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'The Times' Reporter Describes ISIS Presence In Sirte


Outside of Iraq and Syria, the largest stronghold for the Islamic State is Libya. Now forces with Libya's U.N.-backed unity government are advancing on the ISIS stronghold of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast. Anthony Loyd is a reporter with The Times of London, and he just got back from Libya last night. And he joins us now by Skype. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: You write that there are now thousands of ISIS militants in Libya, mainly, as we said, in the city of Sirte. Who are they, and how and when did they get there?

LOYD: Kelly, there are several layers around two or three different groups. You've got Libyan Islamist groups who coalesced around some veteran al-Qaida fighters returning from Afghanistan and Yemen. Then on top of those, you've got foreign fighters. You've got, more recently, Islamic State carders sent over from Iraq and from Syria and a final generation of foreign fighters who have come in via Khartoum across the desert to join Islamic States in Libya. So there's about three different groupings that have now coalesced together.

MCEVERS: And they're coalesced in Sirte, which was, we should say, the final stronghold of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He was born there. It was the place that he held out to the end. He was killed there. How is it that they ended up in Sirte? What's the attraction of Sirte?

LOYD: The attraction of Sirte is manifold. First of all, Sirte represents the natural fault line in Libya between East and West. You've got divided security establishments on either side of the country. And Sirte is right in between the two, and it's sort of controlled by nobody.

You've got tribes there who were loyal to Gaddafi who do not like or appreciate what happened in the revolution, and subsequently they feel marginalized, disenfranchised, disillusioned and angry. So that's the natural, fertile bed for Islamicist terror terror groups to sort of seed themselves in. You've got road access to the south of the country and out elsewhere sea access as well. It's a good place for terror groups to seed themselves.

MCEVERS: And you have interviewed people who've fled Sirte. What have they told you about what it's like to live under ISIS rule?

LOYD: They said ISIS started turning up in 2014. But even then, they were quite friendly until they felt confident enough that they had enough numbers there, and then it became more Draconian. Then you got public executions in the squares or in the central roundabout. You got bodies hung up on gibbets or scaffolding for two or three days after execution. You got people put in prison and beaten for a whole lot of smaller crimes. So it's different stages of suppression of the local population.

MCEVERS: And now, as we said, Libyan forces with this unity government are now closing in on Sirte. And you write that British and U.S. special operations forces are helping in this fight. How are they doing that?

LOYD: British and American special forces have been present in Libya for some time, and that's been very sort of publicly acknowledged by authorities from various countries.


LOYD: They're doing a number of things. First of all, they're training some Libyan fighters from selected militia groups. But also they are helping destroy some of the suicide vehicles which are sent by Islamic State against Libyan fighters and helping the Libyan militias coordinate with an upgraded intelligence picture and a battle plan as well.

MCEVERS: Is your sense that this involvement by Western special forces is enough? I mean, is that what it's going to take to defeat ISIS in Libya?

LOYD: No. It's a positive trend, their involvement on the battlefield. But ultimately, ISIS in Libya will always exist until there's an overall political solution in Libya which harnesses East and West one government. We're a long way from seeing the end of Islamic State in Libya.

MCEVERS: That's Anthony Loyd of The Times of London. We reached him by Skype. Thanks so much.

LOYD: Thanks, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.