Raised In America And Aligned With Al-Qaida

Americans who join Islamist groups and terrorist organizations pose a unique threat: They understand America better than America understands them. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, talks about how homegrown terrorists challenge homeland security.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Young men from places like Brooklyn, Charlotte and Albuquerque have been identified as members of terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, and not just as foot soldiers. A few are in key roles as masterminds, propagandists, enablers and media strategists, all the more threatening because they understand American better than America understands them.

One, an American-born cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki, reportedly helped train the would-be Christmas bomber and inspired Major Nadal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist and alleged Fort Hood mass murderer.

Last week, in a four-part series that aired on MORNING EDITION, NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston examined the lives of several young men raised on American soil who played key roles in or for terrorist organizations.

Later this hour, 15 years after the million-man march, Jon Jeter joins us on The Opinion Page to argue that every day since has been bleaker for African-American men.

But first, if you want to pick Dina Temple-Raston's brain on America's homegrown terrorists, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dina Temple-Raston joins us from our bureau in New York. Dina, nice to have you back.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you, it's great to be here.

CONAN: And you profiled four men. What are the common threads, other than they all spent, either born here or spent time growing up here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think there were two common threads. Besides the fact that they spent time growing up here, they also had reason to positions of reasonable power within the terrorist organizations that they were a member of, or they had sort of an outsized impact on those organizations.

And that's new. I mean, we used to think of people who left the United States and went to join something like al-Qaida as just sort of a foot soldier. And now they're being used in sort of key positions.

CONAN: Well, for example, Adnan Shukrijumah, tell us a little bit about him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Adnan Shukrijumah is actually one the most interesting, I think, of the four that we profiled. He essentially grew up in Trinidad Tobago, but he also spent quite a bit of time in Florida.

And he is now considered to be round about the number three in al-Qaida. He's sort of considered to be the protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

And he learned a lot being in America. One of the things that he did was, you know, he went to community college, and he was always sort of hustling jobs and trying to make money, and he had a fast car.

And he was sort of, according to people who knew him then, really living the American dream. And then he gets to a camp in Afghanistan around 1998, and they don't really want to have much to do with him, mostly because he was asthmatic and sort of sickly.

So he starts out washing dishes and doing odd jobs around the camp and then using that sort of American moxie, if you understand what I mean, sort of that hustle and go-gettedness that lots of people have here in the United States, he was able to forge a relationship with al-Qaida that no one else had, and to rise through the ranks.

And one of the themes of the series is that they were taking these very uniquely American characteristics and sort of turning them on their head, and because of that characteristic, were able to rise very far in terrorist organizations.

CONAN: How do we know about Adnan Shukrijumah?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Adnan Shukrijumah, if you're a terrorism geek like I am, you know about him. But he's starting to be more well-known because his name was finally revealed in an indictment against the New York City subway plotter, a Denver-area shuttle-bus driver who wanted to bomb the New York City subways on the anniversary of 9/11. His name was Najibullah Zazi.

Well, apparently, he went to Pakistan, the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and wanted to fight U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. And he met an American al-Qaida operative there, named Adnan Shukrijumah, and he's the one who convinced him that the way he could really help the cause was not by fighting in Afghanistan, but in fact returning to the United States and attacking here. So that's how his name sort of rose again to the surface.

CONAN: We've had any number of people identified as number three in al-Qaida. It has proven to be a not a long-lived position. But nevertheless, how do we know that this man is not simply an operative, that he's so high up in the organization?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, first of all, the joke about being the number three is if al-Qaida doesn't like you, they make you the number three, because there have been I think six or seven in the past couple of years. They just keep getting targeted and killed.

To be honest, these labels that we give people, and we've talked about this on the radio, about being number three or four or whatever you are, no one's quite sure. These are labels that the United States puts on these people so that they can sort of rank them.

The truth is, al-Qaida has very flat management structure. So a so-called number three, there could be four of them, for example. But let's just say that what they do know about him is that he's in charge of external operations for al-Qaida, which was essentially what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's job was, which means he's in charge of trying to launch attacks against European and U.S. targets.

CONAN: So if there was a threat, as reported earlier today, from Saudi, about France, this man might be behind it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: If not behind it, at least sort of being the gatekeeper or keeping the trains running on time. He certainly knows about it.

CONAN: And what advantage does it give him, other than that willingness to, you know, work all the way up from the bottom of the organization up to the top? What advantages does his American background give him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he and the other people that we profiled, they have a profound understanding of the United States. And I think that that's something that really you can't get any other way but for living here.

And because of that, they have an understanding of how our media works. They have an understanding about how our transportation systems work, which are very much favored targets among terrorists, because they're so disruptive. They understand how something's going to play in the United States.

I mean, that cultural gap that al-Qaida has with the United States, where it doesn't quite understand how the United States is going to react to something, Shukrijumah's one of the few people who can decode that for al-Qaida, and that's why it's so important.

We don't have that same ability to understand al-Qaida and all the other cultural aspects that are around it in the same way that they have of understanding us.

CONAN: We're talking with Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. You may have heard her series that aired last week, "Terror Made in America." She profiled four young men who are or were key members of various terrorist organizations, including, as we just mentioned, al-Qaida.

800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's start with Patrick, and Patrick's with us from Twain Harte in California.

PATRICK (Caller): Good morning, Neal. Good morning, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

PATRICK: So, my question for you guys is, we're talking about young people being critical parts of al-Qaida in America, correct?

CONAN: Parts of al-Qaida overseas. They grew up or were born in the United States.

PATRICK: Okay. So my question is, how much of that I guess trend is maybe America's youth disillusionment with the American system or feeling of hopelessness that they can't work within the system to create any real change?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Or alternatively, just to ask your question a slightly different way, how much does it have to do with the fact that what's been going over the last sort of 10 years in this country can be very disillusioning to Muslims more generally?

And in that respect, I think that that is exactly what the issue is. And this is one of the things that intelligence organizations in this country are taking a look at, you know, whether or not Muslims in this country, after 10 years since 9/11, actually have a legitimate beef, feeling that they are prejudiced against in this country or that they are piling up a list of what they see as grievances.

I mean, this is - the Park 51 mosque in New York is a really good example of this. It's made it very difficult for moderate Muslims to try and talk to Muslims who might be on the bubble, thinking about radicalization or something more extreme.

You know, before, they would be able to argue about Hadith and things in the Quran and interpretation of the Quran. But what does a moderate Muslim say when someone who's angry about the way they're treated here say, well, if this was a Jewish center, if this was a Christian center they wanted to build four blocks from Ground Zero, that would have been perfectly all right; but for some reason, because it's a Muslim center, it's not.

And how can you not say that the United States doesn't have some sort of war on Islam if they're going to allow, won't allow a mosque to be build in that area. I'm not saying I agree with that thinking, but it just makes the argument much more difficult for moderate Muslims.

PATRICK: So what you're saying is it would be more difficult - it's more difficult for Muslims to fit into society than it is for youth in general, but there's like an overlap that makes it more difficult for them?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think so. I mean, you these Americans who have gone, not all of them have been sort of white Caucasian. Some of them have been American Muslims. Some of them have been converts. But and I don't want to say that this is just a Muslim problem, it's a broader problem. But if you're looking at why you're seeing an influx of young men deciding to join the ranks of some of these groups, they've had 10 years of thinking that they've piled on grievances.

They've also come of age in a time when the United States has been at war. Let's say they were 10, 11, 12, 13, so about the age that a young man or a young woman starts to be aware of the news and follow the news on, you know, the radio or television or in the newspapers.

And for essentially their whole lives, they have seen American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. That sends a particular message. It's not whether you're for it or against it. It's just part of their life. And I think that we're seeing some of that now in this great wave of Americans who seem to be joining these groups.

PATRICK: So would we see some kind of parallel wave of reactionism, I guess, from other segments of the youth society or other segments of the Muslim society?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I don't know. I think that we're waiting to try and figure out what the blowback is from that. But I think that it's a reality, and it's the question of whether or not there's a way that the United States can sort of diffuse that.

PATRICK: How about democracy?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's one way.

CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

PATRICK: Bye.

CONAN: Indeed, that's among the many complaints of disaffected Muslims is that indeed, the United States supports not democratic institutions in the Middle East but autocracies.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, I'm not saying that the grievances are good or bad. I'm just saying that if you can actually pile up those grievances if you already are predisposed to thinking that somehow you are prejudiced against in the United States, there's some ammunition for you to sort of paw through.

CONAN: We're talking with Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, about the small but growing number of terrorists made in America who have risen to key roles in some terror organizations or in some cases formerly served in that capacity.

NPR current counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston will stay with us. If you have questions for her about America's homegrown terrorists, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Last week, NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston profiled a handful of Americans, all of whom played key roles either in or for terrorist organizations. In one report, she described how one of them is working to give al-Qaida's message a more modern sound. Compare this, a video message from Adam Gadahn, who is an American citizen.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. ADAM GADAHN: Barack, I know that as you slither, snake-like into the second year of your reign as the purported president of change, you are finding your hands full with running the affairs of a declining and besieged empire.

CONAN: Now listen to an online audio post from another American-born, Anwar al-Awlaki.

(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: There is no compulsion in religion. Why were the battles fought? I think that this is an issue that you need to have a clear understanding. Is it because, you know, the non-Muslims say that Islam is spread by the sword. Is that true or not? Let's talk about what happened, and then you make judgment.

CONAN: You can find a link to that report and the rest of the "Terror: Made In America" series at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dina Temple-Raston is our guest today. If you'd like to pick her brain on America's homegrown terrorists, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And just listening to those tape cuts, Dina, you can understand how someone with a little bit more understanding of American culture can make a much greater impact.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. I mean, Adam Gadahn left the United States when he was in, you know, in his teens and went and was one of the, we think, one of the first Americans ever to join al-Qaida.

And Anwar al-Awlaki, you know, I call him a media strategist for al-Qaida because he understands how things play in the United States. And the reason why he has such a great following in the West, more generally, is he speaks unaccented English, and he has sort of these touchstones, these cultural touchstones that he's able to reach out and grab people with.

And if you listen to that particular tape, you know, he's not sort of pontificating at you, as Adam Gadahn used to do when he came out with his videos, but rather he's sort of talking to you like a benevolent professor. You know, let's make sure that you understand this before you come to a judgment, as opposed to sort of mandating what people should think.

CONAN: Dina, after your pieces ran, a listening commented on NPR's website: not one iota of data that would point to what evidence there is on these so-called terrorists. Ms. Temple-Raston should do a better job at not sounding like a mouthpiece for propaganda.

What evidence is there against somebody like Anwar al-Awlaki?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, of him in particular, there's quite a bit of evidence, an email trail that he's left, including emails that as many of 14 emails he had with Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood - the alleged Fort Hood shooter. And when he was looking for some sort of blessing for the attack, al-Awlaki talked to him about that.

But even more than that, let's assume that maybe those emails were made up. What you also have is al-Awlaki actually congratulating Major Hasan on the shooting, and then we also know from intelligence sources that it appears he actually helped train Abdulmutallab, who was the young Nigerian who put explosives in his underwear and tried to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

And, you know, we know from Abdulmutallab and his discussions with authorities that al-Awlaki was a key person in helping train him. So of the various people, I mean, there's actually a lot out there that's being pieced together, and it's in affidavits and other, sort of, factual things. This is not just rumors and fear mongering.

CONAN: And unnamed sources.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And unnamed sources, exactly. I mean, if it's an affidavit, it's sort of which is just before you're about to...

CONAN: Be indicted.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bring someone in court, you actually are swearing that what you are saying is the truth.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ammad(ph), Ammad with us from Minneapolis.

AMMAD (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I just want to point out from discussions like this, what comes across to a lot of Americans is by the way, let me mention that I am an American Muslim. I am an immigrant. I have been living here for the past 20, 21 years or so.

But I think what's missing from a discussion like this is the vast majority of Muslims in America, what's probably the other 99.9 or maybe 99.5 percent of the American Muslims are very happy with America. This is their country.

Like for me, this is where I live. This is where my home is. And I think that's what gets missed from conversations like this. You know, when people listen to NPR or listen to especially if they listen to some of the cable television shows, when they hear about American Muslims being disenchanted with the American dream, they would think that all American Muslims are like this.

And I think it's really important to point out that the vast majority of Americans are very happy living in America. I'm sure a lot of Muslims are not happy with the foreign policy of America, and I'm sure President Obama hasn't had enough time to change his policy.

I think he started on that path. But I think that's where a lot of the issues are coming from is the foreign policy of the United States, which I think one of your previous guests, Neal, Mike Shire(ph), had alluded to about I think he had mentioned seven or eight different issues that generally, Muslims are not happy with, not only in America, but overall.

CONAN: But you can be unhappy with foreign policy, or domestic policy for that matter, and still be a long way from joining al-Qaida. And Dina, I know you've gone out of your way to say this is a very small group of people but people who might be exceptionally dangerous.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, yes, and I think we go to great lengths whenever we do these sorts of stories to talk about how this is a tiny, tiny, small fraction of the Muslims in this country.

I mean, one of the ways that they found out, for example in Minneapolis, where the caller is from, that about two dozen young men from Minneapolis were traveling to go and join with al-Shabab was from the parents of these young men, who went to the authorities saying we're worried, and we'd like your help.

And I think those sorts of, those things are very important to point out. I guess I would also say that I think I mentioned foreign policy, too, in talking about disenchantment.

If you talk about young men who have been watching for some time footage on the news of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, this is something you don't have to be a radical to not necessarily agree with that. And I think that that's something else that I'm trying to point out, as well.

CONAN: Amman, thanks very much. We appreciate the call.

AMMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Mark(ph) in St. Louis: If al-Qaida is prepared to allow Americans into their ranks, where are the undercover operatives? Can we get good guys inside al-Qaida?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's not all that easy to get someone into the ranks. You actually need a sort of a personal recommendation. And let me give you an example of how this sort of manifests itself.

There was, if you recall back in May, there was the attempted bombing in Times Square by a young Pakistani American named Faisal Shahzad. And Shazad had lived here for some time. He had his residency permit. I think he may have had his green card, as well. And he went to Pakistan, saying that he wanted to attack the United States in some way.

And he had been going back and forth to Pakistan for some time, because his family is from there, and he had friends who could introduce him to the right people.

And even with all those connections, he did get trained in how to make a bomb by the Pakistani Taliban, but they were very careful about the way they allowed him to know how much about themselves they didn't allow him to know very much about their operation because they were convinced that he was actually a spy.

He was too good to be true, a guy with an American passport, who wanted to attack, who suddenly showed up on their doorstep. So he got what they called a short training course, which he got between three and five days of bomb-making training. I mean, generally it's weeks long.

And I think one of the reasons why he got the short course in sort of an obscure place in Pakistan was because they weren't altogether sure that he wasn't a plant of some sort.

So there's a really good example, and I think what they ended up deciding was if he's a plant, then he doesn't know very much about our organization, and if he's not a plant, maybe we'll get lucky, and he'll actually be able to ignite a car bomb in Times Square. And as it turns out, he tried, and it didn't work out.

CONAN: Let's go, next, to Sheila(ph), Sheila with us from Nashville.

SHEILA (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, Dina and Neal, thank you so much for this topic. It's interesting and also disturbing, and I do realize, as your previous caller indicated, that this is the minority.

But my question is sort of similar to what you've already been addressing: How do these young people even get a link to Afghanistan or Pakistan for their interest in terrorism? I mean, how do they make a contact when they're here as young people? How is it so, I don't know, so open that they can just find out that I can link with a person or group or organization and get to Afghanistan, get to Pakistan?

CONAN: Is this where the Web comes in, Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Partly where the Web comes in, and also why one of the pieces that we did was on a group here in New York that operates completely openly and completely lawfully, a group called Revolution Muslim.

And Revolution Muslim, basically they were a small group of young Muslims. It was actually started by two converts. And what they would do is have long discussions with young men about what was unfair about America. And they'd be working within the law, but they, in the words of one intelligence analyst, they would act as a bug light for young jihadis.

And then in addition to that, they would be a gateway. So they would, basically, kind of let them know how they might go about taking the next step, or, at least within the context of a conversation, they became very aware how they would take the next step.

And there have been somewhere in the neighborhood of - I think I have the number right - two dozen homegrown terrorism plots where people who once go overseas to train in the past year, and of that number, fully a third of them had some sort of contact with Revolution Muslim. So that's kind of how it works.

I mean, you wonder sometimes how a journalist if we go over to go and talk to someone how it is that - for example, I met with a man named Abdullah Faisal in Jamaica, who's quite a famous radical cleric. And you wonder how I would be able to meet him, and you just make enough phone calls, and someone connects you up. And I imagine it works the same way if you're dead keen on going to join one of these groups.

SHEILA: I think it would be wonderful that some of our more right-wing Christian groups would instead of fanning fires could similar to this Revolution Muslim group but have something that could provide a foundation for let's work together as, you know, Christians and Muslims to look at what are some of the problems that have been indentified in creating some of this, you know, anti-American attitude and behavior, but how could we come with something that has more of a healing approach?

CONAN: Well, it's interesting that you raise that - I wanted you to answer that question, Dina, if you would in the context of Inspire magazine - this is, of course, the Yemeni group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has an American editor and headlines like: Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, exactly. And other things like: Are You Ready for Jihad? What to Pack for Jihad? And they give you a list. And it was created - it was sort of - the way I described it is it was like a Cosmopolitan magazine for jihadists. You know, it had everything but the quizzes. And it was put together by an American out of Charlotte, North Carolina. And this was a young man who grew up in New York and then his father was transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina, and he went there and started a pro-al-Qaida blog down there. And, again, there were people - like-minded people. The Internet does this.

It brings - before, you know, people were 500 miles away from each other, so how could they really talk unless it was a phone or letters. Well, now, all these like-minded people can find one place to go. And what's interesting about this, too, is that these people, you know, radical clerics or people who are recruiting for these organizations don't really need to go and find people anymore. By surfing the Web, these people find them. And that's why we're seeing so much of this, like-minded people - I mean, you've been on the Internet, and you, sometimes I'm sure, have talked to people that you've never met. And they have - they give you a certain impression simply because you never really meet them. They're in the blogosphere. And I think that's what's going on here as well.

CONAN: Sheila, thanks very much.

SHEILA: Thank you and God bless you in your work. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Jim(ph) on the line. Jim is another caller from Minneapolis.

JIM (Caller): Hello. I'm a Caucasian-American Muslim of 15 years, a convert, not from Muslim parents. I'm just - what does al-Qaida think of me if I'm not into their take on reality? What if I just want to get a cubicle job, play softball, go to Friday prayer? You know, in the most subtle ways just kind of educate my neighbors about Islam. You know, what - is there a decision on me just, you know?

CONAN: So what does that one-tenth or one one-hundredths of one-tenth of 1 percent think about the 99.99 - the rest of the American Muslims, Dina Temple-Raston?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm not exactly sure. Although, I will say that one of the issues is that as the great majority of Muslims, you do often get linked together with al-Qaida in a way that's far too tight. And there's just sort of an assumption that you're somewhere on the spectrum close to al-Qaida. And really this is sort of way off in left field. And I don't think people really understand how radical al-Qaida is versus the average Muslim who's living here in this country or almost anywhere else in the world.

CONAN: Well, I think Jim was asking what does al-Qaida think of him and the other Muslims like him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I couldn't even begin to tell you. I mean, I don't think that they think that you're nonbelievers, but, I guess, they think that you're not quite as dedicated as they are.

JIM: I was thinking - my take on it, what it seems like is that they're actually - dislike us even more. They consider us big-time sellouts and would - should be first on the list than, you know, if anything.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm not sure that that's absolutely true because, you know, there are a lot of people who are quite happy in being a somewhat practicing Muslim, maybe not going to prayers five times a day, but there's always this hope among, you know, al-Qaida people that maybe you will change and maybe you will come into their camp. So they certainly don't want to have you be disaffected by them.

JIM: Thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call. Here's an email from Jorge(ph). What about the individual's psychological characteristics? There's a big difference between feeling disenchanted or disenfranchised and being willing to commit murder.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. And, you know, one of the things that people who study this intensely have started to talk about has to do with how religion has less and less to do with a lot of the young people who are joining these groups, and it's more about the adventure and the needing to belong. And it's taking on many of the same characteristics that gang culture does.

You know, you have maybe not a male role model in your life and you're looking for one, and the one that you happened to find happens to be in radical Islam. And you sort of sign on to that in the same way that a role model in your neighborhood might be someone who is the leader of a gang, and you sort of get sucked in by peer pressure. I think there's a lot of that going on here now, too.

CONAN: And as you profiled this handful of Americans who do or did play key roles in terror groups overseas, is there any idea of whether this is a building wave or are these anomalies?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I don't think they're anomalies. I it really does seem that there is some sort of wave going on. And, again, this is something that I was talking about earlier. I think that there's sort of this sense that there is a long list of grievances for people who want to for radical Muslims in this country who want to find them. They can find these grievances and list them and decide that somehow they need to take the next step. And I think that's why we're seeing so many Americans going over now. I mean, when I say so many, I'm talking about dozens. I'm not talking about hundreds. In the U.K. and in Europe, there are hundreds. We're not at that level now, but the trickle has become a stream and that's what's different.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, also the author of "The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in an Age of Terror." She joined us from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much, Tina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Coming up on the Opinion Page, it's 15 years since the Million Man March today. Jon Jeter argues African-American men are far worse off. He joins us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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