The city of Sirte, once the crowning jewel of the Islamic State in Libya, was part of the ISIS-controlled coastline from 2015 to 2016. Over a six-month offensive, Libyan security forces combined with U.S. airstrikes wiped out ISIS combatants from the area.

But sleeper cells still lurk in the Sirte desert, and though it no longer controls Libyan territory, ISIS has renewed its attacks there.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports. This story was made possible with special funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The following is the Full Transcript

Hari Sreenivasan:

We’ve been telling you in recent weeks about the resurgence of the terrorist organization ISIS in Iraq. Tonight, some new reporting on the group’s rise from the ashes in Libya.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Chris Livesay was recently the first American broadcast journalist legally allowed into the country in almost a year.

While there, he and videographer Allesandro Pavone found a country in dangerous disarray, with ISIS trying to fill the resulting power vacuum.

This story, the first of two parts, was made possible with special funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Christopher Livesay:

The city of Sirte: once the crowning jewel of the Islamic State in Libya. It was part of 150 miles of ISIS-controlled coastline from 2015 to the end of 2016. Today, the city has been reduced to rubble.

First in an offensive against ISIS led by Libyan security forces in 2016.

Then by nearly 500 precision airstrikes from the United States. Bombing largely ceased last year. Large swaths of town remain abandoned.

The government has yet to clear hundreds of corpses beneath the rubble, for fear of mines and unexploded ordnance. Because of that, the air is still thick with the stench of rotting bodies. Colonel Ibrahim Bin Rabaa is the commander of Libyan counter-terrorism forces in Sirte.

Colonel Ibrahim Bin Rabaa:

My son volunteered to fight ISIS and protect Sirte. ISIS killed him. He was 24 years old.

Christopher Livesay:

The six-month offensive eventually wiped out an estimated 2,500 ISIS combatants. But Bin Rabaa tells us sleeper cells still lurk especially in Sirte’s desert. Though it no longer controls any territory, the terror group is successfully carrying out more attacks in Libya.

The spike in violence has been sharp.

In 2017 ISIS managed to pull off only four attacks. So far this year, it’s more than a dozen. The most audacious was in May, when ISIS gunmen stormed Libya’s election commission headquarters in Tripoli, detonated suicide vests, and killed at least 16 civilians. These counter-terrorism forces in Sirte recently raised the ISIS threat level in the area from 70% to 100%.

Christopher Livesay:

So ISIS is in this direction, they’re regrouping in the desert, here in the south.

Colonel Ibrahim Bin Rabaa:

At anytime they can come in one or two people and blow themselves up. We rely on shepherds to tell us if there are any ISIS fighters passing through their pastures.

Christopher Livesay:

So far this year in Libya, there have already been more than twice the number of ISIS attacks. Is ISIS trying to regroup in order to launch attacks abroad outside of Libya as well?

Colonel Ibrahim Bin Rabaa:

Right now they lack the ability to control any major territory in Libya. But they are doing their best to regroup and mount attacks again. Our men have proven themselves in this war with the Islamic State. But we ask and we hope for help from other countries. We cannot eradicate ISIS on our own.

Christopher Livesay:

That’s largely because ISIS isn’t Libya’s only problem. The country has been reeling since 2011, the year of the NATO-backed overthrow of Gaddafi. By 2014, a full-blown civil war was underway. Carnegie Endowment Senior Associate Frederic Wehrey has a new book about the Libyan situation.

Frederic Wehrey:

The fragmentation that you see in Libya. The fact that the country is so divided among regional, town, tribal lines. The fact that there’s no coherent institution, no sovereign authority. That’s given space for ISIS to emerge.

You can actually trace the emergence of ISIS to the outbreak of civil war in Libya in 2014. That’s when ISIS really took advantage and expanded. Because Libyan factions were so busy fighting each other, that it was ideal ground for ISIS to really flourish.

Christopher Livesay:

Today, the oil-rich country remains divided. A UN-backed government in the West sits in Tripoli, with jurisdiction stretching down to Sirte. A rival administration rules the East. And in between, numerous well-armed militias, governed only by themselves.

For its part, the US continues to support the government in Tripoli with airstrikes against ISIS. But that only offers short-term solutions according to the UN Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame.

Ghassan Salame:

This can produce an effect, but it’s a very limited effect. It’s an effect on, by killing one particular leader, or one particular chief of a band or something like that. But the real solution to terrorism in Libya is to rebuild a strong, unified, legitimate state. There is no other alternative to that.

Christopher Livesay:

Both governments have agreed to general elections at the end of this year, a vote that would elect a unity president and parliament. Wehrey says in order to stabilize the country, all factions must agree to disarm the militias, and to share Libya’s oil wealth, as well as political power.

Frederic Wehrey:

I think more broadly to win the peace, you need economic recovery, you need inclusive governance. You need a fair judiciary. Let’s not forget that ISIS often emerges in prisons, and we’re seeing horrific abuses inside Libyan prisons. And my fear is that could be cultivating a new generation of radicals.

Christopher Livesay:

At this checkpoint in Sirte, unity seems a long way off. Troop morale is low.

Taher Hadeed:

We’ve gone a year without getting paid. We fought and died saving this city from ISIS. The government in Tripoli needs to respect that.

Christopher Livesay:

And take this border crossing between Libya’s rival governments in the East and West. The colonel says it’s become a critical weak link for ISIS to exploit.

Colonel Ibrahim Bin Rabaa:

There are more than 500 yards of no-man’s land between these two gates, where neither government has direct control. ISIS is using that area to take shelter, resupply, and attempt to infiltrate the city.

Christopher Livesay:

No-go zones are common, and they aren’t relegated to checkpoints. In fact, entire swaths of Libya are lawless, and government officials fear to enter. We travel to one such area in Libya’s far Western region in order to see how freely ISIS has been able to operate. Driving us is a minder from the government in Tripoli.

It’s the first time in nearly a year they’ve allowed American TV journalists to enter the country. In return, the government insists on constant supervision.

On the way, we pass a checkpoint operated by the Tripoli government. ISIS recently claimed responsibility for shooting four people to death in an attack here. It’s not long before we’re completely outside the area controlled by any government. Our government minder locks all the doors.

Christopher Livesay:

We’re in a very dangerous part of Libya right now. We’ve been told not to get out of the car because of the high level of gangs and Islamist militias that control the smuggling routes in this area.

Our destination, Sabratha. It’s home to spectacular ruins from the Roman era. But that’s not why we’re here. Until recently, it was also an infamous hub for migrant traffickers.

Local officials say those same traffickers worked hand-in-hand with ISIS militants. ISIS militants, we’re told, who never really left.


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