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U.S. Military To Expand Operations Against ISIS In Libya


Now to another country where ISIS has gained ground, Libya. The U.S. launched airstrikes there against ISIS, and it has sent Special Operations Forces to build ties with Libyan forces who are trying to fight ISIS. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the U.S. is willing to do even more once Libya's rival political factions have come together and formed a unity government. Claudia Gazzini is a Libya expert with the International Crisis Group who tomorrow will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Libya. And I asked her whether it was this lack of political unity in the country that helped ISIS move in in the first place.

CLAUDIA GAZZINI: It's not only the lack of political unity. It's a lack of security unity...


GAZZINI: ...Because the two rival parliaments and the two rival governments, of course, have their own security...


GAZZINI: ...Allies, armed groups. This has created security vacuums in the country, and one of the most noticeable areas where this has taken place is the city of Sirte where ISIS has managed to gain a foothold. Sirte is a strategic city. It's on the northern coast of the country at the very center of Libya. It's where the North-South road intersects with the East-West road, so it's actually at a crucial juncture of the country. They also play at present in Benghazi, which is the eastern - the main city in Libya's east. And of course, we think that there are operatives or cells in other parts of the country, including in Western Libya, where they're able to carry out deadly strikes.

MCEVERS: As we mentioned, the United States is talking about increasing military support to combat ISIS. In your mind, will that help or hurt the situation in Libya right now?

GAZZINI: I'd say that no engagement whatsoever to contain the spread of ISIS would be damaging, but too much engagement can equally be even more damaging. I think there's room for the United States to support the counterterrorism strategy in Libya, but it has to work on par with a political process and a parallel security process. The first way to combat ISIS is to have a common military front, a common political front. But any military engagement that the U.S. decides to carry out in Libya has to happen alongside with building bridges between the security units. Also, another point is that an anti-ISIS strategy that is only military will not work. The country is on the verge of economic collapse. The illicit economy is thriving. Smuggling is everywhere. And this is a perfect recipe for criminal gangs and terrorist groups to thrive in the country.

MCEVERS: We don't hear a lot about refugees from Libya. We hear a lot about refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, of course. Are people staying put in Libya, or are they trying to leave?

GAZZINI: There's no Libyan refugee problem at the moment because even if delayed, they're still receiving their government salaries, and so they're getting by. But things are getting more difficult by the day in the country. Living costs have increased. Salaries sometimes are four months, five months late in arriving. People are starting to storm banks because there's no Libyan dinars to withdraw from their bank account, so life is getting increasingly difficult. We might be on the verge of a very serious economic downturn which could lead to more Libyans fleeing the country.

MCEVERS: That's Claudia Gazzini. She's a Libya expert at the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much.

GAZZINI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.