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How The Libyan Revolution Opened The Door To The Islamic State


If there was ever a country that embodied the law of unintended consequences, it might be Libya. When the dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, was ousted from power in 2011, it was supposed to signal a bright future for this Arab Spring country in North Africa. There was hope for free elections and stability. But it wasn't to be. Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group has followed Libya's story for years. She tells us how Libyans are feeling today.

CLAUDIA GAZZINI: Many people say we can't work it out with democracy. We can't work it out through locally chosen leaders. So maybe what we do want is a strong man.

GREENE: Can't work it out through democracy, what we want is a strong man, powerful statements that point to a painful question. Was pushing Gadhafi from power worth it? It's a question that seems more important today than ever. President Obama and other Western leaders want Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad out of power. And they say that will give Syrians the freedom and right to self-determination they deserve. But others, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, say without Assad, Syria will descend into total chaos, and extremists led by ISIS will take over - the example Putin points to, Libya. And sure enough, in the post-Gadhafi anarchy there, ISIS seems to be growing in strength. For years, U.S. presidents have talked of spreading American values to new places.


BILL CLINTON: Our hopes, our hearts, our hands are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom. Their cause is America's cause.


GEORGE W. BUSH: So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation.


BARACK OBAMA: In the Middle East we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights and support stable transitions to democracy.


GREENE: But what becomes of countries that fight to replace dictatorship with democracy? This morning, we focus on Libya and its unraveling. In 2011, the drive to remove Gadhafi was in full force. The United States, Britain and France were leading a NATO bombing campaign to push Gadhafi out. As I saw firsthand covering the story in Tripoli, the Gadhafi regime was fighting back with weapons and also a propaganda war, saying NATO's bombs were killing innocent people. Let's return there and revisit some of the key scenes and moments in Libya's struggle.


ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: In Tripoli tonight, once again, antiaircraft fire.


SIEGEL: Tracers lit up the night sky, this on a day when airstrikes continued against installations and forces of the Libyan government.

GREENE: Angry men fired bullets into the air. They had come to remember civilians who we were told had been killed in airstrikes.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in foreign language).

GREENE: But I met a man at the funeral who discreetly chatted with a few journalists. He whispered as men with guns stared him down. Many people in Tripoli, he said, don't believe airstrikes are killing civilians. He insisted the funeral were witnessing was a hoax.


The longtime leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, is dead. He was killed today as rebel forces overran his hometown of Sirte...


GRANT CLARK, BYLINE: The sounds of a celebration decades in the making. Libyans have been taking to the streets of major cities, reveling in the news of Gadhafi's death Thursday and the fall of his hometown, Sirte.


LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Gadhafi left behind no viable institutions. The country has been plagued with sporadic bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. One of the bloodiest incidents...

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: More than two years since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, is Libya slipping into anarchy?

MONTAGNE: Egypt is reeling after the self-described Islamic State released a gruesome video appearing to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. They were killed in neighboring Libya.

GREENE: Those beheadings carried out by ISIS earlier this year in Libya may have been just the beginning. Mary Fitzgerald has covered Libya for years. She is one of few journalists left in the country. And we reached her in Tripoli. She says ISIS seems to have gained a foothold in Libya.

MARY FITZGERALD: They have been calling for fighter to migrate to Libya, describing it as the latest, the new theater of the caliphate.

GREENE: Already, ISIS has taken over Sirte, the coastal city Gadhafi called home. And the threat from ISIS is one reason Libyans are questioning the decision to push Gadhafi out.

FITZGERALD: We look back at 2012, and those days seem so optimistic and so dreamy. And Libyans, you know, had big ambitions for their country after Gadhafi. Now you have a situation where the country is divided in so many ways. And Libyans are becoming more suspicious of each other, and those divides, in some cases, are within families. People who disagree over the nature of the crisis that has gripped the country over the last year disagree why - as to the reasons why that crisis was caused and disagree over how that crisis should be resolved. So we're talking about a very, very polarized society right now.

GREENE: And a society where people are confronting that heart-wrenching question. Was life actually better under a brutal dictator? Claudia Gazzini from the International Crisis Group says just look at Sirte, the city ISIS is now running. The group came in and basically gave citizens a choice, pledge allegiance to ISIS or risk death.

GAZZINI: The local population really felt that there was no other main security faction that could guarantee their security. So in an attempt to prevent that Islamic State would attack these small towns, in an attempt to prevent that their children would be killed, they decided after four or five months to actually directly reach out to the Islamic State and promise that in exchange for not fighting against them, the Islamic State would not carry out any violent attack in their territory. Now the mood is very dire. Many people increasingly regret the fall of the Gadhafi regime because they say at least that brought peace and stability in the country, even though they were subject to this authoritarian rule. And what people now have to deal with is really, on a day-to-day basis, survival, being sure that they're not being kidnapped or killed or attacked or their homes torched. So there's very little optimism left in the country at the moment.

GREENE: That's Libya, which tomorrow will mark four years since the death of Moammar Gadhafi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.