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Interview With South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham; President Obama Requests Authority for War on ISIS; FBI Tracking U.S. ISIS Fighters Not Under Control; Three Muslim Students Shot Dead in North Carolina

Aired February 11, 2015 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: ISIS war powers. President Obama urges Congress to give him new authority to destroy the terrorist group. I will get reaction from a leading Republican critic, Senator Lindsey Graham.

A hostage bride? We're getting new information about Kayla Mueller's life in captivity and the possibility she was forced into a relationship with a terrorist.

Urgent peace talks, as the body count rises in Ukraine. Russia's Vladimir Putin meets face to face with key leaders. What's he willing to do to end the fighting?

And Muslims gunned down. A family is shattered. A U.S. college town is shaken. Was religious hate the motive?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our coalition is on the offensive. ISIL is on the defensive and ISIL is going to lose.


BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. President Obama makes the case for new authority to wage war against ISIS. He spoke at the White House just a little while ago. After six months of airstrikes, the president's new request to Congress would allow limited but not enduring ground combat operations.

The White House acknowledges the language is intentionally fuzzy to give the president maximum flexibility in fighting a brutal enemy.

Senator Lindsey Graham, he's a leading Republican voice on military matters. He is standing by live, along with our correspondents, our analysts. They are all covering the breaking news.

Let's get the very latest first.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, joins us -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, the president expressed a combination of confidence and caution. He vows to defeat ISIS, but at the same time makes clear to a war-weary American public that the U.S. will not engage in a long, large, prolonged war to fight the terror group.

But he deliberately left space for ground operations both in Iraq and Syria and it is becoming clearer far beyond.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): ISIS fighters parade through conquered territory with dozens of vehicles in tow, but this isn't Iraq or Syria. It is Libya. As the ISIS flag waves over parts of more and more countries, the new military authorization could give President Obama and his successors the freedom to engage in more places and on the ground in a limited way.

OBAMA: If we had 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, because I will not allow these terrorists to have a safe haven.

SCIUTTO: There are already concerns about overreach.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: The resolution that says that we can go after ISIL any time anywhere, using any level of ground force, as long as it's not an enduring offensive, that pretty much is carte blanche.

SCIUTTO: ISIS is expanding its presence beyond Iraq and Syria to Libya. The terror group claimed responsibility for an attack to a hotel in January that killed at least 10, including an American, to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, where dozens were killed when is launched a series of suicide attacks on army and police positions. ISIS claims these photos show the explosions.

And on to Yemen, where ISIS has gained some support among fighters for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Still, on the Republican side of the aisle, there is the opposite concern about tying the hands of future presidents to fight terror groups wherever and however they decide.

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 a strategy yet that I think will accomplish that.

SCIUTTO: With the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria growing to more than 20,000 strong, there are renewed fears that the problem could land in the West, including the U.S., in a horrific way.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: They are barbarians. I think the barbarians are at the gate. We want to keep them outside the gate of the United States. I'm concerned that some have already returned.


SCIUTTO: The president's proposed authorization specifies ISIS and its close affiliates, but it doesn't specify going after them where. Keep in mind, they have expanded now beyond Syria and Iraq. They have carried out operations -- show that up here. They have carried out operations, as we said, both in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, in Libya, in Yemen.

And they claim to have support even further afield in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This authorization leaving open the possibility of military action not just here in Syria and Iraq, but elsewhere in the years coming. It's not going to be necessarily, Wolf, a limited war.

BLITZER: Yes, all right. Good point. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

Let's go a critical battleground in this current war against ISIS.

Phil Jones is -- excuse me -- Phil Black is joining us now from Northern Iraq.

Phil, you are in a dangerous area where the fighting continues right now. What's the latest there?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a senior Kurdish leader told me today that he believes Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have cleared ISIS from 5,000 square miles of territory here in Northern Iraq.

While ISIS still controls the city of Mosul, they say it's now surrounded from the north, the south, the east and the west and crucially the Kurdish fighters have achieved a key military objective. There is a road that runs from Mosul to the Syrian border. It has been the main route of resupply for ISIS in Mosul.

But that position -- and you can see that's where those pictures were shot today. That is now held by Kurdish fighters. As we saw at that position today, it comes under fire every day, according to the fighters there, sometimes also by ISIS members driving truck bombs at their positions to try and blast their way through.

So far, they have not been able to do so. The Kurdish fighters believe they have achieved almost all they can on their own in this region, claiming back all possible territory, with the exception of majority Arab areas, like the town of Tal Afar, the city of Mosul. Because of the ethnic sensitivities in this country, they say they cannot move into these areas alone. They must now wait for the Iraqi army to finish its retraining, the rebuilding process that has been going on ever since ISIS invaded this country and the Iraqi army performed so very poorly.

It may not be ready for some months yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is there any indication at all that the Iraqi military will show up? Because you are correct. So far they have been MIA, they have been missing in action.

BLACK: Well, it's not imminent. The Kurdish leaders on the ground believe it's later this year most likely that they will be in a position to launch some sort of joint operation with the Iraqi army.

The noises from Baghdad are a little more optimistic. Some U.S. officials believe that offensives involving the Iraqi army could begin within just a couple of months. But, as I say, from here on the ground, the view of the Kurdish leaders, the Kurdish fighters that have been the ground force in this war on ISIS so far, they believe it is still some time off yet.

BLITZER: Yes, the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, they are stepping up to the fight. We have yet to see if the Iraqi military trained largely by the United States, funded by the United States, equipped by the United States, will actually show up and fight the war. We will see what they do.

Phil Black, thanks very much. Be careful over there.

In the president's new wars power request, he mentioned Americans who have been captured and slaughtered by ISIS, including Kayla Mueller. Tonight, there are disturbing new questions about whether Mueller was actually forced into a relationship with a terrorist.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, has been working her sources.

What are you learning, Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I just got off the phone with a family spokesperson for the Mueller family.

We have learned that in a desperate reach to get their daughter last summer, they reached out to the White House when ISIS had a deadline to execute Kayla and asked the White House if it would be willing to commute the sentence for "Lady al Qaeda," Dr. Siddiqui.

There had been repeated calls by ISIS to have her released. We know the White House responded back. We're not sure what the response was. As we know, Wolf, it's challenging to get a picture of exactly what happened while Kayla was in captivity because Syria is really an intelligence black hole.

But the bits and pieces we have been able to gather paints the picture of an incredible young woman who was just trying to survive.


BROWN (voice-over): Intelligence suggests 26-year-old Kayla Mueller was given to a male ISIS fighter, possibly as a bride, after she was kidnapped in Syria in 2013, according to U.S. government officials. Officials say there are also indications Mueller converted to Islam, a practice seen in the past by hostages in the Middle East.

AKI PERITZ, FORMER CIA ANALYST: These hostages are under severe duress for a very long time, and they're threatened with death and so forth. And for them to say we are going to convert to the religion of our hostage-takers suggests that maybe they can curry favor that way.

BROWN: CNN has learned the pictures sent privately to Mueller's family from ISIS helped confirm her death. According to a U.S. official, pictures included Mueller wearing Muslim garb and a picture of her wrapped in a burial shroud -- a stark contrast from the brutal beheadings of other male hostages. Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss says it's clear ISIS treated Mueller differently.

CHRIS VOSS, FORMER SENIOR FBI HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR: Because she was remarkably decent human being and because she was a woman, that it wouldn't be surprising for them to treat her with more respect in life and in death. If they covered her and wrapped her properly, those are respectful actions.

BROWN: How she died remains a mystery but the U.S. military says there is no evidence backing up the ISIS claim that Mueller was killed in a Jordanian air strike.

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar says there were several foiled rescue attempts to save Mueller and one attempt, a man claimed to be Mueller's husband from her hometown of Prescott, Arizona, and demanded her release at a Syrian terrorist camp but was turned away after Mueller denied being anyone's wife.

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


BROWN: And the spokesperson we just talked to said that the man who was actually posing as her husband was her boyfriend who she was kidnapped with in the city of Aleppo. He was later released, Wolf, and then risked his life to go back and try to rescue Kayla -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a sad story all of this is.

All right, Pamela Brown, thank you.

The president's moves today set the stage for the first war powers vote in Congress in more than a decade. Let's talk about this and more. Joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He's a prominent member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator, thanks for coming in.


BLITZER: Are you going to support this language the president has put forward authorizing the U.S. military to go out there and destroy ISIS?

GRAHAM: It's fatally flawed. No.

When the president says he wants to destroy ISIS, I don't think anybody believes it, including me, because his actions are not consistent with that statement. His speech today is never going to replace Churchill when it comes to rallying people to a cause. And he continued a damning narrative. Among our friends and our allies, he is seen as an uncertain trumpet to follow. And among our enemies, he is seen as weak. And if you could understand what he was saying today about our commitment to destroy ISIL, you did a better job than I have been able to do.


BLITZER: Well, he says he wants to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.

GRAHAM: How do you do that?

BLITZER: He said that a few times.

But he says you can do that with airpower, some ground forces as advisers, but let the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga, the Kurds, the Free Syrian military, some of the moderate Arab states, let them get the job done, instead of the U.S. having another Iraq or Afghanistan-type war that will last for decades.

GRAHAM: Number one, is ISIL a threat to our homeland? Do you think it is? Do you?

BLITZER: Doesn't everybody?


So let's act as if it's a threat to the homeland, not somebody else's problem. Let's play out this strategy. I asked the White House a very direct question yesterday. Does this authorization to use military force allow us to protect the Free Syrian Army that we're training from being barrel-bombed by Assad? Because here is the plan.

We're going to train free Syrians, if we can find them. We're going to send them in to fight ISIL. And likely, most likely, when Assad sees them coming and gaining capacity, he's going to attack them, because he knows one day they will turn on him.

I asked the question, in the event that Assad goes after the people we train, can we defend them? And they said no.

BLITZER: What do you want? What do you want this language to include? Do you want another kind of Iraq or Afghanistan deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to go in there?


BLITZER: If the U.S. sends 100,000 troops into Iraq and/or Syria, with the airpower, the U.S. military capability, they could get the job done, right?

GRAHAM: Yes. But you don't need that.

I want to actually destroy ISIL. I want a strategy that makes sense.

BLITZER: How do you do that?

GRAHAM: Well, the first thing you do is that you train the Iraqi army, the Kurds. You increase their capacity. You try to get the Anbar tribes away from ISIL.

The first thing you do is convince people you're actually committed to winning. When you ask people to go in on the ground, you have got to be willing to go with them, because they have capabilities that they lack.

BLITZER: You want boots on the ground. You want combat forces. How many combat forces do you think would be necessary to destroy ISIS, American troops?

GRAHAM: We have 3,000 now. I have been told by experts that you need American advisers probably at the battalion level. You're going to need helicopter support. You're going to need medevac. You need special forces. You're going to need logistics. You're going to need things they don't have.

Somewhere around 10,000. Here is the good news. We can do this, I think, with around 10,000. The bad news is, we don't have a strategy to accomplish the job in Syria. There is no ground component in Syria. The Free Syrian Army, it's going to take 50 years to train enough to defeat ISIL at this rate. To get any Arab army to go in on Syria, in the ground on Syria, you have got to take care of Assad.

Why won't the Arabs follow us in Syria? Because our game plan doesn't include Assad. They don't want to give Syria to Iran through Assad.

BLITZER: So, you want the U.S. to launch airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime, not just going after ISIS targets in Syria? Is that what you're saying?

GRAHAM: I want to make sure that the people we train to go in and fight ISIL can't be destroyed by Assad. I want a no-fly zone. I want a no-fly, no-drive zone.

When we send people into Syria to fight ISIL, I want to make sure Assad doesn't kill them. The big problem in the Mideast, I was told by our Arab allies, it's better to be America's enemy than her friend. You respect your friends. This statement by the president and this strategy by the president will not get the job done in Syria.

BLITZER: But you can't really rely on the Iraqi military. It's a Shiite-led regime in Baghdad.

GRAHAM: You got that right. You got that right. Absolutely. Absolutely.

BLITZER: We spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq. We trained them. We built a strong army, a strong air force, and all of a sudden, a few ISIS guys come in from Syria, they run away. They leave their armored vehicles, their tanks. They leave their weapons. They run away.

Mosul, you have been to Mosul. I have been to Mosul, a city of nearly two million people, the second largest city in Iraq.

GRAHAM: Yes. Yes.

BLITZER: They abandon it. And ISIS takes charge.

Do you believe this new government of Haider al-Abadi, who is very close to the Iranians, as you well know, is any better potentially than Nouri al-Maliki's government?


Everybody in the region tells me so. It's just not my view. But what you see is predictable. We argued that if you leave no troops behind, if you leave Iraq without a residual force, this will happen. Three years ago, we said if you can do a no-fly zone and train the Free Syrian Army today, Assad will be gone.

The decisions not to leave a force behind in Iraq, not to do a no-fly zone, trained the Free Syrian Army three years ago have come back to haunt us. But the army in Iraq is a Shia-led group. The political progress in Iraq is not going to progress until we show a commitment to stay with it.

We're the glue that holds it together. When you take us out of the mix, everybody goes back to their sectarian corners. And, again, as to Syria, this president is not serious about destroying ISIL because his policy strategy toward Syria makes no sense.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, I want you to stand by. We have more to discuss.

We will take a quick break.

Much more with Senator Lindsey Graham right after this.


BLITZER: We're getting new information about the war in Ukraine. We are going to get to that in a moment.

But I quickly want to discuss what's going on in Iraq and Syria, this war against ISIS.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, is still with us.

I look at the situation in Iraq right now, and it's painful to say this, but the big strategic winner, maybe you agree or disagree, at least in that part of the world, seems to be Iran.

GRAHAM: Without question, they are the biggest winner of what's going on, on the ground in the Mideast.

But I asked a question of the White House general counsel about the authorization to use military force. The people we're training, the Free Syrian Army, we're going to send them into Syria. They are going to fight ISIL. But they hate Assad. They're eventually going to turn on him. And he knows that. Assad does.

So, if he does attack the people we train, I asked the question, will we defend them from an air campaign?

BLITZER: The Free Syrian Army?

GRAHAM: Yes. And he said no. And I said, why? That's militarily unsound, really, quite frankly, immoral. He said, we don't want a backlash from Iran. And that says all you need to know about...

BLITZER: Because Iran is totally supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime.

GRAHAM: You got it.

BLITZER: But they are closely aligned with the Iraqis right now, this new government.


GRAHAM: They are running Iraq.

BLITZER: Yes. It's a very disturbing situation.

I want you to stand by, Senator. There's more coming up.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is joining us live from Minsk in Belarus.

Critically important talks, I take it, Nic, they are still under way even at this late hour where you are. What is the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Six hours of talks so far still under way. Started off with the heads of state. They brought in the foreign ministers to build out on the discussions.

And what one of the Russian news agencies is quoting Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as saying is that the talks are going better than super. It does seem the Russians are quite, if you will, buoyant about the way things are going. The German delegation that we have been talking to are saying they are not going to share details as the negotiations go on.

Somebody else in the Russian delegation tonight has said the talks will go on as long as necessary. One of the Russian-backed separatists in the southeast of Ukraine has commented that the only way forward in this is for Ukraine to be politically, militarily, regionally neutral.

So, there are clearly big issues still at stake. Quite what is being agreed is not clear. But there's some sense that something is coming together, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to stay in very close touch with you at this late hour over there. And we're going to be watching what's going on.

Senator Graham, what's your reaction to they may be, may be close to some sort of deal?

GRAHAM: I think the fact that the Russians are happy is all you need to know. I think the French and Germans are about to sell out the Ukraine.

In the late '90s, the United States and Russia and other countries signed a Budapest memorandum saying to the Ukrainian people, if you will turn over your nuclear arsenal, over 2,000 nuclear weapons, we, the United States, will guarantee your sovereignty.

Well, look what Russia has done. They have dismembered the Ukraine. And our European allies are more worried I think about their economic relationship with Russia than they are about the implications of allowing Putin to dismember a neighboring country. And what do you think the Iranians are thinking right now? Let's say there's a P5- plus-one deal.

BLITZER: With Iran?

GRAHAM: Yes, with Iran.

BLITZER: On its nuclear program.

GRAHAM: Looking at the West, given the deal we have already done with the Ukraine, don't you think the ayatollahs are thinking that no matter what I sign, if I break it, they're not going to do anything about it vis-a-vis the Ukraine?

BLITZER: That's a subject we will get into another time, because we're out of time right now.

Senator Graham, thanks very much for joining us.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next: an ISIS fighter recruiting Westerners online. We're getting new information. Stand by.


BLITZER: U.S. counterterrorism officials are saying more than 3,000 Westerners are now fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, including roughly 150 Americans.

And a top FBI official is telling Congress the agency just cannot keep track of all of them.


MICHAEL STEINBACH, FBI COUNTERTERRORISM ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: If I were to say we had it under control, then I would say I knew of every individual traveling. I don't. And I don't know every person there, and I don't know everyone coming back. So it's not even close to being under control.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Michael Steinbach is in charge of counterterrorism at the FBI.

Let's get some more now. Joining us, our CNN justice reporter, Evan Perez; our terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank; our counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd; and Oubai Shahbandar. He's a former senior advisor to the Syrian opposition. Guys, all of you, thanks very much.

Paul, how alarming is this? The man at the FBI who's in charge of counterterrorism says they can't keep track of all these Americans, 150 Americans they suspect have been working with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and some of them may be back here in the United States.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, it's very worrying, indeed. And they think about 150 Americans have tried to travel to Syria to fight or have actually got over there. That's obviously quite a significant number. They believe around a dozen are with ISIS. They don't know what they don't know. And that's what they are most concerned about.

The Europeans are even more worried, because there's so many more Europeans who have traveled out there. Thousands of Europeans. They have an even bigger problem in Europe and concern that more than 500 people who fought in Syria and Iraq have come back to Europe. Also concern that some of those could get on planes to the United States.

BLITZER: Because Philip Mudd, those people, those Europeans, certainly not the Americans, that they don't need the visas to come in the United States if they want to show up here. Right?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: That's correct. What I would say to comment on this situation is, in some ways what the FBI official is saying is worrying. In my world it's assuring.

And here is why, Wolf. I sat -- I tried to count the other day how many counterterrorism meetings and briefings I sat in at the agency and at the FBI. It has to number over 1,000.

When you get onto a terror cell in an American city, a city like New York or Chicago, you own that cell. You're going to get technical coverage, phone and e-mail, for example. You're going to get a human source in there.

The thing that I was always worried about and the thing our officers were focused on is, what about the people you don't know about? So 15 years almost after 9/11, you want people who are constantly thinking there are cells or individuals out there we don't know about. And in contrast to the people we're covering today, it's the unknowns that we have to chase every day.

BLITZER: Evan, you're getting new information about an ISIS terrorist out there trying to recruit people. What are you learning?

PEREZ: Well, this -- this guy's name is Abdul Khalid al-Amiki (ph), and this was one of the things that worried officials is it seemed to suggest that he was an American. He was claiming to be an American, Wolf.

Well, it turns out that he is actually a Trinidadian. And what he's doing is trying to encourage Americans to come join ISIS. He's also posting recipes for explosives. And this is something that they've seen before, which is you have westerners who are out there trying to encourage other westerners to come over. They're not just there to fight. They're there to recruit others to encourage them to come.

BLITZER: Oubai, you've been deeply involved. They're trying to help the Syrian opposition, the so-called Free Syrian Army. The U.S. supposedly vetting some of these guys now to send them for training to Saudi Arabia. How is that going?

OUBAI SHAHBANDAR, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO SYRIAN OPPOSITION: Well, the process is just beginning. And this is a critical element in the fight, the long-term sustainable fight against ISIS.

Because you can have military strategy against ISIS that's predicated on killing as many ISIS fighters as -- as you can. But the thing is, is that ISIS is replenishing its ranks. And the way that you hold the ground, the way that you hold territory and prevent ISIS from filling the chaos, filling the chaos in Syria, is by training local indigenous forces in Syria to play that security role and to really be the tip of the spear in the fight against ISIS on the ground.

BLITZER: None of them have been trained yet. They're still being vetted, because there's concern that there could be ISIS members who could pretend to be members of the free Syrian military. Has anybody been sent to Saudi Arabia for training yet?

SHAHBANDAR: They have not, Wolf. And there's -- there's a lot of complaints on the Syrian side. And there's even some -- some dissenting voices that you're hearing in the pentagon. The White House is not sufficiently moving fast enough and training the free Syrian forces, the Syrian rebels on the ground. The training program is being run by the Department of Defense to fight ISIS.

Right now, the White House told us that the main priority is Iraq, and Syria is a shaping operation. As long is, as ISIS has that safe haven in Syria, we cannot defeat ISIS in Iraq.

BLITZER: Paul Cruickshank, I know you're monitoring these jihadi websites. They're pretty powerful, these -- the ISIS social media recruitment machine. Isn't it?

CRUICKSHANK: Very powerful indeed. They're really spreading this propaganda message online on social media, depicting the Islamic State as this idyllic destination for jihadis. That is causing people still to travel there. About 1,000 foreign fighters coming in each month to replenish their ranks. And not just men coming in, but women and children, families leaving Europe, leaving other destinations to go and join this caliphate, build up this caliphate.

It still has a lot of residence. And that's, of course, a big problem, because these airstrikes are killing ISIS fighters; but other ISIS recruits are coming in to replace them still. BLITZER: Philip Mudd, the recent beheadings, the burning of that

Jordanian pilot, the killing of Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American humanitarian aid worker, do they actually hurt recruitment efforts for ISIS or help?

MUDD: They don't hurt as much as you would expect, Wolf, and let me explain why. The first is what ISIS is trying to recruit of western Europe and the United States is the fringe. They're not trying to recruit the mainstream. And among the fringe, there are going to be -- there are going to be people who say, "There is only one game in town if you want to go join the real revolution, the real Islamic revolution. And that is ISIS."

The second point, Wolf, is more critical, and it's one we haven't talked about much. And that is we look at this conflict in Syria and Iraq particularly through a western lens, a 9/11 lens. This is a conflict against ISIS, which is somebody -- which is an isolation that's inherited the ideology of al Qaeda.

From a Middle Eastern perspective, this is a conflict of Sunni versus Shia, which is a lot more than important than al Qaeda or ISIS; against a Shia-backed government in Syria, against a Shia government in Baghdad. It's the Houthis who are Shia against the al Qaeda element in southern Yemen, which is Sunni.

So we have to look at this not as just as people joining ISIS but as people joining a group, a Sunni group that is fighting Shia. And I think that's a very powerful magnet for a lot of people, despite what we've seen in the past week or two.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Oubai? Because the Iranians, they' re supporting all of these Shia groups, whether in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen and elsewhere.

SHAHBANDAR: I think a lot of people also don't realize that ISIS actually has been killing almost more Sunnis than they have been killing Shia. If you look at the pattern that ISIS has pursued, they've always gone into areas where Sunni tribal leaders and moderate Sunni rebel forces have existed before, and they've killed them.

Just -- just this summer we saw ISIS slaughter over 700 Sunni tribesmen in eastern Syria in the province of Derazor (ph). And they've done that in Iraq. And they're continuing to do it again today. So it's not just a Sunni/Shia fight. Moderate Sunnis are on the front lines in the fight against ISIS.

BLITZER: I want everyone to stand by. We're also following other breaking news. President Obama speaking out, making his case for Congress to give him new authority to wage war against ISIS.

Plus, a very sad vigil tonight for three Muslim students shot to death in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A neighbor is now charged with murder. We're going there live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We've got the breaking news, we're following President Obama vowing ISIS will be defeated as he requests new authorization from Congress to wage war against the terrorists. The president spoke out a little while ago. Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, joining us from the White House right now.

So update our viewers, Jim. What is the president saying specifically?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Obama is insisting today that this new authorization for the war on ISIS will not plunge 100,000 troops back into combat in Iraq. The president points out his authorization is aimed at more limited operations, such as rescue attempts and missions to take out ISIS leadership.

He did take note of the three-year limit that is built into this authorization that would require Congress to re-visit this whole issue under the next president. The president was talking tough today, saying ISIS will be defeated. But he also wanted Democrats who were nervous up on Capitol Hill to rest assured this is not another big war. Here's what he had to say.


OBAMA: The resolution we've submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria. It is not the authorization of another ground war like Afghanistan or Iraq. The 2,600 American troops in Iraq today largely serve on bases. And yes, they face the risks that come with service in any dangerous environment. But they do not have a combat mission.


ACOSTA: And President Obama is finding out why there has not been a war authorization vote in Congress for 13 years. He's already taking heat from all sides. Republicans who say he doesn't have a plan. Democrats who say the president's proposal is too vague. And I pressed White House press secretary Josh Earnest earlier today on this measure's fuzzy language. He candidly said it is fuzzy. And that way, the president has the latitude, the flexibility it needs to battle ISIS wherever they are around the world.

But Wolf, the Congress may want better answers than that. But given the fact that this war is already under way and the White House believes they have the authorization built into current law to wage this war, Congress really doesn't have much of a motivation to be in any kind of hurry -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it looks like they're going to have hearings and hearings and hearings and debate. Let's see what they do. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now. Joining us, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. The president clearly in sort of a tight spot right now. On the one hand, the Democrats, liberal Democrats, they don't want any authorization for combat forces, and a lot of the Republicans, the conservative Republicans, say you've got to have authorization for combat forces.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the Republicans are saying this is too circumscribed. It doesn't give the president the flexibility he needs.

Look, I spoke with a senior administration official today who basically made the point, Congress wanted this. The president believes he has the authority. By the way, he has been waging the war without this vote. So, what he has given Congress is an effort to thread the needle here, to kind of walk a little bit between the Democrats and the Republicans.

If you were to take a vote on this today, Wolf, it would not pass. I believe people in the White House know that. I believe they understand that. And they are going to sit back, because they believe in Congress does nothing, it's Congress that will look bad, not the president.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And they will, because they're ones who have been demanding this for months and months. They -- this was not intended -- I mean, certainly, this was the outline from the White House. But they knew full well that Congress is going to change it and massage it and do what they need to do in order to get the vote.

BLITZER: To come up with new language.

BASH: If they can get the vote.

They're going to change it. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, those are the places where they're going to be really try to figure out how to thread the needle and find the language that can attract enough Democrats and Republicans. But you're probably going to see a situation where there will be Democrats who will never vote for this, Republicans who will never vote for this.

And let me just say one quick thing about this text and the whole concept of the limitations, the fact that he has a subset called limitations in here.

BORGER: Right.

BORGER: Republicans walking the halls today as I did are just kind of stunned. They say -- I think they are right, Democrats agree. It's unprecedented for a president of the United States to ask for authorization for military action and has such limits on his own power.

BORGER: Right, he's effectively --

BLITZER: There is history here --

BORGER: Sure. BLITZER: -- that we're talking about going back.


BLITZER: At the end of 2002, last time there was legislation seeking authorization to go to war, as you well remember, all of us remember, covering it the lead up to the war in Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. There was authorization to go forward.


BLITZER: By the way, when the president walked in to the Roosevelt Room today, take a look who joined him at the Roosevelt Room. Let's show the video to our viewers.

The president walked in with the Vice President Joe Biden, the Secretary of State John Kerry. There they are -- the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel -- all of whom back in the end of 2002 were United States senators. And they all voted in favor of that war authorization --

BORGER: Well, and so, by the way --

BLITZER: --that President Bush sought, I should say. Now they are surrounding the president. The president, by the way, he was not in the Senate, but he didn't like it.

BORGER: OK. So, by the way, did Hillary Clinton --

BLITZER: She voted for it.

BORGER: -- cast her vote. That vote was one of the reasons that Barack Obama is now the president of the United States because he ran against Hillary Clinton on authorizing the war in Iraq.

So, if you step back for a moment and look at this through the prism of Barack Obama's politics, what he is doing is saying to the American public, I'm not going to war again in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's not part of my narrative. My narrative is ending these wars. I ran on ending the wars.

And what he is saying to the Congress is, I am not George W. Bush. You can tie, because I want my hands to be tied here to a certain degree. I am not ready to authorize unlimited warfare.

BASH: There's a hangover with members of Congress who are going to have to vote on this as with the president. People like Bob Menendez who again is the top Democrat who will help craft this, he voted against the Iraq war and he wears that as a badge of honor. And he's saying, I got a lot of guff for this when I voted against it and I was right, and we're going to make sure that this doesn't happen.

BLITZER: So, bottom line, Gloria, is this going anywhere, this legislation?

BORGER: Not for a while. I will tell you, as I said before, it could not pass now. You've got Democrats and Republicans opposed to it. There is probably a way in the end for them to do something on this that will make enough moderate Democrats and Republicans happy. But not any time soon.

BASH: They're going to hold hearings for most of March --

BORGER: Right.

BASH: -- and try to get a vote in the committee by the end of March. It will take a while.

BLITZER: It's going to be a long process.

Guys, thanks very much.

BORGER: And operations will continue while they debate.

BLITZER: Well, the airstrikes.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Up next, we're getting new details of the shocking deaths of three Muslim students in North Carolina. We're going live to one of the best known U.S. college towns. It's now reeling from a deadly triple shooting.


BLITZER: A vigil is being held right now in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for three Muslims students who were really brutally shot and killed in what the father of one of the victims is calling a hate crime. Among the dead, a newlywed couple whose neighbor now charged with first-degree murder in this case.

Our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is joining us from Chapel Hill right now.

So, Suzanne, what are the police saying about this horrendous, horrendous murder?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are all kinds of conflicting stories here, because, Wolf, I've spoken to so many people in the community, in the neighborhood. They are completely shock and outraged and dismayed by this and they say this is not the kind of community that would have any kind of anti-Muslim sentiment. And the police are certainly looking into this.

But here's how they say it: the three Muslim students, it all started here because of this car that was parked in this space. It still exists here. They say that the suspect who lives on the second floor of the condominium, right behind there, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, told them that the neighbors were in the wrong space. He went over to the neighbor's house, those three individuals and shot them execution style in the head before turning himself in.

Those three victims, Wolf, young students, we're talking about 23- year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat. His wife, they were married just a month or so, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad, and her sister, the younger sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.

So, a lot of grief, a lot of confusion and anger from the community. And then, something very bizarre that happened this afternoon. Hick's wife, the suspect's wife, came out insisting that the motive, that her husband's motive for this shooting would have been over that parking space and not have been based on any kind of religious bias.

And then we also heard from the family of the victims as well. They pointed to a Facebook posting of Hicks says that it was anti- religious. That it demonstrated that he had an anti-Muslim bias and that Barakat had, in fact, been threatened before. They are calling this a hate crime.

What is next, Wolf? Well, this is the FBI working with local police to try to figure out whether or not it's a hate crime, or if it's simply was a dispute over the parking space.

The bigger picture here, however, is the mourning of this community, this vigil that has taken place right now. People just absolutely heartbroken over the loss of these three young students, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story. Stand by, Suzanne.

I want to bring back, Evan Perez, our justice reporter, and Oubai Shahbandar.

Like these three, you're a Syrian-American Muslim, and I want to get your perspective.

But you're getting some more information on what's going on. Give us the latest information.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, just because of the sensitivity of this, the obvious concern down there about a hate crime, the FBI, the Justice Department down here in Washington have been monitoring this case. And so far, what they have seen from the searches of the suspect computer, didn't see any indication that he was pre-planning this, that there was a motivation because of religion, or because he was anti-Muslim. They believe it was something he have motivated because of the dispute over a parking space. They say that, you know, there's been a history of him having the outbursts against some of his neighbors. They believe that's most likely what happened.

BLITZER: Oubai, this is painful for all of us but especially painful for the Syrian-American community, like these three young students who are Muslim Syrian-Americans. You're a Muslim. You're Syrian- American. When you heard about this, what did you think?

OUBAI SHAHBANDAR, FORMER SYRIAN OPPOSITION ADVISER: It's beyond heartbreaking. It's beyond heartbreaking. These are young Muslim Americans. They're patriots. They were integrated with the community. They were not just model Muslims, but model Americans. They pushed back against all the negative stereotypes that you hear

about the Muslim-American community. They showed the world what it means to be a Muslim-American, a Syrian-American. They were good- hearted -- they were good-hearted young kids. What's happening here is beyond devastating because this is the best

and the brightest of our generation and the fact that this gunman took them out execution style really should be a call for the entire country, for the entire world to realize that what happened -- what happened yesterday was premeditated.

This was an attack. This was not just a lone incident, that this person has to be brought to justice and this crime has -- there needs to be justice for what happened to these young kids.

BLITZER: Deah Barakat, a dental student, 23 years old. He wanted to go Turkey and help Syrian refugees get some dental work. I mean, he did this video that we've been watching.

SHAHBANDAR: We do know that Deah was passionate about the Syrian cause and passionate about the suffering of the Syrian people. He was planning to go as part of a medical mission run by the Syrian American Medical Society on a border town of the Turkish Syrian border, to help young refugee children with dental problems and the families that have nothing. You know, he was giving with his time. He was a giver. And the fact this gunman took him away from our community, from the American people, from his family is beyond devastating.

BLITZER: Yes, he and Yusor Mohammad, 21 years old, they're only married last month, and her younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, such an awful, awful situation, and our deepest, deepest condolences and their families. It's -- what can you say. Just a horrific, horrific story.

Thanks very much for joining us Oubai, Evan, and Suzanne Malveaux as well.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back tomorrow.

You can always follow on Twitter @wolfblitzer.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.