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Does U.S. Strike Against ISIS In Libya Mark A Policy Shift?


In the chaos of Libya's civil war, ISIS has managed to establish an enclave in the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte. This is the hometown of Moammar Gadhafi, the dictator who was overthrown with the help of NATO military intervention.


Yesterday, the U.S. carried out two airstrikes on Sirte. Libya's shaky Government of National Accord, known as the GNA, asked the U.S. to intervene. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said these airstrikes won't be the last.


PETER COOK: We don't have an end point at this particular moment in time, but we'll be working closely with the GNA. And we certainly hope that this is something that does not require a lengthy amount of time.

We've seen, again, great progress by the GNA on their own in the fight against ISIL. We've seen ISIL's numbers reduced in Libya. And we think that this precision airstrike capability, this unique capability that we can provide to their ongoing efforts, can make a difference in this campaign.

MONTAGNE: That's Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. For more, we're joined now in our studio by The Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Missy Ryan. Good morning.

MISSY RYAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, the U.S. last carried out strikes against ISIS in Libya about six months ago. Why did the U.S. stop then, and, beyond what we've just said, that is that the Libyan government requested these strikes now, why resume airstrikes now?

RYAN: Well, the nature of what's happening now is really different than what happened in February and what happened in November. The United States had conducted two targeted airstrikes against the Islamic State in Libya since last year. But what's happening now, for the first time, is that the United States is supporting forces on the ground that are battling the Islamic State.

And if it's sustained, as Pentagon officials say they expect it to be, to some extent, it'll be really opening a new chapter in the campaign against the Islamic State, similar to what the United States is doing in Iraq and Syria, albeit at a much smaller scale.

MONTAGNE: Now, forces on the ground - there are U.S. special ops - operations forces there in Libya. What exactly are they doing?

RYAN: Well, there's a small number of American special forces, British special forces and French soldiers in Libya right now. But really what they're doing is sort of a reconnaissance mission. They're gathering information about what's going on on the ground. They're trying to identify friendly partners.

But the forces that are battling the Islamic State are Libyan forces that are loyal to this unity government. They are mostly militia forces. And right now, they're locked in a fierce battle with the Islamic State in the coastal city of Sirte.

MONTAGNE: Remind us how we got here, I mean, how ISIS did get its foothold in Libya.

RYAN: Yeah, well, like everything else in Libya, it's a complicated story. But it really just shows us how far things have evolved or sort of deteriorated since the high hopes of 2011 and the revolution that ousted Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, security conditions have really deteriorated in Libya.

Since 2014, the country has been locked in a political crisis that has opened the door not just to the strengthening of the militias, but the rise of several rival governments and almost a bankrupting of this country that is oil rich. And it's - the - what's happening now in Libya, these airstrikes, really shows the stakes of what occurs in Libya not just for North Africa, but for the international community at large.

MONTAGNE: Right, because it ended up being - or has ended up being a place of great chaos, which is exactly - which is a beautiful environment for a group like the Islamic State.

RYAN: Exactly, and the Islamic State branch in Libya is described by American intelligence officials as the strongest outside of Iraq and Syria. What Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria did was send some of their high-ranking envoys to Libya in 2014 and 2015 to set up an affiliate in this country that, as you say, was a perfect breeding ground because of the lawlessness, because of the division of territory between different rival regimes.

And that really has produced this great threat that prompted the American action at a time when, you know, there are some risks facing American action in Libya right now, not just because of the potential for, you know, being pulled into a conflict that could get much more complicated. But the United States right now is backing a unity government that is - that remains disputed, that has not received the full backing of Libyans. And that has the potential to fan the political divisions even further.

MONTAGNE: Right, I mean, there's a split - there's actually two - at one level there's two governments.

RYAN: Yep, there are multiple governments. And the Western-backed unity government has not received the full backing of a parallel legislate - legislature that's in eastern Libya, and that's the source of ongoing tensions within the country.

MONTAGNE: Right, and now - the Western one is backed by the U.S. or the West, as well.

RYAN: That's right.

MONTAGNE: Let me just ask quickly, the Pentagon spokesman said there is no endpoint for this campaign. Those are not words that will be music to Americans' ears.

RYAN: Maybe not, but I think that the Pentagon is acting because there's been a lot of concern within the military about the potential for further foreign attacks to be external attacks to be planned from Libya - Libyan soil in Europe or elsewhere in the West. And I think that what no one wants to see is a repeat of the situation in Syria, where the lawlessness allowed the Islamic State to thrive, to gain resources, to attract foreign fighters.

And I think the idea is that by backing these Libyan forces who had taken the initiative, after some period of time, to fight the Islamic State that there's a chance to sort of stamp out this threat where - when it's at a relatively small level in Libya.

MONTAGNE: All right, well, thanks very much.

RYAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Missy Ryan is Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.