The Paradox of Survival and Expansion: How the Islamic State group can stand up and fight

Published in Political Islam
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Omar Ashour

This paper examines the reasons for the military steadfastness of the Islamic State group (IS) in the face of local and international forces that are larger in numbers and equipped with more and better weaponry. The paper is divided into three sections. The first reviews some security and military studies that explain the reasons behind the success, or steadfastness, of militarily weaker players in the face of stronger parties. The second focuses on IS’s military capabilities and ways of using its power tactically and strategically. The final section discusses the crisis in the Arab political environment, contradictions in the strategy to combat IS, and the implications of such actions. The paper concludes that while defeating IS militarily may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region, the roots will remain valid.i

After more than seven months of the US-led air campaign against IS, and following a multiplicity of ground attacks by various parties, even opposing ones, the group remains able not only to survive but also to expand. This puzzling result emerges despite the group’s lack of numbers and materiel compared to those of its enemies, and despite its great losses since early 2015.

In June 2015, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, confirmed that coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq had destroyed more than 6 200 IS targets and killed more than 10 000 of its fighters since the strikes commenced in September 2014. In December 2015 the Pentagon updated those estimates to more than 8 600 attacks by the US Air Force alone, comprising of more than 28 000 bombs in its raids in Iraq and Syria. That’s about sixty bombs and seventeen air attacks daily for nearly a year and a half.ii The Pentagon estimated the death toll of IS fighters during the last seventeen months at 20 000 people, while it did not recognise any killing of civilians with the exception of six people killed by ‘mistake’.iii In December 2015, US President Barak Obama estimated that IS had lost forty per cent of its territory in Iraq,iv while other reports issued by military research centres specialising in intelligence analysis estimated that the group had lost fourteen per cent of its territory (12 800 square kilometres) in Iraq and Syria from January to December 2015.v

Despite losses in Ramadi, Tikrit, Baiji, the countryside of Hasaka, and some towns and villages around Raqqa, Homs and Hama, the organisation has not collapsed. This is contrary to what was suggested by the balance of forces on the ground, or any conventional military analysis that took those views into account.

It is interesting to compare IS with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. The former lost control of its capital, Kandahar, within two months of air strikes by the US-led international coalition and opposition forces loyal to the coalition. The latter lost control of its capital, Baghdad, less than a month and a half after the Anglo-American invasion began in March 2003. However, after nearly a year and a half of strikes by an international coalition consisting of more than sixty countries, IS dominates in both its capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. During 2014 and 2015, the organisation expanded and remained on land stretching from parts of the Syrian Aleppo province to parts of the Iraqi Salah al-Din province, an area 650 kilometres in width.

This area includes large parts of the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din in Iraq, as well as large parts of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, Homs and Damascus in Syria. The organisation had also conquered the suburb of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and large parts of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus by late 2015, and it had reached within five kilometres of Umayyad Square in central Damascus. These areas (or ‘provinces’, according to the groups’ administrative-geographic division) are home to an estimated ten million people. In addition, the organisation has control or influence – through advancing and retreating – in parts of central and eastern Libya (Sirte and Bin Jawad), north-eastern Nigeria, eastern Afghanistan (especially Nangarhar), Egypt (northeastern Sinai) and other areas.

The smaller group: How to succeed militarily

Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the military capabilities of armed opposition groups against states and governments have risen steadily. Many military and security studies have documented a significant increase in the success of these groups against existing state authorities or the authorities’ inability to defeat these groups, which are much weaker than other groups in terms of resources and numbers. This is a significant change from the prevailing historical pattern. For example, a study of 286 armed rebellions between 1800 and 2005 showed that ruling authorities won only twenty-five per cent of the battles with armed revolutionary organisations between 1976 and 2005. This can be compared to success in ninety per cent of battles with armed rebels between 1826 and 1850.vi The RAND Corporation, partially funded by the US Pentagon, reached a similar conclusion in a study of eighty-nine internal armed conflicts, stating that regular armed forces triumphed in twenty-eight cases (thirty-one per cent), irregular forces won in twenty-six cases (twenty-nine per cent), and there were mixed outcomes in nineteen cases (two per cent, including cases of political negotiation or geographical division). The rest can be summarised as cases of continuous conflictsvii – i.e., regular armed forces of the ruling authority were defeated, failed to win or have been continuously fighting – in sixty-nine per cent of studied cases (mostly in the second half of the last century).

Security and military studies provide a range of explanations of the reasons for the military success, or steadfastness, of weaker entities in the face of more powerful entities – whether international alliances, individual countries or non-state actors such as armed institutions (i.e., factions of the regular army or armed revolutionary organisations). Most explanations and the theories they build upon have focused on rugged geography and complexities of topography, popular support factors of various types (populist, ethnic, sectarian, regional, religious, intellectual/ideological) and international military support for the weaker party, as well as the military tactics and strategies of the conflicting parties.

Mao Zedong, the supreme theorist of modern revolutionary war, shed some light on the local population’s loyalty to any successful armed resistance, whether against tyranny or colonialism: ‘The guerilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea.’viii The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, based primarily on experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an intensive study of other cases, reached the same conclusion, emphasising that conflict between a regular soldier and an insurgent is a ‘loyalty contest’ to co-opt the general public which is mostly not in favour of the warring parties. Therefore, success in the fight against an insurgency requires winning the hearts and minds of a neutral public.ix There exists a near consensus among strategic military specialists in revolutionary war studies that when a local population is brutally treated by regular forces this aids irregular combatants in recruitment, collecting resources and validating their legitimacy. General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of US forces in Afghanistan, referred to this relationship as ‘insurgent math’. ‘Every innocent civilian killed by regular forces generates ten new fighters against them,’ he suggested.x

Military explanations that focus on geography and its complexities are numerous and varied. James Fearon and David Laitin confirm in a well-known study that geography is one of four critical variables in situations of successful armed rebellion.xi Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military commander and philosopher, also considered it as one of five critical factors in any type of armed conflict. Mao wrote that guerilla wars were more effective in large countries where it was easy to strike regular forces’ supply lines with small numbers and at low cost. As Neil McCauley showed, hundreds of left-wing revolutionary fighters of several nationalities could defeat a regular army of 40 000 troops during the 1950s Cuban revolution by using rugged terrain to turn the military balance in their favour. The well-known French officer and scholar of revolutionary wars, David Galula, asserted, ‘The role of geography, a significant one in an ordinary war, may be overriding in a revolutionary war. If the insurgent, with his initial weakness, cannot be assisted by geography, he may well be condemned to failure before he starts.’xii Kenneth Boulding introduced the ‘Loss of Strength Gradient (LSG)’ to geographic explanations, arguing that the further fighting centres (such as capitals, large cities and camps) are from regular forces, the more likely it is that they will lose some of their strength. Sebastian Schutte adjusted the theory in 2014, saying regular forces lose ‘accuracy’ in striking targets, and not necessarily strength, the further they are from the centres. Their attempts to kill insurgents become more random and less accurate, and the resultant local anger increases rebels’ legitimacy, and their ability to mobilise and recruit.

Other scholars have focused on the importance of different forms of external support to the militarily weaker party. The RAND study of eighty-nine armed rebellions against a variety of systems (authoritarian, democratic, colonial) found that armed movements that benefited from the care of an external state or states won militarily in sixty-seven per cent of unresolved cases. However, when external support ceased, and dependency shifted internally, the ratio of victory decreased to twenty-five per cent of unresolved cases (i.e., cases with a clear victory or defeat; these ratios do not take into account mixed cases or unresolved ongoing confrontations).

Another group of military strategy scholars showed that a weaker party’s victory may be explained through field tactics and military strategy. In terms of field tactics, a Yale University study found that modern military vehicles (especially armoured vehicles and aircraft) undermined the ability of soldiers to create positive relationships with the local population, and thus undermined their ability to gather valuable intelligence from local collaborators. A large number of scholars of military strategy – particularly from US and British universities – concluded that it is no longer the preserve of a state, capturing regime or armed actors to employ new military technologies in weapons, communications, information and intelligence gathering, transportation, infrastructure, regulatory and administrative sciences.xiii ‘Breaking the monopoly’ has allowed armed organisations independent from states and regimes to improve their combat performance. This remarkable increase in the number of defeats of regimes or state governments by armed organisations that are weaker in number and equipment differs from the historical trend. Some specialist researchers have provided a framework for the complex strategic interactions between varying strengths of military entities. The study concluded that the weaker party could often win if it adopted opposite strategies to the strategies and tactics of the stronger party. For example, a ‘guerilla’ strategy (indirect fighting strategy) is the most appropriate strategy against a direct attack by a stronger party, including strategies referred to as ‘shock and awe’ (blitzkrieg).

Military capabilities of the Islamic State group: Strategy and tactics

Many of these elements of military and strategic theories and studies help us to understand the status of IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. However, the group’s survival and expansion has not been fully explained until recently. Explanations citing geography, popular support factors, external support and related theories do not help much in understanding the situation. Most of the areas under IS control are not as rugged as the mountains of Cuba, Afghanistan or Chechnya, where weaker military parties have benefited from geographic complexities. The ‘support factors’ do not exceed minorities that shrink and grow according to the ferocity and brutality of regimes in conflict with IS. The Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies in Iraq conducted a micro-level opinion poll in the city of Mosulxiv and found that in June 2014 the percentage of those who believed that IS represented their views or interests did not exceed ten per cent; in December 2015, after the coalition strikes, the percentage increased to thirty-nine per cent.xv

Some IS supporters (not members) in areas such as Sirte (Libya), Deir al-Zor (Syria) and Sinai (Egypt) view IS as the lesser of two evil, where the greater is the ruling regime. In addition, the organisation is not only in a state of war with governments and regimes inside and outside the region, but also with large segments of conservative Muslim communities, as well as with many Sunni and Shi'a Islamic groups, and even with some jihadists – including al-Qa'ida. And, despite an abundance of conspiracy theories espoused by all parties for the purposes of political propaganda and to discredit opponents, it has not yet been proven that IS receives systemic support directly from any government or regime, similar to, for example, Soviet support for the Cuban rebels, or Pakistani and Saudi support for the Afghan mujahideen groups.

IS’s military strategies and tactics may better explain its ability to withstand and expand. The organisation does not have large numbers of troops and equipment compared to the sophisticated resources of its enemies. With regard to numerical strength ratios, the CIA in 2014 estimated the number of IS fighters to be between 20 000 and 31 000. Compared just to the Iraqi armed forces, this means that there is one IS fighter for every ten soldiers. This excludes the number of supportive or allied forces such as popular militia, tribal groups, Peshmerga units and international coalition forces. In the battles of Mosul (June 2014) and Ramadi (December 2015–January 2016), the ratios dropped to one fighter for every twenty soldiers and officers in Mosul, and one fighter for twenty-five soldiers and officers in the case of Ramadi. In areas outside Iraq and Syria, the numerical strength ratio sometimes drops to one fighter against 500 soldiers and officers, as in northern Sinai. These ratios only estimate numerical strength, without taking into account the quality of the weaponry, ratios of firepower, effects of air support and intelligence, and strategic/schematic regional and international advice and aid; none of these factors and ratios are in IS’s favour.

However, with a mix of general military strategy principles, discipline in the field, a decentralised command and control structure, the commitment of soldiers to leadership structures and the dedication of fighters to their work – whatever the degree of brutality, combined with unusual tactics on the ground and the use of sudden, fast, accurate and repeatable methods, the organisation has been able to overcome not only a lack of human resources and equipment, but it has won battles where victory was unexpected based on traditional military data.

Some of its combat methods are consistent with Sun Tzu’s strategies, particularly regarding the collection of intelligence about the enemy, stealth before and after striking, attacking the weaker flank, efficiently using the element of surprise, avoiding the enemy in its strongholds and the time of readiness.xvi Tactics of ‘urban terrorism’ (especially car bombs; suicide bombers; sudden, frequent and extensive use of snipers; and assassinations before and during attacks) combined with traditional revolutionary warfare methods (especially mixing military and trained volunteer units, a quick hit-and-run approach and small numbers), in addition to conventional tactics (light artillery, heavy armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as different types of guided and unguided missiles) have proven highly effective despite the small number of IS fighters.

IS’s attack pattern is designed to establish control on the ground (in a village, town or city neighbourhood); followed by its combat units attacking from three sides at the same time while using high intensity fire to push defending forces to the fourth side. When the defending forces gather there, they are attacked by one or a series of car bombs (either detonated remotely or by suicide attackers), which often leads to the defending forces’ collapse or weakening, making the attack much easier. Captain Hassan Al-Hajri, a commander of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade in Syria, pointed out that after attacking with booby traps, the ‘Inghemasiyoun’, a small commando unit of not more than twenty IS shock troops (mostly non-local), carry out further attacks.xvii This unit is given special training on tactics of close quarters combat.xviii Its main task after attacking with booby traps is breaking enemy lines, raiding hard targets and then progressing slowly. As a former officer in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Squad 101 said, ‘After car bombing, IS sends not more than ten to fifteen fighters of different nationalities. They advance fifty metres, lie down, then advance another fifty metres, then lie down and concentrate their efforts. We have not heard of this specific method of attack in any Arab military academy, including those of the Ba'ath Party.’xix

Various kinds of booby-traps (containers, cars, motorcycles, etc.) have proven effective in breaking troop lines, initiating attacks and even as defensive tactics, but their place in the military doctrine of IS is still a mystery. Some military analysts argue that the element of shock and horror, and its effect in weakening and confusing enemies, has proven valuable for IS. Others focus on the extensive damage caused by car bombs. Thus, a quick resolution of battle is in favour of IS’s forces even if the conventional military balance is not in their favour. When FSA officers and Libyan military forces from Battalion 166 who fought IS in Sirte were asked about the reasons for the organisation’s military victories, despite its lack of human resources and equipment, the answers were similar and can be summed up as ‘booby traps are the key to victories’.

There is another important aspect with regards to the command and control framework of IS: the group’s decentralised approach to military action. IS sometimes attacks sites and towns that are not strategically important and has small numbers of people. It appears that, in these cases, mid-level leaders have taken attack decisions, without reference to senior leadership. Despite the tactical failure of some of these attacks, their frequency and success in other instances is an important indicator of the degree of centralised decision-making at the command and control level. This decentralised military modus operandi is more mature and effective than the methods of many Arab armies, which is one reason for their semi-chronic tactical weakness. In practice, IS has overcome a major obstacle facing the military effectiveness of some Arab armies. These armies, which sometimes show some tactical initiative and creativity, lack the ability to innovate and improvise without orders from the top brass. They have little ability to adapt to sudden and unexpected circumstances, and are unable to undertake independent tactical operations. The degree of centralisation may reflect the weakness of ‘strategic coherence’ between military units and ‘tactical turmoil’; it is a traditional point of weakness that may defeat and obliterate any military entity. However, in the case of IS, a centralised senior leadership with a decentralised field of operations has proven vital for enhanced military performance. The dynamic attack forces allow the organisation to make quick decisions when facing superior forces. In addition, it seems that IS leaders on the ground learn quickly, continually improving their performance.

On the other hand, most IS air defences are weak, limited and undeveloped. The group can defend only against helicopters and old military aircraft flying at low altitudes (at 20 000 feet or less). This has been very costly for the organisation. The traditional irregular warfare style (especially the use of armoured vehicles) has been undermined to a large extent due to coalition air strikes, and the lack of capacity of terrestrial defences to respond. However, the group was able to avoid further losses by dispersing and concealing heavy weapons and some armoured vehicles and tanks that had survived the bombing. During IS attacks, its fighters benefit from the confusion created by both sides using a combination of Russian, US and Chinese weapons. This makes coalition air forces unable to distinguish between friendly and IS forces. The difficulty of precise targeting also increases because of the limited number of joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) – plants for qualified personnel closely working to provide offensive air operations with information.

The quality of the fighters who join IS brigades has added to its military balance, in terms of discipline on the battlefield and focus on the goal. Its combatants may be divided into three categories: former members of regular armed forces (especially from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Georgia) who had served in various structures, including the republican guard, military, intelligence, artillery, armour and police (civil and military); unlawful combatants who fought in previous wars, have abundant combat experience in a variety of geographies (mountains, jungles, deserts, cities, villages and towns); and local fighters who had accumulated long-term experience in combating local regular troops and providing logistical support for building networks over the past decade. Some fighters, especially from the second category, fought many defensive battles to prevent the enemy from controlling villages, towns or cities in several countries. In later wars, they used commando tactics when they had lost land to their enemies. These tactics relied on light infantry units with ten to fifteen fighters clashing with the enemy at close range (fifty to 250 metres), which prevents the use of heavy artillery and shelling from the air.

The near future and the far enemy

In conclusion, attention must be focused on the environment within which IS has developed, remained and expanded. In most countries in the region – with a few exceptions – legitimacy obtained through religious advisory opinions (fatawa) or through extreme nationalism are the crucial means by which to access or remain in political power. In most Arab political environments, elections, constitutions, laws, principles of good governance, and social and economic achievements are merely secondary factors, and sometimes only cosmetic. The regional context proves that the bullet is frequently more effective than the ballot in reaching and staying in power. In this context a large proportion of political, social and cultural elites see force as a way to filter and eradicate political dissent – at least through torture, or, at most, through genocide – and mutual concessions and political compromises to prevent bloodshed are regarded as forms of ‘betrayal’. IS and other jihadi groups have merely increased the dose of violence, multiplied its targets and radicalised religious interpretation, but they did not depart from the prevailing political pattern in the region. These jihadi tendencies organisations are a natural consequence of this pattern of violence and ruthlessness.xx

IS, therefore, does not face considerable difficulty in recruiting minorities that support it because the repressive political environment helps to give credibility to its tactics. This explains the imbalance in the long-term strategy to contain and destroy it, which depends on four major pillars: two military/security pillars, a political/reform pillar and an intellectual/rhetorical pillar. This translates into air strikes to contain it in the short term; local partners who collaborate with coalition forces to weaken and destroy it on the ground in the medium or long terms; attempts to repair the political environment through settlements and/or reconciliation and/or democratisation to create a political and social environment that would prevent the group from reproducing; and the production of ideologies and discourses to counter the ideas and behaviours of the organisation and behaviours arising in the long-term. These pillars are incompatible with each other, with the most conflicting being the second and third pillars. Considering that the regimes have committed massacres against their own people and crimes against humanity, being ‘partners’ in the fight against terrorism (which are some of the second pillar’s concerns) would harm the third pillar of the strategy over the long term. Thus the military defeat of IS – a result that should not be seen as an accomplishment of tactical/field significance given the enormous differences in numbers, equipment and weaponry – may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region. However, the roots of the crisis remain valid (unless the third pillar succeeds). Consequently, those roots will generate another symptom that may be more extreme, violent and rigid.

* Dr Omar Ashour is a lecturer in security and strategic studies at the University of Exeter, and associate fellow in security studies at the Royal Institute of International Studies (Chatham House)

i The paper ignores several important dimensions that the author sees the need to discuss in greater depth. First, at the field or operational level, the importance of individual battles in the countryside of Aleppo (January 2014), the city of Raqqa (January–March 2014 ), Mosul (June 2014), Al-Ramadi (May 2015, and December 2015–January 2016), Sirte (May–August 2015), Sheikh Zuid (July 2015) and the countryside of Deir ez-Zor (January 2016). The paper also avoids analysing the Islamic State group’s security and intelligence capabilities; this has proven most important in military action, especially its ability to penetrate its opponents and map internal opposition parties or the regimes that it is fighting. This paper also avoids delving into the extreme ideological discourses employed in IS’s mobilisation and propaganda, despite the importance of this militarily as well as in special operations that continue and sustain recruitment, thus giving IS the ability to train, substitute and replace fighters; to survive and expand in the battlefield; and to continue as a ‘state’ structure.

ii Schultz, Bryan (2015). ‘The Pentagon Says It Has Killed 20,000 ISIS Fighters—and Just 6 Civilians’, Mother Jones, 23 December. <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/12/united-states-isis-bombing-civilian-deaths/>.

iii Schultz, Bryan (2015).

iv ‘US hitting IS harder than ever, says Obama’, BBC, 14 December. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35097279> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

v Strack, Columb (2015). ‘Islamic State’s Caliphate Shrinks by 14 Percent in 2015’, Jane’s Intelligence review, 21 December. <http://www.janes.com/article/56794/islamic-state-s-caliphate-shrinks-by-14-in-2015>.

vi Strack, Columb (2015).

vii Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). ‘How Insurgencies End’, RAND Publications, <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG965.pdf/> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

viii Mao, T (1937/61). On Guerrilla Warfare. Champaign: University of Illinois.

ix Petraeus, David, Amos, James F and Nagl, John A (2007). The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

x Dreyfuss, B (2013). ‘How the War in Afghanistan Fuelled the Taliban’, The Nation, 23 September. <http://www.thenation.com/article/how-us-war-afghanistan-fueled-taliban-insurgency/>

xi Fearon, James and Laitin, David (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90.

xii Galula, D (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.

xiiiThe conclusions are based on a large number of military and strategic studies, such as: Ashour, O (2009). The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. New York, London: Routledge; Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). How Insurgencies End. Arlington: Rand Publications; Fearon, JD and Laitin, DD (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90; Johnston, PB (2008). ‘The Geography of Insurgent Organization and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone’, Security Studies 17 (1): 107–37. Kalyvas, S (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kalyvas, S and Kocher, Matthew A (2006). ‘Ethnic Cleavages and Irregular War: Iraq and Vietnam’, Politics and Society 35 (2): 183–223.

xiv See the poll details at: <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

xv See <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views>.

xvi Tzu, Sun The Art of War, Pax Librorum, 2009

xvii Hendawi, Hamza. Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Mroue, Bassem (2015). ‘Inside ISIS Battle Strategy, Use of Special Forces’, Associated Press, 8 July. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/873276499f8145eba8680d5b4e1e13f1/secret-success-shock-troops-who-fight-death>.

xviii See testimony from a person who belongs to the organisation: <http://justpaste.it/diwanaljundnotes>. (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

xix Interview with the author, September 2015.

xx  Ashour, Omar (2015). ‘Cooperation to repression: Islamic–military relations in Egypt’, The Brookings Doha Center, March 2015. <http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/10-islamist-military-relations-in-egypt-ashour/collusion-to-crackdown-arabic.pdf>.
Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2016 23:34

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