Everything we knew about this ISIS mastermind was wrong

Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan writes: The Pentagon calls him Haji Imam. His other nicknames include Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Alaa al-Afri, Hajji Iman, or simply the Hajji, the Arabic word for “pilgrim” but one that is colloquially used to refer to a revered person or gray eminence. Iraqi and American security officials were so confused by his multiple noms de guerre that they identified him as two distinct high-level leaders of the so-called Islamic State; Wikipedia even has two biographies, and two photographs for the one jihadist whose obscurity was in direct proportion to his significance. For Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Shakhilar al-Qaduli — that’s his legal name — is known as a man of many talents. He’d have to be to attain the rank of second-most powerful figure in ISIS, next to the caliph himself.

The U.S. military announced that al-Qaduli—who oversaw ISIS’s intelligence operations — was killed in an airstrike in Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, on March 25. Although his death was proclaimed at least four times before by the Iraqi government and twice by the U.S.-led coalition, this time it might be real. Several ISIS supporters eulogized him on social media, and new details about his curriculum vitae and all-important role within the organization have been disclosed, possibly because operational security is no longer a priority.

That the No. 2 man in the world’s most dangerous terror organization may be dead matters almost as much as we’ve only been able to learn about him in death. Al-Qaduli’s biography has been cloaked in rumor, myth, and misinformation — or disinformation, given that much of what had been produced on his history came from disgruntled al Qaeda sources looking to ruin his reputation following the bin Ladenist’s split from ISIS in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Will Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS join forces?

Hassan Hassan writes: In a two-part interview with Al Jazeera in May, Mohammed Al Jolani of Jabhat Al Nusra revealed that Al Qaeda’s central leadership had issued instructions against using Syria as a launch pad for attacks against the West. Although the anti-ISIL air campaign frequently struck his cells in northern Syria, Al Jolani said he was still committed to the strict orders.

Almost a year after the interview, much has changed in Syria and the wider neighbourhood. The organisation’s leadership continues to be pounded by the US-led campaign, which targeted operatives most qualified to plan and launch attacks against the West, loosely dubbed by the Americans as the “Khorassan Cell”. According to Hassan Abu Haniya, an observer of Islamist groups from Jordan, the cell’s commanders in Syria have been all but decapitated after a series of high-level killings. This has caused profound anger among Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda supporters, who started to question the current live-and-let-live strategy in Syria.

The continuing attacks against both ISIL and Al Qaeda, and their affiliates across the region, have led some sympathisers to wonder why the two jihadist groups do not collaborate. In addition to encouragement by ordinary extremist supporters, prominent jihadist ideologues offered help to narrow differences between the two groups. Abu Qatada Al Filistini from Jordan, for example, called for “management of differences” among warring jihadist and Islamist groups, while Abu Muhammed Al Maqdisi, also from Jordan, recently wrote on Twitter that he was willing to revise his position towards ISIL and join it “to spite the whole world” if it stopped labelling other jihadists as apostates. [Continue reading…]

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The three manifestos that paved the way for ISIS

Fawaz A. Gerges writes: Islamic State’s Islamist utopia has taken hold of the imagination of small Sunni communities almost everywhere, including in Brussels, where suicide bombers killed 32 people last month.

Its worldview, Salafi jihadism, is perhaps the most powerful weapon in its deadly arsenal. A traveling and expanding ideology, Salafi jihadism, or religious totalitarianism, has evolved into an influential social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, far-flung supporters, networks of recruiters and theorist enablers who provide members with theological sustenance.

Regardless of what happens to Islamic State, Salafi jihadism is here to stay and will likely gain more converts in politically polarized Arab and Muslim societies. The challenge is to shine light on this growing ideology and make sense of it.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his inner circle rely particularly on three Salafi jihadist manifestoes to justify what they do. The most well-known is “The Management of Savagery.” Circulated in PDF format under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Najji in the early 2000s, the manifesto provides a strategic road map of how to create an Islamic caliphate.

The second book is “Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad” by Abu Abdullah Muhajjer, which calls on Salafi jihadists to do whatever it takes to establish a purely unified Islamic state.

The final book is “The Essentials of Making Ready” (for Jihad) by Sayyid Imam Sharif, aka Abdel-Qader Ibn Abdel-Aziz or Dr. Fadl. This massive work focuses on the theological and practical meanings of jihad in Islam, and it has become a central text in jihadist training. Fadl admitted that he wrote the book in the late 1980s as a manual for training camps of what subsequently became known as Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS and Nusra put Yarmouk civilians in line of fire

Al Jazeera reports: Deadly fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front has put civilians, mostly Palestinian refugees, in danger yet again in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus.

Issam, a 54-year-old resident of Yarmouk, said that civilians have called for a temporary humanitarian ceasefire from the armed groups but have yet to receive a response.

“There is not a piece of bread left in this camp,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone while the sound of gunfire rang out behind him. “There isn’t medicine or water for drinking.” [Continue reading…]

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Islamist radicals are a threat. But do you need to attack their religion?

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Islam is not a monolithic thing. It’s embraced by multitudes that speak different languages, think different thoughts and grapple with different challenges every day. It has no central, governing institution and no shortage of internal debates and schisms.

Some analysts point out that the attacks on Islam aren’t really about religion, per se. “Their ‘cultural racism’ portrays Muslims as an irremediable, jihadist fifth column,” writes journalist and critic Adam Shatz in an incisive essay about the Charlie Hebdo editorial and its boosters. “Their fear of Islam has less to do with the religion than with the people who practice it.”

That was very much on show in the face of Europe’s migrant crisis, when fears of a “jihadist fifth column” consumed a segment of the Western public and shaped the response to what aid groups and the United Nations desperately plead is, first and foremost, a humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East.

Given the violence in Brussels and Paris, these fears are understandable. But it’s a case of seeing a vast forest when there are only a few trees.

“Claiming that Europe faces a Muslim invasion has become standard fare for a range of politicians and political parties in Europe,” noted Nate Schenkkan, the project director behind a recent Freedom House report on the rise of illiberal politics in parts of the continent. “This kind of speech undermines democracy by rejecting one of its fundamental principles — equality before the law. There is a danger that this kind of hateful, paranoid speech will lead to violence against minorities and refugees.”

This “hateful, paranoid speech” has its obvious political uses, though. Fiery populists on both sides of the pond have pointed to the threat of Islam when campaigning, often with success, in recent local elections.

The trouble is that pinning the radicalization and criminality of a small minority on whole communities — a whole religion, even — obscures more than it reveals. It reduces to abstraction what are far more complicated and important problems to consider, such as lapses in security and intelligence as well as troubles over assimilation and integration.

And, as myriad experts on counterterrorism policy and the Middle East have argued, it trades in the same logic that is employed by Islamist organizations.

“Promoting a clash of civilizations and destroying the reality of productive coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims was always at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy. The Islamic State has avowed the same goal of eliminating the ‘gray zones’ of toleration,” writes Marc Lynch, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “With American political discourse these days, the prospects for escaping the iron logic of this strategy have never looked more dismal.” [Continue reading…]

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Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls two years ago. What happened to them?

The Washington Post reports: Two years ago Thursday, just before midnight on a sweltering night in a town in northeastern Nigeria, men carrying AK-47s stormed into the Chibok Government Secondary School.

What happened next would bring global attention to the Islamist group Boko Haram, which had been haunting Nigeria for years. It would unite activists around the world, including first lady Michelle Obama, around the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. It would prompt the United States to dispatch surveillance drones and military trainers to West Africa.

The militants kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. Several dozen of them were able to escape. But two years later, even as the Nigerian, Cameroonian and Chadian militaries have pushed Boko Haram out of many of its former strongholds, 219 of the girls remain missing.

On Wednesday, CNN released an apparent proof of life video of fifteen of the girls, reportedly filmed last December. They wore flowing headscarves and stated their names. “We are all well,” one of them said.

It was a rare window into their condition, but it raised as many questions it answered. The video alluded to a possible negotiation with the Nigerian government, but those details remain unclear. And many Nigerians wondered why it took so long for even the parents of the girls to see a video confirming they were still alive. [Continue reading…]

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How Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer

Reuters reports: Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.

If Islamic State’s capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa, then al Qaeda’s is Mukalla, a southeastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Al Qaeda fighters there have abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which they boast about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.

The economic empire was described by more than a dozen diplomats, Yemeni security officials, tribal leaders and residents of Mukalla. Its emergence is the most striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The campaign, backed by the United States, has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.

Yemeni government officials and local traders estimated the group, as well as seizing the bank deposits, has extorted $1.4 million from the national oil company and earns up to $2 million every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port.

AQAP boasts 1,000 fighters in Mukalla alone, controls 600 km (373 miles) of coastline and is ingratiating itself with southern Yemenis, who have felt marginalised by the country’s northern elite for years.

By adopting many of the tactics Islamic State uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP has expanded its own fiefdom. The danger is that the group, which organised the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its hardline ideology.

“I prefer that al Qaeda stay here, not for Al Mukalla to be liberated,” said one 47-year-old resident. “The situation is stable, more than any ‘free’ part of Yemen. The alternative to al Qaeda is much worse.” [Continue reading…]

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Islamist rebel groups press offensive in northern Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: A tenuous cease-fire in Syria unraveled further over the past few days, with rebel groups that signed on joining the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in a new offensive against regime forces near the northern city of Aleppo.

Amid the offensive in its fourth day on Monday, Nusra supporters were mourning a top figure in the group and nearly two dozen of his associates killed in airstrikes in northwestern Idlib province on Sunday.

Nusra supporters blamed the airstrike on the U.S., which has previously targeted the group’s fighters in Idlib, its stronghold.

A spokesman for the American-led coalition that is mainly battling Islamic State wouldn’t immediately confirm nor deny the allegation. Russia and the Syrian regime also conduct airstrikes on opponents in the area.

The truce has been imperiled by an escalation of regime airstrikes on rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus over the past week. Despite a rapidly rising toll of alleged violations, both sides appear reluctant to call off the agreement which has reduced violence and deaths after all.

“The cessation of hostilities agreement is about to take its last breath and effectively be declared finished,” Riad Hijab, an opposition leader, warned in a letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday. Mr. Hijab heads the main opposition delegation to the Geneva peace talks.

Continuing regime restrictions on humanitarian assistance to several besieged rebel-held areas around Damascus are further straining the shaky truce. Residents of one such town, Madaya, said a sick teenager died Monday because of lack of medical care.

Regime airstrikes on a rebel-held community near Damascus on Thursday killed 33 people, almost half of them children, according to a tally by local emergency responders. [Continue reading…]

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Report: The foreign fighters phenomenon in the EU – profiles, threats & policies

International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague reports: Despite the widespread media attention for foreign fighters in Europe, very little is known about the phenomenon itself, something also evidenced by the lack of a single foreign fighter definition across the EU.

In a study commissioned by the Netherlands National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), ICCT addresses this gap by analysing not only the numbers and characteristics of foreign fighters across the EU, but also how the Union and Member States assess the threat of foreign fighters as well as their policy responses regarding security, preventive and legislative measures. The Report also outlines a series of policy options aimed both at the EU and its Member States.

Findings include:

  • Of a total estimated 3,922 – 4,294 foreign fighters from EU Member States, around 30% have returned to their home countries.
  • A majority of around 2,838 foreign fighters come from just four countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with Belgium having the highest per-capita FF contingent.
  • There is no clear-cut profile of a European foreign fighter. Data indicates that a majority originate from metropolitan areas, with many coming from the same neighbourhoods, that an average of 17% are female, and that the percentage of converts among foreign fighters ranges from 6% to 23%.
  • The radicalisation process of foreign fighters is reported to be short and often involves circles of friends radicalizing as a group and deciding to leave jointly for Syria and Iraq.

[Continue reading…]

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Libya’s deep state is back and wants you to know it

Borzou Daragahi reports: A pudgy, graying middle-aged man in a brown sweater vest sat quietly sipping tea in the hotel lobby. If you noticed him at all, you might have thought he was a businessman, or an engineer, maybe a mid-ranking civil servant. He frowned occasionally as he contemplated the messages on his smartphone.

He allowed a smile as two men approached. They greeted each other as old friends, exchanging embraces, asking after relatives. One of the men complained a little about the state of business in the region, and warned he might have to head off at some point: “My daughter has a ballet recital.”

The entourage moved to a darkly lit corner of the hotel, their voices dropping, sometimes to a whisper. They looked up with paranoid glares each time a waiter or hotel guest walked by. The three men knew they could never be too careful.

The newcomers were retired colleagues; the first, a balding man in his sixties, works for a charity that helps African migrants in Libya; the second, in his late forties, is a real estate developer, dividing his time between the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and Europe.

But this was no workaday meeting of middle-aged businessmen. The three men are operatives from one of the most feared institutions in the Middle East: Libya’s mukhabarat, or intelligence agency. Formed shortly after the Second World War, the mukhabarat has worked behind the scenes to monitor and manipulate Libya for decades. And they have now joined the war against ISIS, as well as al-Qaeda and loyalists to the former regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. They have made many, many enemies over the years.

“Extremists are extremists,” said the man in the sweater vest, a senior ranking official of the agency’s counter-terrorism division. “It doesn’t matter if they’re government militias, ISIS, or Qaddafi loyalists. In my focus, I target them all. Political extremists are all the same. And I want stability.” [Continue reading…]

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The gap between jihadism and the prevailing linear narrative of radicalization

Kenan Malik writes: In Britain, the government’s flagship counterterrorism program, Prevent, includes surveillance of schoolchildren and college students. Official guidelines suggest that signs of radicalization include changing one’s “style of dress or personal appearance” or using “derogatory names or labels for another group.” Another sign, according to leaked teacher training materials, is an overt interest in Palestine or Syria. Among nearly 4,000 people identified last year as supposedly exhibiting signs of radicalization was a 4-year-old boy.

In France, mass closures of mosques and organizations suspected of enabling radicalization are underway.

Yet the evidence suggests that the concept is flawed and that such anti-jihadist measures are ineffective, even counterproductive. A secret British government memorandum leaked in 2010 dismissed the idea that there was “a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalization, to violence.” A 2010 American study sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security similarly noted that radicalization “cannot be understood as an invariable set of steps or ‘stages’ from sympathy to radicalism.”

Many studies show, perhaps counterintuitively, that people are not usually led to jihadist groups by religious faith. In 2008, a leaked briefing from Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, found that far from being religious zealots, many involved in terrorism were not particularly observant.

This view is confirmed by Marc Sageman, a former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency who is now a counterterrorism consultant. “At the time they joined, jihad terrorists were not very religious,” he observed. “They only became religious once they joined the jihad.”

The paradox is that the concept has become central to domestic counterterrorism policy even as government agencies discover it’s wrong. There is a gap between the reality of jihadism and a political desire for a simple narrative of radicalization.

In recent years, the official view of the process has become more nuanced. An F.B.I. website aimed at teenagers acknowledges that “no single reason explains why people become violent extremists.” Updated British strategy also accepts that “there is no single cause of radicalization.”

Yet the idea of a conveyor belt and telltale signatures of radicalization continue to be influential.

For many, though, the first steps toward terror are rarely taken for political or religious reasons. As the French sociologist Olivier Roy, the pre-eminent scholar of European jihadism, puts it, few terrorists “had a previous story of militancy,” either political or religious. Rather, they’re searching for something less definable: identity, meaning, respect. [Continue reading…]

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Is Belgium’s nuclear security up to scratch?

By Robert J Downes, King’s College London and Daniel Salisbury, King’s College London

Belgium’s counter-terrorism efforts are once again being called into question following the recent tragedies in Brussels. The attacks were carried out against soft targets – the public check-in area of Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station – but a series of unusual and suspicious occurrences were also reported at nuclear facilities in the country.

Occurring a week before a major international summit on nuclear security, these events highlight the very real threat to nuclear facilities. For Belgium, this recent episode is one item on a long list of security concerns.

The US repeatedly has voiced concerns about Belgium’s nuclear security arrangements since 2003. That year, Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian national and former professional footballer, planned to bomb the Belgian Kleine-Brogel airbase under the aegis of Al-Qaeda.

The airbase, which holds US nuclear weapons, has seen multiple incursions by anti-nuclear activists who have gained access to the site’s “protected area”, which surrounds hardened weapons storage bunkers.

Yet, Belgium only started using armed guards at its nuclear facilities weeks before the March 2016 attacks.

[Read more…]

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Nusra’s ambition to govern faces challenge from Syrian activists

Borzou Daragahi reports: Syria’s al-Qaeda branch is seeking to emulate its jihadi rival, ISIS, by establishing its own government in areas it controls.

Over the past year, the Nusra Front, a powerful and well-organized Syrian rebel army that is the country’s official arm of al-Qaeda, has shifted tactics from being a solely military force to one seeking to tighten its hold over areas under its control by seizing the reins of governance, including law enforcement and municipal affairs, in what its supporters have hinted could become its own emirate in the northwestern Idlib province.

“They switched from just being a military power to taking over services,” said Abu Yahya, nom de guerre of a Syrian activist in the city of Muraat al-Noman, in Idlib province. “Nusra is trying to build institutions and trying to oversee services. They have now developed a love for power.”

The group’s efforts are concentrated on the city of Idlib, which the regime surrendered last year as a coalition of Islamist rebel groups that included Nusra pushed its way into the city. Over the following months, Nusra began to muscle out other rebel groups when it came to running the city. It did the same in other parts of Idlib province, where it has sought to create an institution called the The Liberated Districts Administration (Idaret al Manateq al Muharrarra), in an area that includes the cities of Idlib, Reeha and Jusr al-Shughoor, which would give them direct control of taxation, sanitation, electricity, water and as well as municipal governance. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s shattered peace, Europe’s struggling values

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Judy Dempsey writes: The terrorist attacks that have killed at least 31 people in Brussels and injured some 270 others on March 22 have changed Europe’s perception about itself. Until now, despite so many calculated murders of many innocent civilians in Madrid, London, Copenhagen, and Paris— among other cities across Europe—since 2004, European leaders have adopted ad hoc measures to counter this new challenge. What makes Brussels different is that there’s now an acceptance by EU leaders that these attacks will continue.

All the measures taken so far have fallen way short of confronting the threat. European leaders didn’t want to admit that the peace that reigned across Europe since the end of World War II had been shattered. As Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee said after the Brussels bombings, “This is a new form of war that Europe has to deal with.”

This is the new and uncomfortable reality that European leaders now have to accept and respond to. It is a reality that is not going to go away as long as the so-called Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and their battalions of supporters inside and outside Europe continue their mission to attack everything that Europe stands for. It is Europe’s liberal values and open society that the perpetrators of these attacks, many of them born in Europe, are taking advantage of. Those values are now at stake. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Even before the shock of last week’s deadly Brussels bombings, gallows humor had taken hold in the square kilometer around Schuman Roundabout, the heart of the city’s European district.

It’s been a miserable start to the year for the European Union with the unresolved migration crisis poisoning relations among member governments, negotiations to avert a British exit getting trickier, Greece’s debt crisis dragging on, and Islamist militant attacks exposing serial cross-border security lapses.

A succession of emergency summits of the 28 national leaders has fueled an atmosphere of permanent crisis. And political weather forecasters say worse storms may be on the way.

Among staff working for EU institutions, long used to being unloved scapegoats for national politicians, the mood oscillates between despond and defiance.

“The European Union is like the orchestra that played on the Titanic,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in January, urging EU officials to redirect their focus to promoting growth and employment instead of “this mistaken bureaucratic approach”.

Officials have been strictly instructed not to do or say anything that may affect Britain’s knife-edge June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the bloc. [Continue reading…]

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The painful lessons of Brussels seem hard to learn, so they continue

Rami G Khouri writes: The terror attacks in Brussels this week, beyond their inherent cruelty and criminality, in themselves are not particularly distinctive or noteworthy in the larger picture of Islamic State and other acts of terrorism, which have become common fare in this era of expanding violence across all continents. Terrorism database compilers are working overtime these months trying to take note of every such act — and that may be the real significance of what is going on these days: hundreds of thousands of desperate and dehumanized individuals transform their former local grumblings or security-forced passivity into a growing global network of terrorists and anarchists whose numbers are beyond the capacity of any intelligence system’s ability to monitor, arrest, prevent, or shut down.

The heart of this criminal universe mainly comprises Arabs or emigrants of Arab descent. The terror problem at its deepest core is the consequence of the dysfunction of mostly Arab societies that have been subjected to more than half a century of security-enforced docility and lack of citizen rights. Nearly 400 million human beings today across the Arab world were born with innate natural and human rights to freedom, identity, growth, and societal well-being, but they have not been allowed to manifest these dimensions of their full humanity.

Economic, political, environmental, and social constraints that have grown more severe in recent decades have sparked a terrible cycle of stagnation and de-development in the minds and capabilities of men and women — while shopping malls, water-pipe cafes, reality television, supermarkets, and cell phone shops have proliferated like mad across the Arab world, in a futile attempt to keep people busy and happy with material diversions. [Continue reading…]

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