HJS Report Launch: “The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria”

Date: 13:00-14:00, 17th August 2017

Venue: Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank London, SW1P 4QP

Speaker: Kyle Orton

Event Chair: Ross Cypher-Burley, Director of Communications and Policy, The Henry Jackson Society

Ross Cypher-Burley

Hello everybody good afternoon, my name is Ross Cypher-Burley I am the Communications Director here at The Henry Jackson Society. Welcome to the launch today of our new report The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria by Kyle Orton. Kyle is a Middle East Expert and a Research Fellow in the Henry Jackson Society; he has focused on Syria, Iraq, Iran and for his Masters he studied the healthcare system for refugees in Lebanon. He has written for numerous outlets on aspects of the Middle East including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.

So Kyle’s report today deals with the issues of foreign fighters in Syria, a subject of considerable concern in the UK, mostly because of the rise of the Islamic State. Within the Syria/Iraq theatre there have been other less conspicuous flows of foreign fighters including British citizens. Perhaps the most under-emphasised of the fighters who have gone to fight for the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, a UK designated terrorist organisation. It is operating under the name in this theatre of the YPG, the people’s protection unit and it also happens to be a main partner of the anti-ISIS collation. In this report Kyle assesses the profiles of the volunteers and their historical background and the background of the organisation itself which as I am sure you will agree, has received a lot of media coverage if not media scrutiny. Kyle will also be discussing the policy implications for the UK. There will be an opportunity for a Q&A afterwards with Kyle after the presentation so without further ado I will hand over to Kyle.

Kyle Orton

Thanks Ross. I am going to try and be as brief as I can, there is a bit of background which I need to go into because it is a long story. So I am going to try and cover basically the background of the PKK and more specifically its role in Syria which is where it is long standing, then I will go through some of the profiles and people who have been drawn to its banner in the Syrian war – why they went and who they are and then I will conclude with some suggestions on how we should handle that situation.

So the PKK is essentially what would have been called in the Cold War times a national liberation movement, it was one of these separatist separations which emerged in the 60s and 70s, it was aligned very closely with the Soviet Union but it was always overlaid with Kurdish nationalism and initially outright separatism, later on it increased its demands but it also had a very strong cult of its leader and those are the kind of the three pillars that it had.

In its conception for example the Turkish government was a colonial proxy of the American empire, it was always focussed on an anti-imperial platform of the Marxist Leninist world and it saw Turkey and indeed Israel alien in its position from the outside, it had to be overthrown if the region was to progress. At the time as well when it was born in 1978 they spent most of the time in conversation with other Kurdish groups and with leftist groups, they tried to monopolise the support in Turkey for its ideas so they ended up not fighting the Turkish state so much as fighting other groups.

The 1980 coup in Turkish suddenly cut off this period of this spiralling political chaos in the country but it imposed a regime of terrible oppression onto Turkey and especially onto the Kurdish population in Turkey. There is a very famous or infamous prison, military prison number 5 in Diyarbakır, torture was endemic in the worst kind of ways we now associate with governments in Syria. It was a case of the endemic torture and the attempted force to re-Turkify the population in the area meant that Kurds who were no particular political got drawn into the opposition against the government and then were recruited or more easily recruited by the PKK.

The PKK then moved into Syria which was then ruled by Hafez al-Assad who is the father of the current ruler and they trained in terrorist camps in Lebanon which was then occupied by Assad and the Soviet Union helped to train the PKK, the PLO leant a fraction to do it, it was a fraction for a front called the Liberation of Palestine. So this arm’s length relationship with the Soviet Union sort of carried on throughout the entire period.

In 1982 the PKK set up camps in Northern Iraq from which it would launch the war against Turkey in 1984 where it managed to establish relationships with lots of regional governments including Saddam Hussein’s and the clerical government in Iran. Its insurgency really got going in the early 1990s, a particular period 1992-1996 was the most fierce. The PKK at that time was designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and increasingly was by other external states because of the violence which is pursued. Its campaign, at one point Human Rights Watch said it had committed crimes against humanity, it would massacre entire villages of Kurds who set up local militias to guard against the insurgents. It would massacre not just the people who were taking up arms against it but anybody who was in the village, their families and attempt to intimidate them and also to discredit the state so that it could take power.

The Turkish government responded to this and by the end of the 1990s it had military defeated the PKK but the methods it used were so brutal and violent in their own turn, assignations of politicians, journalists and activists and with the displacement of about half a million people that it entrenched the PKK politically even though it manged to military isolate it at the end of the decade. Ocalan was expelled from Syria because the Turks threatened to go to war against them if they didn’t and it was a believable threat. He was then arrested in February 1999 and a ceasefire was imposed in that year. That was at the point that the PKK realised that it had to change its methods or at least change its external appearance because it had been defeated partly because of its own political trouble and in 2001 we moved into a war on terror era and it could not afford to be associated with terrorism even if it was not Jihadism.

It moved to a strategy of rebranding in the various Kurdish areas. Kurdistan as they would call it which meets with the borders of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq and it basically set up front organisations in these 4 places – in Syria they called it the Democratic Union Party in 2003 and the next year they founded the People’s Protection Unit, the YPG and they were all under a structure called the Kurdistan Communities Union, the KCK which is a transnational structure under the PKKs leadership entirely, if we want to get into this in the Q+A I can go through the personalities of that. They are not really affiliates in the sense of we have come to think that Al-Qaeda in Yemen, they aren’t really autonomous in any sense. It is one organisation that simply moves people from front to front and they change uniform and they change label but they are the same people not just the same ideology. So that has been the situation.

Now the PKK has been a threat to Europe or has been recognised as a threat to Europe in terms of its military services because mostly it is organised crime. I won’t go into too much detail here but the main things it does is trade in drugs, illegal weapons and people. That obviously crosses European security desks and the problem for them is it is not very clear whether they are dealing with a criminal matter or a terrorism matter because it is one of the same. There is actually some academic discussion and disagreement around whether the PKK should be regarded as an organised crim organisation or whether it should be regarded as a terrorist organisation.

In 2011 the uprising broke out in Syria in street protests. The PYD and the PKK at that time maintained cordial relationships with the government and still does largely. It decided to stay back away from it and in 2012 the Assad government pulled out of the Kurdish areas in the North of the country and handed them over to the PYD. There were assignations of the pro-Kurdish revolution leaders that left only the PYD to take the political field and the PYD then started to attack the insurgencies as well. That is why to this day it is distrusted intently by the opposition, there is for sure an element of Arab chauvinism of that but it is a political disagreement as well as everything else.

At this stage the PKK essentially moved most of its apparatus into Syria in late 2011 and has set up ever since. Now they had three disconnected inaudible in the rest of the country but that expanded in 2014 because of the Kobani situation where they were perceived by ISIS and the collation decided to come in and stop ISIS from overrunning the town. The collation countries found that they had an ally that would allow them to combat ISIS without getting more broadly involved with the civil war and that is what they were looking for and so this alliance of convenience persisted.

A side effect of that is why we are here today to discuss the Kobani episode especially and the one just before it where the Yazidis were trapped on the mountains by ISIS it mobilised a lot of the world’s press, it mobilised a lot of attention and the YPG where the ones who defeated ISIS in these situations and some people went out to join them, they thought they should go and help in defeating a very evil organisation.

A lot of them at that time were military people and their motivations, some of them were Christians of some kind and some of them actually left as one of them put it, they had joined an organisation that was a load of inaudible which they were not pleased about and so they went to join a Christian militia in Northern Iraq. Some of them had been veterans themselves of the Iraq war or the Afghan war and they decided in a sense to go and try to finish the job or to at least assure the enemy they had spent so much time beating wasn’t allowed to come back.

Overtime though it moved and ended up being more far-left people so it tends to be communists and anarchists who are now the main target of the YPGs recruitment and we don’t know how many people have gone over entirely but the number of about 500 seems a reasonable ball park and some people think it is as high as 800. I don’t think it’s over 1000 but nobody even in the surrounding states is very sure how this has happened. 29 of these people have been killed so far the greatest concentration was last year during the operation to liberate the city of in Northern Syria, about 6 people were killed during that, 6 of the foreign fighters.

So I will just go through some of the stats then we shall move into a Q+A. So the national origins, the single largest plurality comes from the United States they seemed to have contributed about a third of the detectable fighters. Britain is next down then Germany. Germany is unsurprising because it is a very large known PKKs networks at their propaganda stations are sophisticated and widespread in that country. Australia and Canada are next, one of the things which was found here was that English speaking people tend to be overrepresented in the ranks of the YPG. I am not sure why this is I don’t know if it is a function of their propaganda or of our media covering this more but that is one of the things that has happened, other countries are Iran, Portugal, Russia, Slovenia and Sweden where the other states who had fighters that I was able to find.

About 60% of the fighters where under thirty and 80% under forty which is what you might expect but they are very young in general. There was no kind of social or employment pattern to any of it, some people were in the army, some people were in universities or places where there was any even slight concentration but there were various people who were manual workers, bricklaying things like this and then people who were working in finance in the City and they all were attracted by this.

They were overwhelming male, there were only 3 of the 60 people I profiled who were female so the YPG puts a heavy stress on feminist themes in a lot of its messaging and propaganda but it doesn’t seem to be drawing in female recruits from abroad very much. A lot of these people didn’t have Kurdish backgrounds it wasn’t a mobilisation of the Diasporas in Europe largely it was people who had gone out for ideological reasons and they didn’t tend to have a background in militancy of any kind, a lot of them were actually a-political before they have gone to join the YPG, at least the initial ones where.

In terms of the actual reasons they went out, as I have said it has changed over time and the military people are a category apart because they are, they have motivations which everybody else doesn’t as they went to fight there in years past. The initial wave of people it was very chaotic, in late 2014, early 2015 and they were people who took their chances in effect some of them wanted footage they could sell to news media, some people just wanted to be famous, some people wanted adventure, some people just wanted to kill people which was a very unfortunate category but there were stories from that time from people who really did just want to mutilate and kill people and it scared some of the others and they are now all been combed out of the ranks at this stage but at that stage they didn’t have a mechanism to keep them out.

Other people have a kind of self-actualisation motive, it’s a kind of redemptive pull, so if they have had petty criminal backgrounds or they’ve had drug taking in their background and they tend to think that this is a cause they can redeem themselves with as well as being something which they should do for historical reasons to defeat the Islamic State. Beyond there are the ideologues who are Marxists or communists or anarchists of some kind and have an overlap with the PKKs own ideology. They come in both the individual form of people who just go because they like the group. There are other organisations that go from Greece, Spain and Italy, some of them are designated terrorist groups some are just groups. They seem to have gone and for now they are based in Syria, they are getting training and this kind of thing which is one of the more worrying movements of this.

I will move to the final part of this which I think there are some concerns which we have to have about what happens when these people come back, if they come back and I would say there is a responsibility for the government not to allow people to either harm themselves or to harm others. If they are going to join the PKK and the PKK is trying to impose its own project in Syria which is not a democratic one despite the messaging it puts out, it is run very harshly authoritarian regime which doesn’t allow any Kurdish descent and I don’t think it is right that we should allow people to help prop up such a system. The security considerations are more internal which as I mentioned there are vast criminal terrorist networks across Europe that the PKK runs and media stations and propaganda outlets. The PKK tends not to attack locally or local targets but they do attack other Kurds who descend from them, Turks and any other official establishments whether it is embassies or buildings of this kind. They were largely responsible for the terrorism in Germany in 2007 before this wave of attacks from Syria because they would commit arson and they would assonate people.

The contribution of people to that is something that I think we can’t foresee. It would make a lot of sense if the foreign enlistment act which is one of those things we have which has not quite been enforced, I suppose the intent of it is to stop people taking part and going abroad for these wars and it would probably require and amendment because of the technicalities in the way the YPG functions. There are also opportunities to remove passports if people are found to be planning to go. You have a passport at the discretion of the home secretary so that could be an option for stopping this.  It is also important to screen people who are coming back both for whether they have committed war crimes when they are abroad and also if they need any assistance from social services and I shall stop it there and take questions.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Thanks Kyle, I am going to be very selfish, I am going to steal the first question to get the ball rolling. That was fascinating you packed a lot in there in a short amount of time so thank you. Why doesn’t the UK directly recognise the link between the YPG and the PKK as you say are effectively the same organisation? So why isn’t the UK government or the US government saying that?

Kyle Orton

It’s a legal thing which is required for the anti-ISIS campaign, the special operations command recently said as much on this that they have asked the PKK to rebrand itself. So the PKK is not just the YPG in Syria it is also part of what is called the Syrian democratic forces which has Arab partners but they are not partners they are dependants and proxies. He was told rebrand and if you are you’re not just the YPG then you are within this collation and it means that we can continue supporting you to defeat ISIS without breaching our own terrorism laws. It’s an understandable position but it doesn’t work very well politically in the region for us because it looks hypocritical so it has secondary problems. You could argue for taking them off the terrorism list and that’s fine but that is a separate question, it is entirely a convenience matter.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Ok, any questions?

Question 1

Thank you very much, the name’s Euan Grant I am a former law enforcement intelligence analyst I’m currently working in Jordan on a project to enhance the countries capabilities regarding border management in general, foreign fighters holistic view in particular. My question is what do you see about the operational, we have had an excellent question about the political side, an operational handling among the western countries to people going out and people going back. Where would you see the perhaps strengths and maybe the weaknesses, I think you perhaps alluded to that at the end when you said social workers.

Kyle Orton

In terms of dealing with the YPG foreign fighters I has been entirely inconsistent over here. So in April last year there was a debate in Parliament and one Parliamentarian who has taken a particular interest in this and he said he had met 24 families and some of them had been questioned when they returned by the police, some hadn’t had any relationships at all, some had been taken in later on and had been debriefed and some had actually been charged with criminal offences which to this point they have all been cleared of accept there is one guy who is going to be on trial in October but other than that, everybody else has been cleared if they have been charged. So it would very much help just to clarify the legal position rather than anything else. So Australia has managed to do this by they established both a political and legal narrative which said we do not want citizens to do this and then enforced it and it has largely stopped people doing it but we didn’t get down to that so that would be a place to start.

Ross Cypher – Burley

Thank you I should just say if you ask a question if you could introduce yourself, your name and organisation you are affiliated with.

Question 2

My name is John Dobson I currently write for the Indian newspaper the Sunday Guardian. Two questions if I may – one is what is the ultimate goal of the PKK in your view and could you say a few words about your methodology for getting all these extraordinary facts that you’re presenting to us?

Kyle Orton

I will take the second one first. It is actually there is an incredible amount of open source because the PKK like most terrorist organisations has a very developed media apparatus so it tells you a great deal about it, especially for the people who have died it gives you the full profile down to their mothers maiden name so that part was easier. You end up speaking to some of them and they will tell you about other people and you can go around that way. Then there are journalists or people who have been in the region who have other contacts so I get a fair read on it that way. In terms of if you mean on the question of the YPG and PKK connection, the fact that they are one of the same it is just one of those things that is not contested in the actual field.

John Dobson

Ye but what is their goal, five years down the line where do they want to be?

Kyle Orton

They remain a Turkey centric organisation so in Syria their main goal is to secure a base of operations from which to continue the insurgency against Turkey. Now their actual end goal they are a little bit fuzzy on because they don’t want outright separatism anymore they kind of always knew it wasn’t really possible and they were prepared to bargain down but once Öcalan was arrested they abandoned it even as a stated goal. I think they would like come kind of autonomous area in the South East but would ultimately like to link all the 4 areas of Kurdistan into one state under there hegemony. Now other Kurds have a great deal of objection to that including the Iraqi Kurds but it is their goal and ideologues won’t really be deterred by reality.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Any other questions? At the back sir.

Question 3

Thank you Kyle my name is John McCann I am a research fellow at ICSR and my question is, for the limited, the numbers are different the ones who go and fight for ISIS and the ones who go and fight for the PKK but to the best of your knowledge, how do you think they use them operationally differently or similarly when it comes to on the battlefield or not, I am curious if you have a sense of that.

Kyle Orton

Yes so like ISIS they use them primarily as propaganda and both to recruit more people from those areas so the thing is if you have people from the mid-western states that you can put on camera to speak to an audience, they can speak in a cadence and acicular that the PKK just wouldn’t normally have so to be able to reach audiences in that way. The other thing is if the YPG fighters really, really wish to fight they will allow them to as they did last year but they tend to try and keep them away from that. Initially they tried to keep them away because they thought it was bad publicity if they died fighting for them but they have since in some cases actually decided that it is better publicity if they have these causalities which they can publicise and make an event of. Some people are split on that.

In terms of their military contribution it is obviously negligible as a matter. In ISIS case it is not quite true or not quite true in Syria because of the sheer scale of numbers in the end, even if they use them just as suicide bombers there is a certain quality that quantity has in the end.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Thank you. Anybody else? In the red top.

Question 4

Toby Frances, I am a HJS member. You mentioned war crimes screening, two things actually, first of all I would like to know what the charges for the chap being prosecuted and how you might think that war crimes screening could be operationally rolled out?

Kyle Orton

The first part he is charged with possession of material likely to assist in a terrorist act. He was found in possession of reading materials which were to do with bomb making. On the point of screening it is intensely difficult we are struggling with it on the other side of the Islamic state because even if you find witnesses to say they did certain things the actual degree of evidence for this is very minimal, and as we have found with a lot of Islamic State returnees they didn’t really mean to go there, it wasn’t their intention, they were made to, so I think we might find this kind of thing on the other side that these people would claim that they hadn’t been in certain areas. That is why I just think it would be easier to stop them going all together.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Thanks, anybody else? At the back.

Question 5

Hi Liam Byrne, Henry Jackson Society member. We’re moving to a period potentially with closer relations between Turkey and Russia if we were to see that could you please give a few words on the relationship between the PKK and Russia in the future? How it may change or how it is changing at the moment?

Kyle Orton

The Russian’s retain good relations with the PKK including in Syria and they’ve used them at times to attack both our assets and the Turks partners among the Syrian opposition. So the Russians have the upper hand in all of this and Turkey has been more and more into the definition of what stability will look like in Syria because they were effectively left to fend for themselves and by the time they intervened in 2016, the Russians had already intervened and changed the entire battlefield. So in order to have their area which was designed to push out away from their border and to prevent the PKK from linking up all its counters along the border they had to make peace with the Russians and in their case it meant allowing the fall of Aleppo city. Since then the Iranian chief of staff was in Turkey yesterday and it looks as if that is the way Turkey is going to move. I don’t know really if we can stop that slide at the moment but yeh it will look like more and more Turkey partnering with the Russians in Syria. As for the rest of it there is a certain dependency on natural resources as well but I don’t think that would overly impress the Turkish government if it really felt its interests were threatened.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Thank you. Any other questions? I have a quick question actually, another one. To what extent do you think the Brits going out there, to what extent do they know the links between the YPG and the PKK?

Kyle Orton

Most of them seem not to know it especially with the earlier people who as I say were a-political they really didn’t, as I say some of they didn’t know the name of the organisation or realise it was a left-wing organisation. Their main motivation was to fight ISIS and to complete the mission that they had engaged in in Iraq and now in Syria. So yeah I think there is a great deal of ignorance on that score. I think some of the more recent ones do know it and some of them have spoken publically and given interviews about it and they do recognise that they are the same organisation. One of them said at one point we do understand that it is just a change of uniform, so there really are people who know but I think it would be very difficult to prove that and I suspect that is what they would hang their defence on.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Interesting. Yep…

Question 6

Sorry just one last one, you mentioned fighters going out for reasons of redemption and finishing the job for the military chaps, are there any portion of fighters going out because they have heard about the slave markets in Raqqa or they just believe that it is the right thing to do?

Kyle Orton

It is weird and the thing is the motivations are never pristine they overlap, really considerably. Even the people who go out for adventure, most of them are not upfront about that they will say, you can detect it often in what they will say, but they will phrase it as having gone to do the right thing. I think there is a great deal of people who did just feel moral energy, especially as the Yazidis were being, the massacre and genocide was actually in progress at the time and in Kobani as well it was a very tense situation when they were surrounded. That did impel people to go and I think a lot of people did have good motives if they are joining an organisation which is troublesome.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Yes sir

Question 7

What do you think is sort of the high watermark that the PYD, YPG etc. can physically, what are they like to attain inaudible in Syria do you think? After Raqqa for instance what could be another place they might want to push if they do want to?

Kyle Orton

I think there are, especially within the coalition countries, a lot of them wish that the PKK would go down the river and clear out Der zor as well, maybe, but the Assad government is pressing in as well and has been able to recruit a lot of tribal allies in doing it so it may have a system that it can impose or re-impose in that area. I think, I wouldn’t say non zero chance, a pretty good chance that there will end it being either some kind of collaborative system between the PYD and the Assad regime in Raqqa or a direct handover even if it’s a progression rather than an immediate secession of power.

Again simply for the tribal reason I am not sure if the PYD is going to be able to tap into to the local structures to govern that area whereas the Assad government evidently can because it ruled for 40 years. In terms of sheer resources I think the Assad regime may just have the upper hand. The PYD is already stretched as it is and they already rely so heavily on the Assad regime for the up keep even with the state that they have in terms of public education and all the rest of it. So yeah I think that could be the way it goes.  I think they could end up keeping the Kurdish areas in some form or fashion but I think a lot of the Arab areas will have to be gradually seeded back or accommodated in some way.

Question 8

James Snell, freelance journalist. Could you explain a little about the PKKs media operation in Britain and how successful we think it has been?

Kyle Orton

Yeah, the media operation they don’t have direct media anymore because we shut down their TV channel in I think it was 2006 so it goes under different names, it is also based in different countries now. They have a very good method of being able to reach out and they have obviously a very strong narrative which is picked up. They also do have the returning foreign fighters there are a couple more salient which you have probably seen around who they are able to use to spread their message as well. They have played their hand very well in that sense.

Question 9

Just another question on strategic leadership so how does the organisation actually grow new leaders? Do they draw them from within so from the operational level through to strategic or do you see strategic influences coming in from side organisations? Just importantly what are your views on the objectives of the organisation potentially changing over time as new leadership moves in at that senior level?

Kyle Orton

This is actually, I mean it is the heart of the struggle in a way because although the YPG is kind of and the PYD as a shell enterprise they have had to recruit locally in order to sustain the areas that they have got under their control and there are localist elements within that would like a system which actually works for Syria as opposed to what the leadership wants which is a base to fight Turkey. There is a struggle and the coalition specially, our coalition against ISIS looking ahead to the aftermath are hopeful that you can have some kind of localist system which severs the links with the PKK because again whatever we feel we have to say in public, we are aware of what the organisation is and that’s the hope that you can cut away the PKK leadership and leave locally focussed forces.

I tend to doubt this will happen because even as the PKK experience really quite serious arbitration at moments over the last couple of years, they did their leadership from within. It tended to be, they even called in more people from abroad from the other fronts so when they took over Tell Abyad in 2015 and they were faced with the idea of either allowing some kind of local council to govern it or they would have to maintain their own people. They brought in an Iranian veteran to run the city and they have done this at every other stage. They have maintained absolute command and control even at the expense of legitimacy locally which has what has necessitated a lot of the hard measures of the opposition because it has meant they just don’t have the legitimacy so they have had to rely on a securitised program. I don’t expect that to change their ideology has been relatively consistent though they have again tried to rebrand that to.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Anybody else?

Question 10

Sorry just a follow on question on that I don’t want to drain on your own resource and analysis here but in terms of analysis of ages, the age difference between the operational and strategic level are you seeing great separation there in ages or is there an opportunity for young, trusting individuals to move into those senior positions?

Kyle Orton

Not the more senior no. They tend to be locally recruited anyway so definitely not. It tends to be, so the very senior leadership the top level of people who are running things are people who were in the original organisation in the 70s and 80s. The next layer down which is often the public face to the people so the YPG commanders that you see are the people from the 90s who often were more educated and urban in their recruitment. A lot of them are Turks but some of them are Syrians because of the long time that the PKK was based in Syria and the Syrian government found it very helpful to have a Kurdish organisation dominating the Kurdish scene that deflected all the rage onto Turkey rather than against the local government.

So there is an age difference in that way of about 10/15 years sometimes but they tend to keep it within those two generations in the organisation.

Ross Cypher-Burley

Anybody else? No ok well thank you all very, very much for coming, thank you to Kyle for a fascinating presentation, thank you.


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