After No. 2 Operative's Death, Whither Al-Qaida?

U.S. officials report a drone strike has killed Atiyah al-Rahman, al-Qaida's second-in-command. But attacks connected by the organization continue. Terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Omar Ashour share their analysis on the current state of al-Qaida worldwide.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away. After the raid that killed Osama bin Laden nearly four months ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. is within reach of defeating al-Qaeda.

And last week, U.S. officials said that a CIA drone strike in Pakistan had killed al-Qaeda's new second in command, Atiyah al-Rahman. Still, attacks connected to the terror organization continue. On Friday, a radical group with likely connections to al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack at the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria. A suicide bomber linked with the militant group killed over two dozen Iraqis last week in a mosque in Baghdad, and another bombing yesterday in Algeria appears linked to an al-Qaeda affiliate.

So what do we know about the state of al-Qaeda? Is the group really on the brink? In a moment, terrorism expert Peter Bergen joins us. But first we want to hear from you. With less than two weeks before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, do you fear al-Qaeda?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at the website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on, The Opinion Page, Marcia Dyson(ph) says black people can be proud of the president and disappointed too. But first, the strength of al-Qaeda. Peter Bergen joins us here in Studio 3A. He's CNN's national security analyst and director of the National Security Studies program at the New America Foundation. His latest book is "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda." Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

PETER BERGEN: Afternoon.

ROBERTS: Let me ask you the question I asked our callers. You've spent a lot of time following al-Qaeda. Do you still fear them?

BERGEN: No, I mean is the short answer. I mean, I have every professional reason to inflate the threat because my career has been built on examining them, but I can just tell you that the threat from al-Qaeda central is, you know, is very minimal.

I mean, at the New America Foundation, where I work, we did an examination of every jihadist terrorist case in the United States since 9/11, together with Maxwell School at Syracuse University. And one of the big takeaways is there have been 17 deaths since 9/11, 13 that were caused at Fort Hood, that are attributable to people motivated by al-Qaeda's ideology domestically in the United States.

Now, more Americans die in their bathtubs every year by a considerable amount than that. So you know, we're not too frightened about people dying in their bathtubs.

We should recognize, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 comes up, that we would be doing bin Laden's work for him if we remain in a state of constant fear and terror that al-Qaeda is able to pull off something large now, which is not to say that these groups - and you mentioned the affiliates in the introduction - some of these affiliates are, you know, they sort of wax and wane. And of course al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has just been handed a huge gift, which is essentially an incipient or already civil war in Yemen, which they will try and exploit.

And of course they almost brought down Flight 253 over Detroit back on Christmas Day 2009. So there is some risk, but it is not a - you know, it's not the risk we faced on 9/11 or anything close.

ROBERTS: You said the central al-Qaeda organization. These affiliate groups, as we have said, does - continue to be active. Does that mean that the focus should shift from the central Pakistan-based group to the affiliate groups? Or do the affiliate groups - are they a different animal entirely?

BERGEN: They're not a different animal entirely. For a start, they take strategic direction from al-Qaeda central. So for instance, we found - the United States government has found that bin Laden was sending directives to these groups.

Now, it's not clear if any of them - all of them got through, but certainly bin Laden was putting out kind of the big picture to these groups both in internal communications and also in his public statements.

So al-Qaeda central was really the main problem. You know, they're in quite bad shape. The killing of this guy Atiyah al-Rahman over the weekend, or it was announced over the weekend, is not to be discounted. He was the guy who was really kind of bin Laden's number two operationally.

ROBERTS: Well, tell me more about him. What do you know about him?

BERGEN: Well, he's a Libyan. Actually, we don't know a huge amount about him, but he's a Libyan who fought in Iraq. He's younger. He's mid-30s, as opposed to bin Laden, who was in his mid-50s when he - he was 54 when he died. He was kind of a new generation.

He had - there was something very interesting public about him, which we knew already, which is that he had been - he sent a letter to al-Qaeda in Iraq, essentially in 2005 saying enough with - you know, you've really got to stop killing all these Muslims. You're kind of damaging our brand. And clearly he was doing that at bin Laden's behest. So that was the first time he kind of surfaced publicly.

But until the bin Laden raid, it wasn't really clear how important a role this guy was playing. He was basically bin Laden's kind of connection to all the affiliate groups and also to his senior advisors.

ROBERTS: And that came out because after Osama bin Laden was killed, the raid on his compound showed all this correspondence between them.

BERGEN: Right, considerable amount of correspondence. And that is according to people who have looked at some of it.

ROBERTS: When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says last month that al-Qaeda's defeat is in reach, what does that mean, do you think, and is it reasonable?

BERGEN: You know, I think that he actually said that al-Qaeda's strategic defeat is in reach.

ROBERTS: Why is that a distinction?

BERGEN: I think that is a distinction because a strategic defeat would mean that they're not capable of mounting some kind of operation on the United States that would be of strategic consequence.

So 9/11 reorientated our national security policy almost entirely, and we put all these (unintelligible) resources into the war on terror, now called the war against al-Qaeda and its allies. I don't think he meant that every element of al-Qaeda is sort of suddenly going to lay down its arms. I think that he meant that it wasn't capable of the kind of attack that would really be a cause for serious concern in the United States.

I mean, clearly that moment seems to be here. Of course it's very hard for politicians to say that. It's probably a little bit easier for Secretary Panetta, somebody in a political job that has to pay huge costs if that turns out to be not true. And so you haven't heard politicians saying this too much because, you know, what if they're wrong.

ROBERTS: Well, do you think you might hear them say it a little bit more after September 11, if the 10th anniversary comes and goes without a major attack?

BERGEN: I think that there is still quite a lot of debate within the administration about what exactly to say around the anniversary. Clearly, the main point of the anniversary is memorializing the dead, and I think big discussions of al-Qaeda's capabilities kind of almost is inappropriate at that time.

They don't want to hand al-Qaeda any kind of propaganda victory, which of course al-Qaeda will try and exploit. I mean, I think we'll hear from them on the 10th anniversary as well. So I think that there is some discussion about what is the appropriate kind of message.

I think we will hear something about the necessity for - we're a resilient society, we can kind of - there may be an attack in the future, but we can kind of come back from that. So - and of course the president will be making some kind of, you know, statements at Ground Zero.

ROBERTS: You mentioned al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that's in Yemen. There are other groups around. There are - there is, of course, the possibility of homegrown, American-based al-Qaeda-affiliated attacks. Where are you sort of focusing in terms of what might be a hotspot?

BERGEN: Again, going back to this New America, Maxwell Syracuse database that any viewer - listener can look at on the Web at newamerica.net, one really interesting takeaway of these 188 cases that we looked at since 9/11 that are on the jihadist terrorist (unintelligible) side, about a third of the intended targets were American military targets overseas or here domestically in the United States.

Obviously, if you're motivated by this ideology, the American military, which is now fighting, by my count, five wars in Muslim countries - Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq - is a very attractive target, whether it's Fort Hood, Texas or other cases.

But I think as we come to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we'd be making a big mistake not to actually look at other forms of political violence and because we're going to release more data that looks at right-wing terrorism and other forms of political terrorism in the United States, and one of the really interesting takeaways is that we found on the right-wing side four cases of fairly serious attempts to do radiological bombs, so-called dirty bombs, in the United States, coming out of the right wing. They didn't come out of the jihadi terrorists.

And so we shouldn't be blind to the fact that there are other forms of political violence, which actually may be more threatening. And for instance, you know, the FBI says that 73 people have died in hate crimes since 9/11. Only 17 people have died in jihadi terrorist attacks. So you know, hate crimes are more of a problem.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jeremiah(ph) in Carbondale, Colorado. Jeremiah, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JEREMIAH: Hi, thanks for taking my call. The question was whether we - whether I fear an attack, and my response is that I don't feel that fear is an appropriate - I mean, I think it's a natural sort of response, but I think that if we want to really look at things clearly, I think that we should be trying to understand what the culture is that, you know - and I realize that there's other threats, and there's other things that are - you know, that's what your guest is saying.

But I guess, you know, if we're talking about terrorist attacks, and people are afraid of that, and there is this fear, you know, since the attacks, my thing would be to look at the culture itself and to understand the culture, you know, to understand what it comes out of and take away that scariness of it being strange and foreign and attacking us and understanding that they're people like us and what it comes from.

ROBERTS: Jeremiah, thank you for your call. So Peter Bergen, Jeremiah's saying that fear's not a particularly useful reaction to any of this, that there are other ways to approach it.

BERGEN: Indeed. And, I mean I think that I think that you will hear, around the 10th anniversary, the word resilience quite a lot from people, which covers a lot of things - physical resilience; we need to have a society that can withstand, whether it's Hurricane Irene or a terrorist attack, and they're kind of - you know, there's ways to build buildings and create infrastructure that kind of resists these kinds of either natural disasters or man-made disasters.

And also there's societal resilience. I mean, if our response to an attack or an attempted attack is total freak-out, I mean we're doing the terrorists' work for them. If it's sort of carry on, keep calm and carry on kind of, if that's the response, you know, that's a good response. And I, you know...

ROBERTS: It's a fine line, though, right, between vigilance and freaking out?

BERGEN: Right. And you know, but I mean the government has done a lot of things to keep us safe. I mean, it's not just that al-Qaeda has been weakened. I mean, we're in a whole - there were 16 people on the no-fly list on 9/11. There are thousands of people, some of whom may not even really be - should be on the no-fly list. The point is, is it is just a much harder target.

Al-Qaeda, of course, won't change its targets. It's still obsessed by American commercial aviation. But you know, the government has done a lot of things, and as a society, we also need to be resilient.

ROBERTS: My guest is terrorism expert Peter Bergen. We are talking about al-Qaeda. After bin Laden and now the drone strike that killed the group's latest number two, how strong or weak is the terror group? A little over two weeks away from September 11, do you fear al-Qaeda? Tell us why or why not, 800-989-8255. Or drop us email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at the website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. In just over two weeks, we'll mark the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks on 9/11. A lot has changed since that cool September morning over Washington, New York and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

But while Osama bin Laden is dead, the terror group he created continues to launch attacks around the world. We're talking today about the capabilities of al-Qaida. With less than two weeks before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, do you still fear al-Qaida? Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org.

Peter Bergen is our guest, terrorist expert and author of, among other books, "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaida." He directs the national security studies program at the New America Foundation.

We're also joined now via Skype from Cairo by Omar Ashour. He's director of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the U.K. Nice to have you with us.

OMAR ASHOUR: Thank you.

ROBERTS: How would you characterize how important is the killing of Atiyah al-Rahman, al-Qaida's latest number two?

ASHOUR: It is quite important. He's one of the very experienced operatives in al-Qaida. He operated in Algeria in the '90s, when Osama bin Laden was trying to form a branch of al-Qaida there. This attempt did not go well, and Atiyah was actually captured by the - and imprisoned by the GIA, one of the Islamist organizations there.

And then he also operated in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. So he's a very well-experienced operative. In addition, he also has theological training. He spent two years in Mauritania, studying Islamic theology, and "he's one of the very few theologians," if you wish between quotations, "who are still with al-Qaida." And as an Islamic organization that bases its ideology, or claims to represent a form of Islamic theology, when there are no theologians with it, I think this is a big hit to its credibility, and therefore, that's why it's important to remove an "operative/theologian," between quotations.

ROBERTS: Al-Rahman also had the reputation of being very well-connected, that he had friends and colleagues in a pretty broad-reaching network. How will that loss affect al-Qaida going forward, do you think?

ASHOUR: If this is true, he's - as I mentioned, he operated North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. He was one of the few al-Qaida operatives who had strong links with Iranian Sunni armed groups, and also he's a Libyan, and he had multiple links with Libyan armed Islamist organizations, including, obviously, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which really transformed and abandoned political violence, but due to the situation now in Libya, they are carrying arms again.

So he would be one of the few guys who might want to capitalize on the situation in Libya, on the chaos going on right now, to establish a foothold for al-Qaida there. So this also adds to the importance of his elimination.

ROBERTS: Peter Bergen, do you agree?

BERGEN: Absolutely. I mean, I - you know, I think that - I second everything that has just been said.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Brian(ph) in Boise. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN: Yeah, hi.

ROBERTS: Hi.

BRIAN: You know, the way I think about is I'm about as afraid of al-Qaida right now as I'm afraid of, you know, Nazi Germany. It's kind of like there are these neo-Nazis, and there are these groups out there that are trying to do bad things, but, you know, it's hard to be really afraid of them, directly, in my own life because I know that they've been beheaded, they've been put into shambles, they're disconnected across an enormous region of the Earth.

And, you know, I know that they're being chased from every possible direction, thanks to, you know, the United States and allies. So I know that they exist, and they, you know, wish me harm, or they wish, you know, some Americans harm for whatever reason, but they're so broken up at this point, it's hard to be really afraid of them because I think their organizing power has just really been torn to shreds.

ROBERTS: Brian, thanks for your call. You know, one of the things, among many, that was so shocking about 9/11 was that it had seemed far away, the threat, not connected to, sort of, you know, homeland America. And the war on terror was brought home in this very shocking and dramatic way on 9/11, when innocent Americans were killed.

Have we gotten to the point - 10 years later, Peter Bergen - that it's far away again?

BERGEN: Well, I mean, it was - it shouldn't have been as far away in our thinking on 9/11 as it was. I mean, you know, after all, late February 1993, a group of guys led by somebody who trained in an al-Qaida-associated training camp bombed the Trade Center for the first time.

So, you know, jihadi terrorism had already - not only visited America already - it visited the same target. You know, I think - you know, I agree with what - the caller's sentiments in general.

The problem is, whether it's in Nigeria; whether it's the sort of al-Qaida-like group you mentioned at the lead-in responsible for an attack on the United Nations; al-Qaida in Iraq, which is coming back and has conducted a huge campaign of violence in Iraq over the last two weeks; al-Shabab, which did do a tactical withdrawal from Mogadishu, the al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia, but controls a good chunk of southern Somalia.

I mean, it depends where you look, and, you know, certainly the threat to the domestic United States is very, very low, but al-Qaida-like groups in Pakistan have inflicted a tremendous amount of damage on the Pakistani state, military, civilians, and that's the problem going forward.

Bin Laden's most toxic legacy is that he has infected, ideologically, other groups that don't even necessarily call themselves al-Qaida, and certainly these ideas are losing popularity in the Muslim world. Dr. Ashour has done a lot of work in this area. You know, they're losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world.

But they don't need that many adherents to still cause a lot of problems. The Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany was a very small group of people, inflicted a tremendous amount of damage on the German state with almost no public support. So that's the problem.

ROBERTS: Omar Ashour, are they losing the minds and adherents in the message war, do you think?

ASHOUR: Yes, they have been losing it for a while now, mainly on one side. The overwhelming majority of the victims of al-Qaida are Muslim. On the other side, the failure to do any - really anything positive, whether changing dictatorships or building a strong state, that was all out of the question. So instrumentally, there is a huge failure of al-Qaida.

But also - so and then comes, you know, nonviolent attempts to - the Arab Spring, the attempts to change the dictatorships, and they toppled two brutal dictatorships, in Tunisia and Egypt, without firing one shot. I mean, the states were - or the regimes of Mubarak (unintelligible) were firing the shots, and (unintelligible) were not.

So (unintelligible) but on an ideological and theological level, as well - sorry, on an ideological and theological level, as well, you know, the (unintelligible), roots of support is almost not there. As I mentioned, al-Qaida lacks theologians. There are no sheiks or imams or religious, (unintelligible) religious leader that is supporting it.

ROBERTS: And what about in Africa? You know, there were these suicide bombings in both Nigeria and Algeria. Is that a sign of increased radicalization in Africa, do you think?

ASHOUR: No, they will always have the fringe. And Algeria is just a little example. In the 1990s, there was the armed Islamic group, the GIA, which was thousands of fighters. And what remains from the GIA, the HUIM now, the al-Qaida in the Islamic Motherhood, is a fraction of a faction from the GIA. The GIA splintered to become the (unintelligible) and a small group founded, a small faction from the GSBC became the HUIM. So it's a fringe group.

You know, they are still operating, but what exactly they can do, aside from blowing up something every now and then, and something small that's not really a threat to the topple the region or take over the country or - so their influence and their capacity has been quite undermined.

ROBERTS: We have several emails from our listeners here. Nadine(ph) says: I don't fear al-Qaida, because here in Nashville, I don't see them as a threat. If they have a presence, it's well-hidden, and really, Nashville doesn't seem a big enough city to be a target.

Michael(ph) in Indiana says: In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I think I may have been a bit concerned of another large-scale attack. But after looking critically at the evidence, I came to the conclusion that attacks such as these require so much in terms of capital, planning and logistics. It was pretty evident that al-Qaida was not going to be capable of doing them repeatedly.

Now I live in no fear of a large-scale attack and only believe there's a small chance of a concentrated attack, and then it would likely take the form of the attack of Fort Hood. Tragic as that was, it is not helpful to live in fear, worrying about it, as there's little or nothing we can do to prevent them.

And Louise(ph) says: It seems to me that al-Qaida and its associates understand the U.S. very poorly. Attacks on symbolic structures and the military only get Americans angry. Attacks on power stations, stockyards, water supplies, refineries and other infrastructure that serves personal needs could bring us to our knees in weeks or days. Are they sophisticated enough to realize that, and is something being done to address that possibility? Peter Bergen?

BERGEN: I mean, al-Qaida central and its allies keep coming back to the same targets, which is Washington, New York and commercial aviation, maybe L.A. I mean, if they wanted, you know, there is no al-Qaida in Nashville, as the caller pointed out. But one way to really freak Americans out would be to attack some, say, a power plant in - or let's say a shopping mall in Nashville. But, you know, al-Qaida isn't - Nasab al-Azazi, who was one of the al-Qaida recruits who tried to blow up the Manhattan subway, he actually drove across the country from Denver to New York to do this.

If he had actually done something in Denver, it would have been much more - A, he would have been much less likely to be detected, and, B, you know, he would have freaked out a lot more people. But - so al-Qaida for these big attacks, they want to do symbolic targets. That is, you know, there are, you know, Fort Hoods and there are other kinds of people inspired by the ideology, but these are not the actual central organizations which remain very focus on bringing down an American plane, for instance.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Preston in Sheridan, Oregon. Preston, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PRESTON: Thank you, Rebecca. I really consider it an honor. I find that TALK OF THE NATION is one of the most credible shows on the radio for dealing with a lot of our current event issues.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

PRESTON: Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

PRESTON: My comment and concern is this: I do not fear al-Qaida. But I think that, you know, it's been discussed extensively about the radicalization of those fringe individuals in society, whether it'd be from the new apostolic reformation movement to which, I think, unfortunately, is linked to the Christian faith or whether it's al-Qaida of the Muslim faith or other toxic theologies that come out from the other faiths to motivate people to engage in terrorist activities.

I think we need to pay more concern to those - to what's happening in society that creates a sense of hopelessness or spiritual vacancy in the lives of citizens around the world that are drawn to these ideologies and these charismatic individuals that promote the kind of actions that we are seeing with al-Qaida. I think that it also builds up an industry where if it takes away badly needed resources and energy to focus on reducing poverty and to instill a sense of hope and purpose in the world's populations and the demographic that is drawn to those elements where they engage in radical acts. I'd like some comments from Mr. Bergen and others.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Preston, thank you for your call. And, Peter Bergen, obviously, addressing, you know, a spiritual lack in society is a lot harder than, say, plotting a drone attack in terms of how you actually handle a sticky issue like that. But on a - at least a homegrown level and this society that - our government does have some supervision for, is there a concerted effort to look at what causes people to become radical? And let me just say quickly you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

BERGEN: I think there's been a concerted effort to look at what the causes for radicalization, and I think the, you know, the answer from academics like Dr. Ashour and others would be there's no really simple answer. I mean, there are some sort of answers. In group dynamics, a lot of times, people will join because their brother has joined. And that's true, you know, whether it's militant Islam or militant, you know, some kind of rightwing group, friends bring you into the kind of movement.

So there is something about group dynamics, but there's not, you know, individual reasons vary. And personal disappointments can be one part of it, you know, some people - but, you know, look at Major Nidal Hasan. On many levels, he was living the American dream. He's a medical doctor. He's a major in the U.S. military.

ROBERTS: This is the Fort Hood shooter.

BERGEN: He's the Fort Hood shooter. He was earning $90,000 a year. It's not a simple answer. Clearly, religion had some role to play because he became more religious, and he - but, you know, there is no one size fits all. Certainly, the U.S. government now has a sort of - is thinking seriously about how do we counter violent extremism, not just from Islamists but just from all forms. And they're looking at gang violence and other things, and the government recently released a sort of kind of rather, you know, just kind of an overall white paper which kind of indicated that they're thinking hard about it.

But there's no simple solution. And they don't want to get involved in a situation where the government is, you know, kind of securitizing the whole problem, meaning that law enforcement is the only way. I mean, there's lot of ways into kids who have problems. It could be the Department of Education. It could be the Department of Health and Human Services. And so it's that kind of whole-government approach. But none of this is easy and, as you say, kind of supplying, you know, somebody's spiritual void so that they have something - some reason for life.

I mean, that is pretty hard, whether that's a school shooter or something else. So - but I think there is an awareness among the U.S. government that there is a need for thinking about it, and they have been doing thinking about it. And certainly, the White House is relatively recently is starting to get the other agencies in the government to look at the problem.

ROBERTS: And, Omar Ashour, do you think progress has been made on understanding why someone becomes radicalized and how to deradicalize them?

ASHOUR: I agree with Dr. Bergen in that there is no actual profile for a violent extremist or a terrorist. There can be many causes, and it's more of a process than really an actual linear relationship, you know, economic grievances or social grievances leading to violent extremism. You know, there's too many research that has been done on that. And it's not necessarily one united cause. It's usually an interaction of multiple sectors. But on deradicalization, it's very - also complicated when it has to do with a mixture of interacting of pressures on one side, usually governmental pressures, if it was an organization or a group of individuals, coupled with interaction with non-likeminded figures that basically try to address the concerns of this particular group that there's a group that we call deradicalization, coupled with also inducements that are showing benefits of abandoning political violence. And that also spiritual leadership and organization leadership helps a lot in terms of deradicalization. So it's a mixture of leadership concerns, interaction with non-likeminded people, pressures from the government as well as (unintelligible).

ROBERTS: Omar Ashour is director of Middle East studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the U.K., where he also lectures classes on politics of the modern Arab world. He joined us by phone from Cairo. Thank you so much. And, Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and director of the National Security Studies program at the New America Foundation, joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks to you.

BERGEN: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Coming up, Marcia Dyson. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION.

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