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No Strategy for ISIS; ISIS Emboldened; U.K. Raises Terror Threat Level; David Cameron Speech

Aired August 29, 2014 - 09:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me.

More on that breaking news. On the rise of Britain's terror threat, the British prime minister, David Cameron, will talk with reporters live this morning at 9:45 Eastern Time from 10 Downing Street. Of course he's expected to make a statement on security issues after the U.K. raised its threat level to severe. We will bring that news conference to you live when it happens right here on CNN. And, again, David Cameron expected to speak from 10 Downing Street 9:45 Eastern.

So in light of that, it makes this next story, well, really more astounding.

Back in this country, the White House remains in damage control after President Obama's comment that was both blunt and politically baffling. The president says his administration has not yet decided on a strategy to deal with ISIS' siege on Syria. Critics say the president is sending a message of weakness to an enemy that's only growing stronger. CNN's Michelle Kosinski is at the White House this morning with more.

Good morning, Michelle.


You know, first we had this important national security team meeting in the situation room here at the White House. Then suddenly the president was going to speak. So you basically have everybody here waiting to find out, OK, what is going to happen in Syria. But the answer the president gave was to some surprisingly clear that we're just not there yet.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I directed Secretary Hagel and our Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a range of options.

KOSINSKI (voice-over): Another address by the president. There have been many lately, but it was these words regarding Syria that many were not expecting.

OBAMA: I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.

KOSINSKI: His critics, quick to pounce. The Republican Party tweeting, "what's the Obama strategy? To have no strategy. Ukraine, ISIS, Russia." But the White House was eagerly quick to explain. The press secretary coming to CNN's "Situation Room."

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": The commotion that those words generated was enormous. So go ahead and tell us what the president precisely was referring to.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He was referring to military options for striking ISIL in Syria. Those options are still being developed by the Pentagon. The president has been very clear for months about what our comprehensive strategy is for confronting the ISIL threat in Iraq.

KOSINSKI: That is true, very clear and very careful, some say to the point of being too slow. U.S. air strikes are still presented as being for the primary purpose of protecting American personnel, then supporting Iraqis and adding a humanitarian component. The president still repeatedly emphasizes the need for a unified Iraqi government so that country can solve its own problems.

OBAMA: And the options that I'm asking for from the Joint Chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq.

KOSINSKI: But the terrorist spread has been fast and furious. The White House's view of the Syria component is even more deliberate.

OBAMA: It is not simply a military issue, it's also a political issue. It's also an issue that involves all the Sunni states in the region and Sunni leadership, recognizing that this cancer that has developed is one that they have to be just as invested in defeating as we are.

KOSINSKI: But he did say a long-term strategy will involve a military aspect. What will not? The situation in Ukraine. And the U.S. will not call Russia's latest moves an invasion, even though some in Ukraine are.

OBAMA: I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.


KOSINSKI: So in the situation in Iraq and Syria, the president is now going to send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region sometime soon. And he said that the strategy for Syria that is forming is going to be a broader one. It is going to include those regional and international partnerships, building a coalition. It's going to have to take into account some kind of plan for at least some degree of stability in Syria. So from what that sounds like, it is going to take some time, Carol.

COSTELLO: Certainly sounds that way. Michelle Kosinski, many thanks to you. My next guest says that while ISIS has been successful so far due to

the weakness of its opponents and military capabilities, the real test could be in maintaining all of those gains, especially if the group is attacked by multiple forces at ones or if its allies start to defect.

Joining me now, Michael Knights, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome, Michael.


COSTELLO: Michael, I'd like to start with Britain. Britain raised its terror threat level to severe. What do you make of that?

KNIGHTS: Well, there are many more foreign fighters from western countries within ISIL today than there were in the old al Qaeda in Iraq. So it's unsurprising that western countries would start to feel some blow-back from what's going on in Iraq and Syria.

COSTELLO: But raising the terror left to severe in Britain means there's a chance of an eminent attack. The British prime minister is going to make a statement at 9:45 Eastern Time. What do you suppose he'll say?

KNIGHTS: Well, they always try and act with an abundance of caution whenever they get any kind of warning data. But I would think he would say that the security services in the U.K. have detected some kind of indicators of an incoming threat and are taking measures to prevent it.

COSTELLO: All right, let's talk about President Obama, and the president saying there that his administration has no serious strategy. Number one, do you think ISIS is aware of the president's remarks? And, two, will ISIS be emboldened if it thinks that the United States doesn't have a plan?

KNIGHTS: Well, they pay very close attention to international news media and also social media. So they will be watching this and taking note. What really matters is how the U.S. acts on the ground. And it currently has a golden opportunity to build up some momentum against ISIS. If you look at ISIS, it's very difficult for it to defend most of the points that it's captured, particularly if we have multiple axis, where the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces attack with U.S. air support. Wherever that's happening right now, ISIS is falling back, it's demolishing areas, blowing up bridges, defensive measures, showing that it knows it can't hold areas where you have the combination of local security forces and also U.S. air power.

COSTELLO: You also say that ISIS' roots date back several years to 2010. So did the United States and Britain, for that matter, miss warning signs?

KNIGHTS: Well, ISIS bounced back very rapidly. It had its low point in 2010 when it began what I call a reboot in 2011. One of the problems is that we killed its two leaders in April 2010, and the guys who replaced them were actually better. That's one of the perverse results that can sometimes happen with targeted killings. And so they bounced back very quickly and I think the U.S. government and others were a bit slow to pick up on the fact that they weren't dead in the water, that they were actually recovering, because of the mistakes of the Maliki government in Iraq and because of U.S. military withdrawal.

COSTELLO: Also in a piece for "CTC Sentinel," West Point's counterterrorism journal, you write that ISIS' military might and surprise attacks have been its strengths. Is there any sign that those opponents are becoming better at predicting and staving off those kinds of attacks?

KNIGHTS: Yes, that's exactly what we've been seeing over the last couple of weeks. It's one of the reasons why ISIS has been receiving small battlefield defeat after small battlefield defeat. These are not major or huge battles, but things like Mosul Dam showed that once the opponents have regained their balance, had a bit of U.S. air support and also U.S. intelligence support, it made it harder for them to be surprised and it meant that they could concentrate their forces (ph) at the points where Iraq and the Kurds want to fight, rather than ISIS constantly gathering its heavy weapons and troops at the points where ISIS wants to fight.

There's a thousand kilometer front line in northern Iraq, and that's good for the side that's attacking because they can bring their forces and their heavy weapons to bear exactly where they want to bring them to bear. So if you're on the attack, you have the advantage. And currently the Iraqi security forces and Kurds are on the attack. What we need to do, the U.S., is to keep up momentum by providing that air support that allows them to stay on the attack. If we keep building momentum, we'll see ISIS' local tribal allies and other insurgent movements start to abandon it, and then you get that waterfall effect that you're looking for to push them back into the rural areas and to turn them back into an insurgent movement rather than a full scale army.

COSTELLO: All right, Michael Knights with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thank you for your insight. I appreciate it.

The other picture you see on your screen is from inside 10 Downing Street, where the prime minister, David Cameron, will soon speak about raising the threat level in Britain to severe, which means an attack is eminent. We'll talk more about that when I come back.


COSTELLO: All right, we are expecting the British prime minister, David Cameron, to appear behind that podium in just about two minutes. As we've been telling you, Britain raised its terror threat to severe, which means an attack is highly likely and, of course, it probably is doing this in light of all you've been hearing about ISIS' growing strength in Iraq and in Syria and all about the British nationals who, of course, have been going overseas to fight for ISIS. Again, we're expecting the British prime minister to speak at any time.

Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon for us. Also Juliette Kayyem is our national security analyst. She'll be along shortly. John Allen is here, he's our Vatican analyst, but you're important because there have been threats from ISIS against the Pope. We'll get into that in just a little bit.

But I do want to start with you, Barbara. It's kind of scary that Britain is raising its terror threat.


COSTELLO: Is it a harbinger of things to come here?

STARR: That remains to be seen at this point. I think what many nations are worried about right now is these foreign fighters with ISIS in Syria, possibly in Iraq, with visas and passports that will allow them to come back to their home countries in Europe and here in the United States and potentially carry out attacks. This is a growing concern in many European capitals. It is a concern in the United States.

What the U.S. intelligence community has said is that they're not sure in this country whether people are going to come back at the orders of ISIS and carry out an attack here or basically try and come back to the United States on their own and set up their own cells and engage in militant and terrorist activity here. Not clear that ISIS itself is ordering people back to their home countries and saying go and engage in attacks. ISIS very focused on the region, but also focused in the Middle East on attacking U.S. and western interests in that region.

So there's lots of concern all over the place, on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Washington and European capitals increasingly working very close together on trying to track these westerners, identify them, understand who they are, figure out where they are, and track their movements if they try and travel back either to Europe or to the United States. It's a huge effort with law enforcement agencies and intelligence services across Europe and in the United States. And, of course, this week we've seen at least one U.S. citizen who was killed in Syria fighting alongside ISIS, so this is part of the concern, these people that are going over there, joining up with ISIS, and what they may do next.


COSTELLO: All right, thank you, Barbara.

Let's head to London and check in with Erin McLaughlin.

Erin, if you -- set the scene for us. What happened this morning to prompt this news conference?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that this morning the home secretary, Theresa May, releasing a statement announcing that the threat level has been increased here in the United Kingdom from substantial to severe, meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely. It's the first time that the terror level or the threat level rather has been raised to severe in the past four years. Now, the statement went on to say that there's no information to

suggest that an attack is eminent, and that this is a judgment call based on immediate intelligence reports. Now we know that the British government authorities here in Europe have been very concerned about the events unfolding on the ground in Syria and Iraq, specifically with the estimated 400 to 500 British jihadis that have gone to Syria to fight on behalf of ISIS. Very concerned about that and clearly this is - this decision that they've taken today to make this announcement, again we're expecting to hear from the British Prime Minister David Cameron shortly, is a reflection of that concern, and it is meant to prompt security officials, both in the public and private sector, to be especially vigilant and they're asking for members of the public here in the United Kingdom to be especially aware of their surroundings at all times, on things such as public transportation, for any signs of anything unusual, and then to notify the police. But, again, we're waiting to hear from British Prime Minister David Cameron very shortly.


COSTELLO: Yes, he's expected to speak at any time. Erin, thank you very much.

Also on the phone with us, Juliette Kayyem, CNN's national security analyst.

Juliette, that the threat level was at severe, and I know Erin went over some of this, but what precautions is the British government likely to ask of British citizens and also of, you know, maybe train stations or airports, things like that?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST (via telephone): So, my guess is that this is or the reason why Britain is doing this is they have a lot of people under surveillance. There are increased concerns about what's happening in Syria. And it may be that they've lost track of people that they were following because it's -- I don't want to say this came out of the blue, but it is a heightened elevation that would come from likely intelligence that they may have lost, which is a clue that a cell or a group of people may have gone underground to attack.

So what they're going to do now is ask for increased vigilance of the British in terms of are they -- in particular communities that may know where people are, and to keep an eye on what is going on in their communities. And then you're just going to have, obviously, the increased physical presence, visual presence of police and other law enforcement officials in Britain at mass transportation given what happened on July 7th with the attacks several years back in the train and on the bus. I guess, and I am only guessing here, is that they'll probably also be increased vigilance of British nationals who are traveling in the Middle East and Europe and even the United States just for this period when Cameron has elevated the threat assessment.

COSTELLO: OK, Juliette, thanks so much.

I want to bring in John Allen now because there are security threats in many parts of the world, including in Italy, because supposedly ISIS has made a threat against Pope Francis.

JOHN ALLEN, CNN VATICAN ANALYST: Yes, well as opposed to the British government, which is raising its threat level, the Vatican is publicly playing down these threats saying they don't believe they're serious, that there's no climate of alarm. In part that's because this came from an Italian newspaper report citing unnamed officials in the Israeli security service. It's not clear whether there's any actual hard intelligence suggesting that some kind of strike is eminent.

You know, that said, Carol, given what's going on in the world today, I can guarantee you that Vatican security services right now are in conversations with their opposite numbers in Italy and the United States and other parts of the world trying to ascertain if there is something to be worried about here and, if so, what additional precautions they might need to take, which is, of course, in particular, a challenge with a spontaneous, free-wheeling pope like Francis who doesn't like to play by the security rules.

COSTELLO: Right, he's been very vocal in his tweets, right, about what's happening in Iraq. The Italian government, though, it's sort of focusing on Pope Francis. Maybe perhaps the Vatican security services is not, but certainly the Italian government is.

ALLEN: Well, behind the scenes, the Vatican security guys certainly are. Publicly, the Vatican always plays this kind of thing down. For one thing, because they don't want to make themselves a target. That is, if a group is not presently contemplating a strike on the pope, they don't want to be the ones to suggest it. You know, beyond that, I think the Vatican is also very concerned not to frame what's going on in Iraq exclusively as some kind of Christian v. Muslim conflict for fear of handing a propaganda tool to the radicals and also because it's not just the Christians who are in the --

COSTELLO: I see David Cameron coming out.

ALLEN: All right.

COSTELLO: Let's listen to the British prime minister.



Earlier today, the home secretary confirmed that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center has increased the threat level in the United Kingdom from substantial to severe. This is the first time in three years that the threat to our country has been at this level.

My first priority as prime minister is to make sure we do everything possible to keep our people safe. Today, I want to set out the scale and nature of the threat we face and a comprehensive approach you are -- that we are taking to combat it.

We've all been shocked and sickened by the barbaric murder of American journalist James Foley and by the voice by what increasingly seems to have been a British terrorist recorded on that video. It was clear evidence, not that any more was needed, that this is not some foreign conflict thousands of miles from home that we can hope to ignore.

The ambition to create an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and Syria is a threat to our own security here in the U.K. And that is in addition to the many other Al Qaida-inspired terrorist groups that exist in that region.

The first ISIL-inspired terrorist acts on the continent of Europe have already taken place. We now believe that at least 500 people have traveled from Britain to fight in Syria and potentially Iraq.

Let's be clear about the source of the threat that we face. The terrorist threat was not created by the Iraq war 10 years ago. It existed even before the horrific attacks on 9/11, themselves sometime before the Iraq war.

This threat cannot solved simply be dealing with the perceived grievances over Western foreign policy. Nor can it be dealt with by addressing poverty, dictatorship or instability in the region, as important as these things are.

The root cause of this threat to our security is quite clear. It is a poisonous ideology of Islamic extremism that is condemned by all faiths and all faith leaders. It believes in using the most brutal forms of terrorism to force people to accept a warped world view and to live in an almost medieval state, a state in which its own citizens would suffer unimaginable brutality, including barbaric beheadings of those who refuse to convert to their warped version of Islam, the enslavement and raping of women, and the widespread slaughter of Muslims by fellow Muslims. And, of course, the exporting of terrorism abroad.

So this is about a battle between Islam on the one hand and extremists who want to abuse Islam on the other. It is absolutely vital that we make this distinction between religion and political ideology.

Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. It is a source of spiritual guidance which daily inspires millions to countless acts of kindness.

Islamist extremism is a poisonous political ideology supported by a minority. These extremists, often funded by fanatics living comfortably far away from the battlefields, pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology. Now, this is not a new problem. We have seen this extremism

before here in our own country. We saw it with the sickening murder of Lee Rigby and we saw it, too, with the homegrown 7/7 bombers who blew up tube trains and buses.

The links between what happens overseas and what happens here has also always been there. Many of those who sought to do us harm in the past have been foreign nationals living in Britain or even British citizens who've returned from terrorist training camps in Pakistan or elsewhere around the world. But what we're facing in Iraq now with ISIL is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban were prepared to play host to Al Qaida, a terrorist organization. With ISIL, we are facing a terrorist organization not being hosted in a country but actually seeking to establish and then violently expand its own terrorist state.

And with designs on expanding to Jordan and Lebanon right up to the Turkish border, we could be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member.

Now we cannot appease this ideology; we have to confront it at home and abroad. To do this, we need a tough, intelligent, patient and comprehensive approach to defeat the terrorist threat at its source.

Tough, in that we need a firm security response, whether that is action to go after the terrorists, international cooperational intelligence and counterterrorism or uncompromising measures against terrorists here at home.

But it also must be an intelligent political response. We must use all the resources we have at our disposal, aid, diplomacy, political influence and our military.

Learning the lessons from the past doesn't mean that there isn't a place for our military. The military were vital in driving Al Qaida from Afghanistan and we support the U.S. airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq.

The key point is that military force is just one element of what we can do and we need a much wider approach working with neighbors in the region and addressing not just security but politics too. We know that terrorist organizations thrive where there is political instability and weak or dysfunctional political institutions.

So we must support the building blocks of democracy -- the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the rights of minorities, free media, free association, a proper place for -- in society for the army. And we must show perseverance, not because these building blocks -- not just because these building blocks take time to put in place but because we are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology that I believe we'll be fighting for years and probably decades.

We will always take whatever actions necessary to keep the British people safe here at home. Britain has some of the finest and most effective security and intelligence services anywhere in the world.

We will always act with urgency where needed, as we did with the emergency data retention legislation, which is already yielding results, and we've already taken a whole range of measures to keep our people safe.

We are stopping suspects from traveling by seizing passports, we're barring foreign nationals from reentering the U.K., we're depriving people of citizenship and we are legislating so we can prosecute people for all terrorist activity even where that activity takes place overseas.

We've also stepped up our operation response. Since last, we've seen a fivefold increase in Syria-related arrests, we've seen port stops and cash seizures grow by over 50 percent, we've taken down 28,000 pieces of extremist material off the Internet this year alone, including 46 ISIL-related videos, we've made clear that those who carry ISIL flags or seek to recruit to ISIL will be arrested and their materials seized and we've seen a 58 percent increase in referrals to our deradicalization program called the Channel Project.

Now people are rightly concerned about so-called foreign fighters who've travelled from Britain to Syria and Iraq, taken part in terrorist acts and now come back to threaten our security here at home and the scale of this threat is growing.

I said very clearly last week that there would be no knee-jerk reactions; we will respond calmly and with purpose and will do so driven by the evidence and the importance of maintaining the liberty that is the hallmark of the society that we defend.

But we have to listen carefully to the security and intelligence officers who do so much every day to keep us safe.

I chaired a meeting a week ago with our intelligence and security services and we agreed that the answer to this threat was not to dream up some sweeping new power that would be ineffective practice. But it is becoming clear that there are some gaps in our armory and we need to strengthen them.

We need to do more to stop people traveling, to stop those who -- who do go from returning and to deal decisively with those who are already here.

I'll be making a statement in the House of Commons on Monday. This would include further steps to stop people traveling with new legislation that will make it easier to take people's passports away.

Now, as well as being tough, patient and intelligent, we also need to take a comprehensive approach.