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Can the U.S. prevent an ISIS haven in Libya?

February 2, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
While Iraq and Syria have been the focus of the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Libya has become a new hotspot for the militant group. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on how American officials are responding, and Judy Woodruff learns more from Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the past year, ISIS has gained a foothold in Libya, expanding its reach beyond its Middle Eastern base, and that’s now a growing concern for the U.S. and its allies.

We begin with some background from chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: The coalition fighting ISIS can claim some progress in both Iraq and Syria. But now Libya, just 300 miles from Italy, has become a new magnet for the militant group.

The threat was very much on the minds of Secretary of State John Kerry and officials of 22 other countries in Rome today.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: That country has resources. The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars in oil revenue.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet the conference agreed only to monitor developments.

U.S. military officials say some 3,000 ISIS fighters have carved out territory around the coastal town of Sirte, birthplace of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi. From there, the group mounts attacks on civilian targets and the country’s oil facilities. The U.S. has already carried out airstrikes in Libya, killing a top ISIS commander last November, and ramped up reconnaissance missions.

And in Washington today, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for a 50 percent spending increase on the broader anti-ISIS campaign.

ASHTON CARTER, Defense Secretary: We must also take into account in our budget that, as destructive power of greater and greater magnitude falls into the hands of smaller and smaller and more aberrant groups of people, countering terrorists will likely be a continuing part of the future responsibilities.

MARGARET WARNER: Last month, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said a decision on how to expand the U.S. role in Libya is coming. The New York Times quoted him as saying: “It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military actions In conjunction with the political process.”

For now, Libya’s political process remains in disarray. Since NATO airstrikes helped oust Gadhafi in 2011, the country has been torn by violence between warring factions. In December, the United Nations helped broker a new unity government between the two main rival groups. But they have refused to carry it out.

In Washington, I’m Margaret Warner for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re joined now by Frederic Wehrey of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was most recently in Libya late last year.

Welcome back to the program, Fred Wehrey.

Remind us, why is Libya important to the United States?

FREDERIC WEHREY, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, its strategic location. It sits at the top of Africa. It has access to the Mediterranean and Europe. It has oil reserves.

But, right now, it’s perhaps a fallback option for the Islamic State. It’s a lawless place where terrorists and smugglers can take advantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this political vacuum that’s happened there, how did that come about, very quickly? I know there is a long history there. And what state is it in? I mean, it sounds pretty chaotic still.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, this is really the legacy partly of 42 years of misrule from Gadhafi. There were no institutions. There was no army, no police.

Since the fall of Gadhafi, you have had a political vacuum. You don’t have an army. You don’t have police. You have militias, basically, ruling the country. So it’s really ripe — a ripe environment for ISIS to exploit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just how much strength do they have there?

FREDERIC WEHREY: They have got anywhere from about 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, especially in that crucial central city of Sirte.

But the real fear is that more fighters from abroad could come in and bolster their ranks there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is the U.S. goal? What would the U.S. like to accomplish?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, I think they want to prevent this from becoming a new haven for the Islamic State, to prevent the Islamic State from accessing oil reserves, from disrupting the formation of a new government.

So they’re going to try to assist Libyan forces on the ground. But the problem is that there’s no central army. There is no partner to work with in that country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what are the options, the real options? Because we know the U.S. has been talking about doing something. But nothing’s happened yet.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, they’re waiting for this government to get its act together, to unify itself, so that there is a central channel to push aid and assistance through.

If that doesn’t happen, you can expect the U.S. and the Europeans to start working with these — perhaps these individual militias, using special operations forces and airstrikes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is there a will on the part of the Europeans to join in with the U.S. to do that?

FREDERIC WEHREY: We have seen statements from especially the British and the French that they are increasingly concerned about the Islamic State. Also, the Italians have an historic presence there. So, they’re gearing up.

And that was part of Secretary Kerry’s mission in Rome, was to unify the Europeans and get them on board with the U.S. strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned if the government doesn’t get its act together, the U.S. can work with some of the militias on the ground. But do you have a case like Syria, where the U.S. may not know who to trust, who they can work with?

FREDERIC WEHREY: This is a real problem. And this is why there are reports of U.S. special operations forces already on the ground trying to assess, who is a credible partner, who can we work with?

But it is very problematic. And I think we’re really walking on a mine field here in terms of who do we actually give assistance to and could that further destabilize the country down the road?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you believe the U.S. absolutely has a commitment to go in there and do something about ISIS?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, we have seen statements like that.

I think they’re poised to do something. I think first priority that they see is resolving the political impasse, resolving these divisions, because those divisions create that vacuum that ISIS is able to exploit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But does the U.S., does the West have the leverage to make happen something that it wants to have happen?

FREDERIC WEHREY: So, this is the real problem. The United Nations has been involved.

I think you’re seeing more and more senior level involvement from the United States. You have these statements from Secretary Kerry, from President Obama that really signal to the Libyans that we take this very seriously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what do you expect in the short term?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, unfortunately, I’m not optimistic.

I see more chaos. I see these divisions. I was just there. The divisions are very stark. They cannot agree on who is going to command the national level military. The militias still call the shots in the streets. So it’s — I think it’s quite dire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sounds grim.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we thank you.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Yes. My pleasure.