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Gunman Linked to ISIS; Pamela Geller and Free Speech; Obama to Address Turmoil; Baltimore's Disadvantaged Neighborhoods. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired May 4, 2015 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: For our international views, "Amanpour" is coming up next. For our viewers in North America, "Newsroom" with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Wolf Blitzer, thank you so much. Great to be with all of you on this Monday. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Got to get to these huge developments out of Texas today where this ISIS sympathizer and his accomplice have been killed after opening fire outside this exhibit. This exhibit was featuring cartoon drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. The event, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which some critics describe as a hate group, offered as much as $10,000 for the best cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, knowing full well that Muslims consider any depiction of the prophet blasphemous and knowing such offenses in the past have been met with deadly violence. But this time the gunmen were the only ones to die.


JOE HARN, GARLAND, TEXAS POLICE: And about ten minutes to 7:00, a dark-colored vehicle pulled up to the west entrance parking lot. There was a police officer, a police car there blocking that entrance with a police officer in it, along with a GISD (ph) security officer. When that car pulled up and stopped, those officers began to exit their vehicle, and two men exited the dark-colored sedan. Both of them had assault rifles, came around the back of the car, and started shooting at the police car. The police officer in that car began returning fire and struck both men, taking them down.


BALDWIN: Let me share this with you as well here. This is a photo of one of the shooters, Elton Simpson of Phoenix. It is believed it was Simpson who sent a tweet prior to the attack claiming responsibility. And in part it reads, "may Allah accept us as Mujahedeen," which translates to those engaged in jihad, and using #texasattack.

Joining me now, Paul Cruickshank, our CNN terrorism analyst there in London.

Paul Cruickshank, I mean, listen, you know, you have plots. We've talked about lone wolves. But this man was actually in communication with actual ISIS members. You know, social media links to ISIS. To me that seems pretty significant.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, very significant indeed, Brooke. And in that tweet you just put up on screen, he's actually, it would appear, declaring allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, in the minutes before launching this attack, saying both he and his fellow attacker were pledging allegiance to the commander of the faithful, by which he very likely means Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. And also reaching out on Twitter to this British ISIS fighter in Syria before the attack, calling on his Twitter followers to follow this British ISIS fighter, essentially appointing him as his spokesman after the attack so that ISIS can have some ownership over it for propaganda purposes.

So this does appear to be an ISIS-inspired attack. The second ISIS- inspired attack we've seen in the United States. Back last October you'll recall that there was that hatchet attack on NYPD officers in Queens, New York. But there's growing concern about this. More than 30 Americans have now been charged for material support for ISIS. And we've seen sort of a number of plots now thwarted in the United States, people talking about launching attacks.

BALDWIN: But here's -- here's my question, following up when you mention the hatchet attack. I mean I know ISIS was sort of encouraging specific types of plots. And so do we know yet whether or not ISIS headquarters, for lack of a better phrase, you know, said to this guy, Elton Simpson, go commit this attack, or was he simply inspired by the ideology that is ISIS?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, that's something the FBI, Brooke, are going to be looking at very closely. I think all the indications at this point is this is basically a lone wolf attack by a couple of guys who had become radicalized, who then I want (ph) to (ph) say decided to launch an attack, reached out to ISIS for some help on the propaganda side. But this guy, Simpson, has a long track record in jihad. In --

BALDWIN: He was on probation.

CRUICKSHANK: Well, absolutely. And between 2006 and 2010, the FBI launched this sting operation against him. He's recorded telling an informer that he wants to go and fight in Somalia. He's then convicted of lying to an FBI officer and sent to prison. And it's when he gets out of prison a number of years later that he then eventually launches this attack. So a lot of questions about this, given he was on the FBI radar screen. How on earth was he able to get ahold of an assault rifle given that fact, Brooke.

BALDWIN: All right, Paul Cruickshank, thank you so much.

I want to bring in Stephanie Conway now. She's the field coordinator for Turning Point USA.

Stephanie, you know, you were there over the weekend. And correct me, but I understand you actually weren't there in a position covering the Muhammad exhibit when this shooting happened. Just clarify for me why it was you wanted to go. [14:05:07] STEPHANIE CONWAY, FIELD COORDINATOR, TURNING POINT USA: I

was not there actually covering it. I had just heard about it that morning and thought it would be an interesting event to go to. I really value free speech and seeing lots of different ideas, whether they're more abrasive or less abrasive. And I thought it would just be interesting to see what it is they had to put on and what kind of pieces were submitted to the contest itself.

BALDWIN: So let's just talk about -- let me begin with the security. Just to access this event, to walk inside, what did you have to go through?

CONWAY: There was massive security presence. You weren't even able to get your car into the lot without having your name on a list of people that had previously purchased tickets and signed up to attend this event. You were sent through metal detectors. If you had a belt or nails in your boots, you were then wanded and then you were allowed into the event.

BALDWIN: I mean from, you know, law enforcement talking this morning at this news conference, I understand, you know, this organization that put it on, you know, spared no expense. $30,000 on security. So I'm then wondering, what was the mood? I mean were people fearful that an attack was possible? Was that palpable or not at all?

CONWAY: I'm sorry?

BALDWIN: Was the -- what was the mood? I mean since they spent thousands of dollars on security, was there a fear of a possible attack?

CONWAY: The mood actually was very calm. I think we all understood what could possibly happen. I was familiar with Pamela Gellar's work before I attended this even. At the most I expected protesters. And I think that was the feeling throughout the room. There wasn't any kind of unease. People were calm and seemed comfortable and content with what was going on and where they were.

BALDWIN: All right. So were you taking part in any of the drawing itself or you simply wanted to go because, you know, free speech, you just wanted to take it in, in this Dallas suburb?

CONWAY: I just wanted to take it in. I didn't submit any drawings. I didn't make any drawings. We only heard about it that morning. So we decided to make a Sunday afternoon out of kind of seeing what it was that they wanted to bring to Irving, or to Garland.

BALDWIN: To Garland. So why -- do you live in this community? Do you live outside of Dallas? Because I understand most of the people who went were actually from out of town and I'm wondering how the community -- I understand from folks who live in the area that this was something that was not wanted there.

CONWAY: I live outside of Garland. I'm closer to Dallas. I don't know what the community feeling on it was. I know that after the area went on lockdown, there were quite a few people who were not happy with what was going on. But overall, I hadn't really heard anything about this event until yesterday morning.

BALDWIN: Do you think -- final question, do you think, you know, the message of this event, was it, in the end, was it worth it?

CONWAY: I think any time that you want to advocate for free speech and you get kind of what Pamela Gellar was enticing them to do, then it's worth it because we should never fear what we're saying and what you're drawing. There should always be a peaceful way to counter what you don't agree with. They could have been a great opportunity here for massive protests against this, against blasphemy against the prophet, and that opportunity was not taken. And I think that shines a light on our lack, really, of understanding the different ends of free speech that are possible.

BALDWIN: Stephanie Conway, I appreciate your perspective. Thank you. Obviously a number of people would disagree with Stephanie. And she also mentioned a name. You perhaps have never heard of Pamela Gellar before. She is definitely no stranger to controversy. So coming up, you're going to hear from someone who wrote an entire chapter in his book about her, about her group, and you'll hear from Pamela Gellar herself in a fiery interview. That's coming up.

Also ahead, we'll take you live to the shooter's apartment where the feds are now searching for evidence and whether there are any other threats here.

And moments from now, President Obama is expected to mention the unrest in Baltimore as he's set to give a speech on "My Brother's Keeper" program and could possible address those charges against every single one of those six police officers there in Baltimore. We'll take it live.

Stay with me. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN.


[14:13:32] BALDWIN: You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Back to our breaking news.

Political commentator and conservative blogger Pam Geller, she was the organizer of Sunday's art festival in Garland, Texas, where these two gunmen opened fire at an exhibit of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, known for what critics call her anti-Islamic positions. Geller calls those who attack free speech, quote, "savages." Her proponents praise her for sounding the alarms of the dangers of Islamist extremism and protecting democratic values. Geller told CNN that while she was not expecting the attack on Sunday, she admits she wasn't too surprised, but she still stands by her stance that the discussion about anti-jihadism must happen.


PAM GELLER, ORGANIZED "DRAW MOHAMMED" CONTEST: There's a problem in Islam. And the problem is, we can't talk about the problem. We are seeing the wholesale slaughter of Christians in Iraq and in Syria. In Nigeria, in the Congo, Central African Republic, the jihad is raging. And all we can talk about is backlash-a-phobia. It's nonsense. We have to be able to discuss. And when you say it's -- I'm anti-Muslim, excuse me, I'm anti-jihad. And anyone that says that I'm anti-Muslim is implying that all Muslims support jihad.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, ANCHOR, CNN'S "NEW DAY": Well, sure, but, I mean the reason --

GELLER: That sounds -- that sounds Islam-a-phobic to me. That sounds Islam-a-phobic to me.

CAMEROTA: But the reason that people --

[14:14:50] GELLER: The First Amendment, not the eighth, not the tenth, but the first, protects all speech, not just ideas that we like but even core political speech, ideas that we don't like because who would decide what's good and what's forbidden? The Islamic state? The government? Inoffensive speech, Alisyn, needs no protection. But in a pluristic (ph) society, you have offensive speech. You have ideas. You have an exchange of ideas. You don't shut down a discussion because I'm offended.


BALDWIN: Joining me now, Luther College professor of religion Todd Green. He's also the author of "The Fear of Islam," which examines America's and Europe's views of Islam.

And, so welcome, Todd. I know, you know, you spent an entire chapter in your book on this woman and the term savagery is how she often describes the actions of those extremist followers of Islam. Can we just begin with, you know, who is she and how did she even, you know, become such a lightning rod?

TODD GREEN, AUTHOR, "THE FEAR OF ISLAM": Well, first of all, Brooke, thanks for having me.

Pamela Geller has been around for a while. But in terms of her career as an anti-Islam activist, probably for about a decade she's been pretty seriously devoted to this, blogging particularly on her website about Muslims and Islam and demonizing Muslims. But it's really in 2010 and the part 51 controversy in lower Manhattan that she really shot to fame when (INAUDIBLE) to really what I call becoming one of the main leaders of the Islam-a-phobia industry. It's because of the quote/unquote ground zero mosque controversy that we know who she is today.

BALDWIN: OK. And so just listening to her exchange with my colleague, Alisyn Camerota, she's -- Pamela Geller was saying, I'm not anti- Muslim, I'm anti-jihad. So it sounds like she has some very specific beliefs, whether you agree with her or not. I mean what exactly does she believe when it comes to Muslims and Islam?

GREEN: Pamela Geller believes that Islam is inherently violent, inherently prone to terrorism and should be condemned wholesale. This is not someone who minces words. This is not someone who has a nuanced perspective on Islam or its 1.6 billion practitioners. And that's one of the reasons why the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti- defamation League have both condemned her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, as a hate group.

BALDWIN: You -- bigger picture, Todd. You wrote this whole book on Islam-a-phobia, you know, here in America. What did you find? What do you think would most surprise us?

GREEN: Well, that this is a very long history in terms of the anxieties and the fears and really the hostilities towards Islam and Muslims in the west. This goes all the way back to the middle ages. And it's alive and well today in the 21st century. So its longevity certainly I think would be a surprise to a lot of people that a lot of these anxieties aren't particularly new. And some of the threads connecting these anxieties over the centuries are pretty similar, particularly the political concerns that westerners have. (INAUDIBLE) and Islam as basically an obstacle to imperial ambitions and western (INAUDIBLE). That was a concern five centuries ago. It's a concern in the 21st century as well.

BALDWIN: Five centuries ago. It's been around a long, long time. Todd Green, the author of "The Fear of Islam." Thank you so much, sir, for your time. I appreciate it today.

Coming up next, big event in the Bronx. Any minute now, we are watching and waiting for the president of the United States. He's set to give remarks at a college campus, Lehman College there in the Bronx, in New York City. A re-launch of his effort known as My Brother's Keeper. And he will likely focus some of his comments on what we've seen happen in Baltimore. Will he mention any of the charges against those six police officers there? We're going to take that live.

Plus, I was in that neighborhood. I was walking the streets where, you know, Freddie Gray lived, was arrested. I talked to people who grew up there. So we'll share parts of those interviews as well, some of the issues they see and live through each and every day.


[4:23:04] BALDWIN: Moments from now, an event that perhaps hints at what President Obama will do once he leaves the presidency. Live pictures here. My Brother's Keeper event at Lehman College in the Bronx. Yet the president focusing on a struggle he is facing in the here and now, the lack of opportunity for young minority men and boys. The president is set to announce he's spinning off his initiative, My Brother's Keeper, which develops mentorships and other programs. And it's an initiative that's turning into a nonprofit. And while the president is making his announcement there in the Bronx, there is no doubt of Baltimore's relevance here.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Thank you for everything you did.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BALDWIN: Just one week after the demonstrations, the riots there over the death of a young man in police custody, the curfew is gone. The National Guard on its way out of Baltimore. And six police officers have been charged in Freddie Gray's death. But the protest for change in disadvantaged communities certainly still persists. So first we go to the Bronx, to White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski there, following the president and his big event at Lehman College.

First, just set it up. And exactly what do you think the president's message will be?


Yes, well, I think it's pretty much assured that we'll hear something on what's been going on in Baltimore. Even if he's not going to get into specifics again, because we have heard him speak now twice on that subject, at least one of those times pretty forcefully, using direct language that surprised some people. And we asked that question, too, as to whether the timing of this announcement, that My Brother's Keeper was going to turn into this private, non-profit that's going to last beyond his presidency this is timed because of what happened in Baltimore. The White House said, no, that this -- this has been planned for some time. But it fits right along with those themes. And some of the questions that the White House has been getting over the last couple of weeks of what can the White House do, what can we do on a national level to try to help people within these communities?

[14:25:03] It goes along with some of what the president has been saying about trying to offer more opportunity and more investment in these communities. So we know he's going to talk about the need for that. And I think everybody's watching to see what exactly more he's going to say on Baltimore and how this might tie into that, Brooke.

BALDWIN: We'll be watching for it. We'll take it live. Michelle Kosinski, thank you so much.

Let me also just mention, we'll be talking to Alonso Morning (ph), yes the Alonso Morning, who's a buddy of the president and also shares those same values of helping underprivileged kids in the country. So we'll talk to Alonso about that in just a bit.

Focusing now, though, on Baltimore, which is going to enter its second night without a curfew here. There's a phenomenal essay on and it details how the west Baltimore of today, the site of all these uprisings and demonstrations and some of the rallies, may have been even more disadvantaged than, say, a generation ago. It's a piece entitled "Lord of the Flies Comes to Baltimore" and its writer, CNN's John Blake, joins me from his city, from his hometown.

John Blake, it is truly a pleasure to have you on. I thought the piece was wonderful. And if I may, can we just begin how you open the piece. You talk about your neighbor back in the day, this man by the name of -- who you call Mr. Shields. Who was he?

JOHN BLAKE, CNN ENTERPRISE WRITER/PRODUCER: Yes, Mr. Shields was like a -- he's a very common sight in my neighborhood. He was a working- class black man who worked at a steel plant. And he was kind of like the neighborhood figure that we all looked up to. So, for example, if I walked to my corner store, I would see Mr. Shields. I would say hi to him. Then up the street, I would see a Mr. Street. Then I would see another Mr. Person. So there were all these men that surrounded us that we looked up to.

BALDWIN: I'm going to loop back to that point in a minute. But you write, quote, "it's surreal to see your old neighborhood go up in flames as commentators try to explain the rage with various complex racial and legal theories, but when I return to my home this week, the rage made sense to me." How did it make sense to you?

BLAKE: Well, because there were no men, there were none of the kind of -- there wasn't that kind of support system that I had when I was there. When I was there, the city was full of rec centers, full of baseball league. There were summer jobs. All those were gone. So I feel like there's all this rage and anger, and there's no men to guide it, no older men to guide it and there's no infrastructure in place for jobs or for rec centers, for young men to vent out this energy.

BALDWIN: The little league fields, all of that. I --


BALDWIN: All of those -- these opinions were voiced to me last week. And so connect this to the "Lord of the Flies," the 1954 novel where you have this, you know, crash landing of this plane, all the adults die, ultimately, you know, it's kids building this society without supervision. And as you write, they descend into tribalism and savagery. So connect that to me with what's happening with young men and this lack of, you know, role models in these communities.

BLAKE: Yes, I think at a certain point young men start to tune out women. And I think, for example, when a guy gets around 15, 16 or 17, he's more prone to listen to a man. But if a man isn't there, a young man's internal moral compass won't really develop. And it's so easy for him to veer off into really savage directions. I looked back, when I was growing up in west Baltimore, and I think of some of the things I did that were so stupid, that were so savage, but I had people around me that gradually pulled me away from that and they almost all of them were men.

BALDWIN: So is it because there is this sort of lack of, you know, solid working class, blue-collar jobs right now? I know you pointed out the lack of rec centers and little league fields, you know. And -- but I also measure that with one sense of personal responsibility, growing up, no matter what neighborhood you're in, and knowing the difference between right and wrong.

John Blake, did I lose you? You're live on TV. Oh, I hate when that happens. John Blake. The wonderful essay. It's on Check it out.

Meantime, stand by for President Obama's remarks. We'll take it live. More on our breaking news. Also, how we are now hearing the identities of the two men who opened fire in Texas outside that event that featured this contest to draw a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Breaking details on their connections to ISIS and the FBI search going on in their homes right now. Stay with me.