ISIS Gains Ground In Libya; Takes Over Port City Of Surt
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The self-proclaimed Islamic State made its name in Syria and Iraq, but one of the group's recent videos of mass beheadings comes from Libya. Since the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the country is split into rival factions, apparently giving an opening to ISIS. New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick was recently in Sirte, Libya, once Gadhafi's hometown, now partly under the control of a group linked to ISIS. He's on the line from Cairo. Welcome to the program.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Good to talk to you.
INSKEEP: What did you see in Sirte?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, I didn't actually get into Sirte. I managed to persuade the militia that has been sent by the government in Tripoli to get rid of ISIS to take me as far as they could. And what I saw most of all is that that militia is afraid to enter Sirte.
INSKEEP: This is not a small city on the coastline of Libya there. How did this group get control of the center part of the city?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, there's a lot of speculation about that. The best I've been able to figure out is it dates back to 2011 when brigades from the cities of Benghazi and Misrata took over Sirte. Sirte was Gadhafi's last stand. That's where he was brutally murdered after he was captured there.
Eventually a brigade from Misrata came to dominate. Some of those people who are occupying Sirte had Islamist leanings and decided in the course of time that it was a good idea to pledge their allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliphate, the Islamic State. And one of the things that was startling to me that I learned was accompanied by this brigade from Misrata that had been sent to kick out the Islamic State, they acknowledge that the leaders of the Islamic State were also from Misrata. And in a culture like Libya, that's a big deal because I think their fighters are going to be quite reluctant to take on their own cousins and neighbors.
INSKEEP: You mentioned Misrata. I just want to say that's another Libyan city. You're saying that the extremists come from there and the guys opposing the extremists, some of them also come from there. I want to better understand, though, this group that pledged allegiance to ISIS. Is there any indication they are in any way coordinating with ISIS, or are they just grabbing onto their brand name?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, that is part of what is so alarming. We've seen a lot of groups around the region, including in the Sinai, near where I live in Cairo, that have seized the publicity of calling themselves the Islamic State because it's so scary.
In Sirte, we've really seen actual evidence of communication and cooperation and coordination. When they put out this beheading of a group of Egyptian Christians who were captured in Sirte, they did it in exactly the style with the orange jumpsuits and the ceremonial daggers. It was released by the media company associated with the main parent group. And it was promoted in the main parent group's online magazine beforehand, so it looked like there was quite a bit of back and forth and even video editing help. So this is one instance where the affiliate actually appears to be in close cooperation with Islamic State HQ.
INSKEEP: So by the time you left the outskirts of Sirte, David Kirkpatrick, had Libyan authorities figured out what on Earth to do about this group that controlled the central part of the city?
KIRKPATRICK: No, no they did not. In fact, I heard a bewildering number of explanations for the delay from, we're waiting for reinforcements, to we want to have a meeting with the local tribes first, to we need to have a unity government first, to in fact there's no Islamic State whatsoever; this is all just a myth. So they can't even get their answers straight about what the problem is, much less take any decisive steps to solve it.
I sat in a prefabricated shed on the outskirts of town with a 28-year-old former crane operator who's leading this militia. And for sure, he is doing nothing. He basically said to me, we're going to wait until they slip away so that there aren't so many that we need to fight inside Sirte. We don't want to have a big battle there again.
INSKEEP: David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times. Thanks very much.
KIRKPATRICK: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.