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This week Libya's prime minister and the a rival opposition leader agreed to hold nationwide elections in the war-torn country. A previous election attempt was delayed as territorial disputes and instability were allowing groups like ISIS to take advantage of the power vacuum. Christopher Livesay reported from inside Libya in October, 2018 with funding from the Pulitzer Center.
This week the head of the Libyan government and the country's opposition military leader met and agreed to hold nationwide elections in the politically torn country. A previous attempt at an election had been delayed as territorial disputes and instability across regions were allowing groups like ISIS to take advantage of the disarray.
PBS NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay and videographer Alessandro Pavone reported on that instability back in October and the power vacuum that ISIS was trying to fill.
Their reporting was supported in part with funding from the Pulitzer Center.
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.
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 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.
So ISIS is in this direction, they're regrouping in the desert, here in the south?
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.
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?
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.
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 Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. By 2014, a full-blown civil war was underway. 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.
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.
Both governments have agreed to general elections at the end of this year, a vote that would elect a unity president and parliament. At this checkpoint in Sirte, unity seems a long way off. Troop morale is low.
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.
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.
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.
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. It's not long before we're completely outside the area controlled by any government. Our government minder locks all the doors. Our destination, Sabratha. It's home to an ancient amphitheater that more recently was the backdrop of a city overrun by terror.
ISIS took control in 2015, and asserted its authority by beheading 12 members of the security forces, and setting up its own checkpoints. Today, the tables are turned. Libyan police loyal to the government in Tripoli now check for ISIS militants. One of them tells me the city is safe, but checkpoints are common targets for terrorist attacks, and any one of these vehicles could be packed with explosives. Police are also looking for stolen fuel. ISIS is known to smuggle it from Libya's vast reserves and use the profits to fund their attacks. Libya's spot on the map makes it particularly attractive to terrorists. Parts of the sprawling country, three times the size of France, are ungoverned. And the country has largely uncontrolled borders, offering several gateways for action. We head for the beach, where just a few hundred miles of open sea separate Libya from Europe.
We're met by a Coast Guard commander named Jalal Dabashi. He says his top priority is cracking down on illegal migrants and the well-armed gangs who traffic them.
Sabratha used to be known as the migrant capital of Libya. Traffickers smuggle the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa across the desert to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
Traffickers would then pack migrants in this warehouse like merchandise he says before shipping them off to Europe in overcrowded, rickety boats. Sometimes, he adds, traffickers here worked hand-in-hand with ISIS and in nearby locations still do.
They share a common interest, money. When ISIS was around, trafficking was at its peak. Traffickers paid ISIS a tax, millions of dollars per month. Sometimes they would even put terrorists on the migrant ships to Europe. I heard this directly from the biggest trafficker in Sabratha. He happens to be my cousin.
Tribal bonds run deep in Sabratha, but that doesn't mean everyone gets along with those in their tribe.
He sends me threatening messages. He wants to kill me.
The two cousins eventually met in battle. Late last year, Libyan security forces attacked traffickers positioned at the ancient ruins of Sabratha, severely damaging the UNESCO heritage site. So that's from an RPG, a rocket propelled grenade? He tells me Libyan security forces eventually won, but the traffickers continue their lucrative migrant trade in neighboring towns. Fighting traffickers is just one more front in this battle for control of a brittle country. This summer, some of the most violent clashes in years erupted between rival factions, killing over 100 people in the capital Tripoli. The chaos works in ISIS's favor.
The only way to fight terrorist groups on the longer term and in a systematic way, is that you have a national authority doing that, controlling its borders, controlling its territory, and moving around to repress any terrorist activity. Do we have that now in Libya? The answer is clearly no.
It's a problem that vexes Colonel Ibrahim Bin Rabaa, the commander of counter terrorism forces in the city of Sirte. His men eventually defeated ISIS here. But now, less than two years later, he says militants are regrouping, and waiting to strike again.
We almost didn't let you journalists come today because it was too dangerous. ISIS has not disappeared.
Rabaa says underestimating Islamic State can have serious repercussions far beyond Libya. If the terror group is not stopped here, he says, it's just a matter of time before ISIS grows and strikes again elsewhere.
The Islamic State is not only our problem. It's like a cancer spreading all around the world. Today ISIS is here. Tomorrow it can spread again somewhere else. It's as simple as that.
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Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
Alessandro Pavone is a freelance videographer and producer.
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