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Al Qaeda Fighting Back; Seeking the Jewish Vote; Anti-Terror Operations

Aired July 26, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The end of Al Qaeda, the stated goal of the Obama administration and since the death of Osama bin Laden, the word from Washington has been that this goal is within reach.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The death of Osama bin Laden has put Al Qaeda on the path to defeat. And as President Obama has pledged, we will not relent until that job is done.

LEON PANETTA, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I was convinced in my prior capacity, and I'm convinced in this capacity that we're within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thanks to the courage and the skill of our forces, Osama bin Laden will never threaten America again, and Al Qaeda's on the road to defeat.


AMANPOUR: My brief tonight: Al Qaeda is not dead yet. In fact, they, along with other offshoots and jihadis, are showing up in some of the world's most volatile places. They are in Mali, in Africa. We know they've been in Somalia and Yemen, too. And now they're turning up in Syria.

This video was recently posted by one jihadi group called the Omar Farouk brigade. It's a propaganda training video, along with a song called "Headed to Damascus," trying to recruit Turks into their jihad in Syria.

Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Several months ago, former President Clinton warned that the longer the world waited as Syria descended into violence, the greater than chance of bad actors intervening. And Al Qaeda loves nothing more than a vacuum, which it is now rushing to fill in Syria.

So how dangerous are they now? In a moment, my exclusive interview with Michael Sheehan, the Pentagon official responsible for intelligence operations around the world, Special Forces operations around the world as well.

But first, here's a look at what's happening later in the program.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): As White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer had George Bush's back, in this election year, he's aiming for Republican votes in an unlikely place.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: In Israel, it's like hunting gefilte fish in a barrel.

Most Jews in Israel are strong Republicans.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And Kim Jong-un takes a new bride and promises new reforms for North Korea. Could this Supreme Leader be taking his country on a bold, new ride?


AMANPOUR: We'll get to all that later. And before I speak with Mike Sheehan, let's go to Aleppo, Syria, where both government soldiers and rebels are digging in for a big fight. Reporter Jon Lee Anderson of "The New Yorker" is in Aleppo, and I spoke to him moments ago.

I started by asking him if the rebels have the resources to face down Assad's forces in that major city, Aleppo.


JON LEE ANDERSON, "THE NEW YORKER": I don't know that they can hold the city, frankly. I mean, you know, I think they're going to give it a good shot.

They don't seem to have the kind of weapons necessary if the government comes ahead, as it appears possibly to intend to do, which is to, you know, with warplanes, terrify the civilians, make them flee, then hit it with everything, hit with warplanes, with gunships and shelling, as they've done in other places, but here probably harder than anywhere else, and then come in with tanks and troops and mop up. That is what they believe is going to happen.

For the moment, the rebels naturally aren't saying that they're not going to win. They're young men prepared to fight, and they know that this is a decisive battle. This is what they believe, that this is the decisive battle for Syria, and that if Bashar al-Assad can't dislodge them from Aleppo, then it's over for him. And so, they have to fight to the death.

They're -- you know, they've gone into these areas, and there's not really anywhere for them to go from there. Once they start fighting, they have an alien city to their backs and the open countryside in front of them, which will be filled with Assad's armor. So, how they will be able to beat a tactical retreat, I'm not really sure.

AMANPOUR: OK. What do you see that leads you to believe, if at all, that there are foreign fighters joining this fight? There's been a lot of talk of al Qaeda, of offshoots, of jihadis. What have you seen?

ANDERSON: Here in Aleppo countryside, there are some Islamist groups. I wouldn't necessarily describe them as jihadi yet. They have a secretive component.

I had an interesting encounter with one young commander yesterday who declared to me that he wanted an Islamic state. He was an interesting person. I felt that he was someone you could still talk to. He didn't -- he didn't seem sectarian, he didn't -- we were able to discuss.

He was clearly anti-Western, but some of the young men around him showed themselves to be still sort of open to new ideas.

It's as if in the wake of -- in the sort of void left by the imploding, very secular, hardline Ba'athist regime of Bashar al-Assad, they're clutching, as we've seen in so many places before, the only thing constant in their lives or within their world -- within their horizon, and that's the Holy Koran and its religion. But I wouldn't say that it's across the board.

However, in terms of foreign fighters and jihadis of the Al Qaeda variety, we are hearing that there are some foreign fighters in Idlib province.

I bumped into a couple of young gentlemen from the United Kingdom, who looked Pakistani, the other day, right on the Turkish border. They were heading in.

That gives an indication that there are some people heading in. I don't think it should be blown out of proportion. Yet, it is maybe worrisome. But there's no evidence yet to suggest that they have a preponderant role in the conflict or are going to somehow take control of it.

AMANPOUR: Jon Lee Anderson, thank you so much for joining me from Aleppo.

ANDERSON: Sure thing. Thanks, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: So just how worrisome is this? We're going to turn now to Michael Sheehan. He's a former Special Forces officer and an adviser to multiple presidents on counterterrorism and on other security matters. He's now serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Forces Operations (sic) under President Obama, and I spoke to him a short time ago.


AMANPOUR: Mike Sheehan, thank you very much for joining me from Aspen (ph).


AMANPOUR: Lots of talk about Syria right now, and I know you're watching it closely, a lot of talk about Al Qaeda rushing in there. What evidence do you have? What can you tell me about Al Qaeda in Syria right now?

SHEEHAN: Well, we know that Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the situation in Syria. They've moved in there, they've become active in terms of terrorist events, blowing things up. That's what Al Qaeda does. They go into places where -- take advantage of ungoverned space and blow things up.

Remains to be seen, though, however, Christiane, whether they are going to be a player in the continuing evolution of things that are -- since the Arab Spring and beyond, whether they're going to play some sort of role.

Right now, they're gone to their old bag of tricks, which is to blow things up and try to get involved in a situation, take advantage of the situation. So we're monitoring it very closely. We're concerned about Al Qaeda's presence in Syria. And it just underscores the importance of trying to get a resolution for the situation there as soon as possible.

AMANPOUR: You talk about blowing things up. I mean, I assume you're not dismissing their capabilities. But I wanted to ask you whether you think that they pose a threat to the United States or to the West there.

SHEEHAN: Well, right now, what Al Qaeda seems to be doing in Syria -- as well as in Iraq and some other places around the world -- is they're focusing locally. They're using terror as an instrument to play on the scene and trying to influence events there through that -- their principle instrument, which is terrorism and terrorist attacks.

But it remains to be seen whether the Arab world is really interested in their message. I think they've been rejected across the Arab world by most people. There are -- they do have -- their narrative does resonate with a small number of people.

They continue to conduct and join them in these terrorist attacks. We're concerned about that and hopefully we'll be able to continue to marginalize them as we move forward.

AMANPOUR: Do you think they are part of the rebellion? Or they have their own separate agenda?

SHEEHAN: I think they've come in to try to join it. Whether they're part of this rebellion, I don't see that right now. I think most of the people that are involved in this rebellion want nothing to do with Al Qaeda and their message of violence and hate.

I think most of the folks that are in the rebellion against the Assad regime want a new future for Syria. And I don't think most of them, the great majority of them think Al Qaeda has any role to play. However, they are trying to take advantage of the situation in operating there right now.

AMANPOUR: Where are the Al Qaeda coming from into Syria? Is it from Iraq? Where is it from?

SHEEHAN: Well, we're monitoring where that -- they're coming from. They seem to be coming in from a couple different vectors, and we're trying to -- trying to figure out exactly who these people are, where they're coming from and what they're up to right now. We're trying to get a better picture of that.


SHEEHAN: I can't -- I can't get into all that. That's really a lot of intelligence stuff.

AMANPOUR: Right. The foreign minister, though, of Iraq has said publicly that they are coming in from Iraq. Do you agree that they are back in the game in Iraq, Al Qaeda?

SHEEHAN: Well, clearly we're concerned also about recent uptick of terrorism activity in Iraq. And we're working with the Iraqi government to try to help them address that issue.

Obviously there's some tragic events of the last several days, of Al Qaeda again going back to its principle weapon, which is trying to intimidate people with vicious attacks against innocent civilians, and we're very concerned with that. And hope to work with the Iraqi government to address those threats.

AMANPOUR: I mean, did it surprise you that just this week more than 100 people were killed in Iraq? And who do you think is responsible? Is that Al Qaeda?

SHEEHAN: We think that in Iraq Al Qaeda has increased its activity there, and they are associated with many of the attacks in Iraq. There's no question about that.

AMANPOUR: Moving further afield from Syria, Al Qaeda seem to be popping up in many places. For instance, in Mali, in Africa. Do you see that as a result of what happened in Libya, that, you know, that all sorts of fighters went in there and Al Qaeda has been able to find a foothold?

SHEEHAN: I think what Al Qaeda has done, particularly over the last several years, as they have suffered great setbacks in certain areas, they've looked for opportunities to move into it. And basically what they do is they look to operate in ungoverned space, like in Somalia, where we've had some success against beating them back there.

Also now we see in Mali they've taken advantage of the situation there in ungoverned space north of the Niger River in Mali, where they've moved in in a very significant way.

And we've seen them intimidate people, destroy ancient religious sites in Timbuktu and elsewhere, and are making their presence felt. And we're very concerned about that AQIM, this arm of the Al Qaeda movement, establishing a presence in Mali.

AMANPOUR: So what can the U.S. do about that?

SHEEHAN: Well, right now we're reviewing options. And I can't get into the specifics right now. But we would like to start to review options of helping the government in Bamako get on its feet.

And we've had relationships with Mali in the past, where we've assisted them. But like to get that moving again and help them to help themselves in dealing with this problem. But it's going to take a while. There's -- and we're reviewing those options. But I don't want to get into any specifics at this point.

AMANPOUR: Mike Sheehan, thank you very much for joining me from Aspen (ph).

SHEEHAN: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: Israel, which is Syria's neighbor, has a keen interest in what's going on there, of course, and in an equally keen to know who will be the next President of the United States. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, is headed there this weekend And Ari Fleischer, who once spoke for President Bush, now he's campaigning for Republican votes in Israel. And he'll join us just after the break.

But first, how does it feel to stare down the barrel of a tank in Syria?


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Presumably whoever was holding that camera lived to shoot video another day. We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in London today, kicking off his first trip abroad as the Republican candidate. His trip will also take him to Poland. But by far the most important stop will be Israel.

The fight for the Jewish vote is something we see in every election cycle. But this year, Republicans are taking it to a whole new level and a whole new place, fighting for it in Israel.

Joining us now to talk about all of this is Ari Fleischer. You'll remember him as former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush. He's also a CNN contributor and he's now on the board of directors of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a political lobbying group directed by Romney donor Sheldon Adelson.

Ari, thank you very much for joining us.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You're welcome. And the group is not directed by Sheldon Adelson --

AMANPOUR: Isn't he --


AMANPOUR: -- isn't he the CEO?

FLEISCHER: -- board of directors.

AMANPOUR: Oh, I thought he was the CEO --

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

AMANPOUR: -- chairman of the board.

FLEISCHER: No, he's not.

AMANPOUR: All right.

FLEISCHER: He's one of the members of the board of directors.

AMANPOUR: OK. Sorry. That's a website mistake, then. Of course, he's a big, big --

FLEISCHER: That's (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: -- the point is that it's such an interesting thing -- and you had said that in another interview, it's like shooting gefilte fish in Israel.

Tell us why you are going to Israel to campaign for votes there, because obviously traditionally most of the Jewish vote does go to the Democrats.

FLEISCHER: Correct. It does. The Jewish vote is overwhelmingly Democratic voting block, especially in the United States. However, the American Jewish community, who chose to move to Israel, or live in Israel for a number of years, they actually are much different in political behavior.

They're much more Republican. They're much more interested in national security issues, in foreign policy issues, strong national defense issues.

And so that's why I went over to Israel with the Republican Jewish Coalition. On the assumption that this is going to be a close race, every vote counts, and there are 150,000 estimated American voters in Israel. A good number of them come from Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania.

AMANPOUR: And let me put up a couple of these full-screen graphics that we have. The latest Gallup poll from June 1st through July has President Obama with 67 percent of the potential Jewish vote, and Mitt Romney with 25 percent.

Again, focusing on the fact that this usually does go the Democrats' way, what is the strategy? Do you expect to win the Jewish vote? Explain how you plan to make inroads and what the strategy is.

FLEISCHER: Well, you're right. The word is inroads. We're not going to take a majority of the Jewish vote. It is a Democratic stronghold. If Mitt Romney can get above 25 percent of the Jewish vote -- in other words, if we can lose it 3:1, it's a huge victory for Republicans.

And here are the numbers, Christiane. George Bush's father lost the Jewish vote with only 11 percent of the Jewish vote; Bill Clinton got 89 percent of it in 1992. Four years later, Bob Dole got 16 percent. My old boss, George Bush, got 19 percent in 2000, 24 percent in 2004. So after the last two decades, you've seen some growing inroads.

When Bush got 19 percent in Florida, it couldn't have been closer in the year 2000. Four years later, when he got 24 percent, Florida was comfortably Republican and Bush took Ohio as well. So that's where the vote comes down. If Mitt Romney can beat 25 percent, Florida and Ohio go Republican. If he can beat 30 percent, good chance Pennsylvania goes Republican.

That difference on the margin is what this fight is all about. And that's why we went through -- I went to Israel for that registration drive. The Americans who live there really do vote on a different series of issues, and they are much more inclined to vote Republican.

So our charge was to get them registered, get them excited, and hopefully they'll turn out, fill out their absentee ballots and vote.

AMANPOUR: We talked about Sheldon Adelson. We -- he's also -- he is on the board and he's, well, according to his website, anyway, he's the chairman of the board, he's the biggest donor, the biggest funder. And, anyway, he's a very big person, quite controversial in this presidential election cycle. I want to put up some of the ads that are being run by the group called "Buyers' Remorse."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a lifelong Democrat. I've never voted for a Republican for president. But this time, I'm going to vote for a Republican for president. I think he's going to change the game when it comes to Israel. He's going to place Israel in a position where they're in danger.


AMANPOUR: So, Ari, obviously that's the strategy to, as you said, to get Republicans and even some Democrats to flip and try to vote your way.

When it comes to being in Israel this week -- I don't know whether you're going to be there, but I think Mr. Adelson is going to be there. What do you think is going to be the conversation between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mitt Romney?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't speak for Mitt Romney, but my guess is that it's going to be a message of powerful solidarity and that United States should stand strongly on Israel's side. And this is the reason I think there's been some weakness in the president's position and some deterioration among many Democrats who thought they could rely on him.

You know, the president was just so vociferous in criticizing Israel over Israel's housing policies, the undiplomatic way the president talked about returning to the 1967 borders with land swaps. It just seems like the president enjoys putting pressure on Israel in a way that he doesn't do to any of America's enemies. He does do it very powerfully, strongly, and publicly to America's ally, Israel.

I don't think you'll see that with Mitt Romney. Whatever differences there are -- and there are occasionally differences -- I think Mitt Romney would deal with, in the privacy of a summit meeting, not in the publicity of berating Israel.

And that's one of the weaknesses President Obama has that I think is going to lead to some deterioration of the vote, particularly among those who vote on the basis of Israel. So that, I would expect, will be the tenor of the conversation between Mitt Romney and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

AMANPOUR: Now, obviously, clearly you've stated your position. And the question here is, is it, you know, we all know also that Sheldon Adelson has a very, very similar view of relations with Israel and what should be the policy there. Is it not just about flipping votes, but also about effecting policy?

FLEISCHER: Well, sure. I mean, I think you can't divorce a political campaign from policy. That's what it's all about. If President Obama's policies were stronger toward Israel, I don't think the Republicans would have the opening that we now have. So there's no question it's about both, and that's what an election should be about.

AMANPOUR: You know, President Obama has talked about the '67 lines. But that's not a controversial position, because many, many Israeli politicians have done. Many of the peace parameters that have been outlined, including Israeli prime ministers and others, have mentioned those lines.

So I guess the question is, does the Republican position mean continuing to defend the settlements, continuing to defend those kinds of issues that most of the international community, and including the United States says is not the correct policy? The U.S. doesn't stand behind the settlement policy.

FLEISCHER: Right. And Christiane, when I was at the White House, I knew the importance of the words that are used and the diplomatic power that the wrong words can have. You covered the State Department. You know it as well.

The words that were previously used were that Israel and the Palestinians need to negotiate safe and secure borders. And then it would be up to the parties to negotiate where exactly those lines would be. No American president previously said what President Obama has said, return to the 1967 borders with land swaps.

It was the power of those words to remind Israel that the '67 borders, as if that, in and of itself, should be the line, as opposed to safe and secure. In the world of diplomacy, something unsubtle like that that the president said, particularly on the eve of a visit from the Israeli prime minister, was very unsettling.

And you would think that somebody who wants to really just make a flamboyant statement would talk like that, not someone who was schooled in the nuance of diplomacy.


FLEISCHER: That's where I think President Obama sent every wrong signal to both parties.

AMANPOUR: Ari, Ari, you know that former Israeli prime ministers have talked about '67 borders with land swaps, as President Obama did. But I want to ask you about a new Republican president, should there be one.

Would Mitt Romney, do you think -- and should a Republican president - - get involved again in the peace process and be a central figure in it?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, being a central figure, it seems to me right now there's only two out of three figures who are playing any type of central role, and that's Israel and that's America. I don't think the Palestinians, under Mahmoud Abbas, and certainly none in the Palestinian Authority, have done -- they haven't -- barely lifted a finger to engage in serious negotiations.

I think, Christiane, that's been the core of the problem. Israel does not have a reliable partner with whom they can negotiate peace. When Anwar Sadat was willing to negotiate peace, peace was made. Same thing with Jordan, with King Hussein, the former king of Jordan. Peace was made.

If the Palestinians could come out with their own Anwar Sadat or King Hussein, I think there's no question, peace would be made and America would be helping in that process. So the fault, in my belief, is not Israel. It's not America's. It's the Palestinian leadership, and particularly after they said they were going to have a unity government with Hamas. How can you have a unity government with terrorists?

AMANPOUR: Ari Fleischer, thank you for joining us.

FLEISCHER: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back after a break.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, go to our website,, to see our feature on Kim Jong-un of North Korea. That's it for us tonight. Goodbye from New York. Thanks for watching.