An interview with Anne Speckhard
“This is an account, spanning over a decade, of what happens when you do just that. Traveling through the West Bank and Gaza, into the U.S. Department of Defense prisons in Camp Bucca and Camp Victory, down the alleyways of the Casablanca slums, inside Chechnya, in the radicalized neighborhoods of Belgium, the UK, France and the Netherlands and sitting with the hostages of Beslan and Nord Ost, Dr. Speckhard gives us an account of what puts vulnerable individuals on the terrorist trajectory and what might also take them back off it.
One of the only experts to have such a breadth of experience – having interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their friends, family members and hostages – having visited, and even stayed overnight at times in the intimate spaces of terrorists’ homes, interviewing them in their stark prison cells and meeting them in the streets of their shanty towns, Dr. Speckhard gives us a rare glimpse of terrorists within their own contexts”
What is your definition of Terrorism and what is the critical difference from National Liberation Movements?
There is no one definition of terrorism that has gained universal acceptance” in fact in a recent handbook of terrorism put out by Alex Schmid identifies hundreds of definitions! My own definition relies in good part on that of the U.S. FBI and State Department – I would define it as – terrorism consists of politically motivated attacks upon civilian targets by non state actors in order to instill terror and influence a wider witnessing audience. National liberation movements or so called freedom fighters who primarily and intentionally attack civilians for the purpose of influencing the political process and influencing the wider witnessing audience are terrorists by this definition and they can be distinguished from actual freedom fighters or guerrilla insurgents who fight the military and do not intentionally attack civilian targets.
What do you think are the main causes of radicalization and to what degree do you think they are really connected to religion?
I just attended a day long conference at the Hague convening some of the top experts in Europe to discuss this issue and it was difficult to come to a consensus. First of all we have to decide what is radicalization. If it is simply becoming “radical” in the sense of believing that society needs to change and trying to change the status quo it may be a good thing. If it is radicalization to violent extremism and fanaticism it is obviously not a good thing. Group dynamics, ideology, social support and individual vulnerabilities interact and all play a part in the mix for radicalizing to extremist violence. In Europe those who radicalize into extremist and terrorist movement often feel disenfranchised, marginalized have frustrated aspirations, happen upon and make strong bonds of friendship even marriage into groups that espouse violent answers, come to believe an extremist ideology, may begin to take on the traumas of others in other parts of the world and identify with them believing they are fighting for their cause. Religion is not necessary but is a strong force to identify “them” and us, to give justification for certain acts, to give courage to fight and die, to bind groups together, etc. but many ideologies can provide the same functions.
Based on your research, what are the most common events, strong enough to transform a normal citizen to a suicide bomber?
Usually a group is involved and a recruiter to encourage a person to take this role and to equip him to carry it out and to help him to reach his target. A degree of social support that exists also is very important for the person to believe it is the right thing to do. On the individual level, there must be some vulnerability to being attracted to a group that uses suicide bombing.
A group must find vulnerable individuals who can be activated into believing it and carrying it out – those who are in deep psychic pain are the most likely recruits. Violent events and trauma greatly contribute to a willingness to give one’s life for the cause. In my experience a highly traumatized and bereaved individual is a great target to recruit as a suicide bomber because he or she is in enough “psychic pain” to want to exit life and may believe that in dying he or she will be reunited with those who have died before. If the group’s ideology is “martyrdom” then there are many rewards for participating most importantly believing that one will gain instant entrance to paradise along with other rewards. If her group also glorifies dying that way and will make a hero of her or him it becomes even more powerful. The fact that a group and its ideology is important in the mix can be demonstrated by looking at many areas of the world where there is a lot of trauma but no terrorism and no suicide bombers. It takes a group to organize it and an ideology to believe its a good thing. Without either of these many vulnerable individuals will never go and become suicide bombers.
What are the main differences between male and female suicide bombers?
In the main they are much the same. Female bombers can cross security perimeters more easily because they can hide explosives on their bodies more easily and protest invasive body searches and they are usually expected to be innocent. Females are rarely leaders, although most suicide bombers – male or female are not leaders. The Chechens used females from the beginning – half and half with the men. There are fewer female suicide bombers in conservative Islamic middle eastern countries because the groups were afraid to use them as there were issues about getting them to the target and dressing them while still preserving their modesty and issues about arrest and imprisonment if they fail.
We are talking about political and religious motives. What about “guns for hire” and terrorism as business?
Illicit drugs and money laundering are often involved in terrorism particularly to fund the terrorist operations. If a group is hiring thugs to carry out it’s acts it is still terrorism if the group is politically motivated, aiming at civilians etc.
You have talked with many terrorists. What’s your stance on so-called “enhanced interrogation methods”?
some argue for the “ticking bomb” method of interrogation — that if one is believed to hold intel that can save innocent lives then it’s okay to torture. I think it’s a mistake. First of all how do you know your inmate is holding such information. The best intelligence is gained from creating real rapport with a prisoner and that should always be attempted before all else. In many cases it won’t work initially or ever. Then intelligence may be gained by surveillance, recording conversations etc, sending in another “fake” prisoner to create rapport etc. Oftentimes that works. We should know that prison in itself is a very tough thing for most people to deal with and under circumstances of isolation and boredom some will open up and begin to talk. Others won’t. I don’t see the point of using violence or fear to get someone to talk as we cannot trust what one gets from a person in pain or terrorized is necessarily reliable and it also often cannot be used in court to get a conviction so it is problematic in that sense as well. And I find it morally repugnant to engage in such activities – even if we do gain by it. The truth is sometimes we do get good intel this way but we must ask ourselves do we want to be on the same level as our enemies? Likewise when our enemies gain evidence of us acting in this way they can use it against us to recruit more to their cause. We saw this when pictures of Abu Ghraib were leaked and now I think we may see it again from the graphic portrayals of violent interrogations now being depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. That’s a pity.
When I worked with detainees in Iraq many were completely amazed that they were not tortured by the Americans and it created a profound positive reaction in them. Yet one could argue that if indeed innocent lives could be saved torture of any type is worth it. I don’t personally agree but I do see the credence of such arguments. My own view is that to engage in any type of soft or hard torture is not worth it – it changes us so fundamentally and we can gain a lot of intel without resorting to these methods.
Why were the terrorists willing to talk to you? Do you have a powerful moment to remember?
I don’t know why they trusted me but I was very gratified that they did and I learned a lot. I have asked myself many times why they talked to me? I think I won their trust by being honest — saying openly what I was studying and why (an academic study), being interested in their whole lives and the context of their lives – they living circumstances, traveling to them and taking risks to do so, being empathetic and sincere and nonthreatening, and being a psychologist who could help them to untangle parts of their own lives. Not many people get to spend an hour or two talking to a psychologist who is nonjudgmental, kind and interested in their lives. I think many got interested in themselves as they talked and opened up a lot because of that. I have many, many powerful moments to remember – for instance when at a Gaza safe house the militants there asked if I’d considered that they could take me hostage — to which I replied that I had relied on their honor not to. Alan Johnston from the BBC was taken and held hostage some months later which chills me to this day… I saw and listened to many things that moved me a lot. All of these stories are in my book which is written more like a novel than an academic treatise – although the theory is woven throughout.
Will you continue this project? Are you interested to talk with western terrorists too? Jailed members of “November 17” in Greece for example?
I would love to continue the project but I haven’t funding for it at present. I did talk to western extremists in Europe as well – some in Belgium, France and Netherlands and UK. During the time I was in Greece I consciously decided to leave Greece out of the mix since my husband was serving there as U.S. Ambassador and I thought it best to keep a low profile on such work… to leave it for another day. Yes I’d love to speak with jailed Nov 17th and the violent extremists active in the Greek society even now. Many of their arguments about social injustices have validity but their endorsement and use of violence does not. And their ideology is so different from that of the militant jihadis so it would be an interesting contrast. By the way we all loved living in Greece. You have a most beautiful country, lovely culture, great food, great wine, unbelievable sea, sunshine, mountains and islands and very kind and good people! I’ll never forget my time there and I hope to return again and again!
Pulwama Attacks: Pakistan takes on India again
The attacks by Jaish-e-Muhammed on Indian security forces has come at a tricky time; Modi led government’s reaction to the killings, and the preparations for the 2019 general elections, are two events, that are going to intrigue imagination of wide possibilities. Forty men lost their lives, in the kind of barbarism that India expects from Pakistani non-state actors. Mind the assertion; if media sources in India can prove that Masood Azhar-the master mind, controlled the entire event from a military hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan has landed itself in a great limbo. Masood Azhar is no longer a non-state actor in Pakistan; instead he is a Pakistani non-state actor. Pay attention, there is a difference.
The fact that India failed to anticipate such an attack, again, is beyond sound logic. Terrorist attacks on armed convoys over bordering highways, is but a chilling script that keeps the Indian administration on their toes. Mind the lapse. What a miss!
Nobody in India and elsewhere predicted this. PM Narendra Modi did not see this coming. Not the intent, but the magnitude of casualties. For this alone, Pakistani non-state actor(s) calculated brilliantly. They intercepted a psychological lapse of a strong, yet busy Prime Minister. Let us also pretend that there was a rare moment of blunder by the Indian intelligence. That leaves us to the only realistic assumption of what might have happened.
For many years, India has maintained the vocal discourse of Pakistan’s deceitful personality in dealing with transnational issues. The Pulwama killings would have choked Narendra Modi, reminding him the lesson of how a wild animal can never be tamed. More so, not when they promise to not hurt you. Imran Khan is an icon, but no excuses this time, the blood is in his hands. From an observatory perspective, one cannot help but conclude that there is an element of serious political assurance turning into fraudulence.
Two months prior to the 2019 general elections, the Indian Prime Minister has woken up to the challenges, that nobody in India would have not predicted. Still, the Pulwama attacks has placed him in a very awkward position. It is a well-documented fact that India can carry out surgical strikes, just like it has in the recent past. Equally, it can only be fair to assume that Pakistan will be ready this time. The story will lose all plot, if Pakistan, like India fails to anticipate another precision attack on its border. Mind the context, it actually means something more.
Reportedly, PM Modi threatened against Pakistani aggression; however, India stands on crossroads. From the Pakistani logic, time has subsided India’s options. Imagine another strike gone wrong in the enemy’s territory. Imagine a full-fledged war, overtaking the carousal of national elections. Islamabad is ready this time. In the worst case, they have managed to manufacture a predictable excuse to penalize India’s confronting military creativity. Pay attention, there are little choices. And the consequences are alarming.
Regardless of all legitimate Indian accusations, Pakistan would be less worried, by Indian threats to isolate them diplomatically. While the current Indian rhetoric might be another disguise before their jets ignite for a military crackdown; Pakistan has and will operate with their elements of non-state actors. Hence, there is no question about credibility. Mind the change in Pakistani attitude. Before, non-state actors were merely a means to their ends. Now, the Pakistani military is on the front foot, itching for an Indian reaction. Calculations have been made. The Pulwama attacks are a testimony to their intentions. The international community will be hoping that India will let go this time; take it under their chin, once again. There is an acute wish to avoid a situation of hypocrisy. Given a foreseeable Indian aggression, Pakistan will seek international assurance based on equality. The rules apply the same for everyone.
For good reasons, the Pulwama killings will presumably lead to a peaceful solution. The Indian reaction will be gold for academic books, that are based on solving inter-state disputes. India owes a reaction to all kinds of anticipative communities, on a platform that Pakistan has calculatedly fished for their arch-rivals. The ball is in India’s court. A moment of magnifique for Narendra Modi, or a strategic tit for tat for Pakistan? Mind the set-up. Evenly poised!
ISIS Smuggler: Sleeper Cells and ‘Undead’ Suicide Bombers Have Infiltrated Europe
Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci & Hamid Sebaly
Europe is bracing for a new wave of jihadist attacks by terrorists affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, what “you might call ISIS 2.0,” as Interpol chief Jürgen Stock recently told reporters. Some previously imprisoned jihadists are being released from jail, others are returning to Europe—and to prison—while still others, we have learned, have never been known to police and operate as “sleeper cells” waiting to be mobilized.
It is in the face of such concerns that U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned, despite President Donald Trump’s assertions to the contrary, that ISIS is still far from defeated.
Last week, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) interviewed 18 ISIS cadres held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) closely allied with U.S. coalition forces in Syria. Two of the prisoners interviewed were former members of the ISIS intelligence operation known as the “emni,” sometimes also written as “amni.”
One of them, a Tunisian named Abdel Kadr, was a 35-year-old athletic-looking and obviously clever individual, who had illegally smuggled himself into Europe in 2008 and then managed to get legal residency, to live and work there, by marrying a German. Abdel Kadr claimed to have “found religion” and also, like many foreign fighters, to have been moved by the plight of Syrians assaulted by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which caused him to leave Germany for Syria in 2014, driving an ambulance loaded with humanitarian supplies.
Abdel Kadr ultimately joined and served ISIS until he was captured by the YPG last year. He appears to have had high-level access in ISIS and was open to discussing what he knows while also seeking not to incriminate himself.
Regarding the ISIS emni, Abdel Kadr says there are both internal and external emni networks in ISIS, the former enforcing security within the self-declared caliphate and the latter sending operatives outside of it, to be sleeper cells organizing attacks in Europe and globally. They are not police but intelligence operatives, he said. “They live 24 hours per day with a mask. They are chosen specially for this. They have their own houses, special families. They have been chosen specially, and many were sent back to Europe.”
Prior to joining ISIS, Abdel Kadr had been a human and goods smuggler based in Germany, working between Turkey and Europe. He said he joined the Islamic State alongside his friend Dominic, a white German convert to Islam. Dominic wanted to return to Germany to work as an undercover operative for ISIS and, being fair-skinned with no known criminal history, he believed he could do so undetected. (He should not be confused with Dominic Musa Schmitz, a Salafi who wrote a book in German in 2016 about his disillusionment with Salafi Islam.)
“There are a lot of those who were trained by ISIS to go into Europe,” said Abdel Kadr. The emni member who trained and facilitated many of them was also a white European, an Austrian who went by the kunya, or pseudonym, of Abu Musa al-Almani.
“He was in charge of Germany,” Abdel Kadr explained. “He spoke around seven languages: German, Dutch, French, Arabic, and German with the accent of Austria. He was an Austrian native with long hair and a red beard,” Abdel Kadr said. “He was from a wealthy family in Austria and a convert from Christianity. I met him in Syria, but he was moving everywhere.” He was traveling back and forth via Turkey.
“I heard about this wave that they prepared for Europe,” Abdel Kadr told us. “They asked me if I’d like to go back to Germany. They were saying to me if you want to go back don’t worry about money, but they don’t know how I think.”
Abdel Kadr was content at that time inside ISIS doing business on the side and making considerable profits. And he had a ready excuse for begging off from such a mission. “I have seven pieces of shrapnel in my body,” he explained. “If I pass through an airport they will catch me.” Also, he looks like the Arab he is, and is liable to fall prey to profiling. “They were sending athletic guys who look European back into Europe,” Abdel Kadr told us.
The ISIS emni asked Abdel Kadr to return to his former human smuggling trade. “They wanted me to make logistics and coordination because before I joined ISIS and came, I was smuggling people between Turkey and Greece.” That was when Abdel Kadr was living in Germany with his German wife, making thousands of dollars smuggling Bengalis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans who had already made their way into Turkey on into Europe. The back trails across the border were primitive and rough, he said, but he knew them. “Our bridge to cross the river was a tree we cut for that purpose.”
ISIS intelligence “knew I was a people smuggler. All my German friends knew I was a smuggler,” Abdel Kadr explained. “Abu Musa al-Almani, who was in charge of Germany, came to me in Raqqa with Dominic and asked me about the smuggling. He said, ‘Dawlah [the State, ie. ISIS] needs you. The whole nation of Islam needs you.’”
The emni asked Abdel Kadr to help them smuggle trained operatives back into Europe following the routes from Turkey into Greece that he had previously exploited. Abdel Kadr claims he refused. “I took my injuries as an excuse to escape from this, I have a screw in my leg, shrapnel [from a bomb attack]. It took seven kilometers walking to get across to Greece. My role was five kilometers up to the tree [bridge]. Someone else took them inside, an Algerian guy.”
Abdel Kadr claims that he told ISIS he was no longer fit enough to do it. It may be true that he refused, as he was at the time engaged in a smuggling and trade operation inside ISIS, enriching himself there, or he may in fact have re-engaged in his former trade but did not want to tell us.
According to Abdel Kadr, when the emni was going to send a European back to attack they would first falsely announce inside ISIS, and on their external media, that he had been killed fighting or in a bomb attack. But later, it would be revealed that he was actually alive and had successfully attacked in Paris or Brussels, for instance, and had been “martyred” there.
In the case of most suicide attacks in Europe, according to Abdel Kadr, the death of the operative is announced by ISIS a few months earlier, when in fact, “they took them to a camp to train them. Then after you get a communiqué about their action in Europe. The communiqué on this date stated he died in France or Belgium, but for ourselves, seven or eight months before [we had heard] they were announcing his death.”
The same was true of Dominic, according to Abdel Kadr. “ISIS said he was killed, but it wasn’t true. He lived next to me and when I went to see his wife and children inside the ISIS area [in Tabqa, near Raqqa], they told me, ‘He is not killed, but we don’t know where he is.’” Abdel Kadr already knew Dominic’s desire to return to Europe to serve ISIS.
“He’s alive somewhere,” Abdel Kadr told us. “Up to now, there is no communiqué [about his actions in Europe].” Abdel Kadr, who is imprisoned by the YPG and says he is now totally disillusioned with ISIS, claims to have tried to thwart any possible attack by Dominic by alerting German and European intelligence about his friend’s “disappearance” and fake death announcement inside of ISIS.
“There are 1,000 partisans in Europe,” Abdel Kadr claims. “They have a big plan to introduce hundreds of refugees from all nationalities of the world,” he claims, saying ISIS was able to insert them into the refugee streams flowing into Europe. Many are sent to Europe with false passports. “They are processed by surgery, training and language and they send them as sleeping cells. In Turkey they give them hair transplants, surgically change their eyes, even the eye color.” (Presumably that would be with contact lenses.)
At least two of the attackers who struck Paris in November 2015 had entered Europe among refugees and carried false papers.
In 2015, Harry Sarfo, a German whose family originally was from Ghana, and who’d grown up in Britain, working as a postman there before he joined ISIS, was pressured by the ISIS emni to train and return to attack in Germany. He told the authorities, and later Der Spiegel and The New York Times, about his training and knowledge of these ISIS emni activities.
ISIS was telling Europeans to book short vacations in resorts in the south of Turkey, take many pictures, and then come to train for a short time with ISIS to be sent back to join sleeper cells in Europe. Without overstaying their Turkish visas and with the strong alibi of the resort booking and pictures to confirm it, they passed suspicions if questioned by security about their activities.
Abdel Kadr confirmed that this indeed was happening. “They are able to bring a youth into ISIS and then back into his family without the knowledge of his parents. They send him home to Europe after one year in training with ISIS,” he states. “There are some people who came with European faces for a short time and went back through Turkey,” he explains. “Like my friend, Dominic. I think he’s living in Europe,” Abdel Kadr concludes.
When asked about this case and others like it, a high-level YPG security official explains that his organization is doing everything it can to stop such operations. The YPG says it has caught and now holds in its prisons over 3,500 foreign fighters, many of them Europeans.
But the Kurds feel frustrated knowing that these foreigners streamed in through Turkey, some of them received medical help inside Turkey when injured, and most of the logistical supplies and extra food supplies for ISIS were delivered across the Turkish border.
Although the YPG has provided the core ground force working with the Americans to defeat ISIS, President Trump’s decision to withdraw some 2,000 U.S. troops providing logistical and other support leaves the organization in a vulnerable position. The Turkish government insists that the YPG is a branch of the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, which Ankara and many other governments, including the U.S., deem a terrorist organization.
The YPG says the Turks have actually been complicit with ISIS. “They call us the terrorists” another YPG military intelligence officer told us, “but we are fighting terrorism every single day, losing our lives by the thousands doing so and trying to keep Europe safe from such people. We are fighting terrorism, while others are helping them to come and go, in and out of Syria, across our borders.”
Author’s note: Article first published in The Daily Beast
Eschatological beliefs and ISIS
There is no single definition of terrorism which might be accepted fully; however, terrorism normally emerges when disempowered communities try and combat what they perceive as injustice and oppression on this planet. Emerging as asymmetrical warfare between state and non-state actors, international norms of War are violated by focusing on civilians and exploiting media exposure to create fear.
Throughout history, it has spread in various forms ranging from secular terrorism to religious extremism. In today’s world, the most deadlykind of terrorism was created by using Islamic state narrative prompted underneath the umbrella of eschatological beliefs.
By definition, eschatology is part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. Followed by all religious theologies including Muslim, Jews, Christians, Hinduism and Zoroastrians, the apparent fall of the last stronghold of the Islamic state was no surprise to terrorism scholars.
After the fall of Aleppo, Raqqa and the Syrian city Dabiq last October; consequently, Islamic State (IS) demolished the 842-year old Al Nuri mosque.
However, apocalyptic beliefs were not widespread throughout the Middle-East before the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003.It was the military invasion that radically transformed the landscape of eschatological ideologies, resulting in widespread apocalyptic thinking.
One such Sunni Salafist caught up in this groundswell of apocalyptic was Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a bloodthirsty madman; even Osama bin Laden (OBL) didn’t agree with his brutal tactics war agenda of beheading the shite Muslim. Zarqawi became the leader of Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq after he fled from Afghanistan.
Zarqawi followed an apocalyptic extremist ideology while OBL had a less grandiose view about an imminent end to the contemporary world. For example, before the U.S drone strike on Zarqawi in 2006, Zarqawi famously acknowledged that “the spark has been lit here in Iraq and its heat will continue to intensify by Allah’s permission until it burns the crusader’s armies in Dabiq(Syria)”.
Having strategically less significance, Dabiq was a small Syrian town but IS used it for their political interests. Mainly because this city is where the battle called Armageddon will happen according to eschatological beliefs. Most importantly, ISIS is still operating its propaganda magazine named Dabiq.
After Zarqawi died, a man named Abu Ayyub al-Masri having close ties with Al Qaeda took over charge of Middle East operations in Iraq, during his tenure the group was re-branded as the Islamic State of Iraq. In line with Masri’s political aims, his primary apocalyptic focus was the appearance of the Mahdi(messianic figure in Islam) who is referred to in the Prophecies as the leader of the battle of Armageddon in Dabiq.
Even though Masri made a number of strategic decisions based on his eschatological convictions. On the whole, the Islamic state of Iraq has been using this propaganda to maximize the recruitment process in their organization.
As a result, they have gained a cosmic fan following all over the world including the Middle East, Europe, America and Asia. Since Masri’s death in the Iraqi city of Tikrit in 2010, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi took over the charge of this“black banner army”. Syrian civil war, resulted in formation of Al-Qaeda affiliate now known as the Fateh al-Sham group.(Al-Nusra front)
In 2013 Baghdadi shocked the world by announcing that Al Nusra front is now under command and control of ISI(Islamic State of Iraq) right after this merger it became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(Levant). Baghdadi announcement was forming a caliphate just like Ottoman Empire, albeit ISIS never recognized the Ottoman Empire as legitimate.
Nevertheless, Baghdadi smartly maintained the eschatological beliefs even after the death of Masri, though the focus had been changed under the leadership of Baghdadi.
With continuous shifts in political stance of ISIS, there is a huge possibility that it will have new targets in the coming future. For example, since it began to lose territory, it sharply changed its strategy from inward state building to outward foreign attacks with the help of lone wolves or small groups.As a result, this technique started a new phenomenon more like transnational terrorism.
Openly calling the younger generation as the cubs of the caliphate, these methods for inculcating radicalization were found to have direct links with the American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Finally, the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS collapsed in both Syria and Iraq. However, this does not mean it will not re-emerge in the future there are a lot of ISIS sleepers cells and supporters across globe.
To conclude, terrorist outfits come and go, but the ultra-modern variation within this museum of eschatological ideologies is an Islamic state. Disseminated with eschatological ideologies, a few of them tried to convey about the apocalypse to exploit it. Therefore, terrorist outfits have reassessed current affairs and spread mis-interpretations of eschatological beliefs to further their own agenda.
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