What Makes A Terrorist? A young Nigerian man attempts to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day; an 88-year-old white supremacist opens fire in Washington, D.C.'s Holocaust Museum. Experts on extremism in the U.S. and abroad examine the psychology of terrorism.
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What Makes A Terrorist?

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What Makes A Terrorist?

What Makes A Terrorist?

What Makes A Terrorist?

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A young Nigerian man attempts to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day; an 88-year-old white supremacist opens fire in Washington, D.C.'s Holocaust Museum. Experts on extremism in the U.S. and abroad examine the psychology of terrorism.


John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State
Randy Blazak, associate professor of sociology at Portland State University; director of the Hate Crimes Research Network
Shabana Fayyaz, assistant professor at the Defense and Strategic Studies Department of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad; coordinator of the Pakistan chapter of Women Without Borders


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

The young man who hid explosives in his pants and tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day was an unlikely suicide bomber. He is well-educated, his family had money, they called him, quote, a perfect child. James von Brunn, on the other hand, the 88-year-old white supremacist who opened fire in the U.S. Holocaust Museum, seemed to fit the profile. He was active in hate groups, monitored by watch dogs and law enforcement and spent time in prison for trying to kidnap government officials.

Two very different people, both attempting violent acts of extremism. So, what do we know about who becomes a violent extremist and why? Well talk with three people whove worked face to face with members of violent groups. And if you have questions or experience with this, give us a call 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

A bit later in the show: millions of dollars are pouring in for relief efforts in Haiti, many through text messaging. What actually happens when you text message $10 to a charity?

But first, what we know and dont know about what drives people to violent acts of extremism. John Horgan is with us. He is director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism and an associate professor of psychology at Penn State. He is in studio on campus at member station WPSU. Thanks for joining us.

Professor JOHN HORGAN (Penn State): Its my pleasure, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Also: Randy Blazak. He's associate professor of sociology at Portland State University and director of the hate crimes research network. He is with us from a studio is Portland. Randy Blazak, welcome to the show.

Professor RANDY BLAZAK (Portland State University): Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: John Horgan, let me start with you. Are there any sort of general checklists about how to tell who will become a terrorist?

Prof. HORGAN: Rebecca, I think there probably are, but the reality is its very, very difficult. The answer is not something were ever going to get from profiling, which is something weve relied on very, very heavily in the past. Profiles havent worked for us because theyve tended to be based on observations from very, very small numbers of cases. What we can do is adopt a slightly different way of thinking about the problem by not so much looking for personality traits per se but looking for patterns in the development of extreme behavior. Some of the kinds of things weve been doing at Penn State and the interviews weve been doing with former terrorists have tried to gain some insight into decisions theyve made about becoming involved, remaining involved, and in some cases even leaving those groups behind.

Right now were working very hard on developing a risk assessment tool to help us distinguish those extremists from those who actually go that step further to become involved in terrorism.

ROBERTS: Well, how much do you know about that? I mean, especially if youre interviewing people who hold or held extreme views but have not necessarily moved that step beyond to violence who is likely to take that step?

Prof. HORGAN: There are several risk factors that really distinguish the radical from the violent radical. I mean the reality, of course, is that there were a lot more people out there that are radicalized than will ever become involved in terrorism. Those that do go the extra step tend to be dissatisfied with their current activity. They will talk to us and tell us things like they felt the need to get out there and do something rather than simply sit around and talk about it all day. For some people, they are happy to let off steam by fantasizing about doing something bad or bragging about things on the Internet.

The terrorist wants to do something extra, wants to take that additional step. A crucial difference between the radical and the terrorist is that the radical the terrorist, I beg your pardon, not only has to have the opportunity to get engaged with some group but they have to believe that there is something very rewarding from them in the particular group theyre seeking out.

Now, that can be something like status. It can be camaraderie, excitement, adventure, identity, for some its even money. The same kind of logic applies to how we would understand the lone wolves. These might - on the surface they might not appear to belong to some kind of structured movement, but they do consider themselves as representative of that movement in a much more diffuse sort of sense, and that movement gives meaning and direction to what they actually do.

ROBERTS: Randy Blazak, let me bring you in here because youve spent a number of years inside U.S. hate groups under cover.

Prof. BLAZAK: Yeah.

ROBERTS: What have you found - once you are inside a group, what are the dynamics within the group?

Prof. BLAZAK: Well, I think this information is right on. I mean, you get it is almost impossible to create a singular profile because there are such a variety of stuff going on, but you get kind of two personalities that are attracted to these groups. One is what we might sort of label as the sociopaths or the psychopaths, anti-social personality disorder would be the clinically term, that are essentially the same people that we see involved in animal cruelty. They are driven by impulses and they dont feel a sense of guilt. And in this world they feel they can act out on these impulses and be rewarded for that. They also seems to be highly

ROBERTS: So the content of the cause isnt necessarily part of it.

Prof. BLAZAK: Right.

ROBERTS: Its just the opportunity to act on these impulses.

Prof. BLAZAK: Sure. And if they get the reinforcement from a certain peer group, that works even better. So we often see these sort of personality types in the leadership roles, highly intelligent, can manipulate people. And the other personality profile, that was sort of the follower who wants a very simple black and white world view of good and evil, of the the forces of good and the evildoers that are out there. I mean, there was just a survey out in September that found that 10 percent of the American population thinks that the president is the anti-Christ. And almost as many thought George W. Bush was the anti-Christ. These are sort of the people that like a really cohesive worldview.

And so those types of people are kind of brought into this realm where the forces of evil are easily identified, whether its the Great Satan of the United States or the Jewish controlled government that white supremacists believe in. And then but the next step though is when they take that to acts of violence, and where we see that happening in the people that Ive studied, and I think this works on the international level as well, is when there is this certain amount of frustration that talking about and going on Internet chat groups and chatting about it that is not enough, that there has to be some escalation in this battle between good and evil.

ROBERTS: And Randy Blazak, do you see the hate groups as being sophisticated enough to know who to recruit? I mean, do they know what you know?

Prof. BLAZAK: Yeah. Well, I mean thats one of the things that I have studied is that they are aware who are the people who are targets for recruitment and they will target young people, especially the skinhead groups who are upset about changes in their neighborhoods, who are upset about, you know, gay pride or Black History Month, or something like that. They really know the specific groups to target. But the larger recruitment that happens, the more dangerous anti-government groups on the right, happens on the Internet. You know, I have to go to Klan rallies when I was doing my research. I had to sort of sneak into all these Klan rallies, but there's a 24-hour-a-day Klan rally happening on the Internet. And it works on these hot button issues about the black president, about Latino immigration.

I mean, there are these issues that will pull these people in and it sort of works like a funnel. You bring them in on these very broad issues about gun rights or about environmental legislation and then it becomes a critique of the conspiracy theory view of the government and then you get a little bit farther. And then its a specific conspiracy, its the Jews, and then the next step on the bottom of the funnel is sort of the Timothy McVeigh level, where you have to do something about it, you have to start the second American revolution, and that those people will be told that they are heroes. So we can see sort of this parallel between the Islamic terrorist and the Christian Identity terrorist who both believe that they're going to be rewarded after their death for some grand active violence.

ROBERTS: But John Horgan, its interesting that one of the things you have found talking to terrorist leaders is that recruiting wasnt a problem, that in many ways they had screened people out.

Prof. HORGAN: Absolutely. I mean, terrorists leaders will tell us things that they make they certainly make a big deal of the fact that there is never a shortage of recruits for their movement, but one of the reasons why the groups will be so slow to take on as many followers as they would like is because there's almost a psychological prestige associated with the fact that there is limited membership.

Some of the Palestinian movements in the past have made it almost an internal policy never, ever to accept volunteers for suicide missions. There certainly are screening policies in place. Randy referred to those with psychopathic or antisocial personality disorders. I spoke with one former terrorist leader and asked him, you know, do you ever have any psychopaths in your movement, and he said, well, there probably are some, but as a policy, we don't recruit them, and we don't allow them into the movement.

His reason for this is because, was that the psychopath is the person who can't keep his mouth shut. This isn't the kind of reliable person that can be brought in to engage in a prestige operation. They talk a lot, they can't be relied upon to maintain the kind of secrecy that goes with the demands of life in a terrorist movement.

ROBERTS: Well, secrecy and also boredom. I mean, it's not all glamour.

Mr.�HORGAN: No, absolutely not, and in fact, this is one of the major catalysts behind why people want to disengage from the movements. Many former terrorists talk about the fact that the reality and the fantasy are very often two very, very different ends of a continuum.

The reality is not the sort of the image of the 24-hour, on-the-run terrorist who's just simply waiting in the doldrums for his or her next mission. The reality is first of all not being allowed to necessarily do what you want to do.

Many recruits sign up with a movement because they have an idea about what it is they would like to do for the movement, and they almost always want the prestige position, whether it's to become a martyr, a sniper or something else.

They find very quickly upon joining that they don't get to decide what it is they get to do. The leadership allocates them a role, and that can be very disheartening, and it sets one of the very earliest seeds of psychological disillusionment for these young kids who are otherwise groomed into a lifestyle that really isn't as it's being sold.

ROBERTS: Randy Blazak?

Mr.�BLAZAK: Yeah, I mean, I think that's very true. It seems very romantic at the outset that you are going to be a soldier in this white supremacists often refer to it as rahowa, racial holy war, and you are going to save the white race.

But once you're in it, you know, there's a lot of being told what to do. You know, you're essentially taking out the trash for the older, more-established members. There's just an incredible repetition of the same rhetoric. You know, it's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. I mean, you hear these things over and over again, and then there are all these limitations about what you cannot do.

So if I'm a white supremacist, I have to be careful of the food that I eat, I have to be careful of the music that I listen to, the television shows that I watch, because hey, you know, there might be a Jew involved in that show, or it's not kosher to eat Mexican food I don't know if kosher is the right word there, but and so there are all these limitations, and what at the beginning seemed like this heroic campaign becomes quite tedious, and you know, like cults, they have a lot of people coming in, but people are moving out the other side almost as fast.

ROBERTS: That's Randy Blazak from Portland State University. We're also joined by John Horgan from the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State University, and we're talking about the roots of terrorism.

Coming up, we'll talk with a woman who works with violent extremists. Stay with us and send us your calls, 800-989-8255. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. After a failed attempt to bring down an airliner on Christmas Day, we heard a lot about the young man who attempted the bombing and speculation about what drove him to terrorism.

Today, we've been assessing who is most likely to become a violent extremist and how. A little later in the program, we'll talk about the organizations who claim to deprogram people who have become radicalized, and we'll talk to a woman who works with people who've become radical extremists.

John Horgan is with us, he's director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism; and we're also talking with Randy Blazak, he's director of the Hate Crimes Research Network.

If you have questions or experience with this, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's take a call from Sheila in De Peyster, New York. Sheila, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SHEILA (Caller): Hi, my question has to do with: When is there a tipping point in society where extremism becomes kind of okay? I'm thinking of Germany or in Rwanda where for a couple years before the incident in Rwanda there were ads out. You know, these are enemies, and it was kind of a systematic thing. And that was my question. When does it become okay in society to say, oh, they're oh, it's just okay, we'll just pretend it's not there but on the other hand, they work their way in?

ROBERTS: Sheila, thank you for your call. This is the question about extremism, of course, is a relative judgment. John Horgan?

Mr.�HORGAN: Absolutely. I think that's a very good question. I think one of the things we've really failed to do in recent years, and it's one of the great ironies since 9/11, is that we've really failed to distinguish extremism and radicalism from terrorism.

I think there's been confusion about what it is we're actually trying to prevent. Are we trying to prevent people from having radical views, which to me is a sign of a very healthy, functioning democratic society?

We're not really trying to prevent radicalization per se. We're trying to prevent a particular kind of radicalization from taking root, and I think Sheila's point really speaks to us being able to identify the kinds of conditions that say this is the warning sign that something might be about to take root.

Mr.�BLAZAK: I think John's right there. One of the things to also be looking at is how the rhetoric seeps into the mainstream. One of the things that we've seen in the last 12 months is a lot of the rhetoric that we used to see associated with, for example, the white supremacist movement has been popping up in the Tea Party movement and has been flooding mainstream talk radio and people like Glenn Beck, you know, who have been sort of these conservative stalwarts are using some of the same rhetoric about illegal immigration and conspiracies about the government, and some of the signs that we've seen at some of these Tea Party rallies are the same things that you might see at a Klan rally.

In fact, there is a group called the Council of Conservative Citizens that is a white supremacist group that has been organizing a lot of these seemingly mainstream events.

So watching how that becomes more mainstream and sort of this call to again, to do something, that this is our last chance, that America is been taken away by them, whoever they may be, you know, usually the non-white male, straight people, and to watch that rhetoric bleed into the mainstream, and I think we've seen an awful lot of that in the last few years.

ROBERTS: And you know, we've been talking about this in the context of the Christmas Day bomber and, of course, Islamic extremists, which get a lot of play, but we have to remember that for a long time, the worst attack on American soil was perpetuated by Timothy McVeigh, a white Christian U.S. citizen.

Mr.�HORGAN: Absolutely.

Mr.�BLAZAK: Right, and a veteran and white supremacist.

ROBERTS: And was he known in sort of hate crime-watch circles?

Mr.�BLAZAK: He had been involved with a militia group in Montana that was particularly anti-government and heavily armed. And so I mean, I don't know the level of surveillance that the FBI had at that point, but he definitely was someone who had been on the radar because he was at Waco the year before, at the standoff in Waco, Texas, handing out anti-government literature, and there are pictures of him there.

So I think it was you know, he was someone who the Feds were keeping an eye on for sure.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Gary in Rochester. Gary, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

GARY (Caller): Thank you. I should first start out by saying (unintelligible) feel sorry for a bomber or a person that, you know, blows himself up and takes people with him, but at the same time I listen to some of these stories of some of these people who do this stuff, and I kind of in a way feel bad for them, like this bomber at Christmastime.

From what I read, he had absolutely no friends, was close to nobody, didn't belong to any groups or anything, and I think some of these people just do this, they get involved in these things just so that they can say they belong to something, to feel like they're part of something, and I just wonder if that's true or not.

ROBERTS: Yeah, Gary, I mean, not only just feel a part of something but also give your life meaning with a sort of final blaze of glory in the case of the suicide stunt.

(Soundbite of overlapping voices)

Mr.�HORGAN: I'm sorry, go ahead.

ROBERTS: We'll take Randy, then John.

Mr.�BLAZAK: Well, I was just going to say, I mean, that is so much a part of it, and the skinheads that I studied when I was doing my undercover research, they could easily have been a part of a left-wing group. They just wanted to feel like they were a part of making some change, and it was the white supremacists that got to them first, that gave them their analysis of what was wrong with the world and what to do about it.

ROBERTS: John Horgan?

Mr.�HORGAN: The leadership of these groups are very, very adept at making young, vulnerable kids feel that they will achieve more in death than they will every achieve in life, and certainly they are they're very susceptible to the kinds of vulnerabilities that you do see here.

We've seen the same kinds of vulnerabilities being teased out in the Somali community in Minneapolis, where you have young kids that are at risk of getting involved in something, whether it's gang violence or radicalization to a terrorist group, but they are at risk.

ROBERTS: Well, but in some ways the notion of a sort of rootless youth that needs someplace to channel him or herself feels more preventable and more like a social problem that can be addressed, as opposed to someone who either snaps suddenly or has some issue that they're so burning with righteous anger that they are going to accomplish what they want to accomplish regardless.

Mr. BLAZAK: Oh, you're...

Mr.�HORGAN: Remember, it's only one risk factor here, Rebecca. There are other things that come into play, and this is where the group really relies on trying to give the prospective recruit a sense of what it would mean to be involved if they chose to express their anger and frustration in this particular route.

ROBERTS: Randy Blazak?

Mr.�BLAZAK: Well, no, I was going to say that we learned a big lesson in 1999 at the Columbine shootings, when it seemed like these kids came from perfect backgrounds and that we missed some things that, through the rearview mirror, seemed really obvious, including sociopathic personalities and stuff like that.

I think it just there's a lot of people on the planet, and so we can't control for every single variable.

ROBERTS: Randy Blazak is associate professor of sociology at Portland State University and author of the book "Hate Crime Offenders." He joined us from a studio in Portland, Oregon. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr.�BLAZAK: Yeah, my pleasure.

ROBERTS: And John Horgan stays with us. He's director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State University. And I want to bring in Shabana Fayyaz. She's assistant professor at the Defense and Strategic Studies Department of Quaid-i-Azam I'm going to completely butcher this. I will let you introduce your university yourself. It's a university in Islamabad, Pakistan. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor�SHABANA FAYYAZ (Quaid-i-Azam University; Coordinator, Pakistan Chapter, Women Without Borders): Thank you so much, Rebecca, for having me here.

ROBERTS: And please correct me on the pronunciation of your university.

Prof. FAYYAZ: Well, you did quite a good job. I'm at Quaid-i-Azam University. That's Quaid-i-Azam is the name of a leader who founded our country.

ROBERTS: We have been talking about commonalities among people who might end up turning to violent extremism. You have worked closely with programs in Pakistan to prevent violent extremism. Do you see similarities?

Prof. FAYYAZ: Yes, I see a common theme here, and I feel I have been listening to the discussion of John and the earlier professor as well. The theme is a feeling of unjustice, and injustice, and it can be of various kind. Particularly from the region where I come from, from Pakistan, it's mainly the feeling of injustice, it's because of the lack of opportunity, opportunity to excel, opportunity to (unintelligible) yourself, opportunity to be a healthy part of a society and, on the top of it, given the earlier strategic landscape where the government, it had in the 1979 (unintelligible) jihad era, along with the international community involving the United States, themselves supported a number of militias and used religion as a fight, as a slogan to fight the infidels. And infidels at that time were the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, what happened is that when the Soviets left, and the U.S. and other Western communities lost their interest in the region, there seemed -because of the lack of the government will and because of the lack of the resources, these factors continued to be on ground very much, and vulnerabilities multiplied.

So as a part of the contribution of the civil war in Afghanistan and the tensions on the issue of Kashmir, these elements continue to prosper. So...

ROBERTS: Let me just quickly ask you this. Does actual injustice need to be in place, or can that notion of injustice be inflamed or excited by someone with a motive to turn someone radical?

Prof. FAYYAZ: Actually, in this case, you see a classic mix of the theory and the word and the theory and the actions. Because the - if you look at the region that is there, it has not been a main integrated part of the country, either of Pakistan or Afghanistan. It is recognized in Pakistan's constitution as a federally administrated area where you don't rule directly. It is - the rule is an indirect.

And because of the government's lack of interest and the lack of resources, the area remained disenfranchised, even - they don't have a vote. The people who live there don't have a vote equaling to the other people. So their representatives only sit in the upper house of the parliament, not in the lower house, so where will they get the justice?

Now, what happened is that since the maliks or those who are ruling, were also corrupt, the clergy factor they were supported for the strategic reasons both by the Pakistan and by the West, they got filled that vacuum and they became a de facto controller, and there they use for themselves later as ideology. And you see the whole ideological length you have been discussing earlier that harder ideology gives you an identity.

And in this case, it is more ideologically driven, of course, indirect sectors like poverty - lack of education, (unintelligible) that all add to it. So it is very complex situation there. It is not as simple as it is portrayed.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Lahkman(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee. Lahkman, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LAHKMAN (Caller): Thank you, ma'am. With a beginning, I just want to say thank you, Rebecca, for all the great show that - all the great subject that you bring every day.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

LOCKMAN: It's just hard for us sometimes to get through the line. But today, it's one of normal days that you've got another great show again. It's a great subject.

Me, as a Kurdish, I want to participate in this program because I feel that they should have - United Nation, United States, all the international agencies, they should get together and to have some kind of definition between those extremists who fighting under the terrorist title, and for those people who really fighting for what they believe and they're fighting on the ground because of their right.

For example, I'm going to give you a couple of examples. The Kurdish - one of the largest Kurdish popular party in Turkey being elected in the Turkish parliament two months ago, they've been kicked out of the parliament, 22 members in the Turkish parliament under that because they've been - they have some allegation saying that this party being associated with PKK. PKK is one of the terrorists group on the list.

ROBERTS: Yeah, Lahkman, I want to give our guest a chance to respond. Thank you very much for calling in.

Shabana Fayyaz, could you foresee some sort of universal definition of what a terrorist, or is it in the eye of the beholder or depending on what side of the border you are on?

Prof. FAYYAZ: Oh, yes. Actually, if you look into the U.N. resolutions and other the more than - and more than hundred definitions. But the working definitions that has been adopted by the U.S. government and by the international partners is the one that is the terrorist is the one who attacks a non-violent, non-combatant. So this is my working definition of the terrorism.

And, of course, you cannot identify terrorism with any religion. And I feel that one of the major casualty of the 9/11 incident has been the resistance movement, genuine resistance, self-determination movement. And this has been a casualty and, of course, the ones who were fighting for their justice have really been masked by the States as the terrorist movement, and this is a very, very, you know, critical happening. And the governments have to be aware of to - when their devising a policy, how to not let these people mix with the real, you know, these ideology, global agenda-driven religious people.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's hear from Henry(ph) in Nashville. Henry, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

HENRY (Caller): Hey, good afternoon.

ROBERTS: Good afternoon to you.

HENRY: This is kind of going back to the first segment. But your guests were talking about how, you know, the idea of joining a movement - it might not match up to the reality once you get the - and I was just wondering how difficult is it for people to extract themselves from it if they decide to do so. And I'll take it off the air. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Henry. Yeah, we have only just begun to talk about the idea of getting out of extremism. John Horgan?

Mr. JORGAN: Believe it or not, it is actually possible for people to get out of terrorist movements. And just as there is a flood of people who join, there's also a flood of people who leave. Some of the research we've been doing at Penn State over the last couple of years has been to interview people about the kinds of reasons behind their defection and the kind of process that pushes that.

People are allowed to leave, but there is a process whereby a terrorist movement will keep tabs on them just to ensure that they're not working for some state security agency or the intelligence services.

ROBERTS: Shabana...

Mr. JORGAN: But people do get out and they are willing to talk about their experiences.

ROBERTS: Shabana Fayyaz, you've worked with...

Prof. FAYYAZ: Yes. Commenting on the situation in Pakistan, especially, we have seen the guests. Some of the successful stories where are the people deradicalized by the process of constructive dialogue and engagement at the community level. Especially one of my friends, she works within her own civil society organization where they work with the women as partners, as vehicles to de-radicalize in the far-flung areas of the federally administrative tribal areas where the real interpretation of the holy book is taught, first, to the family.

And it is through the families that the message goes to their men, their boys who have been radicalized and are part and parcel of that. This strategy has been it has led to quite a success, especially in the case of (unintelligible) operation in case of Pakistan. But this is one of the examples of successful story, but most of the time, there have not been successful disengagement because if you don't offer them an alternative, that's why we have been stressing to international community that you have to invest in the people through giving them technical education and empowering the defend initiative.

ROBERTS: There are so much more we could be talking about on this topic. It sounds like we need to pick it up on it again. I'm sorry to all the emailers and callers, we couldn't catch you. Thanks so much to John Horgan and Shabana Fayyaz.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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