Who Is the Enemy?
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
With whom, or what, is the United States at war? The answer to this question has far-reaching implications for strategy, for public diplomacy, and for foreign and domestic policy alike. It may seem that the answer is obvious; but it is not.
In the first few weeks after September 11, whenever President George W. Bush referred to enemies, he insisted they were neither Afghans nor even Muslims but rather people he called "evildoers" or "the evil ones." This odd and somewhat comical-sounding phrasing seems to have been chosen deliberately so as not to offend anyone, or any group. It also permitted Bush to lump a variety of events under a single rubric even before it was known who was responsible for which of them. Thus, when mysterious anthrax letters began appearing, he again blamed these same amorphous "evildoers" for "continuing to try to harm America and Americans."
What were the goals of these evildoers? Here, too, Bush was careful to speak in generalities. They were people "motivated by hate," or, somewhat more specifically, "people that [had] no country," or, on another occasion, "people that may try to take a country, parasites that may try to leech onto a host country." When it came to what the United States was planning to do about them, the President was once more cautious to a fault, speaking mostly of "hunting down the evildoers and bringing them to justice."
Not even after the war began in early October did Bush strive for greater precision, tending rather to refer to the hostilities as a "common effort to stamp out evil where we find it." The one innovation was to introduce the concept of a "war on terrorism," sometimes modified as a "war on terrorism and evil." But this made arguably even less sense. Terrorism is a military tactic employed by different groups and individuals around the world for different ends. To speak of a "war on terrorism" is a little like speaking about a war on weapons of mass destruction. One needs to know who owns or is deploying these weapons, and for what reason.
WHAT ABOUT the objectives of the war? These were (and still are) equally murky. When Bush announced the initiation of military action on October 7, he defined the goal as "the disruption and … defeat of the global terror network," a neologism that once again begged the question. For what is the global terror network? Other than al Qaeda, what organizations belong to it? Does it include militant Islamic groups like Hizbullah and Hamas? Non-Muslim terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army and the Tamil Tigers? States like Iraq?
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, for one, seemed troubled by the vagueness of this dangerously ambitious goal. At one early point, he dismissed as unrealistic "the idea of eliminating [terrorism] from the face of the earth." But he proceeded to propose a no less elusive aim. Americans are a freedom-loving people, Rumsfeld said, so the definition of victory was an environment in which they could "in fact fulfill and live those freedoms," and in which others would be prevented "from adversely affecting our way of life." This was admirable, especially the last part, though hardly an objective to hand to a general and say, "Accomplish this."
The actual unfolding of the "war on terrorism" has done little to dispel this lack of clarity. Initially, the declared purpose in Afghanistan was not to extirpate the Taliban regime but merely to compel it to hand over Osama bin Laden and his colleagues; only when the Taliban refused did the full force of the U.S. military descend on them. The same story may be repeating itself with respect to Iraq. In late November, the President demanded that Saddam Hussein permit the resumption of weapons inspections or face the consequences. When asked at a press conference what those consequences might be, Bush cryptically replied: "He'll find out."
At least one well-informed observer understood this to mean that Bush did not know what he was going to do next.* Indeed, as of early December, it seemed safe to say that, beyond the fighting in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had not yet reached a decision on its future steps.
All this may be understandable enough. Conceptually, the conflict in which the United States is engaged is something new. It is being fought against shadows - no one, for instance, has yet made a completely forthcoming claim of responsibility for the atrocities of September 11 - and this very fact has rendered meaningless such conventional war goals as defeating an army or seizing territory. Then, too, the United States was caught essentially unprepared on September 11. No matter how many times it had been hit by terrorists before - and there were many such occasions - Americans never expected to find themselves launching a full-scale war against this enemy.
Moreover, euphemisms in wartime can be beneficial, and all the more so when one is flying, so to speak, in the dark. Entering emergency mode on September 11, the government instinctively shied away from specifics lest they tie its hands. Targeting "evildoers" and "terrorism," mentioning no names beyond Osama bin Laden, offered maximum flexibility. By not insulting anyone in particular, Washington could more easily woo potential partners for the U.S.-led "coalition against terror." By the same token, the administration could, at least theoretically, add or subtract targets as circumstances warranted; today's partner - Syria, for example - could become tomorrow's evildoer.
But vagueness also exacts costs. If politicians impart imprecise or contradictory goals to their military leaders, wrote Carl von Clausewitz in On War (1832), their efforts will almost certainly run up against major difficulties. The history of warfare throughout the ages confirms this iron rule, as Americans have had occasion to note in recent decades (from Eisenhower's not traversing Europe fast enough to fend off the Soviet advance in World War II to Norman Schwarzkopf's not eliminating Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard in Operation Desert Storm). Nor are generals the only ones who need to know whom they are fighting and what they are fighting for; so do others in government, so do foreign friends and enemies alike, and so, of course, do the American people.
WHO, THEN, is the enemy? The message of September 11 was loud and clear, allowing for no ambiguity: the enemy is militant Islam. No wonder, then, that even before knowing who exactly was responsible, the government has been reluctant to say so. In addition to the considerations I have already enumerated, there was the precedent of recent history to deter it.
Claes was absolutely correct. But his statements met with outrage from all over the Muslim world, and he was quickly forced to retract and to withdraw. "Religious fundamentalism," he explained lamely, "whether Islamic or of other varieties, is not a concern for NATO."
In the wake of September 11, it may be somewhat easier to say what Claes was not allowed to say then; but only somewhat, and not for anyone in a position of authority. Certain it is that no one wants to have to retrace Claes's red-faced retreat. And yet, awkward as it may be to say, there is no getting around the fact.
At least since 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran with the war-cry, "Death to America," militant Islam, also known as Islamism, has been the self-declared enemy of the United States. It has now become enemy number one. Whether it is the terrorist organizations and individuals Washington is targeting, the immigrants it is questioning, or the states it is holding under suspicion, all are Islamist or connected with Islamists. Washington may not speak its mind, but its actions express the real views.
To define militant Islam as the country's most worrisome, long-term opponent is hardly to deny the existence of other opponents. The United States has no dearth of non-Islamist adversaries: Communist tyrannies in North Korea and Cuba, secular Arab dictators in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, plus lesser foes around the world. But these adversaries, including even Saddam Hussein, lack several features that make militant Islam so threatening - its ideological fervency, its reach, its ambitiousness, and its staying power. Although the constituency of militant Islam is limited to Muslims, this constituency represents, in all, about a sixth of the human race, enjoys a very high birth rate, and is found in virtually every part of the world.
At a moment when the European-derived extremes of the Communist Left and fascist Right are tired and on the whole ineffectual, militant Islam has proved itself to be the only truly vital totalitarian movement in the world today. As one after another of its leaders has made clear, it regards itself as the only rival, and the inevitable successor, to Western civilization. Although a number of (wrongheaded) Western observers have declared it to be a dying creed,* it is likely to remain a force to contend with for years if not for long decades to come.
Islamism's Three Elements
LET ME try to specify with greater exactness the constituency for militant Islam. It is divisible into three main elements.
The first is the inner core, made up of the likes of Osama bin Laden, the nineteen hijackers, al Qaeda, leaders of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the rest of the network of violent groups inspired by militant Islamic ideology. Such groups have mostly come into existence since 1970, becoming since then an evermore important force in the Muslim world. The network, dubbed the "Islamintern" by some Muslim critics, contains both Shiite and Sunni variants, appeals to rich and poor alike, and is active in such far-flung locations as Afghanistan, Algeria, and Argentina. In 1983 some of its members initiated a campaign of violence against the United States whose greatest triumph so far was the spectacular operation on September 11. In all, the network's adherents are as few as they are fanatical, numbering perhaps in the thousands.
The second ring comprises a much larger population of militants who are sympathetic to al Qaeda's radical utopian vision without themselves being a part of it. Their views were on display daily as soon as hostilities began in Afghanistan: protesters and mujahideen by the tens of thousands, all expressing a determined loathing of the United States and an enthusiasm for further acts of violence. Countries not normally heard from, and hardly hotbeds of radicalism, came to life to protest the U.S. campaign.
The chants of these Islamists across the world bore a certain family resemblance:
As best I can estimate from election data, survey research, anecdotal evidence, and the opinions of informed observers, this Islamist element constitutes some 10 to 15 percent of the total Muslim world population of roughly one billion - that is, some 100 to 150 million persons worldwide.
The third ring consists of Muslims who do not accept the militant Islamic program in all its particulars but do concur with its rank anti-Americanism. This sentiment is found at almost every point along the political spectrum. A secular fascist like Saddam Hussein shares a hatred of the United States with the far leftists of the PKK Kurdish group who in turn share it with an eccentric figure like Muammar Qaddafi. Reliable statistics on opinion in the Muslim world do not exist, but my sense is that one half of the world's Muslims - or some 500 million persons - sympathize more with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban than with the United States. That such a vast multitude hates the United States is sobering indeed.
That is not to say, of course, that anti-Americanism is universal among Muslims, for important bastions of pro-American sentiment do exist. These include the officer corps of the Turkish military, who are the final arbiters of their country's destiny; several leaders of Muslim-majority states in the former Soviet Union; the emerging dissident element in the Islamic Republic of Iran; and, more generally, those Muslims who have experienced at first hand the dominion of militant Islam.
But these constitute a minority. Elsewhere, and everywhere, anti-Americanism rears its head: among the sheltered females of the Saudi elite and the male denizens of Cairo's vast slums, among the aged in remote reaches of Pakistan and among the students at a Muslim school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Nor is hostility always limited to feelings. Since Vietnam, and even before September 11, more Americans died at the hands of Muslim radicals than from any other enemy.
No Clash of Civilizations
THE SITUATION, then, is grim. But it is not hopeless, any more than the situation at the height of the cold war with the Soviet Union was hopeless. What is required, now as then, is not just precision and honesty in defining the enemy but conceptual clarity in confronting it. And perhaps the first step toward that end is to understand that, paradoxical as it may seem in the light of the statistics I have presented above, Americans are not involved in a battle royal between Islam and the West, or what has been called a "clash of civilizations."
This famous term was first given wide currency by the political theorist Samuel Huntington. It has been seconded, in his own diabolical way, by Osama bin Laden. The idea exercises an undoubted appeal, but it happens not to be accurate. True, many Islamist elements do seek such a confrontation, out of a conviction that Islam will prevail and go on to achieve global supremacy. But several facts militate against so sweeping a view of the objective situation.
For one thing, violence against Americans - and against Israelis, Westerners, and non-Muslims in general - is just part of the story; Islamist enmity toward Muslims who do not share the Islamist outlook is no less vicious. Did not the Taliban reign in Afghanistan make this clear? Their multiple atrocities and gratuitous acts of cruelty toward their fellow Muslims suggest an attitude that bordered on the genocidal; what it can feel like to be liberated from that repressive cruelty was well captured in a New York Times report from a town in Afghanistan on November 13:
In the twelve hours since the Taliban soldiers left this town, a joyous mood has spread. The people of Taliqan, who lived for two years under the Taliban's oppressive Islamic rule, burst onto the streets to toss off the restrictions that had burrowed into the most intimate aspects of their lives. Men tossed their turbans into the gutters. Families dug up their long-hidden television sets. Restaurants blared music. Cigarettes flared, and young men talked of growing their hair long.
Nor are the Taliban an exception: militant Islam has brutalized Muslims wherever it has achieved power, and wherever it has striven for power. I have already mentioned Algeria, a country that, thanks to a decade of barbarity by Islamists, and with something like 100,000 fatalities and counting, has become a byword for violence against fellow believers. But comparable if smaller-scale orgies of killing have taken place in Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey. And what can one say of Islamist Iran's war on non-Islamist Iraq after 1982, with its hundreds of thousands of Muslim dead? Militant Islam is an aggressive totalitarian ideology that ultimately discriminates barely if at all among those who stand in its path.
Another reason to question the notion of a clash of civilizations is that it inevitably leads one to ignore important and possibly crucial distinctions within civilizations. Such distinctions emerged with particular poignancy in 1989, when a significant minority of Muslims around the world denounced the death edict issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against the novelist Salman Rushdie - in Iran itself, 127 intellectuals signed a protest against the Khomeini edict - even as more than a few prominent Westerners, secular and religious alike, were apologizing for it or finding some way to "understand" it. (In one typical statement, the president of the French bishops' conference explained that The Satanic Verses was an "insult to religion," as though this in some way accounted adequately for the threat on Rushdie's life.)
Or take an example nearer to home and closer in time. After September 11, polls in Catholic Italy found a quarter of Italians holding the view that Americans had gotten what they deserved. Even some Americans sided with the attackers, or at least with their choice of target: "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote," announced a professor of history at the University of New Mexico. Does that make these people part of the Muslim world? And what about the tens and hundreds of millions of Muslims who were horrified by the suicide hijackings? Are they not part of the Muslim world?
Islamism vs. Islam
THIS BRINGS us to a large and closely related issue - namely, whether the "problem" is inherent to Islam itself. Like all great religions, Islam is subject to a number of interpretations, from the mystical to the militant, from the quietist to the revolutionary. Its most basic ideas have been susceptible of highly contrasting explications. At the same time, Islam differs from other religions in that it includes a large body of regulations about public life and relations with non-believers; these are quite at variance with modern sensibilities and have not yet been left behind. In short, the hard work of adjusting Islam to the contemporary world has yet really to begin - a fact that itself goes far to explain the attraction of militant Islamic ideology.
That ideology is not an entirely new phenomenon. Its roots go back in some form to the Wahhabi movement of the 18th century, to the writings of Ibn Taymiya in the 13th century, even to the Kharijites of the 7th century. But, as befits a modern-style ideology, today's version covers more aspects of life (including, for example, the economic dimension) than any premodern iteration. It has also enjoyed much greater political success. A radicalized understanding of Islam has taken hold, possibly over a wider swath than at any other time in the fourteen centuries of Muslim history, and it has driven out or silenced every serious rival.
This radicalism is today's enraged answer to the question that has bedeviled Muslims for 200 years, as the power and wealth that once blessed the world of Islam dribbled away over the five centuries before 1800 and other peoples and nations surged ahead. What went wrong? If Islam brings God's grace, as was widely assumed, why do Muslims fare so poorly? Muslims turned to a number of extremist ideologies in the modern period - from fascism and Leninism to pan-Arabism and pan-Syrianism - all in an attempt to answer that question by almost any means other than introspection, moderation, and self-help. Militant Islam has turned out to be the most popular, the most deluded, and the most disastrous of these ideologies.
But the unprecedented nature of its dominance, ironically, offers hope. However ascendant the militant interpretation may be at present, it need not be so in the future. The terroristic jihad against the West is one reading of Islam, but it is not the eternal essence of Islam. Forty years ago, at the height of the Soviet Union's prestige, and during the heyday of pan-Arab nationalism, militant Islam had scarcely any political influence. What then happened to bring it to the fore is itself a fascinating question, but the point for our purposes is that, just as militant Islam was not a powerful force a scant four decades ago, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that it may not be a powerful force four decades hence.
By contrast, if today's extremism were truly inextricable from Islam, then there would be no solution but to try to quarantine or convert one sixth of humanity. To say the least, neither of those prospects is realistic.
If the earth-shaking clash of our time is not between two civilizations, it is and must be a clash among the members of one civilization - specifically, between Islamists and those who, for want of a better term, we may call moderate Muslims (understanding that "moderate" does not mean liberal or democratic but only anti-Islamist). Just as the deviant Western ideologies of fascism and Communism challenged and shook and had to be expelled from the West, so it is with militant Islam and the Muslim world. The battle for the soul of Islam will undoubtedly last many years and take many lives, and is likely to be the greatest ideological battle of the post-cold-war era.
The American Role
WHERE, THEN, does that leave us? The United States, an overwhelmingly non-Muslim country, obviously cannot fix the problems of the Muslim world. It can neither solve the trauma of modern Islam nor do a great deal even to reduce the anti-Americanism that is rife in the Muslim world. As the battle among Muslims unfolds, non-Muslims will mostly find themselves in the role of outsiders.
But outsiders, and the United States in particular, can critically help in precipitating the battle and in influencing its outcome. They can do so both by weakening the militant side and by helping the moderate one. The process has in fact already begun in the so-called war on terrorism, and in miniature the results have been dramatically on display in Afghanistan. So long as Washington stayed aloof, the Taliban held sway in that country and the Northern Alliance appeared to be, and was, a hapless force. Once the U.S. military became involved, the Taliban crumbled and the Northern Alliance swept through the country in a few weeks. On the larger front the task is the same: weaken Islamists where they are in power, deter their expansion, and encourage and support moderate elements.
Weakening militant Islam will require an imaginative and assertive policy, one tailored to the needs of each country. Already the impress of American power has been felt in a number of places, from Afghanistan, where it toppled a government, to the Philippines, where $93 million in military and security aid, plus a contingent of advisers, is helping the government defeat a militant Islamic insurgency. In Pakistan, the FBI is training immigration officers to detect suspected terrorists infiltrating from Afghanistan. The anarchic areas of Somalia may be next on the list.
In some cases, change can be effected dramatically and swiftly; in others, the evolution will be long and slow. In Pakistan the state must be forced to take control of the notorious madrasas (religious schools) that inculcate extremism and advocate violence. In Iran and Sudan, a far more vigorous and multi-pronged effort will be required to end the rule of militant Islam. In Qatar, the home of al-Jazeera television, Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece, pressure has to be put on the government to promote the teachings of a moderate sheikh rather than those of the entrenched extremist Yusuf al-Qaradawi ("On the hour of judgment, Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them").
Saudi Arabia is a special case, being the home of Osama bin Laden himself and fifteen of the nineteen suicide hijackers, the seedbed of the ideas that stand at the heart of the Taliban, and the source of much of the funding of Islamist networks around the world. Although Saudi authorities have managed a working relationship with the West for decades, they have also permitted the kingdom's public discourse to be taken over by militant Islam. It must be urgently expunged from a school system in which, for example, 10th-grade textbooks warn students that "It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy," and from the media, not to speak of other areas of public life.
On other fronts, money centers around the world, from the United Arab Emirates to Hong Kong, will have to be forced to crack down on the laundering of funds via "Islamic charities" to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. French President Jacques Chirac has acknowledged that "Europe has been a haven" for Islamic extremists; the problem has to be taken seriously, and acted upon.
The war against militant Islam has domestic implications as well, for the danger within is no less ominous than the danger abroad. The goal is to prevent harm being done by radical anti-Westerners among us, and the means must include expelling, jailing, or otherwise restraining them. This implies an active revision of immigration laws and in particular an end to the innocent assumption that all who intend to visit or immigrate to the United States wish the country well. It means adding an ideological filter to the admissions procedure and, in the President's words, "asking a lot of questions that heretofore have not been asked." It means cracking down on Islamic "charitable" foundations that funnel money to militant Islamic groups. And it means military tribunals where needed; restrictions on lawyer-client privilege in certain cases; and, when appropriate, the serious use of "profiling" to uncover sleepers and other terrorists. Most obviously, it means that the President must stop meeting with and legitimizing militant Islamic leaders as he has done repeatedly both before and after September 11.***
But let us not delude ourselves. If the United States has over 100 million Islamist enemies (not to speak of an even larger number of Muslims who wish us ill on assorted other grounds), they cannot all be incapacitated. Instead, the goal must be to deter and contain them. Militant Islam is too popular and widespread to be destroyed militarily. It can only be fended off.
To adopt the phrasing of George Kennan in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," his famous 1947 article about the threat of Soviet Communism, the "main element of any United States policy toward [militant Islam] must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of [its] expansive tendencies." The goal must be to convince its adherents that the use of force against Americans is at best ineffectual and at worst counterproductive - that Algerians and Malaysians are entitled to their anti-American views, but they cannot act on them by harming Americans. The only way to achieve this goal is by scaring them. And that requires toughness and determination - and perseverence - of a sort that Americans have not mustered for a long time. It will also require allies.
The Key Role of Moderate Muslims
THAT IS where the moderate Muslims come in. If roughly half the population across the Muslim world hates America, the other half does not. Unfortunately, they are disarmed, in disarray, and nearly voiceless. But the United States does not need them for their power. It needs them for their ideas and for the legitimacy they confer, and in these respects their strengths exactly complement Washington's.
The U.S. government lacks any religious authority to speak about Islam, though it does not seem to realize this. Here is Osama bin Laden claiming that the world divides into good Muslims and evil non-Muslims, then calling for a jihad against the West; how can a secular and mostly Christian government possibly respond? Assuredly not directly - although the administration has ineffectively tried to do just that.
Thus, on November 3, Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador, spoke on behalf of the U.S. government in Arabic for fifteen minutes on Al-Jazeera television. His task? Nothing less than to rebut Osama bin Laden's accusations that America is the enemy of Islam. Ross also went on the offensive, telling his audience that the "perpetrators of these crimes have no regard for human life, even among Muslims," and that bin Laden was the real enemy of Islam.
With regard to Islam itself, CIC aims, in Beers's words, to make it "hard to miss" that Americans recognize and respect the religion. This means having public officials talk about the compatibility of American and Islamic values, sending out tapes of a Muslim imam delivering the invocation to Congress, and printing posters depicting "Mosques of America." Of particular note was the President's invitation to 50 Muslim ambassadors to break the Ramadan fast in the White House, with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.S. ambassadors around the world following suit. A senior State Department official explained the implausible goal of all this as demonstrating to the Muslim world that "Americans take [Islamic] holidays as seriously as they do Christian and Jewish holidays." Plans for the future are far more ambitious, centering around a Middle East Radio Network that is scheduled to start transmission in February with a plan to program in 26 languages and an orientation toward Muslim youth.
Will these programs have the intended effect? Not likely. Put aside the more absurdist aspects - using MTV to build civilizational bridges, establishing that Eid ul-Fitr is as precious to Americans as Christmas. Even the Christopher Ross episode bombed: "His performance was terrible. … He was like a robot who speaks Arabic," commented one Arab critic. More profoundly, although the goal of CIC is a worthwhile one - this is, after all, a war of ideas - the premises of its campaign are deeply flawed. Someone other than Madison Avenue types, and other than Americans, will be needed to conceptualize and deliver the anti-bin Laden message, someone with the necessary Islamic credentials and deep understanding of the culture. That someone is the moderate Muslim, the Muslim who hates the prospect of living under the reign of militant Islam and can envisage something better.
When it comes to Islam, the U.S. role is less to offer its own views than to help those Muslims with compatible views, especially on such issues as relations with non-Muslims, modernization, and the rights of women and minorities. This means helping moderates get their ideas out on U.S.-funded radio stations like the newly-created Radio Free Afghanistan and, as Paula Dobriansky, the Undersecretary of State for global affairs, has suggested, making sure that tolerant Islamic figures - scholars, imams, and others - are included in U.S.-funded academic- and cultural-exchange programs.
Anti-Islamists today are weak, divided, intimidated, and generally ineffectual. Indeed, the prospects for Muslim revitalization have rarely looked dimmer than at this moment of radicalism, jihad, extremist rhetoric, conspiratorial thinking, and the cult of death. But moderates do exist, and they have much to offer the United States in its own battle against militant Islam, not least their intimate knowledge of the phenomenon and of its potential weaknesses. In addition, the legitimacy they bring to any campaign against militant Islam, simply by rendering the charge of "Islamophobia" unsustainable, is invaluable.
In Afghanistan, the United States first crushed the Taliban regime, then turned the country over to the more moderate Northern Alliance; it is up to the Alliance to make something of the opportunity the U.S. created. The same holds with Islam writ large. Washington can go only so far. Whether its military victories turn into political ones depends ultimately on Muslims. The fight against militant Islam will be won if America has the will and persistence to see it through, and the wit to understand that its message must be carried in the end by other hands than its own.
* Robert Kagan, "On to Phase II," The Washington Post, November 27, 2001.
Dec. 18, 2010 update: Back in 2002, I could only speculate about support for Al-Qaeda but Pew Research Center did polling recently in seven Muslim-majority countries and Brian Fairchild then worked out the numbers:
This is close to the estimate I offered of an Islamist element constituting "some 10 to 15 percent of the total Muslim world population of roughly one billion - that is, some 100 to 150 million persons worldwide."
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