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Does terrorism (and the war on terrorism) pose a new challenge for conflict resolution?

06/07/2023| By
Piyush Plabon Piyush Plabon Das
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Abstract

The international community is riddled with many issues ranging from climate change to security. Terrorism is one such issue which can have both domestic and international repercussions and these effects can be indiscriminate in its lethality; all can fall victims to terrorism irrespective of their economic status, gender and age. It is a serious threat to a state’s security. Hence, it is to no one’s surprise that counter-terrorism often finds its way into a state’s foreign policy. Although the term “Terrorism” has attained popularity in the modern era, in reality, it is an anomaly that can be traced back to two millennia, for example- the “Sicariis” or the Zealots of Judea targeted and murdered those whom they deemed apostates. Their notorious underground operations against the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean were a way to “send a message” and instil fear . It is remarkable to notice that these tactics have been adopted by different organisations throughout history to carry out acts of terror . Jump-cut to the present day and terrorism has become a scourge for the international community and is one of the premier challenges for conflict resolution. Counter-terrorism too has not yielded the desired result and is playing little role in furthering conflicts. This essay will discuss the nature of this challenge using different case studies and will be divided into three sections. Section I will be a brief introduction to the idea of terrorism and will dissect this universal yet vague concept. This will be done to identify some elements that ignite and legitimise conflict amongst societies which is an important step as it will allow one to tackle the challenge more comprehensively. Section II will discuss how both terrorism and counter-terrorism are furthering conflicts and thereby posing a new challenge in conflict resolution. The focus will be more on the social, economic, political and psychological impacts of terrorism. Finally, Section III will suggest ways of dealing with terrorism in a more philosophical way rather than the usual military method.

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Does terrorism (and the war on terrorism) pose a new challenge for conflict resolution?

Introduction-

The international community is riddled with many issues ranging from climate change to security. Terrorism is one such issue which can have both domestic and international repercussions and these effects can be indiscriminate in its lethality; all can fall victims to terrorism irrespective of their economic status, gender and age. It is a serious threat to a state’s security. Hence, it is to no one’s surprise that counter-terrorism often finds its way into a state’s foreign policy. Although the term “Terrorism” has attained popularity in the modern era, in reality, it is an anomaly that can be traced back to two millennia, for example- the “Sicariis” or the Zealots of Judea targeted and murdered those whom they deemed apostates. Their notorious underground operations against the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean were a way to “send a message” and instil fear1. It is remarkable to notice that these tactics have been adopted by different organisations throughout history to carry out acts of terror2. Jump-cut to the present day and terrorism has become a scourge for the international community and is one of the premier challenges for conflict resolution. Counter-terrorism too has not yielded the desired result and is playing little role in furthering conflicts. This essay will discuss the nature of this challenge using different case studies and will be divided into three sections. Section I will be a brief introduction to the idea of terrorism and will dissect this universal yet vague concept. This will be done to identify some elements that ignite and legitimise conflict amongst societies which is an important step as it will allow one to tackle the challenge more comprehensively. Section II will discuss how both terrorism and counter-terrorism are furthering conflicts and thereby posing a new challenge in conflict resolution. The focus will be more on the social, economic, political and psychological impacts of terrorism. Finally, Section III will suggest ways of dealing with terrorism in a more philosophical way rather than the usual military method.

Section I: Understanding Terrorism

Analysing terrorism as a challenge in conflict resolution must be preceded by understanding what the term means. However, the concept of terrorism has faced the age-old problem of lacking a concrete definition. Political, legal and academic efforts to define and distinguish terrorism from criminal violence or an overzealous and hyper-aggressive military operation have led to dozens of interpretations. One reason for this could be the word “terror” itself. No organisation wants to voluntarily label themselves as “terrorists”. It is the government of states, often the ones that are recipients of acts of terror, that does the labelling. The view of who is a terrorist is a completely subjective outlook of the interpreter. Another issue is that of ‘behaviour’. Most states propagate that the use of violence by ‘subnational groups’ equates to terrorism. This means that in the eyes of the state, only they have the monopoly over violence and use of force and any other acts of violence are illegal. However, revolutionary terrorists have always justified their acts as means of dislodging regimes that limited their political expression and freedom, further legitimising the saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. For example, Syria publicly snubbed American and British endorsement of Arab armed operations against Israel as acts of terrorism3. Bhagat Singh, the Indian revolutionary during the British Raj, can be another example as he adopted violent means to drive out the British and was often labelled by the imperialists as an “anarchist” and a “terrorist” for his efforts4. Similarly, less than savoury actions often associated with terrorist groups, such as kidnapping, assassination, hijacking etc. have been employed by the military, albeit seldom, during times of war. Hence the use of violence is an intimate tool for both war and terrorism.

These issues have led to both simple and complex definitions but some key elements remain the same and can be highlighted to streamline the complicated concept for this essay. For example, let us look at the definitions used by OECD countries; the USA’s definition is “calculated use or threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies’” and the UK’s is- “use or threat, to advance political, religious or ideological course of action, of serious violence against any person or property”5. Based on this we can weed out “political, religious and ideological intentions” as key elements (as the aforementioned countries use them to define intentions of terrorist acts). While this essay will focus on terrorism in a traditional (military) sense, acts like eco-terrorism and cyber-terrorism are motivated by the same political/socio-economic reasons6.

Though it would be wrong to claim that violence is solely the outcome of religion, the symbiotic relationship between them has been brewing for centuries. History has proven that most religions consist of two distinctly contrasting cultures- ‘the holy war’ and ‘the peaceable kingdom’7. One can deduce that the peaceable kingdom can only be established after the holy war, thus steeping religion into violence and championing the idea of ‘ends justifying the means. One religion that has become the referral point of this ideology is Islam as some Muslim extremists view themselves as the protagonists who are speeding up the process of ending the holy war8 hence terrorism is often linked to it and this essay will rely heavily on Islamic radicalism. However, not mentioning other religions and their links to violence would be highly ignorant. Christian terrorism is committed by groups who profess Christian motivations or justify violence through their misinterpretation of the Bible9. Even Buddhism, which is often regarded as one of the most peaceful religions has witnessed violent extremists, for example, In Myanmar the SPDC (State Police and Development Council) strongly campaigned for forced conversion of ethnic minorities. This military regime envisaged Burmese Buddhist nationalism as a cultural and political ideology and used religion to legitimise its totalitarian stance10. This allows me to segue into other elements of terrorism, that is, political and social agency. Religion enters the realm of terrorism/radicalism when it moves beyond spiritual aspects and starts to mesh with other forms of expression such as social aspirations and political power/change11. These violent expressions to radically change the socio-political structure results in conflicts. In the geopolitical dynamics of religious terrorism, religion itself becomes a façade and more often than not becomes the tool for the politically weak and where there is asymmetry in power distribution. The individual and the organisation’s psychological and ideological motivations mesh into one, which is to motivate the masses to retaliate to the grievances that they have experienced at both the individual and societal levels12.

In the following section, we will notice how terrorism, guided by religion, socio-political aspirations and ideologies, plays a crucial role in taking conflicts towards a new level.

Section II: Terrorism (And Counter-Terrorism) As A Challenge

The previous section has highlighted the fact that terrorism is not a new phenomenon, and thus it can be argued that it is not a new type of conflict. However, it has become a tool for furthering different forms of ongoing conflicts. Moreover, global counter-terrorism efforts have complicated conflict resolution. Thus (modern-day) terrorism has become a new challenge in conflict resolution as these extremists tend to use violence as a resource to pursue their end goal13 which ultimately does not result in successful political outcomes. Terrorism thrives in different (yet somewhat interconnected) spheres of conflict and can be a challenge which is both global and domestic in nature.

  1. Global Nature :

  • Socio-Economic: Globalisation and Modernisation (West Vs The World)

At first glance, both globalisation and modernisation seem to be the perfect solution to every socio-economic problem plaguing the world, especially from a Western point-of-view; economic growth, democracy, abandonment of outdated and abusive practices, gender equality, social prosperity etc. are all chain reactions of a free-market economy. However, one needs to look at the process critically as well, though it must be noted that not all discriminated, frustrated and poverty-stricken turn to violence. Even champions of globalisation do agree that this process creates a “winner-takes-all” environment14. If it is hastily introduced to a non-Western state, its full potential might not be realised from the get-go and the relative deprivation theory might be realised, which states that an individual’s expression of aggression and political violence can be linked to frustrations caused by social, political and economic circumstances15. Finally, democracy itself does not guarantee a terrorism-free life. If political participation is denied to certain groups of people, then their grievances may very well nudge them towards the path of extremism16. Moreover, far-right, racist and ethnicity-oriented terrorism too are prominent in less-proportionate democracies17. Globalisation also brings about a great deal of foreign presence in all spheres of a state’s society. This can lead to further deterioration of relations between states having tense and polarising global outlooks.

Case Study: Jihad (Al-Qaeda)

Setting aside the fact that Al-Qaeda was a pet project of the USA’s CIA (with Pakistan’s ISI’s aid)18 to fight off Soviet forces in the Soviet War in Afghanistan19, it was never an organisation that wanted to actively hunt down Westerners and Non-Muslims. Rather, the main ideology behind Al-Qaeda’s existence is that it wants to establish an Islamic State, free from the influences of outsiders and secular ruling authorities. They follow the philosophy of Jihad, which is conforming to socio-political life in line with Allah’s guidance and working towards the betterment of the Muslim community and a struggle against one’s evil inclinations20. Ergo, Al-Qaeda and the tribal jihadists, in their truest sense do not fear Western values such as democracy, pluralism and liberty but are against what lies beneath, that is, a secular and commercialised monocultural world that is aggressively infiltrating the ‘Islamic world’21. Their ideology is highly intolerant of foreign intrusion and this was evident when Osama Bin Laden was angered by King Fahd rejecting his mujahideen’s aid and rather opting for military support from US and allied forces22. Thus it was this foreign presence in ‘the land of two mosques’ that ignited the Al-Qaeda/US enmity, and the rest is history.

From this case, we can deduce that the rapid modernization of a non-Western state and the culling of its age-old values can have severe implications. And some organisations may view terrorism as an apt weapon against Western globalisation. Al-Qaeda in their eyes are not the antagonists but rather the saviours of the Islamic world. But their actions have only led to countless military operations and loss of civilian lives, especially in Islamic states, further plunging those regions into economic despair and chaos, a rather counterproductive result. Thus, terrorism can bring socio-economic prosperity, albeit a euro-centric one, to a halt in a country. It can antagonise some of the genuinely uplifting proponents of modernization such as gender equality, respect for human rights, equal opportunities etc., while at the same time using the vicious nature of capitalism as a catalyst for change. As a result, some may sympathise with the extremist’s cry for the preservation of tradition and expulsion of Western notions, and others may yearn for the freedom of speech, dignity and the ability to live in an equal environment, creating a rift in the society itself. The initial religious and cultural aspects of terrorism have intertwined with socio-economic aspects of life resulting in a never-ending battle of ideologies where the average citizens are being affected the most.

  • War on Terror

The war on terror is a counter-terrorism measure and a direct response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on US soil which has now become a global mission, headlined by NATO states, to fight against terrorism. Primarily NATO wishes to ensure individual security and freedom from indiscriminate acts of terror23 and to suppress terrorist funding. While this response was justified and had reasonable and well-meaning ideologies on paper, the war itself has resulted in further conflicts. Factually speaking, this campaign has faced criticisms based on cost, morality and efficiency. Around 38 million people from Islamic states such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya etc. have been displaced24. Additionally, more than 364,000 civilians have been killed25 and the cost of the operation has clocked in at around $8 trillion26. However, this gung-ho retaliation has created some problematic social issues as well. Islamophobia has peaked since 9/11 as the US media’s ‘myth-making’ capabilities have systematically instilled a fear of the immigrant in the minds of the American public27. This has led to stereotyping and irrational fears towards all Muslims and has deepened the line of divide between the two cultures. The US presence and the resultant collateral damage in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased resentment towards the West28. Moreover, drones have recently taken on a dual role; they can either be a military weapon or a way of delivering humanitarian aid. But, due to the hyper-aggressive nature of counter-terrorism which has essentially turned the world into a global battlespace, civilians have not openly accepted the humanitarian aspects of drones. Thus, this preservation of an economy or area after a military operation is not turning out to be highly productive.

Another consequence of counter-terrorism is the presence of irregular actors such as mercenaries which can be like a double-edged sword for the citizens of the affected state. Article 47 of the Geneva Convention states that mercenaries are people who can be recruited locally or abroad to engage in armed conflict directly, they are generally motivated by private and economic gains and are not residents of the country or linked to the Ruling Party29, essentially a third-party actor. A state with a weak military may recruit mercenaries to fight off terrorist or rebel groups. This could lead to more peril for the locals and war atrocities revolving around mercenaries are a pretty common affair as they could go from knights in shining armour to harbingers of death quickly. For example let us look at Central African Region, a region disrupted by violent clashes between states and rebel/extremist groups. The Russian mercenaries deployed in Alindao pushed the rebels back and the locals were relieved however soon news about looting, torture, rape and cases of other human rights abuses by the Wagner Group’s mercs were proven to be a reality. The mercenaries also took over the gold and diamond mining sites, targeted mostly ethnic minorities (Muslims and Fulani) and have had multiple altercations with UN Peacekeeping Forces and denied them access to regions where the atrocities have been carried out30. Some scholars are also of the opinion that this is a strategic move by Moscow to counter the West and regain some influence that the Soviet Union had in Africa during the Cold War31. Thus the situation can go from bad to worse with the presence of irregulars in conflict-prone areas all in the name of countering terrorism, a rather grim path of conflict resolution.

  1. Domestic Nature

  • Sovereignty and Insurgency

Conflicts about (contested) sovereignty have been plaguing the world for ages. It can have an array of manifestations and can paralyse the stability of a region. Like religion, the concept of sovereignty too has flirted with spiritual connotations. Jean Bodin’s interpretation proclaims that sovereignty is the “soul” of the state and is an in-alienable, omnipresent, omniscient and absolute spiritual and emotional binding force for the members of that state32. While this is a very outdated understanding of sovereignty, the “soul” element has stuck with the concept. A state is a state only because of its sovereignty33. There is another school of thought which suggests that sovereignty needs to be detached from the state and rather individual self-governing capabilities needs to be celebrated34. However, this individual sovereignty can give way to the formation of a singular identity which may be inalienable from the state’s identity. Hence popular secessionist movements are often linked to conflicts of sovereignty especially when the state ends up curbing the minority’s sovereignty thus resulting in the rise of insurgents. Violence becomes an essential commodity for insurgents to garner popular support to make political gains35.

Case Study: Kashmir(India)

Harowitz’s Group Entitlement Theory can be one way of analysing the ethnic conflict in Kashmir. The theory utilises an economic framework to analyse ethnic exclusion. Structural hierarchies, that is, a state where political and economic inequalities are institutionalised through discriminatory policies and social norms are the main perpetrators of conflict in such states36. Discussing the tumultuous relationship of Kashmir with the central government of India in detail is far beyond the scope of this essay. The decades-old territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, Islamisation in 1989, on-and-off ‘autonomous state’ status, the constant presence of the military, human rights abuses, marginalisation based on religion etc. are just some of the issues that are rampant in the valley, which has turned into a breeding ground of separatist movements, with insurgency on the rise since 1989. Over the years, insurgency (a political movement targeting the realisation of a specific political goal) in Kashmir has mingled with terrorism (a method of pursuing a political goal)37 in Kashmir and has had a devastating impact. For starters, approximately 47,000 casualties have been reported38, and acts of sexual violence by both Pakistani invaders and the Indian armed forces have stained peace operations in the region39. Also, religion has been once again used to create a social divide, for example, the mujahedeen’s Operation Tupac’s main aim was to slowly infiltrate Kashmir and spread radical Islamist ideology to wage war (Jihad) against India40. This resulted in the exodus of some 170,000-700,000 Kashmiri (Hindu) Pandits41. On the other hand, the Indian government allotted 99 acres of forest land in the Kashmir Valley to a Hindu organisation that egged the Islamic majority to accept the concept that Muslims are marginalised in India42 and resulting in huge protests. This back-and-forth between the insurgents and the Indian government/para-military forces has led to countless insurgencies over the years, plunging the region into economic turmoil and aggressive governmental measures such as suspending internet services in Kashmir43, a move heavily criticized by experts.

But these are the tangible results, terrorism in Kashmir has had a deeper psychological impact on the Kashmiri youth as well. Some psychologists have analysed the rebellious nature of the Kashmiris and have stated that the degrading situations since the 1990s have resulted in polarising views about the generation gap. The youth tend to blame those who came before them for the socio-economic-political situation and use their aggression as a way to demonstrate their bottled-up rage against the system. These teenagers are susceptible to passionate, attractive and at the same time violent ideologies and are likely to view their plight through a group mentality rather than from an individual standpoint. In such a case, the extremists welcome these impressionable youths with open arms and supply them with weapons and further normalise violent tendencies in them. This is a massive challenge for any state as a generation that matures with violence views it as a fair means of solving the ethnic, religious and socio-political divide44.

  1. State-Sponsored Terrorism

Another phenomenon that can be a real menace in conflict resolution is ‘state-sponsored terrorism’. Its implications can be both domestic and global in nature. While there is an array of definitions, it is generally understood as the intentional use or threat of violence by actors who are funded by state agents or its proxies and who target individuals or groups but with the overall purpose being to intimidate a much larger audience45. Both developed states (such as the US government encouraging the CIA to recruit and train operatives in Cuba to carry out acts of terrorism, sabotage and cause economic damage46) and developing states (such as the Indian government sponsoring the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE], one of the most hyper-violent and dangerous terrorist groups, through both material and political support 47) have engaged in this tactic, especially during the 1970s-80s and it has continued through the ’90s. Since the 2010s its popularity has declined but it remains a salient issue of international concern48 and can further deteriorate already shaky relations amongst some neighbouring states. Historical, cultural and linguistic links often fuel this kind of sponsorship as the connection between Tamils in India and those in Sri Lanka (along with tensions between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments) propelled India to work with the LTTE to realise their goal of attaining independence for the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka49. On the flip side, the Indian military ultimately had to engage in warfare against the very anomaly they created50 to re-establish democratic relations with Sri Lanka and to de-escalate the hyper-violence of LTTE. Also, it was Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, an LTTE suicide bomber who assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi51. This led many to consider India as forcibly playing the role of a ‘Big Brother’ and an overbearing presence in the subcontinent52. Towards the northern part of the subcontinent, Pakistan has continuously engaged in sponsoring terrorism in the region of Kashmir53. This has not only further destabilised the region and damaged its relations with India beyond repair, but Pakistan has also earned the ire of the international community, especially NATO members54. One can only ponder how incorporating and nurturing terrorism as part of their foreign policy55 is beneficial in garnering reliability within the international community as that tactic seems to be highly counter-productive.

Section III: A Multi-Dimensional Resolution

As we have seen throughout this essay, violence has led to more violence. The usual military response has come under scrutiny. While the international community has united in a joint effort towards counter-terrorism, the overtly military point-of-view has overshadowed the rampant cultural appropriation and misconceptions/stereotypes. All politicians, policymakers and civilians must not equate a particular religion or area with terrorism. For example, in his book “The Last Crusade” author Michael A. Palmer calls for a crusade on Islam and mentions the hypocritical nature of Arabs as they regard Western imperialism as more demeaning than Turkish rule56. This is a dangerous analysis as it forms a crude binary division and labels a certain civilisation as ‘evil’. The fact that the Turks were Muslims forming a Caliphate and not foreign non-believers of the Islamic faith, which requires resistance according to the Qur’an, is completely lost in that translation. However, it is also important to note that not all Muslims adhere to radicalism, many do not want to live in a Caliphate society and support elected governments and some Western ideals like universal education57 but are against Western policies and find themselves sans alternative policies. Hence, the wave of modernity in these areas needs to be tailored to their cultures and not in the current aggressive Western way as that will be met with stern opposition. Multilateralism needs to be implemented in the international community and domestic policies cannot be binary, the interests of nations and individuals need to be complimentary and the interests of some cannot be undermined. The moral compass of a state points north based on their perspective, so one needs to abandon the ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. The current counter-terrorism operations are paradoxical in nature as they have resulted in terror, for example, the “Uruzgan Incident” in Afghanistan, where a drone strike on harmless civilians instead of the alleged insurgents, left a lot to be questioned about the ethics and legality of such strikes58. Hence, an Afghani civilian’s life needs to be valued like that of an American civilian as human life is indivisible. The humanising of death via the ‘humanitarian drone’ by engaging in ‘precise targeting’ of suspects has raised some eyebrows as this might increase “risk-profiling”, that is the identification of certain groups that could be potential terrorists and thereby need to be under constant surveillance. Thus, both “personality strikes”, which have a known target, and “signature strikes”, which constitute unknown targets and their risks being based on an algorithm based on their daily activities59, have resulted in sub-par results with a hefty number of civilian deaths. The very term “War-On-Terror” is problematic as terrorism is a tactic rather than a tangible enemy and is thus highly elusive in nature. An overzealous response needs to be avoided and counter-terrorism policies need to be sensible and well-balanced60. The proliferative nature of counter-terrorism is resulting in increasing cases of human rights violations, which may equate to greater acts of radicalism in response, and decreasing state accountability. These accountability gaps with no middle institution to check the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures/policies affects the legal side of proceedings.

One can highlight the extreme response to socio-political discrimination of a group as causation for terrorism. Perhaps a review of the internal domestic political atmosphere could further strengthen conflict resolution w.r.t terrorism. For example, ensuring a safe, secular environment, eliminating discriminatory notions and providing equal opportunities for all irrespective of their religion and ethnicity could remove the socio-political and economic woes aspect from a terrorist’s rhetoric. Investment in policies that elevate ethnic and religious minority groups from weak economical strata needs to be considered by a state’s government. Without these crucial backing points, a terrorist organisation will find itself with weak, uninspiring agendas and will not be able to hypnotise the youth as easily. This is a relatively soft response when compared to the quick, hard response that is the war on terror, but it could very well be instrumental in laying the foundations for a more long-term or even permanent response to terrorism. The reactive nature of the current counter-terrorism measures is attractive to most states but in reality, it is a rather short-term response. It has played its little part in creating unstable conditions, both economically and socio-politically, in the terrorism ‘hot spots’ of the world. There have been some other undesirable outcomes as well. It has led to the marginalisation of certain groups, usually those following Islam and has resulted in Islamophobia/Xenophobia. This needs to be tackled at the earliest as it has been revitalised by the traditional War-On-Terror tactics and has cemented itself in the structural Islamophobic policies of India and China61. Muslims, both ‘extremists’ and ‘apologists’, are being merged into one via the same derogatory and stereotypical attributes62 with media-induced hysteria playing a major role in this phenomenon63. And this should be implied for all minorities across the globe as terrorism is not limited to Islam only. Cutting the oxygen to the extremists’ political project and not the religion is crucial and a pluralist society is essential to distinguish one community from extremists64. The international community should tackle creeping issues such as state-sponsored terrorism as this enhances the otherwise limited capabilities of the terrorist organisation65 and the focus should be on streamlining the definition of terrorism and adhering to the rule of law vis-à-vis counter-terrorism66. A shift to proactive counter-terrorism measures could be helpful as well, especially domestically. This will encourage inculcating preventive measures before the conflict has a chance to escalate.

Tolerance breeds tolerance and Pope Francis’ hopeful message of unity and peace at the Global Conference of Human Fraternity should be encouraged and other religious leaders and organisations should follow suit and create a secular environment. Field Diplomacy and Track II diplomacy could be considered as well. It is unorthodox in nature and utilises ground-level experts to intervene in conflicts. A credible presence in the field to garner a better insight into the conflict dynamics at play and enable a multi-level, impartial management could play a crucial role in de-escalating conflict67. Celebrating diversity, abandoning the ‘Us-Vs-Them’ dialogue and incorporating complementary, pan-cultural foreign policies could perhaps be an important route in tackling this challenge called ‘terrorism’ in conflict resolution and not simply relying on gunning down an ideology.

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