lot of people are finding it hard to believe. But so far, this is what I know, that's what police know from what has happened. Apparently, he found this victim's car parked in what he said was his parking space. This is a dispute they've had before. He went straight up to the condo and confronted them and shot the three victims. That's exactly what he has told police happened.

Now his word is the only thing they have to go on. There are no other witnesses. So now they're trying to do this -- going through the computer to make sure that there's nothing else that they can (INAUDIBLE). BLITZER: All right. Evan, stand by. A prayer vigil for the three

victims of the shooting scheduled to start in less than an hour. In a remarkable show of unity students from the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State, Duke, other universities in the area, they are all expected to attend.

Joining us on the phone right now is the mayor of Chapel Hill, Mark Kleinschmidt.

Mayor, thanks very much for joining us. Give us the very latest. Do you believe for instance this was a hate crime?

MAYOR MARK KLEINSCHMIDT, CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA: Well, I think that the motive behind any kind of action like this is baffling to anyone. Certainly the actions that this man took are irrational. I think that right now while we're here in mourning today for the loss of these three lives, and we're all struggling to understand what could have motivated -- what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit this crime.

So at this time, you know, like our law enforcement officers, we are -- we are investigating and we are waiting for some evidence that would point in that direction.

BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence in the social media, whether Facebook or Twitter or anything else, that he hated Muslims, for example?

KLEINSCHMIDT: I am not aware of any of that. I think that your report -- the reporting that you just had that related what has been discovered through the investigation is really all that we do know. We know that this man had a -- had a difficult interaction with neighbors. And he handled it in ways that a rational person would not. And not in a way that anyone -- any member of this peace-loving community would. And so, again, we're struggling with motives just as everyone else is.

BLITZER: The victims' family members, and you know this, Mayor, they say the three were threatened before by this suspect, that they say he had posted offensive things about religion online.

Were police, for example, in your community aware that these three believed they had been threatened by the suspect, Stephen Hicks -- Craig Stephen Hicks?

KLEINSCHMIDT: I'm not aware that our police understood that or knew that had occurred. And that is the kind of evidence that they are looking for. They are looking for something that would point to why, why would he respond in this kind of way.

The neighborhood that they lived in is like many here in Chapel Hill, has limited -- has limited facility and folks in that neighborhood have dealt with and worked with each other in a very Chapel Hill way in the past in -- in rationing parking spaces.

This is so out of line. This kind of behavior is out of line with any way which anyone here would respond to something like this. It just baffles us as much as it does you.

BLITZER: Are Muslims in Chapel Hill, Mayor, safe right now? Are you going to step up security at Muslim sites?

KLEINSCHMIDT: Muslims in Chapel Hill tonight are safe as anyone in Chapel Hill tonight. This is a community that has a longstanding history of ensuring the safety of its citizens. Crime like this is extraordinarily rare in Chapel Hill. And largely because of people like these three young people, who -- who spend their time here reaching out to each other, embracing each other and the diversity within our community to create that safe space.

One of the things that's most offensive about this crime is that someone would shatter the hard work that these three young people participated in doing, which is creating this wonderful community. A community and work of theirs that extended well beyond our borders. And as you've reported, actually touched people around the world. And I think that's one of the most challenging things that we're dealing with tonight. But the people of our community are safe this evening.

BLITZER: All right. Well, thank you, Mayor, very much for joining us.

Mark Kleinschmidt is the mayor of Chapel Hill. And our deepest, deepest condolences to the families of these three wonderful young people.

We'll be right back.