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Paris Attack Leader on Greek Island Before Attack; Schools Shut Down over Homework Assignment; Will Smith Talks NFL, Politics; "Star Wars" Movie Gets Rave Reviews. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 18, 2015 - 11:30   ET



[11:31:03] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: New this morning, French authorities say the Paris attack ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, he was on the Greek island of Leros weeks before the horrific attack. At that point, he was already a wanted man for a suspected role in a Belgian terror plot that was thwarted back in January.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now officials are investigating whether he exploited the refugee process to slip into Europe undetected.

CNN's Sara Sidner is on the Greek island of Lesbos with more -- Sara.


SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Here on the island of Lesbos, we are seeing dozens and dozens of refugees coming off boats. So far, in just the last few hours, we have seen five boats filled with people, mostly children. They are freezing. There are families here. People are crying, children are crying.

There are also people here volunteering their time. There are also the Coast Guard here, helping people bring the boats in of have choppy seas. This is the scene every few hours here, boats are coming in.

Of course, there is a great deal of concern, especially in Europe, about security, because of what they just learned about the main mastermind really, the ringleader of these attacks in Paris. So there is a lot of concern about whether or not Greece is able to check papers, for example, and find out what people are up to. A very difficult situation. The vast majority of these people are simply refugees looking for a better life.


BERMAN: Sara Sidner for us. Thanks so much.

Officials say the number of refugees entering Europe by land and sea will hit one million by the end of this year.

I want to bring in CNN national security analyst, Juliette Kayyem.

Juliette, we hear that report and we hear the news Abdelhamid Abaaoud tried to get -- at least was there. We don't know whether he snuck in. We don't know whether he was meeting somebody. We do know these terrorists were using this process, or at least wanted to be connected to it somehow. Do you think this was politics or expediency?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It may be both, John. From your reporter out there, this is the challenge, a million women and children, essentially, and men, fleeing a country and trying to find peace for themselves and a new life. You have one terrorist, right, who may have been there. We don't know why he was there. That's the challenge, is how do you show the sort of sympathy we need to show and relieve the pressure on Greece, Turkey and these other countries that are feeling a refugee crisis they cannot stop at this stage, but also protect U.S. and Western citizens from this one guy going through. So the Greeks are going to need more help from an international community, in particular Interpol, because a lot of these guys are already on their list. The mastermind here was already being looked for. So we just don't know why he was on Greece at this stage, if he exploited the refugee crisis or he was there for another reason.

BOLDUAN: Fear surrounding terrorists exploiting the refugee process is something that's obviously a huge fear here, a huge part of the political conversation here in the United States right now. President Obama is holding his year-end press conference later today. Just yesterday, the president said once again there is no credible threat towards -- in the United States of a terror attack heading into the holidays. We've heard him say that in the past. The timing of it, inopportune, because we've also seen people have died shortly after he's said this previously. What in the national security world, your friends, your sources, what do they think when the president makes a statement like this?

KAYYEM: Well, he's telling the truth to the extent that everything followed at this stage does not suggest imminency. But the reality is, in none of these cases is there that trigger we know, OK, something's about to happen. It's incredibly rare in counterterrorism circles to have that moment where you can stop it. That's the challenge for Democrats and Republicans. Is in a world as men and women, as we've seen, get radicalized online, essentially, have access to arms, and an infinite number of soft targets. You'll never make America's soft targets hardened. There will be those moments we cannot capture. That's the challenge going into the holiday season because people are moving. People are -- you know, you're just going to have a lot more soft targets.

[11:35:53] BOLDUAN: Absolutely. That's also one of the motivations behind, the secretary of Homeland Security, he -- they are changing the threat system with all of these concerns in mind.

Juliette, thank you.

KAYYEM: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us still, parents up in arms. An entire school district shut down today after a teacher hands out a homework assignment. Homework assignment involved Arabic writing and the Islamic Statement of faith. BERMAN: Is the former Fresh Prince setting his sights on the

presidency? Actor Will Smith talks to CNN about a potential White House bid and, more importantly, his controversial new film about concussions in the NFL.


BERMAN: New this morning, a community in Virginia is furious after a public school teacher handed out a homework assignment about Islam. The outrage today prompted officials to close all schools in the county as a safety precaution.

BOLDUAN: The assignment, copy Arabic calligraphy that read this, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

Let's bring in CNN's national correspondent, Jason Carroll.

Jason, tell us about this homework assignment and what happened in this town since.

[11:40:07] JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: First of all, it just gives you a sense of how sensitive communities are. This was a homework assignment handed out in a world geography class at Riverhead High School in Stanton, Virginia. We should be clear, this was a calligraphy assignment. Ninth grade students were asked to copy Arabic writings. According to the school district, it said, "Here is the Shahada (ph), the Islamic Statement of faith written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."

A number of parents were upset by the assignment. Throughout the week, the school said it received threatening calls about the assignment. As a result, the district canceled all classes today. It serves some 10,000 students.

Many parents have accused the teacher of trying to indoctrinate their children with Islam. Some students and parents speaking out at a local church.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Why couldn't we just learn to write hello, good-bye, you know, normal words. Not that.

KIMBERLY HERNDON, MOTHER: I will not have my children set under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I'm a Christian and I want to stand behind Christ.


CARROLL: The Augusta School District released a statement saying, "As we have emphasized no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student's religious belief. Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the State Board of Education and the commonwealth standards of learning a different nonreligious example of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future."

I just got off the phone with the local sheriff. They gave me a little more information about this. He tells me, first of all, this was part of a standard workbook --


BOLDUAN: She did not create this?

CARROLL: She did not create this. Apparently, this teacher has assigned a very similar assignment in the past. There was -- no one said boo about it basically until now. We also made an attempt to reach out to the teacher but we were unable to reach her.

BERMAN: The sheriff -- what's the atmosphere in the town?

CARROLL: Clearly, the sheriff says they're somewhat overwhelmed by the number -- the school was overwhelmed by the number of hate mail and e-mails they received.

BOLDUAN: Is that why they shut it down? I don't --


CARROLL: You know, I believe so. Because the sheriff says they received -- even though there was no specific threat to the school, they just felt uncomfortable with the number of hate mails and e-mails and phone calls they were receiving about this particular assignment.

BERMAN: Jason Carroll, thanks so much.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Jason.

Coming up for us, he recently called out Donald Trump on his comments about Muslims and Mexicans, but is Actor Will Smith really considering his own White House run? The former "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" sits down with CNN. Cue the music.

BERMAN: Plus, the most anticipated film in the galaxy.

BOLDUAN: Oh, really?

BERMAN: It is finally in theaters. Jason Carroll, by the way, has seen it.

BOLDUAN: Tell us all about it. Spoil it for him.

BERMAN: He's sworn to silence.

Does it live up to the hype? Stay with us.



[11:47:00] BOLDUAN: One of the biggest Hollywood stars, Will Smith, is speaking out about football. It is the focus of his new movie "Concussion." And he is playing the doctor who discovered the link between the sport and a grave kind of brain injury.

BERMAN: Smith says this film what it highlights on CTE has changed his view of football. As a parent, he said he felt compelled to inform others.

This is part of his conversation with Rachel Nichols.


RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN WORLD SPORT ANCHOR: Knowing what you know now and if Trey came to you now and wanted to play football, what would you say?

WILL SMITH, ACTOR: I would say, son, I love you, and if it were up to me, you could play, but your mother said no.



BERMAN: That is the right exact answer.

NICHOLS: Throw Jada Pinkett Smith right under the bus.

BERMAN: Rachel Nichols here with us now.

All three of us, big football fans. All three of us faced this discussion, and this debate and this problem with this issue.

NICHOLS: Absolutely.

And look at Will Smith, right, because we were talking about his son to play football and he was not a football dad, but a football dad, and he was shooting a movie in China and he would fly back once a week for ten weeks in a row to be there every Friday night. And football in this country is not just about football, but fathers and sons and what you do on thanksgiving and family tradition, and how you talk to one another, and maybe family members that you don't have much to say to them.

BERMAN: Right, and talk about football.

NICHOLS: And so when a movie comes along and challenges that and challenges the safety of the children, it is a big question and it is more than what are they doing after school, but it is about how we live our lives now.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And it is a huge part of so many of our lives, and we are all football fans, and how we react to this movie is going to be interesting. But also in the discussion, you talked politics with him, and what did he say? I have not seen this bit of the interview yet.

NICHOLS: Well, the character he plays is a Nigerian immigrant, and he said that after living in that skin for a year, it affected him when he has heard all of the political rhetoric, the anti-immigration talk the of some corners. And he said that it changed the way he thought. He said, gosh, it made me want to say, I need to do something about this, and this is not what I think that America is about, and maybe I need to run for office. We are talking about him running for president, he said that he would not rule it out. What, Kayne West, 2020, and maybe Kayne and Fresh Prince.


BERMAN: And can we listen to him announcing the candidacy with you?


SMITH: I have not made that decision.

NICHOLS: You have not ruled it out though?

SMITH: I believe that, I love this country. I believe that America is the only country on earth where Will Smith could even exist. So I am forever indebted to this country, and I will defend and expand what we stand for at our best, always.


[11:50:13] NICHOLS: Sounds like a political speech, right?


BOLDUAN: And I would like to now announce my candidacy for president.

NICHOLS: I told him at the end of the interview, if you go on there and run, we will have re-run this on CNN.


BERMAN: And, yes, it sounds like he's running. That's great.

NICHOLS: We heard it for a year or two of years from Hillary Clinton.


BOLDUAN: He is running until he tells me that he is not running.


NICHOLS: Exactly. It is fascinating and a great movie, and it is worth seeing for at lot of people, and out there for the parents out there. There is a scene on the high school football field and you can see the two kids coming after each other, and after watching the bulk of the movie, you feel like a car crash coming, and it is worth seeing for anybody considering allowing their kid to play football.

BERMAN: Rachel, thank you.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Rachel. BERMAN: And there is another film that Rachel saw that we would all like to the see.



BOLDUAN: And we are the only ones who are not going to be seeing it apparently.

BERMAN: The most-talked about film in the history of this galaxy and beyond.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: There are stories about what happened.

HARRISON FORD, ACTOR: It's true. All of it.

The dark side, the Jedi, they're real.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: The force, it's calling to you.


BOLDUAN: You just can't look away. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is the latest installment of the latest series is getting rave reviews apparently after opening last night.

Let's discuss all of that --ear muff it for me, buddy -- with leading movie commentator, Erik Davis, managing editor of

And so give me all of the details and spoil it all, because John is very fragile right now.

ERIK DAVIS, MOVIE COMMENTATOR & MANAGING EDITOR, FANDANGO.COM: No, look, no spoilers. It looks like a "Star Wars" movie and feels like a "Star Wars" movie. It's fun like a "Star Wars" movie. It harkens back to the original trilogy. And if you are a fan of the first movie, it has a lot of similar moments. But the best part of the film, believe it or not are the new characters. And this girl, Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey is fantastic in the movie, and they get you excited for the next movies to see what happens next. Disney did the job. They wanted to say to the fans, we got this, and they got it.

BERMAN: What makes you an authority on this? Let me see the T-shirt to be clear.


DAVIS: Well, I grew up with the "Star Wars." I had all of the action figures and I saw the trilology when I was a kid and now my 3.5-year- old is obsessed with it, and we are having the light saber battles everyday and generational and a fun movie, and great for everybody who can go with their friends and family, and I know a guy who is going with the brother one day, and the wife the next day, and the kids -- (CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: And the mistress the day after that.


That's another kind of story.


BERMAN: We do have breaking news. And we just learned $57 million. It took in $57 million on the first night.

DAVIS: That is a new record. That beats "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," so that is a single day record in the United States, and also broke the single daily record in the U.K.

BOLDUAN: When you look at the trailer, it is everything that you want in the "Star Wars" movie, but is it the special effects or really the characters that you are going to love in the movie?

DAVIS: Well, everything. J.J. Abrams wanted to bring the practicality back to the movie. And there is a physical droid that they built that rolls and a lot of the creatures are practical creatures that you can touch and feel, and that is what makes the franchise special, and the first films good and important, and that is, what is go going to be here.

BERMAN: And what you are leaving out, which is what a lot of people in my generation want to know, will this make us forget phantom menace, at a tack of the clones?

DAVIS: Well, it is better than the prequels. And if they want to know if it is better than the prequels, it is better than the prequels.

BOLDUAN: He has a CP3 in his office that lives there, and so you now know where John comes to discussion. Do I need to see all of the previous film to enjoy this one?

DAVIS: No, if you have not seen "Star Wars," you have a working knowledge of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. You know those names.


[11:55:11] DAVIS: I think that is all you need to know. And going in, they will set it up, because the franchise is about the new characters and the new journey, and we are getting a "Star Wars" movie every year for the foreseeable person.

BERMAN: Thank god.


BOLDUAN: And I feel fan-shamed because I have not seen all of the "Star Wars," so maybe I will go see it.

DAVIS: Oh, you have the go see it.

BERMAN: Erik Davis, thank you so much.

You know, it is just amazing and blows my mind that you have not seen these films.

BOLDUAN: Notice that he said that.

BERMAN: Erik, thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much, Erik. Great to see you.

We will find you -- that is the warning for the teenager who did not go to jail for killing four people while driving drunk, because the defense, they used a defense that he was too spoiled to know difference between right and wrong. Right now, he is missing and presumed to be on the run. Hear who just joined the search.

BERMAN: And a short time from now, President Obama will hold his final news conference of the year on the day that we learn about new terror plots by the San Bernardino killers. Stay with us.


[12:00:01] ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. And welcome to "Legal View."

President Obama just a short time from now is expected to make his final official White House appearance of 2015. It's his annual end- of-year news conference.