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New York Times Foreign Correspondent David Kirkpatrick On New ISIS Problems In Libya

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The transcript:

HH: Pleased to begin the show this hour with our friend in London, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times. David, great to have you join us, thank you for doing so. It’s a little bit later over there, and I appreciate you staying up.

DK: No problem.

HH: Now David, first question is you spent so much time in the Muslim world and the Arab world. What’s the reaction there to Donald Trump’s comments, do you think?

DK: Well, I was there on Sunday, so I arrived back here in London as he was making his latest, most sensational comments. More erudite friends of mine there are enjoying a good laugh. You know, they think this is sort of just what we deserve after all the condescending things that Americans have written about the backwardness of the Arab Street over the years.

HH: Interesting.

DK: I mean, I think most people are mostly laughing at his exaggerated response.

HH: Now everyone except Donald Trump has condemned his policy, including in my studio two days ago Vice President Cheney. Is it understood, do you think, generally, either in London or in Cairo, to be representative of a policy America would ever adopt?

DK: I don’t think so. This morning, Marine Le Pen, who as you know leads the far right, almost fascist party in France, said Trump’s comments were too much for her, that she would never say such a thing, that she has always defended all French people, regardless of their religion or origin. So he really struck pretty far wide of the mark, I think, with a lot of people over here.

HH: If you’ve got, if you have Le Pen on your left, you’ve got to tack back. He did a little bit with Don Lemon last night. I don’t know if you saw that interview on CNN World News, but nevertheless, I didn’t realize that, so that’s news to me. David, what I really wanted to talk to you about was Libya, because I’m getting ready for the presidential debates next week, and we’re talking about ISIS a lot. And you had written, along with Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmidt, about Libya. And I brought it up on Meet The Press a few weeks ago. Can you give the audience a sense of what Libya is descending into right now?

DK: Yeah, Libya is a failed state. It is a chaotic landscape of city-states, really, each governed by its own local militia. And some of those militias are ideological, and increasingly, they have picked up into two big teams fighting against each other mostly for money and power, but with a sort of vaguely ideological overtone. And into this landscape comes the Islamic State, which has set up shop in the coastal city of Sirte right in the center of the Libyan Mediterranean coastline. And it’s been expanding its own empire so that it now has a full and exclusive control of 150 miles of Libyan coastline.

HH: Now when you say have set up shop in Sirte, does that mean that they are acting as the municipal government as well as people driving around town in white Toyotas with black flags?

DK: Yeah, yeah, I have to say I was personally shocked and alarmed at what I found on this last visit. When I had last been near Sirte earlier this year in February and March, it looked like a bunch of local militants with their own local agenda and just hauled up the Islamic State flag to make themselves look tough. When I went back this time, not only did I find that they had vastly expanded their terrain, and the amount of terrain that they control where they’ve set up checkpoints and control their own borders, but the city of Sirte had become a kind of actively managed colony of the Islamic State leaders in Raqqa, that they are sending in their own administrators, many of them from the Gulf, as well as their own military commanders, often Iraqis and former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army to lead their operations there, and recruiting foreign fighters from around the region, a lot of Tunisians, but also Egyptians, Syrians, people from Sudan, all over the place. So it’s become a real hub for Islamic State fighters. Libyans pass through the area coming and going. They can still cross through if they’ve got, you know, the right ones can cross through and get to the other side. But on the way through, they find that they’re questioned by people speaking foreign Arabic at checkpoints, you know, Tunisians or Egyptians or Syrians. I talked to two people who had been, had spent a month in an Islamic State prison in Sirte. They were truck drivers who were picked up at a checkpoint and held for a prisoner exchange. And they were floored. You know, they, too, thought well, who knows who these locals are, and they came out thinking oh, my gosh, this really is the Islamic State. They were forced to sit in front of a flat-screen television and watch sermons by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State caliph. And the guards would even pause the sermons to try to underscore the importance of certain points. And then they would make them sit in front of videos of different Islamic State attacks and violence from around the world, not just in Libya, but also in Syria, in Iraq, in Egypt and elsewhere, which the guards referred to as the new releases. Now I know I’m going on at some length here, but I’ve got to say, I was really shocked and alarmed.

HH: Well, I want you to go on at length. I don’t want you to endanger any American or Western reporter on how they come and go without being detected, because I would assume if the Islamic State could lay their hands on you or any of your colleagues from the Times, the Washington Post or any other major news organization, they would do so. So how in the world are we covering Libya? Are we reliant upon Islamic State propaganda for insight into what’s going on in the coastal state?

DK: No, I mean, their propaganda, their social media, is useful, right? It’s something, because it tells you what messages they want to project. You can see what their preachers are saying in their sermons. And they send out footage of recognizable people that other Libyans know, and you know, where they’re fighting and who they’re fighting against. All that stuff is helpful. I did not go into Sirte, of course. If I went into Sirte, I would end up in an orange jumpsuit. I went as far as Misrata, which is sort of one city over. And one of the things that was alarming is that it is clear that the people from Sirte, including Islamic State fighters, can come and go to Misrata.

HH: Wow.

DK: They can come into Misrata and they cash their checks there, they buy fuel there, they buy supplies there, and they go back. So when I’m sitting in the lobby of my hotel, yes, I am extremely worried that someone is going to see me for a valuable kidnapping target.

HH: Okay, so let me ask you this. When we stood back from Syria for three years, it degenerated into chaos, into a bloody civil war, and eventually into an Islamic State that is capable of sending its agents around the world. Is Libya becoming the same thing? And aren’t the people in Italy awfully worried? That’s not that long of a boat ride.

DK: No, it’s 400 miles from Sicily to Sirte. I measured it. But it’s, I think everybody is worried. I think that leading the response right now are the British and the Americans, but again, what’s so alarming to me is this is not a second group, but it’s an extension of the first group…

HH: Right.

DK: …of people, intelligence agencies in Britain and the U.S. worry that the Islamic State leadership in Raqqa has in mind Libya as a kind of fallback. So you know, if the U.S. and its allies successfully make Syria too hot for them, they can continue to fight on or some fragment can do it, the Islamic State can continue to fight on from Libya. And that’s really a problem, because you’re talking about a failed state surrounded by weak and fragile states. I can’t think of any of the neighboring states that could launch an intervention against the Islamic State or even host a Western intervention against the Islamic State. The closest thing is Egypt, and Egypt hasn’t been able to solve its own Islamic State problem. And again, because this little Islamic State colony in Libya is amid the chaos in Libya, it’s surrounded by other militias, tribal or ideological militias, all of which are fighting against each other, and none of which would welcome a column of American troops marching through their territory. So it’s a big mess. And the nominal, the ostensible game plan of the Western governments, the U.S. included, is to try to broker some sort of unity government, to get the Libyan factions together, and once they have a Libyan government, then that government can begin to go after the Islamic State. But that is a tall order. And so far, the different factions in Libya are so preoccupied with fighting each other, none of them is really lifting a finger to hold back the Islamic State expansion.

HH: David Kirkpatrick, is there any known good guy? Is there, whenever I talk about Soleimani for the Iranian Quds Forces, there is a visible, charismatic, known battlefield general who rallies his Quds Forces to his side, even to the extent of upsetting some of the Iranian clerics, because he’s got a cult of personality going. We’ve got a minute left. Is there anybody like that in Libya, like you know, Massoud was in Afghanistan before he was assassinated around whom “good guys” can rally?

DK: I don’t think so. You know, good and bad almost don’t even apply. There’s no faction there that’s wholly admirable, and there’s no faction that’s wholly bad. It’s really almost primordial.

HH: Wow. David Kirkpatrick, fascinating reporting, thank you for joining me late out of London. Just look up Kirkpatrick or Hubbard over at New York Times. Google it and stay abreast on what’s going on there. Sirte, you heard it here first, or you read it first in the New York Times and then heard it on the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s the newest, latest nightmare for the West.

End of interview.


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