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ISIS Deepens Its Reach In Libya


Just as world powers are trying to defeat ISIS in countries like Syria and Iraq, that group seems to have found a new home, and it is in Libya. That country has competing parliaments, no central government - total chaos, and therefore it's the kind of place where a group like ISIS can set up operations. And joining us now from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, is Mohamad Ali Harissi. He's the Libya bureau chief for the French news agency AFP. Mohamad, good morning.

MOHAMAD ALI HARISSI: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Just describe this ISIS presence for us, if you can. I guess one question I have is whether it looks like ISIS in places like Syria and Iraq or if there's something different here.

HARISSI: The main difference - the main advantage for ISIS in Libya is that there are no real political institutions. There is no real central authority in Libya. And there are no real security forces. It's only groups of militias busy fighting each other. Amid all this chaos - this political and security chaos - ISIS found a safe haven and a new home in Libya.

GREENE: And that home, we should say, is the city of Sirte, which is also the hometown of Libya's former leader, Moammar Gadhafi. It's also right along the Mediterranean Sea. So even though this is just one spot, it's a place that European governments are very worried about because it's so close to Europe.

HARISSI: Exactly. It's the first time that ISIS has an access to the Mediterranean. It's only 300 kilometers from Italy - from the coast of Europe. Imagine if you are - if you live in southern Europe, and then just 300 kilometers from your home there are flags of a jihadist extremist group over governmental buildings on a city that has ports just in front of you.

GREENE: You're describing this group sitting there in a city on the shores of the Mediterranean. I mean, do they really have the capabilities to pose a serious threat to people in Europe?

HARISSI: The main threat here, it's not like moving from Sirte, taking a boat and going to Europe. They only come to this place because it's full of chaos. They sit, they train people, they recruit and then they send them to do their attacks in other places, like Europe, U.S. or even Iraq and Syria.

GREENE: They could become sort of the model that we saw with al-Qaida in Afghanistan - becoming a place where they could send cells abroad. Has that happened yet?

HARISSI: No, it didn't happen yet. The problem they are facing here is the Libyans in their nature - like, the majority - they don't have the same ideology of ISIS. So what they're doing is that they're bringing people from outside the country. They're bringing Tunisians, they're bringing Algerians, they're bringing Moroccans, they're bringing people even from the sub-Saharan countries.

GREENE: And, Mohamad, if I might just ask you a slightly more personal question - we were really eager to talk to you a few months ago, but you didn't feel like it was safe for you to talk to us. And you're willing to talk to us now. What has changed?

HARISSI: (Laughter) For me, on a personal level, it's still the same. But I am adapting more to the life here in Tripoli and to the fact that I live in a city governed by armed groups. And to be honest, it's not that bad. I feel - of course, I have to keep a low profile and everything, but I feel safer here. It's not about how much safer the city is. It's about how you adapt. And it becomes normal, which is something good and bad.

GREENE: That is Mohamad Ali Harissi. He's the Libya bureau chief for the French news agency AFP. Mohamad, thanks very much for talking with us.

HARISSI: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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