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Terror Warnings; Sources: Al Qaeda in Yemen Planning Attack; 9th Woman Accuses San Diego

Aired August 2, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. government warning of an attack in the final stages of planning by al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. If you're an American overseas, you could very well be a target.

I'm Jake Tapper, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, on high alert, 21 U.S. embassies and consulates in the Muslim world closing this weekend, the State Department issuing a worldwide travel alert over an ominous, potentially al Qaeda-linked terror threat.

The national lead, they think George Zimmerman got away with murdering their son. And now the parents of Trayvon Martin are taking steps with the federal government in the hopes of seeing him back in a courtroom. Do they have any chance at all?

And the buried lead. If you're Hispanic and you want to immigrate to the U.S., you can do it the legal way, fill out all the paperwork, wait your turn like everyone else, or you could just take a shortcut by pretending to be Cuban.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the world lead, of course.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may have something very big going down very soon, and Americans could, could be their target. It is centered in Yemen. But it's not clear whether the target is inside or outside that country, according to one U.S. official.

The State Department today issued a travel alert throughout the Middle East and North Africa for the entire month of August, warning of possible terror attacks from al Qaeda and its brothers in jihad.

I want to read you part of the bulletin -- quote -- "Current information suggests that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August."

This alert comes as 21 U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Muslim world prepare to shut down on Sunday. We're talking about U.S. diplomatic sites in Baghdad, Cairo, Dubai, Kabul, Riyadh, Tripoli, and several other cities where demonstrators regularly put American flags and lighter fluid on the same shopping list. Officials tell CNN that the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, is of particular concern between tomorrow and Tuesday. This all coincides with the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

We're covering this threat from around the world and from all angles. We have got our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, standing by. Chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were briefed about this earlier. And Nick Paton Walsh is standing by live in Beirut, Lebanon, for us.

Barbara, I'm going to start with you. Give us more details about this threat out of Yemen.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, U.S. intelligence agencies had been monitoring this for months we are told. A growing threat stream out of Yemen.

But in recent days, fresh intelligence pointed them to the fact that -- the belief that something may be doing down, that in fact al Qaeda operatives in Yemen may be in the final stages of planning some sort of attack. The Yemenis also alerting the U.S. to what they believe was an uptick in the threat in their country. They are also on high alert.

And as you say, what is so interesting here is you are seeing the threat really centered around Yemen, but the reaction from the U.S. government is to close embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa because they believe at this point it could possibly have deeper ties to al Qaeda groups and al Qaeda affiliates across the region.

Between now and Tuesday everyone is quite nervous -- Jake.

TAPPER: Dana, you're reporting that Vice President Biden was on the Hill briefing lawmakers this week about this threat. What are you hearing? What did he say?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This was a previously scheduled meeting where he took the opportunity to tell members of the congressional leadership in both parties, key chairmen of important committees and the ranking members about this threat. At the time, they had not decided to close these embassies, but I talked to a source who was in the room who said the vice president and other State Department officials who were there made clear it was a very significant threat.

I talked to this person in person. He was very grim-faced. We could tell that he was very concerned. Since then, I have spoken to other sources who are getting information through other channels in the administration who all say -- this is sources in both parties, Jake -- all say that what the administration is doing is absolutely correct.

There are some questions about whether this was a -- forgive me -- a CYA because of what happened in Benghazi, the fact that the U.S. was caught flat-footed with regard to security. They said absolutely not. There is a very, very big concern based on what they know about the threat.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh, you're in Lebanon, a part of the world where there is a lot of skepticism of the U.S. government and its claims. Talk about the timing of all this.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly. As you have seen, the geography of this threat is extraordinarily broad.

They're closing postings from West Africa to Bangladesh on the other side of India, but the timing very specific. They're talking about Sunday and in fact Beirut, where I'm standing, the embassy is normally closed on that day. It tells me it's probably going to open regardless on Monday anyway, so a very specific day about this that comes towards the end of Ramadan on a night known as the Night of Power, particularly significant religiously because that's when Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed was given the Koran texts. So, great significance there some are attaching to it.

And then there's the broader context of this particular threat too. After accusations of laxity around the Benghazi consulate, the State Department keeps using this phrase the abundance of caution. And then more globally, look at the focus now people are putting on U.S. intelligence gathering, the great scrutiny it's under since the revelations of Edward Snowden.

Is that somehow going to play into the future, officials will be citing the kind of specific intelligence of this threat as the kind of justification they need to continue the scale of intelligence gathering that Edward Snowden revealed.

TAPPER: All right, Nick Paton Walsh, Dana Bash, and Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

News about this threat is breaking very fast and there's still much to learn about the nature of the threat and the potential target.

I am joined now by Daniel Benjamin, former U.S. ambassador at large and the former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

Daniel, thanks so much for being here. I want to talk about al Qaeda in Yemen for a second. They were responsible for the underwear bomber. Now they're posing this vague threat. They have been a growing danger now for years, haven't they?


What I would say is that al Qaeda in Yemen was a big threat in the immediate post-9/11 period. We had the bombing of the USS Cole. And then there were a number of strikes, a number of actions that set them back a bit, but the U.S. was largely disengaged from Yemen in the period from about 2004 to 2009.

And when the Obama administration came in, it realized that it had a really big problem with al Qaeda in Yemen. We saw some incremental improvements in terms of counterterrorism cooperation in the -- late 2009-2011 period.

Then they had their Arab spring and President Hadi came into power and replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh, and he's been a much more aggressive partner. There has been a lot of inroads made against AQAP. But the fact is AQAP remains the most capable al Qaeda affiliate out there and the only one that I would say really has the desire and the capability to launch attacks outside of its own country.

TAPPER: And in fact President Obama met yesterday with the president of Yemen. What could be so broad about this threat that the U.S. would close 21 embassies and consulates in the region?

BENJAMIN: Well, there are a few things to keep in mind.

One is that the breadth of that action probably reflects some uncertainty about what's threatened and the actual geographical focus of it. At the same time, remember, we're coming up on April 7. It's the 15th anniversary of the East Africa bombings in 1998, when al Qaeda operatives targeted our embassies in Nairobi in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

And that was a catalytic moment. It was a moment when al Qaeda really established its hallmark of multiple simultaneous attacks. So, it wouldn't be that surprising, if AQAP plotting something, that it was plotting multiple attacks in an effort to show that the group is still in the game, still active. I strongly doubt that they have operations poised in 21 countries. But I think it's probably a pretty good bet that the intelligence gathered thus far is very credible, but not specific.

TAPPER: You said April 7. I'm sure you meant August 7. Lastly, sir...

BENJAMIN: I apologize. August 7.

TAPPER: Yes. Yes.

There have been a series of al Qaeda jailbreaks in recent days, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in Benghazi, Libya. Bruce Riedel, former adviser to President Obama, wrote a story earlier this week referring to al Qaeda strikes back. How much do you believe we are seeing now a resurgent al Qaeda?

BENJAMIN: I wouldn't say that we're seeing a resurgent al Qaeda without some qualification. And Bruce is a friend and a great student of al Qaeda.

I would say that al Qaeda in those regions certainly got a good bump up, in that they were able to liberate some of their operatives and get them out of jail and get them back into action. I think we do have a worrisome situation with al Qaeda in Iraq, which has become more active of late. It has been bumping along for a while, but it looks to be strengthening in a worrisome sort of way. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains worrisome. Extremism in Pakistan isn't going away. But al Qaeda itself has had -- it really has taken a very, very serious set of blows. And I would be surprised if they could carry out anything out of area right now.

Can't rule it out, but I think it is unlikely. There are threats out there, but we're certainly not in the kind of situation we were in, in 2001. I think that the catastrophic threat is just much less likely.

TAPPER: Let's hope you're right. The former head of counterterrorism for the U.S. State Department, Daniel Benjamin, thank you so much.

BENJAMIN: My pleasure.

TAPPER: Coming up, is this the return of al Qaeda? We will take a look at how the terror network is regrouping and gaining strength.

Later, the trial may be over, but Trayvon Martin's parents are not done fighting. Now they want to bring a criminal civil rights case against the man who shot their son.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to continue with our world lead. It's a grim warning. The United States is issuing a worldwide travel alert for Americans broad and shuttering 21 embassies and consulates this weekend all in reaction to a potential terrorist threat sources believe could be coming from al Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen.

A senior Yemeni national security official now tells CNN that Yemeni intelligence agencies alerted local authorities of this threat two days ago, when the Yemeni president was in Washington, D.C. This official also said that recent U.S. drone attacks may generate reprisals.

And now security has been ratcheted up in Yemen's major cities.

I'm joined now by CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem, CNN contributor and former CIA operative Bob Baer, and right here in studio CNN contributor and terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

Juliette, I want to start with you. From what we know, how real do you think this threat is and what's the precedent for a response like this. shuttering all these embassies and consulates?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's pretty unprecedented because you want to put it in combination with the travel advisory. So, they're going to close a bunch of embassies and tell Americans to be cautious worldwide, to check in with their State Departments and consulates.

The two together is pretty unique. So, what it suggests to me, at least in what we know right now, that there's been sort of long-term threat stream, a couple months, and then this very specific information coming from Yemen.

So, there's probably multiple streams. They're not leading to a specific incident. And with caution, lessons clearly learned from Benghazi, both initiatives, both statements came out today in anticipation of the weekend and, of course, you know, at the end of Ramadan.

TAPPER: It's interesting. Government officials continuing to say Benghazi had nothing to do with it, but experts independent of the government saying it obviously had something to do with it. You want to -- you want to make you sure you learn from lessons of the past.

KAYYEM: Right.

TAPPER: Paul, let's talk about motive. We've seen devastating drone strikes against al Qaeda leadership. But this would seem to suggest that they were grouped, that they have capabilities that maybe a few years ago they didn't have.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Obviously, you're right, Jake. We have seen that right across the Arab world and North Africa. The story of the last year -- the last two years has been al Qaeda, regrouping taking advantage of the Arab spring, the political turmoil, the civil war in Syria, all the turmoil you've been seeing in Iraq to really build up its activities, recruiting more and more people in the region.

And this group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, well, last year, the story wasn't a good news story for them. They were driven out of the tribal areas of Yemen. But they've regrouped since then, and they've been rising numbers of attacks against Yemeni security services of late, Jake.

TAPPER: Bob Baer, you think there's a possibility of deception here. Explain what you mean by that.

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: Well, we have to go back to 9/11. On the months before, there were all sorts of indications, chatter, that the attacks were going to occur in Turkey. There was specifically a base there that al Qaeda was going to hit. The whole intelligence community was wrapped up in this and low and behold it occurred in New York and Washington, D.C.

Al Qaeda is capable of putting out disinformation over phone lines. In fact, it's SOP for them. So, I don't think we should limit this to the Middle East. And that's why the warning goes out to Europe as well, and the rest of the world. In fact, it could be the United States. It could be -- these guys are perfectly capable of hitting here and yet showing signs they're going to hit elsewhere.

TAPPER: You think, Bob, just to stay with you -- you think al Qaeda is perfectly capable of hitting in the U.S. A major attack or the kind of lone wolf attacks that we have seen? BAER: I think they could do a couple of lone wolf attacks. I've been saying this for years. We know that this stuff can be bought in stores. It could be assembled here, people with a little bit of training can hit public facilities, transportation facilities.

They are absolutely capable of it. Do they have the people on the ground? I certainly wouldn't know that, but I fear for the worst.

TAPPER: Juliette, the region, the Middle East, is in chaos of course, from Egypt to Syria. How much do you think that general instability plays a role in this threat?

KAYYEM: A lot, but we need to separate. So, I think Egypt is unstable, but it's an Egypt issue. I really think and I've, you know, was recently at the Jordanian/Syrian border. I think the refugee crisis in Syria now. So, we can debate what the government should do. But just when you have a million people who are refugees amongst neighbors like Lebanon, and Turkey, and Jordan, and close to Israel, there is a lot of disruption, which just mean simply that people and bad people, goods, arms, all sorts of ammunitions can be moved around relatively quickly. There's not strong intelligence or law enforcement services.

So, to me, Syria, for all the problems it is for, of course, Syria and the region -- there are essential two Syrias now. There is Syria, and now, there's over a million Syrians living in horrible and really hared conditions. And that's where radicalization and the ability to plan attacks and to not be seen by law enforcement officials.

So, to me, Syria is really different than the sort of Arab spring issues that you see, say, in Libya or Egypt.

TAPPER: Paul, it wasn't that long ago that President Obama was talking about al Qaeda being on the run. We're obviously, after the Benghazi attack, are facing a different understanding of the terrorist threat with al Qaeda and related groups. How devastating an attack is al Qaeda and the affiliates groups -- how capable of making right now, do you think?

CRUICKSHANK: Unfortunately, they still have potential. But the group in question, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that bomb maker, Ibrahim al Asiri, has put together the most sophisticated bombs U.S. counterterrorism officials have ever seen from al Qaeda. And three times in the last several years, they've targeted U.S. aviation. So, a lot of concern about the capabilities of the group in question here, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Juliette Kayyem, Bob Baer and Paul Cruickshank, thank you so much. We're all hoping for the best, of course.

Up next on THE LEAD, the hits keep coming for San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. The latest claim that the Democrat tried to play JFK for a day with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.

Did you ever turn to beer to help you get out of a rut? Apparently, the post office is thinking about doing so. Why that struggling government agency thinks six packs could help cure its financial woes.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Now, time for the politics lead. Yet another woman is coming forward to accuse Democratic San Diego Mayor Bob Filner of acting like Quagmire from "Family Guy."

Emily Gilbert is Marilyn Monroe impersonator. You heard me correctly. She says she was singing at a fundraiser when she met Filner, and that's when -- well, why don't I just let her explain it.


EMILY GILBERT, CLAIMS MAYOR BOB FILNER SEXUALLY HARASSED HER: Hugged me a little too closely and then put his arm around me like this. And then he proceeded to slide his arm down and give a little grab to my very rear.


TAPPER: That makes nine women who are accusing Filner of sexual misconduct. Starting Monday, Filner will enter a behavior counseling clinic for two weeks. Filner's lawyer says the city should pay the mayor's legal fees because the city never gave Filner sexual harassment training. The city council voted on that issue on Tuesday. They essentially told him to go harass himself.

The national lead: the high profile trial of a notorious, alleged mobster, a potential witness in the trial mysteriously found dead, and police find evidence the witness was poisoned. No, this is not a pitch for a crime novel. This really happened to a witness who agreed to testify in the trial of Whitey Bulger in Boston.

Stephen Rakes was found dead about 30 miles from his home last month. Police arrested a Boston man in connection with his death. They say William Camuti put poison in Rakes coffee and as suspicious as that all sounds, police say the murder was unrelated to the Bulger trial. They say they think the suspect did it to avoid paying back a debt. In fact, Rakes had been told just before he was killed that his testimony in the Bulger trial was no longer needed.

Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night will stop me from getting beer. It's no secret that the U.S. Postal Service is hemorrhaging cash and is going the way of the phone booth, thanks to the Internet. But now, the agency is hoping alcohol will help save the day. The Postal Service is pressing Congress to overturn a temperance law that dates back to 1909, a law that bans the U.S. mail from shipping beer, wine, and liquor. Private carriers like FedEx and UPS, well, they are not held back by the law. They've been long been able to ship booze, but not the post office. Last year alone, the agency lost $16 billion.

Let's check in with our political panel in the green room. Alex Castellanos, we know Anthony Weiner's wife is sticking by him. But are campaign staffers held to the same "until death do us part" oath or at least to election "do as part" oath as spouse when the scandals hit the headlines? What do you think?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I'd say unless the staffer is having sex with the candidate and has a child with the candidate, and then you're probably not held to the same standard. And most of us in politics, we try to avoid that.

TAPPER: You just opened the door that I don't want to proceed through.

But stick around for the politics lead. We'll talk about staffers with troubled candidates, coming up next on THE LEAD.