ISIS: The First Step To Combating It

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by Neil Godfrey

The first step to combating Isis is to understand it. We have yet to do so. That failure costs us dear. — Scott Atran in Mindless Terrorists? The truth  about ISIS is much worse (The Guardian)

We must fight their growing power any way, anywhere, we can. With words, with weapons, with sincere efforts at warm embrace for those who might otherwise be pulled or pushed into their dark world that would exterminate all who dare be free and different.

I think that most of us comfort ourselves with the thought that “they can’t win,” at least in the long run, that they must burn themselves out in their frenzy . . . . But this may be dead wrong. Why is it that so many young people are being drawn into this increasingly powerful destroyer of human rights, which despises the very idea of government of and by the people? — Scott Atran in correspondence with Professor Hoodbhoy in wake of UN address

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 8.01.17 pm

Military operations are obviously necessary but ISIS is not a conventional army. The risks of the wrong kind of military attack are warned against by Stern and Berger in ISIS: The State of Terror:

Even ground forces would likely not be enough to completely destroy ISIS. Absent a military invasion that would somehow— improbably, magically— transform both Iraq and Syria into truly viable, pluralistic states in which Sunnis and Shi’a both feel secure, ISIS would likely remain, at least as a terrorist group, for many years to come.

Beyond the necessity to oversee political change in both Iraq and Syria, a tall order indeed, the international impact of ISIS must also be considered, as it inspires oaths of loyalty and acts of violence in nearly every corner of the globe. As with its military might, ISIS’s potential to wreak terrorism has been limited until now, although the alignment of regional terror groups such as Jund al Khalifah in Algeria and Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in Egypt raise serious concerns going forward.

6 Millenarianism involves the expectation of sweeping societal change, possibly as a result of the apocalypse.

The broader problem is that jihadism has become a millenarian movement6 with mass appeal, in some ways similar to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, although its goals and the values it represents are far different.

Today’s radicals are expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo by making war, not love. They are seduced by Thanatos rather than Eros. They “love death as much as you [in the West] love life,” in Osama bin Laden’s famous and often-paraphrased words. In this dark new world, children are seen to reenact beheadings with their toys, seduced by a familiar drama of the good guys killing the bad guys in order to save the world. Twitter users adopt the black flag by the tens of thousands. And people who barely know anything about Islam or Iraq are inspired to emulate ISIS’s brutal beheadings.

ISIS has established itself as a new paradigm, one that is more brutal, more sectarian, and more apocalyptic in its thinking than the groups that preceded it. ISIS is the crack cocaine of violent extremism, all of the elements that make it so alluring and addictive purified into a crystallized form.

ISIS’s goals are impossible, ludicrous, but that does not mean it can be easily destroyed. Our policies must look to the possible, which means containing and hopefully eliminating its military threat and choking off its export of ideas.

But certainly the history of ISIS and al Qaeda before it show that overwhelming military force is not a solution to hybrid organizations that straddle the line between terrorism and insurgency.

Our hammer strikes on al Qaeda spread its splinters around the world. Whatever approach we take in Iraq and Syria must be focused on containment and constriction, rather than simply smashing ISIS into ever more virulent bits.

Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015-03-12). ISIS: The State of Terror (Kindle Locations 3600-3619). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Bolding and some formatting in all quotations are my own.

Apart from that caution Stern and Berger leave the details of military strategy to the military. They offer recommendations for countering ISIS “as an extremist group and ideology”.

ISIS’s military successes are formidable. But the international community has dealt with far worse. ISIS does not represent an existential threat to any Western country. Perhaps the most important way to counter ISIS’s efforts to terrify us is to govern our reactions, making sure our policies and political responses are proportionate to the threat ISIS represents.

Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015-03-12). ISIS: The State of Terror (Kindle Locations 3621-3624). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

They then write:

Our horror and revulsion are appropriate responses to this regime of atrocities, and we can and should do what is in our power to help ISIS’s victims, but we should measure our actions to avoid spreading its ideology and influence.

Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015-03-12). ISIS: The State of Terror (Kindle Locations 3635-3637). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Here is where certain responses can only serve to fan the appeal of ISIS and make our task of extinguishing it ever more elusive.

abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass Abu Bakr Naji

First, we can attempt to continually reinforce messages that flesh out the nuance and complexity of the situations and conditions that extremists use to recruit, undermining the incorrect thesis that the problems faced by communities vulnerable to radicalization are easily reduced to absolutes. In practice, this means refusing to characterize our conflict with ISIS in stark, ideological terms, an uphill battle in the current media and political climate, which tends to incentivize simple explanations. It is further complicated when ISIS theatricalizes dreaded risks such as beheadings to evoke a stripped-down primal response. In many ways, The Management of Savagery outlines a specific psychological campaign designed to provoke enemies into the same simplistic thinking that dominates jihadist thought— al Naji refers to the process as “polarization,” and that is why those who argue that ISIS’s public displays of brutality will backfire are wrong (up to a point). The object of ISIS’s extreme displays of violence is to polarize viewers into sharply divided camps of good and evil, not to rally the general public around its actions.

Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015-03-12). ISIS: The State of Terror (Kindle Locations 3730-3738). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.]

Some of us have been amazed that Hitler could set out his goals so explicitly in Mein Kampf apparently only for much of the world to ignore, so it is is worth reading core terrorist texts like The Management of Savagery to understand why attacks like Paris are happening.

The second prescription follows from the first. Our policies must not lend credence and support to ISIS’s simplistic and apocalyptic worldview. When ISIS began beheading Westerners on video in September 2014, it did so with the intention of prodding the United States into an ever-deeper engagement in Iraq, consistent with the blueprint in The Management of Savagery. ISIS made its intentions even clearer with the November video announcing the execution of hostage Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig.

“We bury the first crusader in Dabiq, eagerly awaiting the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said “Jihadi John,” the anonymous executioner, in the conclusion of that video. It was a transparent ploy to goad the West into a military confrontation in Dabiq, in fulfillment of a key apocalyptic prophecy to which ISIS has alluded again and again. If we take the bait, we arm ISIS with evidence that the end of the world— the ultimate moment of simplification— is indeed at hand. Aggressive military action by Shi’a militias, whether Iraqi or Iranian, also contributes to the apocalyptic narrative and plays into ISIS’s desire for a simple, Manichean divide between good and evil, actualizing its narrative of an all-consuming battle between true believers and apostates.

Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015-03-12). ISIS: The State of Terror (Kindle Locations 3738-3747). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

At this point Stern and Berger turn to “the messaging front” and neutralizing ISIS’s propaganda appeal to youth.

ISIS has devoted unprecedented resources to its messaging, and the West has thus far failed to craft a cohesive and comprehensive response.

anonymousStern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015-03-12). ISIS: The State of Terror (Kindle Locations 3748-3749). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

On this front it may be argued that the efforts of the “hacktivist” group Anonymous are performing a vital function in the war against ISIS.

The most serious mistake we can make on this front is to dismiss ISIS as a nihilist group without moral compass. So much has already been written and said on this front that it is impossible to cover all the angles in this post, but I will excerpt a few snippets from Scott Atran:

Simply treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a wilful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776. The truth is more complicated. As Abu Mousa, Isis’s press officer in Raqqa, put it:

”We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon. On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn’t contradict the religion.”

Isis is reaching out to fill the void wherever a state of “chaos” or “savagery” (attawahoush) exists, as in central Asia and Africa. And where there is insufficient chaos in the lands of the infidel, called “The House of War”, it seeks to create it, as in Europe.

It conscientiously exploits the disheartening dynamic between the rise of radical Islamism and the revival of the xenophobic ethno-nationalist movements that are beginning to seriously undermine the middle class – the mainstay of stability and democracy – in Europe in ways reminiscent of the hatchet job that the communists and fascists did on European democracy in the 1920s and 30s. The fact that Europe’s reproductive rate is 1.4 children per couple, and so there needs to be considerable immigration to maintain a productive workforce that can sustain the middle class standard of living, is a godsend for Isis, because at the same time there has never been less tolerance for immigration. Therein lies the sort of chaos that Isis is well positioned to exploit.

As I testified to the US Senate armed service committee and before the United Nations security council: what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fastbreaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive. Mindless terrorists? The truth about Isis is much worse by Scott Atran (The Guardian)

The battle field is not confined to the Middle East. From Paris . . .

The complexity of the French plot also suggests how successful ISIS has been at cultivating sources of support within the native populations of secular Western countries. Attacking ISIS in Syria will not contain this global movement, which now includes more than two thousand French citizens. (Paris: The War ISIS Wants by Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid in New York Review of Books)

Location of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia

. . .  to the far reaches of Sulawesi:

But the popular notion of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe. Young people whose grandparents were Stone Age animists in Sulawesi, far removed from the Arab world, told me they dream of fighting in Iraq or Palestine in defense of Islam. (Address to UN Security Council (Scott Atran, 23 April 2015), Ministerial Debate on: “The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace” Link opens pdf file — or see online text at ARTIS. The video below contains the address.)

My original plan to set out the various recommended strategies recommended by researchers and intelligence specialists in combating the appeal of ISIS is beyond my time constraints at the moment. I also hope to detail some of the recommendations that are on the table for the longer term military strategies that are on the table — one of which so far (touching wood) it appears the major powers may actually be beginning to carry out.

This post will have to serve as a kind of preface to more to follow.


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Neil Godfrey

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48 thoughts on “ISIS: The First Step To Combating It”

      1. E Harding, try to get a grasp of what the other side is actually saying. It’s about much more than Dabiq — as I tried to indicate in the post.

        It’s not “liberal propaganda” — it’s ISIS propaganda straight from the pages of The Management of Savagery.

        Read what the terrorists themselves are saying. They’re saying a hell of a lot more than just “Allahu Akbar”.

        1. The problem many Europeans experience, and gets overlooked a lot, is that many political parties and their followings have been so busy calling everybody racists when it comes to warning for islamist influences among immigrant populations, that this will be just another excuse to do nothing of substance.

          These “warnings” about being played like a fiddle by IS, seem to be inspired by overactive imaginations about what critics of those parties are saying. Where i live, they usually reserve the last paragraph for a plea not to vote “populist” right wing.

          Also, i’m not sure why some EU countries stopping mass muslim immigration would be a big deal. Some of those countries have gained pretty substantial muslim populations over the last couple of decades, and some still face serious integration challenges (case in point: Molenbeek, Belgium). There are plenty of eu and non-eu countries that can do more then they are doing now.

        1. Try an actual argument to justify your comment. Other people really do think differently, see things from a different perspective, so just dropping off remarks as if readers must see things your way is a pointless exercise.

          1. Where does it support the claim that “They really want Europeans to overreact to Paris by refusing to accept refugees” and “make Muslims feel so uncomfortable and desperate that they will carry out strikes in ISIS’s name”?

            1. I asked you to kindly justify your previous comment with an argument. I gather you have none. I am preparing a post on the Management of Savagery, by the way, but you can read it for yourself.

    1. Has anyone realized that the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, etc., have yet to accept even ONE refugree?

      They don’t look after their own there, do they?

      Now why does NO ONE complain about the Gulf States’ OWN refusal?

        1. Yes, Neil, since Syrian refugees are either Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s co-religionists, as well as ethnic kin.

          Both good reasons for the Gulf States to be a bit more compassionate to the Syrian people.

          I could understand them not wanting to have Yazidis, Christians, Jews, Kurds repatriated to the Gulf States…but fail to understand why they won’t take in refugees of their strongest kinship bonds.

          1. I’m pretty sure most Syrian refugees are not Wahhabists.

            I understand surveys show that most Arabs despise the dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and co . . . . They are supported by the US and other Western powers to keep their people under control so Western interests are not threatened.

            1. I’d suggest the arab oil states could donate money to the EU to help deal with the refugees, but they have got budget issues since oil is priced so low.

              Still, most of them are heavily involved in the current conflicts causing refugee displacement, so would be nice if they took some responsibility.

      1. “Now why does NO ONE complain about the Gulf States’ OWN refusal?”

        Because the Gulf States don’t pretend to be “the land of the free and home of the brave.”

        1. I’m going to have to consider that a non-answer, Scott…

          The question SHOULD be asked. Why is it the Gulf States themselves won’t take in refugees?

          This is something to question. Not blindly accept as a given.

            1. I didn’t give an answer on this one…but I think the issue is one where it is LONG since time TO ask the question…why do they not take in any refugees who are their co-religionists or ethnic kin?

              Why do they not practice hospitality there?

              I’m suggesting it’s past time to just sit and accept the first answer ever given and ask it as a HARD question.

              Otherwise it’s senseless to criticize the West too much when the Gulf States themselves won’t pick up the slack.

              1. Your answer has a whiff of racism and is ethically corrupt. So you want Syrians looking to escape from tyrannies of terrorists and the regime and from the fear of imminent death to be settled in Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. Yeh, right. I guess they’re all Arabs so how else should we respond.

                Is this an extension of your beef about the Palestinians not being taken in by their neighboring Arab states so that Israel can take all their land without any hassle? They’re only Arabs after all.

              2. The last count I saw was that Turkey had 2.1M Syrian refugees, Jordan about 600K and Lebanon over 1M meaning an increase of 25% of the total population in Lebanon. We are talking 10,000 in the US?

              3. Neil…so you yourself have just said Wahabi Saudi Arabia is not a safe place…

                I wonder what someone from there would say about that…would it be a touch of irony that a Wahabiist might call YOU a racist for saying that or call you an Islamophobe?

                I was thinking more along the lines that there is supposed to be a tradition of hospitality over there…yet we’re not seeing it.

                I’ll ignore your comment about Palestinians because you don’t seem to recognize archaeology…

                And I’ll ignore the top line because I really DON’T want to have to call you a parochial privileged white guy ad infinitum for saying that top line to someone with ethnic heritage.

              4. Instead of just wondering, George, I invite you to do some homework and find out. But it will probably mean reading serious books, I’m sorry, such as the ones I’ve already listed on this blog. (I know your suspicion of books.)

              5. Neil, reading books will only get you so far. Then it’s time to go have a look and experience.

                I’ve at least done that. Regardless of what you think of my observations.

                But archaeology is something that’s hard evidence. I’ve seen archaeology over there from various periods. And yes, Roman as well. Various empires right through to the Ottomans. With Jewish sites too.

                But nothing matching what’s claimed by Yassir Arafat’s old organisation or by Hamas.

                I don’t ignore hard evidence to suit my opinion.

              6. No more on this George. I’m being a mean host and making mine the last comment on this side-thread.

                I was addressing your “wondering” about what people in Saudi Arabia would think, not Palestine. You have no evidence from actual experience of visiting their country but simply cast aspersions in a way to denigrate whole races.

                I am talking about your previous dismissal of my “book-learning” and your insistence on the irreplaceable importance of visiting a country to know the facts — and archaeology has nothing to do with your “wondering” about what Saudis would think.

                But if you want to bring up Palestinian archaeology, I suspect I have read far more than many others on this topic. Most recently posted on Keith Whitelam’s perspective (Rhythms of time and Emergence). Also have more in the pipeline, some about the politics and ideology of archaeology in Palestine.

                Yes, this comment is mean, but it’s early Saturday morning and I’ve only had time for one coffee.

          1. “The question SHOULD be asked. Why is it the Gulf States themselves won’t take in refugees?”

            Ask it, if you want ask it, but the answer to the question is irrelevant as to whether or not a country that holds itself out as beacon of democracy, the land of the free and home of the brave, a “melting pot” of immigrants should take in refugees.

            1. If we ask it of the West, is it not hypocritical not to ask it of the Gulf States?

              It’s not like they can’t afford to or not like they don’t have the space.

              It’s also closer to their original homes.

              Meaning Syria is only a short distance from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

              1. No, hypocrisy is choosing not to do the right thing because others refuse to do it. Leadership is doing the right thing regardless.

                And I have been talking about the US, my country and the country that claims to be the leader of the free world, not “the West.” The hypocritical Americans are those against doing what the leader of the free world has always done, i.e., the right thing.

  1. “Military operations are obviously necessary but ISIS is not a conventional army.”

    -Yes, it is. Sure, it has an insurgency mode built-in, but it’s much less dangerous than its conventional capabilities.

    1. Well it has conventional aspects to it but you don’t wipe out ISIS by a military defeat on the battle field a la WW2. If it were that simple . . . .

            1. Even if Western voters could be convinced to support a full-scale invasion to remove Assad, what would happen in the ensuing vacuum? The cautionary tales of Iraq and Libya loom large. In the words of Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger (ret.), who served as a senior commander in Iraq:

              The surge in Iraq did not “win” anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans’ unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today’s stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fevered patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn’t go away. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents we battled for more than eight years simply re-emerged this year as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. . . .

              We did not understand the enemy, a guerrilla network embedded in a quarrelsome, suspicious civilian population. We didn’t understand our own forces, which are built for rapid, decisive conventional operations, not lingering, ill-defined counterinsurgencies. We’re made for Desert Storm, not Vietnam. As a general, I got it wrong. . . .

              Today we are hearing some, including those in uniform, argue for a robust ground offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq. Air attacks aren’t enough, we’re told. Our Kurdish and Iraqi Army allies are weak and incompetent. Only another surge can win the fight against this dire threat. Really? If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I think we’re there. 15

              General Bolger argues that we would have needed to occupy Iraq for three decades to create a viable state, echoing similar arguments made at the time by both Jim Webb and then Secretary of State Powell. 16 The problem is that if we’re not prepared for a thirty-year occupation, we cannot create a viable state in Syria, and even that level of commitment comes with no guarantee of success. And if there is anything we ought to have learned from our mistakes in both Iraq and Libya, a failed state is the worst of all possible outcomes.

              Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015-03-12). ISIS: The State of Terror (Kindle Locations 3681-3685). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

              After the surge came ISIS. Read Management of Savagery and see that the surge was the sort of response welcomed by those working towards building a caliphate, of turning Al Qaeda in Iraq into the Islamic State. “We” gave them just what they wanted according to their script. Dead bodies in Iraq and Syria won’t stop the thousands of ISIS supporters now living in our own Western countries.

              1. Some interesting statements by the general.

                And perhaps an interesting point about Westerners really not always understanding the Middle East.

                However, removal of troops and effectively allowing a vacuum does not look to be really treating the problem either.

                That is something historians will be exploring about Mr Obama in the future.

  2. Looking forward to the following parts.

    I’d suggest that there is religious fervor to exploit, they seem to have some end-game prophecies in mind that can be taken advantage of.

  3. “But the popular notion of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe.”

    IMO, —-this is important.
    Identity-constructs are essential, particularly in a globalized world. We need to find ways where these identity constructs are respected in a balanced way that protects the dignities of all groups of people and prevents harm.

  4. This morning I wake up to see you’ve removed the comment where I cited an online article discussing the alternative view from the current CIA head regarding the Surge. Interesting. The only thing that seems to be wrong with that article was it said the opposite to General Bolger…not conducive to your thesis?

    Or are we having difficulty with the fact two Obama appointees to the CIA directorship in recent weeks are now breaking ranks and are focusing current problems not on Bush, but on Obama’s own policy failure?

    Well…future historians will be asessing him by his policies and his actions/inactions, same as they do with all past presidents.

    1. Niel, I spent a few minutes ruminating what the sequence of events were that led from comments questioning the existence of an historical Jesus or Paul to George Hall’s last comment. Clearly an example of good intentions meet the slippery slope. I like Rule 8. Perhaps there needs to be a Rule 9 that applies to both comments and posts?

    2. That rule: Regularly just posting an “I agree” or “I don’t think so” or “that’s interesting” or type of comment, with no actual argument or new pertinent information, or regularly merely expressing a political or religious partisan opinion (or links to ideological/propaganda/preaching and such sites with more opinion than evidence based argument) as opposed to argument will probably result in your comments being deleted. (The wording of this rule is broad: if in doubt, see #7.)

      I should also add something about simply ignoring (on a regular basis) the evidence-based argument to which one is responding and spouting an unsubstantiated opinion, especially one that is clearly couched in political ideology, as a contrary.

      Informed comments and genuine queries are welcome, of course.

      1. I’m sorry, but I think you need to take a look in your own mirror, Neil.

        Or make rules that equally apply to yourself as much as commentors.

        You deleted a link today because it didn’t suit your own beliefs.

        At least over three decades I’ve changed mine to suit real evidence and experience.

        One of us obviously genuinely wants to learn, rather than fit a left or right ideology.

      2. You and your colleague have an absolute editorial right as to what you wish to appear on this blog. May I suggest, with genuine respect, that you sometimes edit or abridge comments to remove unacceptable sentences or references, rather than exclude them without notice altogether?

        There is also an obvious tendency for educated readers to stray from the immediate subject in hand because they will stimulate interesting ideas or produce information likely to be of wider interest within your general range.

        1. Editing comments is another can of worms I want to avoid.

          I think other veerings from the immediate topic are covered in other rules. The principles should be clear. I don’t want discussions to degenerate into ideological religious and political wars. Of course we have have our own beliefs but we can also follow normal rules of honest discourse and address facts and arguments with facts and arguments and logic, not with crude ideological opinions that sweep aside the facts and arguments.

          I think further discussion about individual comments can be taken off-line. But again, recall #7.

          @ George,

          I will not accept comments accusing me of misbehaviour without clear citations and evidence to back up your accusations. I have removed your latest comment.

  5. I originally expected to continue discussing the options recommended by the researchers for combating ISIS and ISIS inspired terrorism but have held back until I finish reading two more specialist works on the topic: Burke and McCants. Hope to complete that extra reading within weeks.

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