Return to Transcripts main page


Israel: Downed Iranian Drone Based on U.S. Drone; Elusive ISIS Leader Baghdadi Injured in Airstrike Last May; Suspicious Letter Sent to Donald Trump Jr's Home, 3 Taken to Hospital; Al Shabaab Terrorists Profit from Aid for Somali Refugees; Obamas Speak at Official Portrait Unveiling. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 12, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:34:16] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Israel said it intercepted an Iranian drone launch from inside Syria and that the drone itself was based on stolen U.S. technology.

I want to bring in CNN's Ian Lee joining us from the Golan Heights right now

Ian, how did Iran get their hands on this type of U.S. technology?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Israeli officials say this drone was a copy of an American R.Q.-170, also known as a Sentinel. This is a stealth drone operated by the U.S. military.

In 2011, the CIA was operating one of these drones over Iran when they lost it. The United States asked for it back. Iran said no.

In 2014, Iran said they were able to reverse engineer the technology from that drone, although it doesn't look like they weren't able to be 100 percent at this process because Israeli officials tell us they were able to monitor it from the moment it took off until it entered Israeli air space and they were able to shoot it down. Now experts are combing through that wreckage to find out exactly what the Iranians did learn.

They're also trying to figure out what its mission was. Israeli officials aren't telling us what they believe it was, but they did say they don't believe it had offensive capability. Was it on a reconnaissance mission? Was it testing Israeli's air defense capabilities?

Wolf, it reminds of an old Proverb, when you're probing with bayonets, when you hit mush, push. When you hit steel, stop. But Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said they dealt Iran and Syria a severe blow inside Syria in retaliation for the incursion of this drone, as well as the shooting down of one of their F-16s by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. They also went after a number of sites, Iranian and Syrian, inside of Syria.

Now, the question is, was that enough steel to stop any potential further incursions -- Wolf? [13:36:16] BLITZER: It sounds like that is escalating big time.

We'll see what happens in days to come.

Ian Lee, up on the Golan Heights for us, thank you very much.

At the same time, CNN is learning that the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr el Baghdadi, was badly wounded in an airstrike targeting an ISIS stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, last May. Sources say his injuries were so severe that he gave up control of the terror group for up to five months while he recuperated. It's unclear whose airstrike injured Baghdadi or if he was the specific target or what's known as collateral damage.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, has that CNN exclusive.

Nick, Baghdadi's injuries came at a time when ISIS was already losing its grip on Raqqa.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A key time, really. His injuries occurred near Raqqa itself would suggest possibly as the news came in around May of last year when the U.S.- backed Kurdish forces were responsible for kicking ISIS out that October. Perhaps that's when he chose to flee the city itself.

We know, as you said, for about four or five months he had to relinquish control of the organization. That was also the beginning of the time when they lost control of Mosul City, the old city itself slipping out of their hands in about June or July. So there were moments of territorial change and loss for the group, too.

The key question is exactly who fired the missile that appears to have injured him. The Americans say they don't have an exact date. And while there were predominant forces dropping bombs around Raqqa, the Russians, too, in one of their rare airstrikes there, did claim in June that a May airstrike had injured or killed Baghdadi. They weren't entirely clear. The Americans are dismissive of that. But it does add to the broader picture of a man very much on the run. The Americans have high confidence, they say, in this notion of him being injured in May. They say it depended upon testimony from ISIS detainees and refugees as well.

And now they believe he may finally be on the run in the Syrian/Iraqi border area known as Jazera (ph). That is a very large wasteland of desert, sparsely populated. One onto which the Syrian Kurdish forces the U.S. are assisting are putting a lot of pressure right now trying to find him and cut off ISIS escape routes into perhaps around the valley around there, maybe even into Iraq.

But this final end game against ISIS, something the U.S. is putting intense pressure into. Now this final figurehead, if you like, of ISIS, Abu Bakr el Baghdadi himself, only has been in public once. And it, of course, keep rising -- Wolf?

BLITZER: To be precise, Nick, they don't know who warplanes leveled that attack that wounded Abu Bakr el Baghdadi? PATON WALSH: That's the summation of the intelligence here. They are

aware he was injured in May. They don't know exactly when in May. They are confident he was injured in May. But they can't tell exactly what date that was. They can't work out precisely who was in operation in the skies above Raqqa on that particular day.

But it's important to have that kind of detail to know he was out of action that long. It certainly traces perhaps some sense as to why a message emerged in September, allegedly from Mr. Baghdadi himself, in which he tried to prove to others after that Russian claim that he was still alive -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you for that report.

Another story we're getting word on, just coming in to CNN, a letter sent to the apartment of Donald Trump Jr in New York that contained an unidentified white powder.

Our national correspondent, Jason Carroll, is getting new information.

Jason, tell us what you learned.

[13:39:53] JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This happened around 10:00 a.m. this morning, Wolf. This is when, apparently, a letter addressed to Donald Trump Jr's upper eastside apartment. His wife, Vanessa, opened that letter this morning shortly after 10:00 a.m. A suspicious substance, a white powder, fell out of that envelope. And as a precaution, Vanessa Trump and two others were taken to a local hospital here in New York City. Again, this was just as a precaution. She did not apparently have an immediate reaction to it after she had opened that envelope early this morning.

Again, Vanessa Trump and two others taken to a local hospital, just as a precaution. Again, after this happened, Wolf, the experts there on the ground initiated decontamination efforts. Again, we just want to emphasize this, again, just as a precaution. Vanessa Trump and two others taken to a local hospital after she opened an envelope at the couple's apartment, that envelope containing a suspicious white powder at their upper eastside apartment -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Once you get some more information, let us know.

Jason, thank you very much.

That's a disturbing story right there.

Coming up, a CNN investigation finds relief money meant to fight famine and drought in Africa is indirectly funding the terror group al Shabaab. Our exclusive report from Somalia coming up.

Plus, the former first couple making rare statements at the Smithsonian. Their official portraits were unveiled. What they said and why it turned emotional.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:45:00] BLITZER: They are refugees from in a humanitarian crisis, trying desperately to escape the famine and the fighting in Somalia. Now their suffering is being exploited by the murderous terror group al Shabaab.

In this exclusive reporter, CNN's senior international correspondent, Sam Kiley, shows us how foreign aid for the refugees is ending up in the hands of terrorists.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Vialia (ph), the center of Somalia's humanitarian disaster, and a source of ready cash for al Shabaab terrorists.

(on camera): First of all, we need to talk to the guy who knows most about the financing.


KILEY (voice-over): Somali National Intelligence offices are taking us inside a secret prison for al Shabaab. Captured a few days earlier, this former al Shabaab fighter was at the front line of its fundraising, collecting thousands of dollars of road tolls, much of it taken from trucks delivering food for refugees.

It's a cycle of exploitation that has victims at its very core. Hundreds of thousands of them. Many in receipt of money from foreign donors.

(on camera): This is Budan Refugee Camp. There are a steady flow of refugees coming in here every day. It's impossible to access without an escort from the African Union. And people fleeing here are fleeing drought and they're fleeing conflict. It's those two combinations that are so profitable for groups like al Shabaab and other warlords.

(voice-over): This family once had dozens of goats and seven cows. Drought and conflict have driven her onto the road and now she has nothing.


KILEY: But destitute, she is still a source of income for al Shabaab.

And 270,000 refugees now live in Baidoa and more come every day. And this is where the terrorist group profits.

Now an agent for the government, this man was an al Shabaab tax collector for eight years. Merchants bring in food for sale to refugees, pay al Shabaab to get to Baidoa, and tax them there, too.

(on camera): And if they don't pay?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are captured and killed.

KILEY (voice-over): He told me al Shabaab made about $3 on every bag of rice delivered to Baidoa.

(on camera): So this doesn't work. You say this doesn't work. The U.N. is still indirectly paying tax to al Shabaab.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's correct.

KILEY: Vialia (ph) was at the center of manmade famine that killed 300,000 in 1992, a quarter of a million in 2012, and one that is headed off by aid last year.

To avoid theft of supplies, the U.N. switched to directly transferring cash to refugees last year and that shifted responsibility for moving food from merchants. But al Shabaab has continued to profit.

(on camera): Arguably, then there is actually an incentive for al Shabaab to concentrate people in Baidoa, focus the aid delivery there, and just scoop off three bucks a bag?

MICHAEL KEATING, U.N. SPECIAL ENVOY OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL: I think that's probably right. And the thing is how to mitigate and manage those kinds of problems. I mean, and what is the alternative?

KILEY (voice-over): The U.N. estimates that a single al Shabaab roadblock along this Mogadishu route generates $5,000 a day for the terrorist group.

The country's roads have become al Shabaab's financial blood supply.

Twenty-two thousand African troops have been fighting the terrorists, but they're due to pull out in two years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That will affect the operation in Mogadishu.

KILEY (on camera): That will leave a vacuum that al Shabaab can step into?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. It will leave a vacuum.

KILEY (voice-over): And a vacuum would leave al Shabaab better able to exploit refugees.

Sam Kiley, CNN, Baidoa.


[13:50:05] BLITZER: Thanks to Sam for that exclusive report.

Other news we are following here in Washington, as the president seems to dismiss the "Me Too" movement, one of his accusers about to join CNN live to respond to his defense of the former aide accused of domestic abuse. Stand by for that.

Plus, the White House getting ready to respond as the spotlight turns to the chief of staff, the White House counsel, among others. You are looking at live pictures from the briefing room. We are standing by for the briefing. We'll take it live. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Former president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, were back in the public eye in Washington for a rite of passage today. The couple's official portraits for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery were unveiled today. They both selected their own artists for the paintings. Former President Obama chose Kehinde Wiley and said he was struck by how Whiley's portraits lifted people up.


[13:55:12] BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That was something that moved me deeply because, in my small way, that's part of what I believe politics should be about, is not simply celebrating the high and mighty and expecting that the country unfolds from the top, down, but rather it comes from the bottom, up.


BLITZER: Our White House reporter, Kate Bennett, joins us now.

Michelle Obama also had some pretty powerful words at this ceremony.

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. And, Wolf, I believe the artists' paintings were so much more important that the actual paintings themselves, if that makes sense.

For Michelle Obama, she was thinking about the impact the painting would have on future generations and girls like her.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm also thinking of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who, in years ahead, they will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on this wall of this great American institution.


MICHELLE OBAMA: And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.


BENNETT: A lot of people are saying the portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald doesn't look like her. And, in some ways, people could say, traditionally, it is not portrait you might expect of a first lady or even of a president. I think the opportunity to pick artists that have more of a cultural representation, whose work reflects social justice or messaging, was paramount to them in this case. Michelle Obama, again, her face isn't smiling, her hand is resting, but she spent many hours with the artist so that she could capture what she felt was Michelle Obama.

BLITZER: Tell us more, Kate, about the artists the Obamas selected. BENNETT: So Kehinde Wiley is exceptional. He typically paints hip-

hop figures and average African-American men that he finds on the street. He does so in a way that reflects the old masters. He sets them in portraits that are regal and feel empowered and different. The background, you might just think it is greenery and beautiful. But the flowers represent Barack Obama's past. So there is a chrysanthemum, which is a Chicago city flower, lilies and jasmine representing Africa and Hawaii. Certainly, everything in the portrait is symbolic. He did portraits of Biggie Smalls and L. Cool J. So, again, this is an artist Barack Obama wanted to reflect and shed some light on.

BLITZER: The former president also spoke about being out of the public spotlight for a little while. Listen to this.


OBAMA: We miss you guys. And --



OBAMA: We miss you guys. And we miss those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves and worked so hard to make this country a better place.


BLITZER: It's not every day the two of them are out there publicly. It's been more than a year now since they have been in the White House.

BENNETT: Exactly. They were just out on the town on date night for Michelle Obama's birthday though. In these moments when we see them together interacting, you can tell they really respect each other and each other's work. It was funny today when Barack Obama thanked the artist for capturing the way his wife looked and her grace and beauty and also her hotness.


OBAMA: Let's face it. Kehinde, relative to Amy, was working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming.


Not as fly.


Michelle always used to joke, I am not somebody who is a great subject. I don't like posing. I get impatient. I look at my watch. I think this must be done. One of those pictures must have worked, why is this taking so long?


BLITZER: Those portraits are at the National Portrait Gallery. Others will be hanging at the White House.

BENNETT: Right. These will be the official portraits for the gallery. His will be in the Hall of Presidents. Hers will go into a separate gallery where other first lady portraits are at the National Portrait Gallery. The public can see them. And check them out in person for all their differences.

BLITZER: A lot of people will want to see them.

Kate, thank you.

That's it for me. Thank you very much for watching. I'll be back at 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

In the meantime, the news continues right now.