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Crisis in Iraq; Officials: U.S. Commandos Watched Alleged Benghazi "Mastermind" for Days; Foreign Fighters Joining ISIS, Pose Threat to Their Home Countries

Aired June 17, 2014 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. It is 3:00 a.m. here in Baghdad and for many reasons, a lot of people in the city are likely not sleeping easy tonight, not with Sunni extremist fighters now less than 40 miles to the north of the city battling to add Baqubah to the growing number of cities they've already taken. Now as apparent sectarian reprisals and terror attacks playing out there and right here in the capital.

Now with bodies being discovered and roadside bombs going off and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki showing few signs of being able or even willing to hold this country together, even if he could, even if it were possible.

Not many people, as I said, sleeping easy tonight.


COOPER (voice-over): ISIS forces and Sunni militants continue their advance, closer to Baghdad today, attacking the city of Baqubah less than 40 miles north of the capital. The push into Baqubah is another troubling sign for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who's seen over the past week his military unable to stop the militants' advances. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing the fighting. On this road leading from Tikrit to Kurdish controlled regions, entire families took whatever possessions they could, even livestock, and left.

Maliki and Shia clerics have called on ordinary Iraqis to take up arms against the militants and thousands of Shia have responded. This video uploaded to YouTube claims to show hundreds of Shia in Najaf signing up to fight.

CNN cannot independently verify the video.

On a Baghdad street, we met one young man selling shoes. He says he has already signed up to fight.

"On God's will," he says, "Iraq will be stabilized and we shall stay as a thorn in their eye. We will be victorious. We don't need any U.S. occupation or Iran. We don't need any Arab country. Us Iraqis are heroes."

But with the fighting, concern the sectarian divide is deepening. New signs of possible sectarian killings. Days after videos uploaded by ISIS claimed to show mass killings of Shia, nearly four dozen Sunni prisoners at a jail in Baqubah were killed as militants besiege the city. According to a local health official, they were shot to death at close range. Allegations they were killed by Iraqi police were denied by authorities, and blamed the death on shelling by ISIS.

Also in Baghdad, another troubling sign.

(On camera): Four bodies were found today in a largely Shia neighborhood. They've apparently been shot at very close range. Now it's not clear if the -- this is an isolated incident or this is a sign of rising sectarian violence. At the height of the sectarian killings here in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, sometimes there'd be dozens of bodies every day that would be discovered often with signs of torture, hands bound, sometimes holes drilled into their heads.

(Voice-over): There was more bloodshed in Baghdad today. A car bomb exploded in the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Sadr City, one of just six bombs detonated in Baghdad today.

(On camera): So we're out here shooting. We've just gotten word that there is a blast not too far from here, about a five or 10-minute drive. We're not sure what sort of a device it was. We believe it some sort of a roadside device. Several days ago, there was an actual person with the suicide vest who detonated themselves. We're told that at least -- and this is early reports, three people are dead, a number of others are wounded.

We're still trying to gather more information. Normally we rush to the scene but in Baghdad that is a very dangerous thing to do. Often there are secondary devices timed to explode 10, 20, 30 minutes after the first device so that any security personnel or first responders that go to try to help those who have been wounded and killed they get killed in that secondary device. So we're going to hang back and try to gather more information. It's just a sign of just how dangerous things are in Baghdad these days.

(Voice-over): According to Iraqi police, 12 people were killed in the blast, dozens more injured.


COOPER: Lots to talk about tonight.

Nic Robertson is here with me in Baghdad, Arwa Damon is in Erbil which has seen a flood of people arriving from Mosul after ISIS took the city.

Let's talk about what's happening in Baqubah. Really interesting because it really gives you a sense of the difficulty, A, of reporting here but also how kind of all sides kind of trying to manipulating information. We got this report about 44 prisoners being killed in their cells in Baqubah in a police station that militants took over for a short time, they stole all the weapons.

The government here reported that it was shelling, that it was ISIS shelling that killed these Sunni prisoners but through our reporting, we found sources at the morgue and in the hospitals are saying in fact they were shot at close range.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It shows you the brutality, the close-up brutality because it does appear as if Iraqi police were the ones who shot these prisoners because they were Sunni prisoners and the assumption was that the ISIS fighters were going to come and release them. And it --


COOPER: They didn't want these Sunni prisoners to fall into the hands of ISIS.

ROBERTSON: So they literally went, according to health officials, and shot them all at close range. I mean, ISIS has uploaded some very brutal videos. We've all seen them now. They're horrible war crimes even. But here you have essentially the same thing happening inside the jail and the government, it appears, is trying to manipulate the message to us and to the people saying look, ISIS actually killed them. It rocketed the jail there.

So it's -- I mean, it's two things. It is -- it is blatant propaganda, it is barbarity, but it's also, as you were out on the streets there, you couldn't go 10 minutes away to see the blast. We can't get to Baqubah and find out what's going on for ourselves. And that's key this evening because we don't know how the fight is going there. Are ISIS on the verge of taking it and pushing through, getting closer to Baghdad? We just can't find out.

COOPER: Arwa, one of the things that you and Nic have both been emphasizing in your reporting is that this is not just ISIS fighters. There are also other groups involved here, Sunni militant groups. Talk about that a little bit, what you're seeing on the ground.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, this is one of the main reasons why ISIS has been able to make this dramatic advance towards the capital Baghdad and that is that it is not fighting on its own. It has the support of the Sunni tribes and it does also, for the time being, at least have the support of those Sunni insurgent groups that were so prominent and so successful during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

At this point, even though they do not share the same ideology and that these Sunni groups do not want to see an Islamic caliphate established, they are united when it comes to their desire to want to not only see the Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki removed from power but also perhaps more significantly an end to Shia dominance in Baghdad -- Anderson.

COOPER: So the reason that's so important for people at home to know that, is it possible to somehow pry some of these Sunni groups or these Sunni tribes away from ISIS and get them back to support the central government here?

ROBERTSON: I think the answer to that is yes. And I base that on an interview I did with one of the Sunni tribal leaders four days ago in Jordan. He was one of the tribal leaders who is now associated with ISIS and with these other -- Sunni rebel factions fighting here to push Maliki out of government. But he was also one of the same tribal leaders who was fighting with the Marines to clear out al Qaeda in the west of Iraq back in '06 and '07.

He said to me, you know, number one, we can defeat the -- we can defeat ISIS if we need to. The tribes are much stronger. But he also said, I would like to talk to the Americans. They don't want to be tarred with the same brush as ISIS, with this -- they don't want to be seen as radicals. They want political change. So there is that scope for diplomats or whomever to get in and pry them away,

COOPER: Look, one of the things that Nuri al-Maliki did is he stopped the payments which American forces were giving to these Sunni groups as part of this so-called awakening.

ROBERTSON: Because it would have just made them stronger over time and he was afraid that he would give additional power to the Sunnis and they saw this and they read this. The -- the tribal leader I spoke to was incredibly frustrated. He said look, we saw what's happening in recent years, we've tried protest. The government came out about a year or so ago. Arwa was there. She covered this.

They were gunned down on the streets. Protests, dozens of people killed in those peaceful protests by the government and that's why they have risen up and taken on. So from their point of view, this is -- this is a final desperate act. They are desperate for international help again. They are not getting it. They are taking up weapons.

COOPER: We're going to talk more of that later on the broadcast.

Arwa, thank you very much. And Nic Robertson, as well.

A quick reminder. Make sure you set your DVR so you can watch 360 whenever you'd like.

Just ahead tonight, the foreign faces including American faces and Europeaner, British, French people being called to wage holy war in the region. This is a recruiting video calling on people to join the caravan of jihad and martyrdom. That's what they call it. The man in it believed to be an American from Florida who blew himself up recently in Syria.

That's next. How likely it is that some of these Americans are going to come back to the United States and Western Europe.

Later, breaking news, new details on the U.S. operation capture suspect in the Benghazi killings and former Secretary of State Clinton reacting in a CNN town hall.


COOPER: Welcome back. We're live in Baghdad tonight. More now on the one man who might have it in his power to stop a widening civil war in Iraq. A man whose actions could prevent further U.S. military involvement, a man who so far has shown to be a maddening partner for two American presidents. We're talking about Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki.

The "New York Times" reporting and I quote, "What he," talking about Maliki, "does not do by all accounts is spend much time on the political reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs and Kurds that his international allies in Washington and Tehran have insisted is his country's only possible salvation."

They are insisting now and as Randi Kaye reports, American leaders in both parties have insisted before.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, Nuri al-Maliki saw an opening. He'd spent 24 years in exile in Syria and Iran, and was finally able to return to Iraq in 2003. Unlike Hussein, who was Sunni, Maliki is Shiite Muslim.

In 2006, he was sworn in as prime minister. He spoke to Congress that year.

NURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (Through Translator): We faced tyranny and oppression under the former regime. And we now face a different kind of terror. We did not bow then and we will not bow now.

KAYE: Back in 2006, the Bush White House supported Maliki, looking to him to alter the balance of power giving Shiites more control and weakening the Sunnis. Maliki had once promised to unify Iraq. Even welcomed Sunnis into the government.

Colonel Peter Mansoor was General David Petraeus' executive officer.

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), EXECUTIVE OFFICER TO GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: He used all of his power to pursue his political enemies rather than reaching out and ensuring that he could embrace them and bring them into the tent.

KAYE (on camera): Iraq Sunni insurgency has been gaining momentum since 2006. In fact, General Petraeus' strategy behind the U.S. troop surge in Iraq in 2007 was to give Maliki and the Shiites more time to figure out how to share power with the Sunni.

(Voice-over): Instead Maliki was accused of reneging on deals he made, cutting off funding to the Sunni tribes after they've helped defeat al Qaeda in 2008, even targeting high-ranking Sunnis.

Last year, President Obama praised Maliki after meeting with him at the White House.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We were encouraged by the work that the Prime Minister Maliki has done in the past to ensure that all people inside of Iraq -- Sunni, Shiite and Kurd -- feel that they have a voice in their government.

KAYE: And just last week, Maliki was still preaching unity.

AL-MALIKI (Through Translator): We must stand as one united front. Our insistence and will must never waiver when it comes to expelling these criminals.

KAYE: Yet it was Maliki who may have prevented the United States from keeping troops in Iraq after the surge to help build a true democracy.

MANSOOR: He made it very difficult for the United States to retain troops in Iraq but again, the Obama administration never really tried.

KAYE: Now Maliki is under pressure again with President Obama insisting the United States will only step in if Nuri al-Maliki takes another shot at a unified state where Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis live in peace.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


COOPER: Well, let's dig deeper now in the political and the military challenges as well as the enormous complexities involved with Ken Pollack, senior fellow at Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He was an early supporter of the war in Iraq. And James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Ken, I recently read an article you wrote and you made a number of points which I think are really important that I want to get to. One, you said that, you know, a lot of people we talked about ISIS forces but that this is a coalition of groups. It's not just one group. Explain that.

KENNETH POLLACK, SENIOR FELLOW, SABAN CENTER FOR MIDDLE EAST POLICY: That's right. ISIS is the lead dog here. They are the ones who triggered this entire movement by their invasion from Syria. But first and foremost, we got to recognize. ISIS is also a big Iraq group. They have a big Iraqi component. And since they have moved back into Iraq in force, what they have done is gathered to them a wide coalition of other Sunni militant groups and now they are beginning to bring Iraqi Sunni tribes into the fold as well.

It's basically a large group of people all of whom were unified by one thing -- they hate and fear Prime Minister Maliki and they believe that he is a Shia dictator. And most of those tribes frankly don't really care for ISIS or what it stands for or what it wants to do. They don't want a caliphate in western Iraq but they are more frightened and more unhappy with Prime Minister Maliki than they are with ISIS and they see the militant cause as basically being the least of two bad options.

COOPER: And Ambassador Jeffrey, the reason I think that's such an important point to think about when we think who Iraqi forces are fighting against is that the diplomatic component, the political component is crucial here. This is something you and I have talked about over the last several nights for the government of Nuri al- Maliki to actually in real ways reach out to those Sunni groups who might otherwise align themselves with ISIS not because of any ideological affinity for ISIS but because they frankly fear their Shia-dominated government here.

JAMES JEFFREY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Absolutely, Anderson. Two points, one is, at this point, however, Maliki isn't doing a stabilization operation in the Sunni areas. Right now he's been thrown on the defensive by an ISIS-led blitzkrieg to the north and to the south of Baghdad threatening Shia areas. And that's more of a military than a long-term stabilization political diplomatic endeavor and that's what the president has to face right now among other things that involves Iranians coming in and our own people on the ground right in the middle of this thing.

COOPER: So, Ambassador Jeffrey, when on paper you see that -- you know, the Iraqi military far outnumbers the ISIS forces and others, you know, 100-1 or 50-1, how can they be defeated? Talk a little bit about how that's possible. I mean, my understanding is it's a moral issue, it's leadership issues and also a lot of Shia forces stationed in Mosul saw no reason to try to stand up and fight in a Sunni dominated area.

Is that accurate?

JEFFREY: Exactly. We've seen these armies collapse before. In 2003, in 1991. If these troops do not believe that they are fighting for their own territory and their own people, their own families, they did hold and fight against the Iranians in the 1980s. So they can fight if they think that they are motivated.

They will fight for the Shia areas, Anderson. But the problem again is that they are intertwined Shia and Sunni communities all around Baghdad. That's why Baghdad is so critical right now.

COOPER: Ken, I mean, Baghdad is because of the -- what went on here in 2006, 2007, and Baghdad is overwhelmingly Sunni -- excuse me, overwhelmingly Shia dominated. So you think -- do you think it's unlikely that Baghdad itself could possibly fall because it does seem like Iraqi security forces, largely Shia, would be far more motivated to actually protect this Shia city.

POLLACK: Yes, I think you've hit on a number of very important points, Anderson. And I think that it is the case as Jim is already suggesting that ISIS and the Iraqi Sunni militants are going to have a much tougher fight on their hands as they get closer and closer to Baghdad. We're already seeing that up in Samarra and some of the other outlying towns.

Where the Shia soldiery is now defending their homes and their families, all of a sudden their resistance stiffens. And let's remember, they've also been joined by large numbers of Shia militiamen who are every bit as vicious as the ISIS and al Qaeda and other militant fighters on the Sunni side and of course, they're now being backed up to at least some degree by the Iranians. And all of those different elements are probably going to lead to a much, much tougher fight for Baghdad.

And let's also throw in the fact that, let's remember, Baghdad is an enormous city. It's eight, maybe even nine million people. It is a huge urban sprawl and urban terrain is some of the toughest terrain to take, especially a force like ISIS which so far is mostly capitalized on surprise and speed. That's going to be much harder to really punch through in Baghdad.

COOPER: Ken Pollack, again, a really fascinating writing. Thank you very much for joining us.

Ambassador Jeffrey, as well, thank you so much.

POLLACK: Thanks for having us, Anderson.

JEFFREY: Thank you.

COOPER: For more on this story and others, you can go to

Up next, the other big news of the day. The capture of a key suspect in the attack of the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. We'll have former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's response, what she said about it in a town hall moderated by CNN's Christiane Amanpour, next.


COOPER: Breaking news tonight, new details coming to light about the operation to capture a suspect in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans. U.S. officials tell CNN that Ahmed Abu Khattala went into hiding after a flurry of interviews last year, including one with our own Arwa Damon.

Khattala was lured to a location south of -- of Benghazi, Army Delta Force commandoes, the FBI and others were watching and waiting for days before they captured him this past weekend. He was then taken to a U.S. Navy ship. He's now being questioned about his role in the 2012 attack in Benghazi.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto joins me now from Washington with more.

So what do we know, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that this is something that's been in planning for some time. They knew where he was in general. But military officials tell me is that, you know, it's one thing to know his general location, it's another for journalists to meet with him, but to go in a raid, that's a gunfight. He was very well protected and they had to wait for their opportunity here to do that.

The line today from Admiral Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman was, it was -- it's not like we can just wait for him to go out for a milk shake and pick up a taxi. This was a dangerous operation. They found their opportunity and they went ahead. COOPER: And what's going to happen to him? He will be tried in

court? And do we know the charges?

SCIUTTO: He's coming to court here in Washington, DC. And we know the charges. You know, this is a tough rap sheet. One killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility, providing material support to terrorists, discharging a weapon during an attack, a crime of violence. And the list may be longer. And that first charge, killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility, that carries -- that could carry the death penalty.

COOPER: Are there others that they're looking for?

SCIUTTO: They say there are others that they're looking for, that they're still building their case and that they're even still building their case against Khattala and that's why they make a point of mentioning that he could face more charges but there are others -- you know, they're still looking out there and they say that they have others that they have intelligence on but not that they have been able to move in and pick up just yet.

COOPER: Why did it take so long to find him?

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, you know, this is the case that they make. They say they knew the general area and of course they knew that Arwa Damon and other journalist were able to see him. But again, going in to get him was going to be an armed operation. It's risky and they want to make sure there is no loss of life, you know, on either side, right? Because this is someone they wanted to bring in and prosecute in an American court.

That took time to find that opportunity. But again, as you noted, the intelligence was in the last several months -- he's been much more cautious appearing in public less often, you know, not like it was several months ago when he was meeting open in journalists and kind of bragging about how free he was.

COOPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, appreciate you joining us. Thanks, Jim.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she hopes that Khattala's arrest will put help together the pieces together of what happened. Here is what she said just a short time ago in our CNN town hall moderated by Christiane Amanpour.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I'm very pleased. This is another indication as President Obama said in his statement today that the United States has an unwavering commitment to bring to justice those who are responsible for attacks on Americans no matter where they are, no matter how long it takes.


COOPER: Well, Clinton also said she empathizes with the families of the four Americans who were killed and says she understands why they are demanding answers.


CLINTON: I'm still looking for answers because it was a confusing and difficult time but I would hope that every American would understand, number one, why we were there because we need to be in dangerous places, and number two, that we're doing the best we can to find out what happened and I hope that fair-minded people will look at that seriously.


COOPER: And Christiane joins me with more of her conversation with Hillary Clinton.

Christiane, let's start with Benghazi. You pressed Secretary Clinton on whether or not Ambassador Stevens should have even been there that day. What did you think of her answer?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, she gave the standard answer, that this is what we're about. We're America projecting our diplomatic presence even in dangerous places, but when I kept pressing her about it on that day of all days she said of course, had we understood these protests that started in Cairo that day, we would have probably told and perhaps should have told our staff, all of them to just hunker down that day and don't go out. That is a thought she's processing right now.

COOPER: In terms of Iraq, Secretary Clinton put squarely the blame for what is going on here the defeat of Maliki, the prime minister, the forces of agreement that would allow U.S. troops to stay here and critics of the Obama administration say the Obama administration didn't really work hard to extend that status of forces agreement. What did you make of her answer on that, because she says Maliki has got to reach out to other forces to Sunni forces within the country?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, I am coming to the dreadful realization that possibly this administration might just not do anything very much. They have really it appears given up on Maliki. Obama saying that stuff and tonight I thought Hillary Clinton went very forward leaning in just dismissing Maliki and putting the blame on him and they have not come up with any military plan to stop the march of ISIS. I'm wondering whether they are going to give up and see the chips fall where they may, perhaps the partition of Iraq.

COOPER: There was a question from the audience about gun control, gun violence, Secretary Clinton jumped on that.

AMANPOUR: She did. In fact, she was the most forward leaning I've heard. I haven't heard her on many domestic issues. She did talk about a small terrorized the majority of the American people want to see certain provisions and controls put in, sensible ones like background checks. In answer to the question she said, yes, an assault weapons ban should go in again and for those high-caliber ammunition clips. But she really was very forward leaning on that and explained again that nobody is talking about taking legitimate gun owners guns away just making sure it happens in a safer environment.

COOPER: Christiane Amanpour, appreciate you being with us. Christiane, thanks so much.

AMANPOUR: Thanks, Anderson.

COOPER: If you want to watch the town hall event, you can see Christiane hosting "Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices, A Town Hall Event" at 9:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN right after this broadcast.

Up next, roughly 100 Americans and thousands of Europeans have come to Syria to join ISIS and other militant groups, they are being actively recruited. The concern is they are going to go back to United States, go back to England, and France and saw terror there. We'll show you how.

Also Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair, being accused of trying to rewrite history. Critics blasting him over the last days for saying that the 2003 invasion of Iraq did not cause the current crisis here. Coming up, we'll have him explain what he means. Tony Blair joins me.


COOPER: ISIS militants who now control multiple towns and cities in Iraq and Syria are primarily Sunni Iraqis, but analysts say that their ranks are also growing and include a number of foreign fighters including Americans. The group's recruitment videos are urging westerners to join the fight. Thousands maybe answering the call to weigh Jihad in the Middle East. At least one American carried out a suicide bombing in Syria this year, a guy from Florida.

It is a disturbing development to say the least. One big concern, of course, is that these American recruits and European recruits may have eventually returns to the United States and to Western Europe to launch attacks. Pamela Brown has more.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At first it almost looks like a Hollywood movie trailer. But this is no action film, it's a call to action. Islamist militants trying to lure in like-minded Americans and Europeans to join the caravan of Jihad and martyrdom. And it's working.

SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION: The number of Americans that come to fight with groups like ISIS and others has grown over time.

BROWN: U.S. officials estimate about 100 Americans and thousands of Europeans have poured into Syria since the war started. Some joining Jihadist groups like ISIS, they are there to study terrorism at their camps in the region.

JONES: Where Americans and Europeans can go to get training in how to build bombs, counter intelligence, propaganda. It has become a foreign Jihadist battle field, that includes Europeans, some with access potentially to the United States.

BROWN: A U.S. intelligence official tells CNN the man in this ISIS video with the blurred face is an American. A 22-year-old Jihadist from Florida who ended up dying for Jihad, killing himself and three dozen others with a truck bomb in Syria last month. The growing concern is that ISIS, a group too barbaric for even al Qaeda will send its American recruits on the ultimate mission, back to the U.S. to launch a massive attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's something I wake up every morning worrying about.

BROWN: Today a blunt FBI director, James Comey said it's not a matter of if those newly trained Americans Jihadists will try to return to the U.S. to wreak havoc but when.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: There are thousands of people from all over the world, including from all parts of the United States traveling to Syria, learning the worst kinds of techniques and tactics and making the worst kinds of relationships. At some point, there will be a diaspora out of Syria back to Western Europe, back to North America, bringing with it those skills, those relationships and we have to be very, very careful to make sure we anticipate what the future might be if we're not careful.

BROWN: Pamela Brown, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: That's a very scary thought. Maajid Nawaz has a unique perspective on what it takes to recruit Islamists militants. He used to be one. Now he's chairman of the Quilliam Foundation and author of the book "Radical, My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism." He joins me now along with CNN national security analyst and former Bush Homeland Security adviser, Fran Townsend. Fran is also a member of the Department of Homeland Security and CIA External Advisory Boards.

Fran, we talked to Ken Polak (ph) earlier in the program who said you shouldn't overestimate the impact of foreign fighters. This is an Iraqi operation. That being said, there is a foreign component here. It is very important. How concerned are U.S. intelligence officials about that sort of foreign legion as part of the ISIS contingent and about the possibility of them returning to the United States and Europe and sewing the seeds of terror?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Anderson, having spoken to lots of folks in the intelligence committee at very senior levels, they emphasize, that look the numbers vary in terms of estimates of foreign fighters anywhere from say about 11,000 to over 20,000 foreign fighters, that there is a real concern that this is the single greatest threat outside of sort of the core terrorism. We often hear about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen group.

The focus right now is this is a very real threat. We recently saw an American suicide bomber killed inside of Syria. The worry is that these guys are difficult to track. They will get experience, some of them will not be killed. They will travel. They put those numbers traveling to places like Western Europe in the thousands, and those traveling all the way back to the United States in the dozens to over 100.

So there is a direct correlation to the threat to the U.S. Homeland that's really captivated the attention of law enforcement and intelligence officials here in the United States.

COOPER: You know all about the radicalization of westerners firsthand, you yourself traveled down that road. How concerned are you about what you're seeing here on the ground and the potential for foreign fighters to go back to Europe and the United States?

MAAJID NAWAZ, CHAIRMAN, QUILLIAM FOUNDATION: Well, Anderson, I agree with Fran, I am very concerned. I think everyone here in Europe in terms of security services are very concerned. We have everything up to 400 British born and raised citizens fighting abroad in Syria and the surrounding area at this moment in time.

We have official estimates about 700 from France, you know and those numbers reach into their thousands across Europe. There is a serious issue with the numbers that have gone compared to the proportion of Muslims that are in these countries.

The second issue is we're talking about a group, the majority of foreign fighters, by the way, have joined ISIS. So we're talking about a group that is too extreme ever for al Qaeda.

COOPER: It's also interesting, Fran, I mean, you talked about the American from Florida that took part in a suicide attack in Syria, the first American to die in an attack is a Somalia American that blew himself up several years ago. How well does U.S. intelligence track or able to track these Americans, these westerners as they go to fight -- Fran.

TOWNSEND: Very difficult, Anderson. This is really the greatest challenge. You know, there have been at least two recent meetings of the intelligence community and its allies around the world to seek their help and assistance. John Brennan hosted a meeting, eight to ten intelligence service heads here in the United States.

And then just last month, Mohammed (Beniath), the minister of Interior in Saudi Arabia, hosted a meeting of those intelligence service heads in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to talk about the difficulty and corporation in tracking them. What happens is these guys use false documents, war names, not true names.

And so it's very difficult, U.S. intelligence alone can't do it, and so they sought the help of their intelligence allies, especially in the Arab world closer to the problem and can provide assistance in doing the tracking but very, very difficult.

COOPER: It's also difficult in many cases for Europe traveling to Turkey and Jordan and other places and then crossing over. It's not like they are taking direct flights to ISIS controlled areas. Maajid, the question becomes, what does the west do about this? NAWAZ: We're in an unprecedented situation, and I believe that we are willfully unprepared because more foreign fighters have gone to Syria than ever went to -- from Europe that is that ever went to Afghanistan and we heard of the Afghan blow back and not prepared for the Syria blow back and I don't think enough being done on a civilian level for government policy to tackle the problem.

There needs to be a strategy, European wide and speaking from London, U.K. wide that doesn't go far enough at the moment. I don't advocate arresting war returning fighters, but there needs to be a serious look at counter narratives and programs and stemming the flow in origin by getting to the youngsters before they decide to leave this country and discussing with them that they are about to join a civil war there is no glorious Jihad awaiting them.

COOPER: All right, Fran Townsend, appreciate you both being on. Thank you.

Up next, the mayor of London says former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's quote, "finally gone mad" with his claims the 2003 invasion of Iraq is not the reason for chaos in the country right now. Is Mr. Blair rewriting history? I'll ask Tony Blair ahead.



COOPER: Just much more accessible. They don't have armored Humvees like Americans do. Units driving around in pickup trucks, totally exposed.


COOPER: That was from Baquba in 2005 when we were there, that's the city that saw heavy fighting today between Iraqi security forces and is forces. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is taking a lot of heat for his comments about the current situation here in Iraq. He's trying to rewrite history.

Over the weekend, Blair said that the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 was in no way responsible for what is happening now, there would still be a major problem in Iraq even if Saddam Hussein had been toppled and it's a mix of religion and politics.

In a column in "The Daily Telegraph," one that Mayor Boris Johnson calls that argument, quote, "bonkers" and writes that Blair should quote "put a sock in it or accept the reality" about the disaster he helped to render. I spoke with former Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier today.


COOPER: Mr. Prime Minister, you've come under enormous criticism in the past day for a comment laying blame for the current crisis here in Iraq, for the war on Syria or failure to respond and the failure of the Maliki government to overcome sectarian impulses. Does it not also bear responsibility? Al Qaeda wasn't here in Iraq until that occupation.

TONY BLAIR, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Sure, just so that I'm absolutely clear about this. My purpose is not to lay blame on anybody. My purpose is to draw attention to the nature of the challenge that we face in this region, and the need to do something about it. Of course, having removed the Saddam government in 2003, that's got implications of consequences for Iraq today.

But it's also important to realize two very important things, the first is that this group, ISIS, basically rebuilt themselves, rearmed, they launched their attack on Iraq from Syria. So what our intervention in Iraq shows is how difficult intervention is and none intervention. That's my first point.

My second point is when you take account of the Arab spring, revolutions that began in 2011 and swept governments from power, what you see is whatever happened in 2003 we were going to face this major challenge today, and my point is very, very clear therefore, we've got to understand one, that this challenge is complex. It's long-term. This is a generational struggle and even if we want to, we can't disengage. We have to try and deal with it.

COOPER: Do we know how to properly engage, however? Given how wrong the U.S. and U.K. were in the run up to the war, wrong about presence of WMD, wrong about Saddam working with al Qaeda and given our failure to predict and plan for an insurgency. What makes you sure you have the right prescription for what needs to be done here about the current crisis?

BLAIR: Look, it's important we do learn the lessons, but the actual lessons of what happened. What happened was that Saddam was removed reasonably quickly within a few months but then what happened is you've got this sectarian fight where they try and overwhelm the majority of people.

COOPER: Doesn't history show that unless a regime, though, is willing to make changes itself, no outside power can intervene and really do it for them? You look at South Vietnam, unless that regime had actually been willing to stop being corrupt or actually meet the needs of its people, no amount of western involvement would have helped.

You write about Nuri Al-Maliki, I mean, his government, he snuffed out the opportunity to build a cohesive Iraq. We had more than 150,000 troops and we couldn't get him to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds. Do you believe he's capable and willing to do that now?

BLAIR: Well, I hope so because that's essential for Iraq. You make a good point here. It's important to stay for a moment on it. We should never forget that in Afghanistan and Iraq, even today a majority of people want the freedom to bring up their family in piece, want stability, are happy to get on with neighbors. This is an extremism that is a significant minority. It's not a tiny minority.

It's often financed and armed from abroad. These foreign fighters in this organization, I mean, they come from everywhere including by the way, the U.K. So when we say is it impossible for outsiders to come and help and stabilize the country, when I intervened in Kosovo, yes, it was. So what's the difference between Kosovo and Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Libya? The difference lies in the presence of this religiously based extremism.

COOPER: I go back to the question, is Nuri Al-Maliki actually capable of doing the kind of political work, which as you say is essential. I mean, without that, the U.S., the U.K. The west is seen as intervening against Sunnis, even if it is extremists, many in this part of the world will just see it as U.S. intervening against Sunnis in Syria and here in Iraq because there are Sunni groups, which are now aligned with ISIS and other actors, without real movement by Nuri Al-Maliki, I mean, you know this man, is he capable of doing that without 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground?

BLAIR: I don't know. What I do know if he's not capable of doing that, that it's essential that a government is construct that is capable of doing that.

COOPER: Prime Minister Blair, appreciate your time today. Thank you very much.

BLAIR: Thanks very much, Anderson.


COOPER: Up next tonight, we are going to show you the damage those deadly tornadoes left in the way in Nebraska one town nearly demolished.


COOPER: Susan Hendricks joins us with the 360 Bulletin -- Susan?

SUSAN HENDRICKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, that rare double tornado that slammed Nebraska wiped out this town's business district, reduced dozens of homes to rubble. Two people died, 16 others were critically injured.

An Army spokesman said Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is gradually being provided media coverage about his ordeal. His situation sparked bitter controversy. We also learned Bergdhal has had no visitors at the Army hospital in San Antonio where he is recovering.

Art experts have long suspected there is a painting hidden behind one of Picasso's first masterpieces, "The Blue Room." Now infrared technology has finally revealed what it is. It's a portrait of a man with a beard resting in space on his hand. It was found behind that took long -- Anderson.

COOPER: Cool. All right, Susan, thanks very much.

That does it for us from Baghdad for this hour. We'll see you again at 11:00 Eastern for another edition of 360. The CNN town hall, "Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices," starts now.