Return to Transcripts main page


ISIS Defector Vows to Take Down Group; Ambassador: Assad Failed His Own People; Malala Brings Education Campaign to Syrian Refugees; Venezuelan Opposition Leader Arrested; Report: Iran Blamed for Hacking Attack; Interview with Wendy Sherman

Aired February 18, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN: For months, reports have been emerging from Northern Syria about atrocities being carried out by a rebel group of al Qaeda-inspired extremists. It's known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria. ISIS has been battling the Syrian government and other rebel groups, some of which are much more moderate, supported by the West.

CNN's Arwa Damon met a defector from ISIS, who says the group poses as much of a threat as the Assad regime itself, and he's vowing to help take them down.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When ISIS fighters, the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, first arrived in Adana, they were welcomed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, they didn't come as warriors. They came as simply people who want to help people, educate people religiously.

DAMON: ISIS initially appealed to Syria's deeply conservative rebel units, who entrusted protecting the town to them.

"We were all on the front lines fighting," Abu Jamal tells us, "and then we realized that with the situation in the town under ISIS, they were exerting their control through terrorism and punishment." A tactic ISIS repeated in an effort to entrench itself.

Abu Ammara, not this man's real name, is the Syrian who wants his face and voice concealed. He defected from ISIS in Raqa (ph), their main stronghold in the east. They think he's dead.

"The Syrian Mujahedeen who were with ISIS thought that they were the purist organization currently around," he says. "Their jihadi principles matched ours." But, he says, they were manipulated and deceived.

Initially, ISIS fighters and suicide bombers were a battlefield asset, but then suspicions began to grow. ISIS would organize missions by suicide bombers who thought they were attacking the regime, only to realize their target was another rebel unit. "When one of the martyrs pulled out," Abu Ammara tells us, "he was executed in front of everyone. Just because it was said about him that he was disloyal. He disobeyed the emir, so he was killed."

ISIS has one goal: to establish an Islamic state. And many Syrian opposition members are now accusing them of collaborating with the Assad regime.

"They have a lot of experience. They know what they are doing," Abu Ammara says. "There were a lot of regime locations we could have taken without sustaining losses of our fighters, and we would receive orders to retreat."

In early January, Islamists and moderate rebels banded together to drive ISIS out of Syria. Abu Ammara says he and his group have sleeper cells within ISIS, to bring the organization down from inside. Defeating ISIS now as crucial as defeating the regime.


BLITZER: And Arwa joining us now from Beirut.

Arwa, you've been doing an amazing job with this series this week. Where are the ISIS rebels right now?

DAMON: Well, they're still scattered throughout the country. They most certainly have not been kicked out of Syria entirely. They're consolidating in their strongholds, mostly to the northern and eastern part along the border with Iraq.

They have around 7 to 11,000 fighters, Wolf. The mass majority of them are, in fact, non-Syrians.

BLITZER: Amazing story. I know you'll have a lot more throughout this week. Arwa Damon reporting from us -- for us from Beirut earlier. She was in Syria.

And earlier I spoke with the U.S. deputy undersecretary -- the U.S. deputy -- excuse me. The U.S. undersecretary of state, Wendy Sherman. She is the undersecretary of state for political affairs. She's certainly well-known for her international negotiating roles, including nuclear talks with the North Korean regime. I asked her to respond to criticism from Senator John McCain, who called U.S. policy in Syria an abysmal failure.


AMBASSADOR WENDY SHERMAN, U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: What I like to say is, to the Syrian people, having just been in Geneva for talks between -- with Russia, with the opposition, and the opposition having talks with the regime, with Special Joint Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, that the real failure here is the Syrian regime's failure to care about its own people.

I agree with Senator McCain that the people of Syria are suffering horribly, terribly, even since the Geneva 2 talks began, nearly 5,000 Syrians have died. And as we've heard from the people coming out of homes, many of them have survived only on twigs and plants and leaves. So it is a horrible, horrible situation where people are being barrel- bombed by their own government.

So the failure here is the failure of the Syrian regime to take care of, protect and honor its own citizens and what the opposition is trying to do is to create a new Syria that is a democracy that cares about its people. And President Obama just said yesterday in Suniland, standing with King Abdullah, that he is looking at every option that he can to see what more the United States can do, because we all know that this is not sustainable.

BLITZER: Does that include the military option?

SHERMAN: I think the president has said he's looking at every option, except putting boots on the ground.


BLITZER: The secretary of state also said this week, John Kerry, that the peace talks in Geneva, they were in recess right now. He reiterated the U.S. position that there is no military solution to the crisis.

Coming up next, my special conversation with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who survived a brutal attack by the Taliban. She's now at a Syrian refugee camp along the border in Jordan to help the children there get an education.


BLITZER: The Syrian civil war has disrupted schooling for countless Syrian children. A Pakistani teenager known to the entire world is now using her influence to try to make a difference. I spoke just a little while ago with her.


BLITZER: And joining us now from the Syrian border with Jordan, Malala Yousafzai and Shiza Shahid. She is the CEO of the Malala Fund.

Malala and Shiza, thanks so much to both of you for joining us, and thanks for what you are doing.

Malala, tell us what you're doing there. What is the purpose of your mission to this border area between Jordan and Syria?

MALALA YOUSAFZAI, EDUCATIONAL ACTIVIST: Today I'm here at the camp of the Syrian refugees, and here I have seen so many children. And they are suffering from poverty. They cannot go to school, and worse than that, they're also suffering from child labor.

So I also see -- I have also seen so many girls who are talented and who have skills and so many boys who are doing hard work. But I think their talents would not be lost here, and they should recognize it. And therefore, education and good-quality schools are needed. So there are, like, more than 50,000 children here. But there are only three schools. So we must think about it. And if we want to have the future bright, and if you want to have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the whole world, then their education is very important. And the whole world should take action for it.

BLITZER: And the whole world should take some action. Specifically, it wasn't that long ago, Malala, you were here in Washington. You went to the White House. You met with President Obama.

What's your message to the president of the United States? What do you want him to do as far as this awful situation along the Syrian/Jordan border is concerned and the civil war in Syria?

YOUSAFZAI: First of all, I didn't know that what was happening in Syria and how the -- people of Syria have been suffering from this situation and from these wars and conflicts.

But when I went today, I (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I saw those children and women. And they were crying, and they lost their home. They're now homeless, and they don't know where they will live. They have lost a peaceful life. And then I realized, yes, these people are suffering. And we should speak up for them.

And therefore, I will request the president to go to the Jordanian/Syrian border or go to the border to Lebanon, Syria and see how these people are suffering. And when he will look at it, then he will feel it. And then he will understand what's happening here.

Because when you see a child and all his clothes are dirty, he doesn't have shoes, and you don't know what his future is. And it seems like this child is lost in this world. So I request not only the President Obama but every -- every world leader to go to the Syrian border and see these children.

BLITZER: Because the United States and a lot of other countries, they are providing humanitarian financial support to these refugees, but is there more that you want to see the United States do? Do you want to see, for example, the U.S. get involved militarily to stop the fighting in Syria?

YOUSAFZAI: Well, the first thing is that I have heard that they have promised a lot, but only 45 percent of that is given. So it matters what you promise and what you give. So I think that they need more facilities related to education, related to living, related to shelter. And also, the world community and the world leaders, they should sit together and they find a solution for it.

And not only is it related to the Syrian government. It's also related to the people who are involved in this conflict. I want to request those people that put your guns down. Talk to peace. You will achieve and realize what you want. But do it through a peaceful way. Because I always believe in peace. And I think that we should never choose war for our fights -- sorry, for our rights. That's why I think that all the leaders should take action. BLITZER: Shaheed, you're the CEO of the Malala Fund. First of all, tell us what the Malala Fund is and what the Malala Fund is trying to do to help these Syrian refugees, specifically these young, young girls.

SHIZA SHAHID, MALALA FUND: Sure. The Malala Fund advocates for the rights of all children should be in school. But also to learn skills that empower them to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.

And the Syrian refugee crisis is an incredibly overwhelming example of a crisis that has displaced children, that has put them in incredible harm's way. And it's taken away any chance that they have of the better future. So we're here raising the voice of children who are suffering and urging the international community to invest in solutions that can keep them in school through the period of the emergency and rehabilitate and mainstream them once they're in a more settled space.

BLITZER: Shiza Shahid, thank you so much for what you're doing. Malala Yousafzai, we appreciate, obviously, what you are doing, as well. Let's hope this brutal civil war in Syria ends, those refugees at some point will be able to go back to their homes inside Syria. Thanks to both of you very much.

SHAHID: Thank you.

YOUSAFZAI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, hacked by Iran. We have new details on what was compromised by the U.S. Navy -- on the U.S. Navy Web site. We're taking a closer look.


BLITZER: In Venezuela, U.S.-educated opposition leaders surrendered today to military troops in Caracas. The government had issued an arrest warrant for Leopoldo Lopez, claiming he was responsibility for the country's recent arrests. Our own Karl Penhaul is now on the scene for us in Caracas.

Karl, Lopez vowed to turn himself in, saying he has done nothing wrong, so explain what's happening right now, because it's pretty tumultuous.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Right now, Wolf, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters are blockading the six-lane freeway that cuts through the heart of Caracas. That move to blockade the freeway comes just hours after the Harvard-educated, Ohio-State- educated Leopoldo Lopez turned himself in to the national guard. The government has accused him of provoking what they call fascism and for stoking these protests in Caracas, which have now been going on a week.

Talking to the anti-government protesters here on the ground, it is very clear that their initial demands, which consisted of calling on the government to tackle a rising wave of crime and also to take economic measures to make it more accessible for the ordinary people really have failed now, and many of the protesters that I talked to today says their end demands now is nothing short of the fact that the government of Nicolas Maduro should resign after the next year in office.

But, of course, this is much bigger than a fight just against the government of Nicolas Maduro. This is Venezuela's fight with opposition, fighting against what they see as a 16-year-old experiment in socialism. They say enough is enough, and they want a change of government, Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul on the scene for us, all this following the expulsion of three American diplomats in Venezuela. Much more of this story coming up later today in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

Meanwhile, there's new information now on the severity of a recent hacking attack that targeted the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. Brian Todd is here.

Brian, who are they blaming for this attack?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. defense official we spoke to did not -- was not able to characterize for us, Wolf, who they think did it. "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that it was the Iranian hackers who did this. No word to us yet from the Iranian government on that, but we did get information just a moment ago from a U.S. defense official, confirming there was a massive intrusion, a cyber attack on the Navy Marine Corps Internet back in late August, early September. The Navy Marine Corps Internet is an unclassified system, that hosts hundreds of thousands of users, hundreds of thousands of e-mail accounts. And it's not clear what the intruders were looking for.

This official told us that the attack was pervasive, it was massive, it really impacted their system, but that nothing classified, or really sensitive, was stolen, and that nothing was damaged. But it was a massive intrusion.

And again, "The Wall Street Journal" reporting that it was Iranian hackers who did this. So -- and we're also told by this official that it cost around $10 million to repair that breach. So it was a very significant intrusion. It took them until early November to get all the malware and all the, quote, "intruders," the hackers out of that system.

They breached it through a kind of a lapse in the security of the system. And that's what allowed the hackers to migrate so deeply into the system. It was a very severe attack.

BLITZER: It's a very severe blow. I must say, shocking to hear this kind of stuff. Brian, thanks very, very much. The U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy hacked.

Up next, an NBA Hall of Famer calls it the, quote, "coolest experience" of his life. Charles Barkley reflecting on his Oval Office moment with the president of the United States. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Back to work for Wall Street today after a long weekend. The Dow Jones coming off its best week so far this year. There you see the Dow right now. It's down about 25 points.

The former NBA superstar, Charles Barkley, is used to being in the spotlight, on the court, and as a TV analyst on our sister network, TNT. But Barkley says he was nervous about his recent interview with President Obama that aired ahead of the NBA All-Star Game this past weekend in New Orleans. Barkley says he was so nervous that he didn't get a lot of sleep the night before.

I spoke with him in "THE SITUATION ROOM," and I asked him what it was like to talk one-on-one with the president.


CHARLES BARKLEY, NBA HALL OF FAMER: I think anytime you meet the president of the United States, it's got to be exciting, whether you're a Democrat, republican, or independent. I met President Bush Senior. I met President Clinton before, and I've actually met President Obama before. But it's still exciting. It's, obviously, just a wonderful opportunity. But to meet the president, you've got to be somewhat nervous and also excited.

BLITZER: And emotional, too. Because you described this as being a very emotional experience. Look, you grew up in Alabama. Did you ever in your life expect that you would be sitting down one-on-one with the president in the White House?

BARKLEY: Never in my wildest dream. You know, Wolf, I grew up in the projects of Alabama, and I've got to tell you the coolest thing about the whole day.

After we had finished doing the interviews, we bump into each other again. He says, "Chuck, have you ever been to the Oval Office?"

I said, "Yes, we do that in Alabama all the time."

And we both kind of giggled, and he gave me a little quick tour. And it was one of the highlights. And they tweeted a picture of me standing next to the president in the Oval Office, and it was just one of the coolest, if not the coolest experiences of my life.


BLITZER: Barkley also says the fact that President Obama is our country's first African-American president made that moment for him in the White House even more powerful.

Former President Clinton tries to nudge his successor to get on the social media band wagon. In a Presidents' Day tweet, President Clinton jokingly urged George W. Bush to get with the program, tweeting this: "Happy Presidents' Day to #44 (@BarackObama), #43 (#HowAreYouNotonTwitter), #41 @GeorgeHWBush and #39. Just a little good-natured ribbing from members of an exclusive, I shall say, very exclusive club.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll see you at 5 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

"NEWSROOM" continues right now with Brooke Baldwin.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Wolf, thank you so much. Great to be with all of you on this Tuesday. I'm Brooke Baldwin.