ISIS captures Tora Bora, once Bin Laden’s Afghan fortress

The New York Times reports: Tora Bora, the mountain redoubt that was once Osama bin Laden’s fortress, fell to the Islamic State early Wednesday, handing the extremists a significant strategic and symbolic victory, according to Afghan officials and local elders and residents.

Taliban fighters who had previously controlled the extensive cave and tunnel complex fled overnight after a determined, weeklong assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, according to villagers fleeing the area on Wednesday.

Hazrat Ali, a member of Parliament and a prominent warlord from the area who helped the Americans capture Tora Bora from Al Qaeda in 2001, said that the offensive was prompted by the American decision to drop the so-called mother of all bombs on an Islamic State network of tunnels in Achin District in April. The 20,000-pound bomb was thought to be the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed.

The Islamic State then decided to shift its refuge to the Tora Bora caves and tunnels, Mr. Ali said. “Some 1,000 ISIS militants were gathered close to Tora Bora, to capture the area,” Mr. Ali said. “I informed government forces to target them, and I told them they are trying to capture Tora Bora, but they did not pay attention.” [Continue reading…]

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The $1bn hostage deal with Al Qaeda and Iran that enraged Qatar’s Gulf rivals

Financial Times reports: Qatar paid up to $1bn to release members of the Gulf state’s royal family who were kidnapped in Iraq while on a hunting trip, according to people involved in the hostage deal — one of the triggers behind Gulf states’ dramatic decision to cut ties with Doha.

Commanders of militant groups and government officials in the region told the Financial Times that Doha spent the money in a transaction that secured the release of 26 members of a Qatari falconry party in southern Iraq and about 50 militants captured by jihadis in Syria. By their telling, Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.

The deal, which was concluded in April, heightened concerns among Qatar’s neighbours about the small gas-rich state’s role in a region plagued by conflict and bitter rivalries. And on Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took the extraordinary step of cutting off diplomatic ties and transport links to Qatar, alleging the country fuels extremism and terrorism.

“The ransom payments are the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said one Gulf observer.

Doha denies it backs terrorist groups and dismissed the blockade by its neighbours as “founded on allegations that have no basis in fact”. It said it could not immediately respond to a request for comment on the hostage deal. But a person close to the Qatari government acknowledged that “payments” were made. The person was unaware of the amounts or where the money went. [Continue reading…]

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Short of allies, Syria’s rebels are down but not out

The Associated Press reports: They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival.

“We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone.

Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come. [Continue reading…]

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Manchester bombing suspect likely did not act alone

NBC News reports: [A] U.S. intelligence official who has direct knowledge of the investigation had told NBC News that Abedi’s device was “big and sophisticated,” using materials hard to find in Britain — meaning “it’s almost impossible to see he didn’t have help.”

Abedi — a 22-year-old British national whose family is of Libyan descent — had ties to al Qaeda, received terrorist training abroad and traveled to Libya within the last 12 months, the source added.


A “follow-on” attack is possible, the official said.

France’s interior minister said Wednesday that Abedi was believed to have traveled to Syria and had “proven” links to ISIS. He did not provide details. [Continue reading…]

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Trump may have just increased the risk of a terrorist attack on the U.S.

In response to the latest political firestorm Donald Trump has created, he has done what he usually does: jumped onto Twitter.


In other words, Trump divulged highly classified information with Russia because when it comes to fighting terrorism we’re all on the same side.

That’s the way it might look to an ignorant president and his equally ignorant supporters, but in reality the situation is much more complicated.

Just days ago, Alan Dershowitz criticized the hyperbolic tone of political discourse these days by tweeting:


Dershowitz’s reaction to the latest turn of events, however, showed that he is no less susceptible to extreme reactions — or that in this case he is correctly assessing the gravity of what just happened.


Dershowitz speculates that Israel may have been the source of intelligence that Trump revealed to the Russians:

“Let’s take the following hypothetical: What if it was Israel who provided this intelligence?” he said on an interview on MSNBC.

He warned that if Israeli intelligence was shared with Russia, then Russia could send it to Iran and Hezbollah, two of Israel’s foes.

The issue here may or may not be the content of the intelligence if it was gathered by Israel. Just as important would be the implied cooperation of any states in the region being seen to facilitate Israeli operations.

If, for instance, Israel, with Saudi Arabia’s consent, is gathering intelligence in Yemen, there can be little doubt that Russia and Iran could use this information to apply political pressure on the Saudis both in Yemen and Syria.

If as a result these intelligence gathering operations are curtailed this will then help ISIS and al Qaeda.

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U.S. attack on the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque near Aleppo

Human Rights Watch reports: Just before 7 p.m. on March 16, 2017, US aircraft attacked the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque near al-Jinah, a village in Aleppo province in northern Syria, where about 300 people had gathered for religious lectures and the Muslim Isha’a, or night prayer. The attack completely destroyed the service section of the mosque and killed at least 38 people.

US military authorities have acknowledged that they carried out the strike, saying that they targeted a meeting of al-Qaeda members. A US military spokesperson said that the US military carried out extensive surveillance before the attack and that they take “extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life” in such operations. However, Human Rights Watch research suggests that US authorities failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian casualties in the attack, a requirement under the laws of war.

While US officials acknowledged that there was a mosque nearby, they claimed that the targeted building was a partially constructed community hall. But information from local residents, photographs, and video footage of the building before and after the attack show that the targeted building was also a mosque. While the mosque did not have a minaret or a dome that would have been visible by aerial surveillance, local residents said that dozens, if not hundreds, of people were gathering in the building at prayer times. Aerial surveillance of the building should have shown this. Local residents also said that the mosque was well known and widely used by people in the area. Any attempt to verify through people with local knowledge what kind of building this was would have likely established that the building was a mosque. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. has launched 70 air strikes in Yemen in little over a month

The Hill reports: The Pentagon carried out roughly 20 strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda militants since last week, putting the total number of strikes past 70 in a little over a month, a Defense Department spokesman said Monday.

The strikes are aimed at al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni al Qaeda branch that is considered the terrorist organization’s most lethal branch.

“We continue to target [al Qaeda] in Yemen, and this is done in the interest of disrupting this terror organization that presents a very significant threat to the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters.

The United States conducted multiple airstrikes in Yemen this past weekend, according to reports out of the area. Davis would not say specifically how many airstrikes took place, instead saying that there have been 20 additional strikes since the middle of last week.

“Since Feb. 28, we’ve conducted more than 70 precision airstrikes against AQAP militants’ infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment,” he added. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military denies reports it bombed mosque in Syria

The New York Times reports: The United States military said that it had carried out an airstrike against a meeting of Qaeda militants on Thursday in Syria and that a number of the extremists had been killed.

The American military statement came as Syria activists reported that a mosque had been bombed and that scores of innocent civilians had been killed and wounded.

A spokesman for the United States Central Command said the American aircraft had struck a nearby building, but did not hit the mosque.

“We did not target any mosques,” said Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for the Central Command, which has responsibility for American military missions in the Middle East. “What we did target was destroyed. There is a mosque within 50 feet of that building that is still standing.”

But one local activist, Mohamed al Shaghel, said the people who had been struck had “no affiliation with any military faction or any political side.”

“I passed by the hospital,” he said. “I was told that about 50 were killed and 50 wounded. Rescuers are still looking for bodies under the rubble.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike took place in Al Jinah, a village between the cities of Idlib and Aleppo. It said 42 people had been killed, most of them civilians, and described the attack as a “massacre.” [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda is starting to swallow the Syrian opposition

Charles Lister writes: After six years of conflict, Syria and its people have been completely transformed. The effects of a crisis that has killed nearly a half-million people and forced nearly 11.5 million more from their homes are now etched into the many identities to which Syrians attach themselves. While a majority of Syrians vigorously resist the formal breakup of their country, it is impossible to ignore how the brutal and protracted war has instilled deep divisions in a once-cohesive society.

In many areas of the country, battle lines remain physically drawn among villages that once lived in harmony. And the sectarian dynamic that was once supported only by extremist fringes has started to decisively shape the mainstream opposition.

The origins of this dynamic lie with President Bashar al-Assad, who was quick to label the peaceful protest movement of early 2011 as a “foreign conspiracy.” This conspiracy, Assad claimed in mid-2011, was one being led by Sunni “terrorists” — many dozens if not hundreds of which he had released from prison in March, May, and June 2011. Assad’s sectarian framing of the crisis and his cynical positioning of himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities not only allowed him to bolster his base, but also guaranteed that extremists within the opposition would gradually see their sectarian narrative thrive.

And that is, more or less, what has happened. The Syrian opposition is at its weakest point since 2012, and international trends are moving against it. The United States has distanced itself from the “Assad must go” narrative and seen its attention diverted by its own election; Europe is distracted by refugees and Brexit; and Turkey has done an about-face and, in effect, sold Aleppo to Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow, Tehran, and Hezbollah have methodically enhanced their military commitments to the Assad regime, guaranteeing at minimum its survival.

Amid these challenges, Syria’s opposition has entered into a period of introspection and great internal strain. Placed under concerted pressure — whether by Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the south, or by Turkey and Qatar in the north — and faced with few other options, Syria’s non-al-Qaeda armed opposition demonstrated their pragmatism by agreeing to attend political talks in Kazakhstan and Switzerland, even though their popular base remained deeply opposed to such signals of “compromise,” and few of the attendees expected the talks to succeed.

But Syria’s armed opposition is also changing as a result of internal pressures. Al Qaeda’s Syrian representatives — rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016 and then renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) after subsuming several other groups in January — have been relentless, and patient, in pursuing their long-term objective: a merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella. Al Qaeda has commonly called this goal a “uniting of the ranks.” [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda now leads the fight against Assad

Shiraz Maher writes: On 9 February, a grey-bearded and balding Syrian rebel commander wearing military dress appeared in an internet video calling for greater unity among the forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad. This was unremarkable. Syria’s rebel groups frequently issue unity statements, merge units and create umbrella groups – many of which, like the fruit of the medlar tree, turn rotten before they turn ripe.

Yet the message from Hashem al-Sheikh – a native of Aleppo imprisoned by Assad in 2005 for his jihadi beliefs and then released along with other Islamist prisoners in 2011 in an attempt to poison the nascent uprising against the regime – was hugely important in the context of the Syrian Civil War: it signalled the potential subsuming of the entire Syrian opposition to radical and reactionary forces, and to al-Qaeda in particular.

In the video, Hashem al-Sheikh announ­ced the creation of a powerful, extremist-dominated entity known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the “Committee for the Liberation of the Levant”.

One of the main groups that joined the new committee is Nur al-Din al-Zenki, a corrupt and brutal Islamist movement that was once backed by the CIA as a “vetted organisation”, though this designation was later revoked. In July last year, five months before Aleppo fell to Assad’s forces, the group’s members were filmed beheading Abdullah Tayseer in the eastern part of the city. Tayseer was a 13-year-old boy whom they accused of fighting for the regime.

Far more significant was the folding into HTS of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which until July was known as Jabhat al-Nusrah – and which represented al-Qaeda on the ground in Syria. JFS, comprised mainly of local fighters, had earned a degree of popular support among civilians because of its fighters’ valour and lack of corruption. The rebranding was an attempt by its leaders to recast it as a broader part of the overall uprising, and to capitalise on ordinary Syrians’ hatred of Islamic State (IS), which is widely seen as having usurped the revolution and diverted its aims.

Consequently, al-Qaeda has pursued an audacious line of messaging that seeks to portray the group in Syria as a responsible actor that follows a “middle path” between acquiescence and extremism. The corollary is clear: that it is both authentic and organic. “JFS is not a fringe group that exists on another planet,” wrote a spokesman, Mos­tafa Mahamed, shortly after it rebranded in 2016. “It is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people.” [Continue reading…]

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Al-Qaeda likes Steve Bannon so much, they put him on the cover of their official newspaper

Amanda Erickson writes: The way al-Qaeda tells it, the West is locked in an existential war with Islam. This is how the terrorist group justifies its violence and its fundamentalist ideology. And now it has found a Westerner to back them up — top Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Bannon graced the cover (above the fold!) of the most recent al-Qaeda-linked Al Masra newspaper. That prominence, University of Oxford researcher Elisabeth Kendall told Quartz, is “striking.”

The piece focused on Bannon’s views of Islam, saying he believes that “the forces of Islam cannot be stopped by peaceful means.” The paper cited a conversation Bannon had with a Danish journalist in May 2016. It also claimed that Bannon believes that the struggle is really between Christianity and Islam, not just Islam and the West. And it suggested that Bannon has “lost confidence in secular Europe, and sees Muslim immigrants as partially responsible for the retreat of traditional Christian values.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump has given terrorist groups a propaganda victory beyond their wildest dreams

Amarnath Amarasingam writes: Nine days after 9/11, George W. Bush declared during an address to a joint session of Congress that every nation now “has a decision to make,” that “either you are with us or with the terrorists.” Jihadists saw his statement as a gift from God. They argued that with this line drawn in the sand, members of the Muslim community now had a clear view of the parade of sellouts, hypocrites and “white-washed” Muslims among them. It would be obvious who was on the side of the Muslim community and who, as ISIS wrote in the seventh issue of its English-language magazine Dabiq, would rush “to serve the crusaders led by Bush in the war against Islam.”

According to jihadists, this opportunity to unearth the true Muslims, those who had the community’s back and those who didn’t, was a gift from above. As Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden claimed at the time in an interview, which was also later reproduced in the same Dabiq article, this line in the sand basically meant that “either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”

Sixteen years later, what do jihadists think of Donald Trump? It’s an important question to explore and pose to jihadists themselves, because it influences their propaganda and their stance toward the United States, and may predict how they behave in relation to Western states. Over the past three years, on a variety of text-messaging applications and social media platforms, I have been interviewing foreign fighters from Western countries who are fighting in Syria and Iraq.

After Trump’s election victory, I asked five fighters for their thoughts on Trump. Initially, they weren’t convinced that Trump would be different from any other American president, who, since 9/11, has been, according to them, bombing Muslims and killing civilians. But then Trump spoke, put forth executive orders and seemed to fan the flames of the far right.

As time went on, these jihadists began to argue that Trump represents “real” America. Trump was saying what Americans and politicians always privately thought about Muslims but were too afraid to say in public. [Continue reading…]

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‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists

The Washington Post reports: The biggest surviving rebel stronghold in northern Syria is falling under the control of al-Qaeda-linked extremists amid a surge of rebel infighting that threatens to vanquish what is left of the moderate rebellion.

The ascent of the extremists in the northwestern province of Idlib coincides with a suspension of aid to moderate rebel groups by their international allies.

The commanders of five of the groups say they were told earlier this month by representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that they would receive no further arms or ammunition until they unite to form a coherent front against the jihadists, a goal that has eluded the fractious rebels throughout the six years of fighting.

The freeze on supplies is unrelated to the change of power in Washington, where the Trump administration is engaged in a review of U.S. policy on Syria, U.S. officials say. It also does not signal a complete rupture of support for the rebels, who are continuing to receive salaries, say diplomats and rebel commanders.

Rather, the goal is to ensure that supplies do not fall into extremist hands, by putting pressure on the rebels to form a more efficient force, the rebel commanders say they have been told.

Instead it is the extremists who have closed ranks and turned against the U.S.-backed rebels, putting the al-Qaeda-linked groups with whom the moderates once uneasily coexisted effectively in charge of key swaths of territory in Idlib, the most important stronghold from which the rebels could have hoped to sustain a challenge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Moderate rebels still hold territory in southern Syria, in pockets around Damascus, and in parts of Aleppo province where they are fighting alongside Turkish troops against the Islamic State.

But the loss of Idlib to the extremists has the potential to prolong — or at least divert — the trajectory of the war at a time when the United Nations is reconvening peace talks in Geneva aimed at securing a political settlement. The talks opened Thursday with little sign that progress was likely. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Al Qaeda’s plot to blow up an American airliner

The New York Times reports: In a series of conversations in Qaeda safe houses in Yemen in 2009, Anwar al-Awlaki carefully sized up a young Nigerian volunteer, decided the man had the diligence and dedication for a “martyrdom mission” and finally unveiled what he had in mind.

Mr. Awlaki, an American-born cleric who had become a leading propagandist for Al Qaeda, told the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that “the attack should occur on board a U.S. airliner,” according to the account Mr. Abdulmutallab gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Abdulmutallab told F.B.I. agents that he “was resolved to killing innocent people and considered them to be ‘collateral damage.’” With “guidance” from Mr. Awlaki, he said, he had “worked through all these issues.”

Newly released documents, obtained by The New York Times after a two-year legal battle under the Freedom of Information Act, fill in the details of a central episode in the American conflict with Al Qaeda: Mr. Abdulmutallab’s recruitment by Mr. Awlaki and his failed attempt to blow up an airliner approaching Detroit on Christmas in 2009 using sophisticated explosives hidden in his underwear.

The documents’ detailed account of Mr. Awlaki, who stars in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s story as both a religious hero and a practical adviser on carrying out mayhem, is particularly important. The government allegation that Mr. Awlaki was behind the underwear bomb plot — never tested in a court of law — became the central justification that President Barack Obama cited for ordering the cleric’s killing in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Awlaki became the first American citizen deliberately killed on the order of a president, without criminal charges or trial, since the Civil War. Some legal scholars questioned whether the order was constitutional. Mr. Obama argued that killing Mr. Awlaki was the equivalent of a justified police shooting of a gunman who was threatening civilians.

The F.B.I.’s decision in 2010 to keep the interview summaries secret led some critics to question the quality of the evidence against Mr. Awlaki. The 200 pages of redacted documents released to The Times this week, on the order of a federal judge, suggest that the Obama administration had ample firsthand testimony from Mr. Abdulmutallab that the cleric oversaw his training and conceived the plot.

The detailed reports of Mr. Abdulmutallab may also play into the debate President Trump has renewed about whether torture is ever necessary to get useful information from terrorism suspects. Most experienced interrogators say no, and their arguments would receive support from these interviews. [Continue reading…]

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Assad vows to retake Raqa and ‘every inch’ of Syria

AFP reports: President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday said Raqa is not a priority target for his forces, saying his goal is to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory.

“Raqa is a symbol,” Assad said in an interview with French media, while asserting that jihadist attacks carried out in France were “not necessarily prepared” in the Islamic State group (IS) stronghold in Syria.

“You have ISIS close to Damascus, you have them everywhere,” Assad said, using another acronym for IS.

“Everywhere is a priority depending on the development of the battle,” he said, as a new round of peace talks was set to kick off in the Kazakh capital Astana.

“They are in Palmyra now and in the eastern part of Syria,” he said in the interview in Damascus with Europe 1 radio and the TF1 and LCI television channels.

“For us it is all the same, Raqa, Palmyra, Idlib, it’s all the same.”

The Syrian leader said it was the “duty of any government” to regain control of “every inch” of its territory. [Continue reading…]

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Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation in Syria

BBC News reports: The Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), known as al-Nusra Front until it broke off formal ties with al-Qaeda last July, has merged with four smaller Syrian factions and rebranded itself as “Tahrir al-Sham”.

The new group’s leader has been named as Hashim al-Sheikh, who previously served as the head of the powerful Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham.

Ahrar al-Sham itself has refused to join the new body and has been at loggerheads with JFS in northern Syria.

On 9 February, al-Shaikh delivered the group’s first leadership message in which he insisted the new entity was independent and not an extension of former organisations and factions.

By reinventing itself again, JFS appears to be trying to distance itself from its al-Qaeda past and embed itself more deeply within the Syrian insurgency.

No mention has been made of JFS leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani in any of the new group’s communications. But he is widely believed to be serving as its military commander. [Continue reading…]

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