Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is currently the most successful of the three al-Qa`ida affiliates operating in the Arab world.[1] Unlike its sibling partners, AQAP has neither been plagued by internecine conflicts nor has it clashed with its tribal hosts. It has also launched two major terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland that were only foiled by a combination of luck and the help of foreign intelligence agencies.[2]

AQAP has avoided many of the domestic battles that weakened other al-Qa`ida affiliates by pursuing a shrewd strategy at home in Yemen.[3] The group has sought to focus its efforts on its primary enemies—the Yemeni and Saudi governments, as well as the United States—rather than distracting itself by combating minor domestic adversaries that would only complicate its grand strategy. Some analysts have argued that this stems from the lessons the group learned from al-Qa`ida’s failed campaigns in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq. While true to some extent, AQAP’s policies are more the result of the realities it faces in a constricting Yemeni theater. Factors unique to Yemen but largely absent in other countries where al-Qa`ida operates necessitate adopting a soft touch.

This article details AQAP’s “soft power” strategy at home, highlighting the group’s positions toward the southern socialists as well as the country’s Shi`a, who are known as the Zaydis. As a result of its domestic maneuvering, AQAP is at times less of an international jihadist group than it is just another Yemeni organization battling the regime in Sana`a and playing by ever shifting local rules. Nevertheless, this article contends that AQAP’s “soft” approach at home is merely a tactical strategy since the group views itself as too weak to confront multiple enemies at this time. Indeed, AQAP remains firmly in the ideological camp of Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi and the Taliban.

The Southern Socialists
AQAP’s attitudes toward Yemen’s southern socialists and how they differ from those of other Yemeni Islamists are indicative of this soft touch. Before a 1990 union, Yemen was divided between northern and southern states. By 1994, the southerners, the weaker of the two parties, had soured on the merger and attempted to secede. In the run-up to a civil war, a number of Yemeni Islamists issued fatawa (religious edicts) denouncing the Yemeni Socialist Party that ruled South Yemen and which was leading the secessionist charge. Chief among them was ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, Yemen’s most famous Islamist. He demonized the socialists, calling them “idol worshippers” and compared them to the Prophet Muhammad’s enemies in Mecca.[4] He urged the region’s inhabitants to “persuade Arab rulers that fighting the Yemeni (Socialists) is lawful, against a group of dissenting heretic infidels. Fighting it is a (religious) duty.”[5] His ally, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Daylami, who later became justice minister, made similar comments, declaring, “not killing these Muslims (the Socialists) leads to a greater corruption.”[6]

AQAP, in contrast, takes a much more subdued approach toward the southern socialists. In an interview with a Yemeni journalist, AQAP’s leader, Nasir al-Wahayshi, commented, “we know that many of you crave freedom and reject tyranny, despotism, humility and subjugation. But you have followed an erroneous path.”[7] Whereas al-Zindani preached fire and brimstone against the southern socialists, al-Wahayshi instead adopts a gentle “fatherly” tone toward children who have erred.

AQAP’s mild position does not stem from love of the socialists or their ideals. Instead, it derives from the realities of Yemeni geopolitics. AQAP has adopted this approach to curry favor with southerners, which it needs for both popular support and tribal protection. The disgruntled population in the south is hostile to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Salih and is thus susceptible to calls by groups opposed to it.

Sectarian tensions equally explain AQAP’s position. The group has sought to establish strongholds in the tribal areas of the country that have historically been disaffected by the regime’s policies. Most of these regions are in provinces where a Shi`a sect known as the Zaydis preponderates. The clans there are hostile to groups such as AQAP since it belongs to the puritanical Salafi creed that loathes the Shi`a.[8] Since making inroads with these tribes is a herculean task, AQAP has instead focused its attention on the Sunni tribal regions, which are almost exclusively in the south. This explains why AQAP’s bastions are located in the provinces of Marib, Shabwa and Abyan where the population is overwhelmingly Sunni.

Alienating the locals and their leaders by embracing al-Zindani’s views on the socialists and the ancien régime would hamper the organization’s ability to operate there. As such, AQAP’s soft touch toward the socialists springs from political necessity rather than affection for their cause.

The Zaydis
Although the sectarian divide between AQAP and the Shi`a Zaydis has the potential to degenerate into open conflict, al-Wahayshi and his cadres have until recently attempted to minimize tensions between the two groups. To this end, the organization has emphasized the admirable elements of Zaydism. It has showered praise on the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad, known as ahl al-bayt, from which the leaders of Shi’ism descend.[9] AQAP has highlighted the fact that `Ali, the first Shi`a leader and fourth caliph, is one of the 10 Muslims promised entrance into heaven.[10] It has argued that he was wronged by the usurper and founder of the Umayya dynasty, Mu`awiyya, positions rarely emphasized in the circles AQAP frequents. It has gone so far as to claim that Yemenis “are endeared to the Zaydi school.”[11]

AQAP’s moderate tone toward the Zaydis contrasts with that of other Yemeni Salafists, although the two draw on a common religious heritage. The founder of Yemeni Salafism, Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi`i (c. 1930-2001), struck an uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the Shi`a sect into which he was born.[12] He criticized the competence of their scholars[13] and cast aspersions on their doctrines, saying, “it is incumbent upon a Muslim to disassociate himself from these innovations and deviations (of the Zaydis).”[14] His adherents are not content with rhetorical lashings; they have shattered the tombstones of Zaydi leaders and disrupted religious celebrations and prayers in their mosques.[15]

Al-Wadi`i’s hostility toward Zaydism derives from the discrimination he suffered at the hands of the Zaydi elite. Since his tribe neither belonged to the judicial caste nor descended from the ahl al-bayt, he could not aspire to be a religious leader in the community.[16] This led him to abandon Zaydism and embrace Salafism, only intensifying his conflict with the Zaydi leadership. When he established a Salafist center in the Zaydi stronghold of Sa`da in 1979, he again encountered resistance at the hands of their aristocracy and even received death threats.[17]

Since the Zaydis posed a grave danger to him, al-Wadi`i focused all his efforts on combating them. Yet until recently, AQAP considered the Zaydis an insignificant adversary. The organization deferred sparring with them and instead concentrated on its chief enemies—the Yemeni and Saudi regimes and their superpower patron. Clashing with the Zaydis would divert the organization from its larger goal and embroil it in local conflicts that would win it few friends at home and abroad. As a result, the organization’s soft touch does not derive from its desire to be the region’s “Good Samaritan,” but from realpolitik.

AQAP, however, has sparred with a splinter Zaydi movement known as the Huthis that has been sporadically fighting the regime since 2004. The Huthis’ message has proved controversial in Zaydi circles, and they have alienated leading political and religious leaders of the sect. The intra-sectarian feud has rendered the rebels unable to mobilize the Zaydi population behind their program.

For its part, AQAP has sought to highlight the differences between the Huthis and the doctrines of other Zaydis. It has depicted the rebels as Iranian proxies bent on corrupting traditional Zaydi practices.[18] As a result, AQAP considers the Huthis to be outside the pale of Zaydism.

Although AQAP has long limited its conflict with the Huthis to the verbal arena, it appears the dissidents forced its hand by turning over al-Qa`ida members to the authorities. In late November, for example, a bomb ripped through a funeral procession and pilgrims on their way to religious celebrations in Huthi strongholds. While it is too soon to conclude that AQAP was behind the bombing or even offer a definitive explanation—indeed other factors are undoubtedly involved and suggest a more international motive—it appears that retaliation spurred AQAP to take the offensive.[19]

AQAP’s Two-Level Game Strategy
AQAP’s Shi`a dilemma is that its sympathetic views toward the Zaydis do not win it support in Saudi Arabia where it recruits and fundraises.[20] In Saudi Arabia, the Shi`a are esteemed as “chattel,” and little attempt is made to differentiate between their various sects.[21] The religious scholars denigrate the Shi`a, while the government discriminates against them.[22] State clergy regularly term them infidels, and one senior cleric even said killing them was not a sin.[23] As a result, any suspicion that AQAP harbors affection for the Shi`a and their beliefs would damage the group in the eyes of the kingdom’s puritanical religious population. Such a stance risks drawing the ire of all the kingdom’s subjects in light of the 2009 clashes between the Saudi military and the Huthis, in which at least 133 Saudi soldiers died.[24]

To parry such charges, the organization has issued articles rebuking the mainstream Shi`a known as the Twelvers, thus burnishing its Salafist and jihadist credentials.[25] In doing so, AQAP has adopted a division of labor of the Twelver-Zaydi file, playing what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls “two level games” in addressing local and international constituencies.[26] Sympathetic articles toward the Zaydis are penned by AQAP’s Yemenis so as not to alienate them, while anti-Twelver pieces and recordings are issued by the organization’s Saudis to target their nationals.

An excellent example of this is an article by AQAP’s theological guide Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, who is from Saudi Arabia.[27] In a recent issue of AQAP’s journal, Sada al-Malahim (Echo of Battles), he penned a diatribe against the Shi`a. Although presumably written in Yemen, it makes no sense to Yemenis. The article speaks of the Shi`a in the “Eastern Province”[28], but the Zaydis reside in Yemen’s central plateau and highlands. It further speaks of the Shi`a celebrating the festival of Ashura, but the Zaydis do not [29]. It also refers to market items such as headdresses that are not sold in Yemen.[30]

In fact, these references are all Saudi in nature. Saudi Arabia’s Shi`a reside largely in the oases of al-Hasa and Qatif, located in the Eastern Province, where they account for up to 33% of the population.[31] They also celebrate Ashura. Yet at no point does al-Rubaysh indicate the article is speaking of Saudi Arabia. He assumes his readers will understand the references. This indicates that this is a Saudi authored article for a Saudi audience. It also leads to the conclusion that Shi`a polemics are distributed individually in Saudi jihadist circles rather than as part of Sada al-Malahim where readers can glean AQAP’s complex views on the sect. Other significant AQAP diatribes against the Shi`a were issued by Saudis as well, only validating the view that the organization is seeking to use the kingdom’s citizens to target their compatriots on this delicate topic.[32]

Choosing Pragmatism Over Ideology
AQAP’s views on Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi and the Taliban should dispel any doubt that the organization’s moderate positions toward the southern socialists and the Zaydis stem from conviction rather than necessity. Although the harsh tactics employed by al-Zarqawi led to his downfall and sullied the reputation of jihadism in many Islamic circles, both he and the Taliban are esteemed by AQAP as models to emulate.

Ignorance of the policies of the black sheep of jihadism does not lie at the heart of AQAP’s veneration because a number of the group’s leaders lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban. AQAP’s chief, Nasir al-Wahayshi, resided in the country during the Taliban’s entire five year emirate.[33] He was also the personal secretary of al-Qa`ida leader Usama bin Ladin. Al-Wahayshi remembers his time in Afghanistan as an idyllic period where justice and stability reigned, noting that “the Shari`a courts and judges did not treat anyone in the country of the Taliban unjustly.”[34] For him, the severe penalties they meted out such as beating men whose beards were too short and preventing kite flying were justified.[35] The Taliban are also often cited in Sada al-Malahim as one of the organizations at the forefront of the fight against the enemies of Islam.

AQAP’s high regard for the Taliban  pales in comparison to their veneration of al-Zarqawi. He ranks in their pantheon of heroes, a notch below Bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri.[36] The organization has reproduced his writings and speeches[37], and it has wholeheartedly embraced the Jordanian’s stance on the Shi`a, a position that drew al-Zarqawi criticism from al-Qa`ida’s leadership and the larger Islamic community.[38] It has cited his views on several occasions and urged readers to consult his works on the Shi`a.[39] It has preached al-Zarqawi’s Shi`a gospel to the point where the words it uses to describe the sect come straight out of his canon.[40] AQAP’s relationship with al-Zarqawi was so good that he allegedly ordered the organization to carry out a September 2006 attack on Yemeni oil installations.[41]

Despite the admiration AQAP has professed for jihadism’s black sheep, it has done everything it can to avoid adopting the policies that doomed them. Rather, it has embraced a milder agenda. Whereas the Taliban enforced an uncompromising form of Islam, AQAP has tolerated the un-Islamic practices of the clans that shelter it.[42] Whereas al-Zarqawi turned on his tribal hosts, AQAP has merely engaged in verbal spats with Yemeni tribes.[43]

AQAP has not chosen such strategies out of altruism. Its sympathies lie with the black sheep’s dogma, but the organization understands that these ideas cannot be applied in Yemen at this time. At this stage of the battle, where AQAP is still weak and the arena full of adversaries, it has chosen pragmatism over ideology. It simply cannot fight on all fronts and has instead focused its efforts on combating foes that gain it the most admiration among Yemenis, without entangling the group in superfluous feuds and causing unnecessary hardships. This partially explains why the U.S. homeland is in AQAP’s crosshairs. Attacking the superpower wins it friends everywhere and even admiration from its adversaries. As such, AQAP defies the simple categorization of fighting “far” and “near” enemies.

Nevertheless, AQAP’s calculating strategy and patient foresight is a clear cause for concern since it may mean that the group will not contribute to its own demise as was the case with al-Zarqawi’s al-Qa`ida affiliate in Iraq. AQAP is a formidable adversary, the likes of which the United States has not encountered since al-Qa`ida melted away into the snow-capped mountains of Afghanistan’s Tora Bora. A unique strategy will be required to defeat it.

Barak Barfi writes about Arab and Islamic affairs. He was recently a Visiting Fellow with the Brookings Doha Center. Previously, he was a producer with ABC News affiliates in the Middle East where he reported from countries such as Iraq and Lebanon. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post and Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst.

[1] Its siblings, in this case, refer to al-Qa`ida in Iraq and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb.

[2] These two attacks include the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive device on a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit on December 25, 2009, as well as the attempt to detonate explosives-laden packages on cargo planes bound for the United States in October 2010.

[3] For a discussion of AQAP’s strategy, see Barak Barfi, “How Attacking AQAP Influenced Its Strategy,” NATO Review 5 (2010). For biographies of AQAP’s leadership and other details, see Barak Barfi, “Yemen on the Brink? The Resurgence of al Qaeda in Yemen,” New America Foundation, January 2010.

[4] Such accusations are among the worst a Muslim can hurl at his co-religionists because they paint them as enemies of Islam. These quotes come from a speech recorded on June 10, 1994, available on a cassette entitled “The Duty of the Islamic Nation Towards the Battle.”

[5] Ibid. These are loaded terms with an Islamic significance. For the significance of the term dissenter (baghi), see Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955), pp. 77-79; Alfred Morabia, Le Gihâd dans l’Islam médiéval (Paris: Albin Michel, 1993), p. 300. For the term heretic (mulhid), see Bernard Lewis, “Some Observations on the Significance of Heresy in the History of Islam,” Studia Islamica 1 (1953).

[6] Sawt al-Iman [Sana`a], June 21, 1994.

[7] See the interview with Abd Illah Haydar Sha’a, available at This source will hereafter be cited as “Wahayshi Interview.”

[8] For Salafism, see Bernard Rougier ed., Qu’est-ce que le Salafisme? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008).

[9] Abu’l-Bara’a al-Sana’ani, “The Huthis are Rafidis in the Guise of the Zaydis,” Sada al-Malahim, No. 12, February 2010. For the ahl al-bayt in Islamic thought, see Moshe Sharon, Black Banners From the East (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983), pp. 75-82.

[10] Wahayshi Interview.

[11] Al-Sana’ani.

[12] For a brief English account of al-Wadi`i and his theology, see François Burgat, Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008), pp. 22-27.

[13] Al-Wadi`i warned against using their manuals in matters of hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, noting that “they have no knowledge in the science of hadith.” See his Sa`aqat al-Zilzal liNasf al-Abatil Ahl al-Rafd w’al-I`tizal (The Screech of the Earthquake to Destroy the Falsehoods of the Rafidis and Mu’tazilis).

[14] Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi`i, Maqtal al-Shaykh Jamil al-Rahman al-Afghani (Sana`a: Dar al-Athar, 2005), p. 55. The term innovation (bid`a) has historical Islamic significance and is among the most important concepts for Salafists. For its historical importance, see Lewis, pp. 52-53. For its use by the spiritual forefather of Salafists, Ibn Taymiyya, see Henri Laoust, Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Taki-d-din Ahmad b. Taymiya (Cairo: L’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1939), pp. 228, 264, nt. 5 and 272. For its primary place in Salafist thought, see al-Wadi`i, Sa`aqat al-Zilzal liNasf al-Abatil Ahl al-Rafd w’al-I`tizal.

[15] For the Salafi-Zaydi conflict, see Shelagh Weir, “A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” Middle East Report, July-September 1997; Laurent Bonnefoy, Les Relations Religieuses Transnationales Contemporaines entre le Yémen et l’Arabie Saoudite: un Salafism <<importé>>?, unpublished doctoral thesis, Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, 2007.

[16] For al-Wadi`i’s difficulties with Zaydis in his youth, see Bonnefoy; François Burgat and Muhammad Sbitli, “Les Salafis au Yémen ou…La Modernisation Malgré Tout,” Chroniques Yéménites 10:2 (2002).

[17] Bonnefoy; Bernard Haykel, “The Salafis in Yemen at a Crossroads,” Jemen-Report, 2002.

[18] Al-Sana’ani.

[19] AQAP reportedly took responsibility for the attack. See “Al-Qaida Claims Attack on Yemen Shiites,” Associated Press, November 28, 2010.

[20] For AQAP’s Saudi component and monetary sources, see Barfi, “Yemen on the Brink? The Resurgence of al Qaeda in Yemen,” pp. 3, 4, 6, 8-9.

[21] For historical Wahhabi enmity toward Zaydism, see the comments of Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Latif, the great-great grandson of the Wahhabi founder, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, where he states, “We disassociate ourselves from the doctrines of the Zaydis and other innovators.” See Sulayman bin Sahman al-Najdi ed., al-Hidayya al-Sunniyya w’al-Tuhfa al-Wahhabiyya al-Najdiyya (Cairo: al-Manar, 1923/4), p. 98. For contemporary Wahhabis’ complete ignorance of Zaydi practices, see the fatwa of the kingdom’s former Grand Mufti Shaykh Abdul Aziz bin Baz which he was forced to renounce, entitled “Opinion Concerning Praying Behind One Who Confesses Exaggeration With Respect to the Prophets and the Pious Ones.”

[22] For the Wahhabi-Shi`a polemic, see Isaac Hasson, “Contemporary Polemics Between Neo-Wahhabis and Post-Khomeinist Shiites,” Hudson Institute, September 2009. For the social discrimination the Shi`a face, see “Denied Dignity – Systematic Discrimination and Hostility Toward Saudi Shia Citizens,” Human Rights Watch, September 2009.

[23] Adil al-Kalbani, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, told the BBC Arabic satellite channel in May 2009, “as for their scholars, I declare them to be infidels.” See For the comments of Abdallah bin Jibrin rendering Shi`a blood licit, see Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), p. 206.

[24] Robert Worth, “Saudi Border with Yemen is Still Inviting for Al Qaeda,” New York Times, October 26, 2010.

[25] The Shi`a split with the orthodox Sunnis over the right to rule the Islamic community, or umma. The Shi`a believe in hereditary rule, holding only the ahl al-bayt descended from Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and her husband `Ali can claim leadership over the umma. Over time, they too split over who was the rightful imam, or leader. The mainstream Twelvers believe there were twelve imams. The Ismailis disagreed with them concerning the seventh imam. The Zaydis broke off from the Twelvers after the fourth imam. They are considered the most moderate Shi`a vis-à-vis the Sunnis. For a brief introduction to Shi’ism, see Etan Kohlberg, “The Evolution of the Shi’a,” Jerusalem Quarterly 27 (1983).

[26] Robert Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42:3 (1988).

[27] For al-Rubaysh’s biography, see Barfi, “Yemen on the Brink? The Resurgence of al Qaeda in Yemen,” p. 3.

[28] Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, “The Rafidiyya..and the Stages of Confrontation,” Sada al-Malahim, No. 11, October 2009.

[29] They do, however, celebrate Ghadir Khumm, the festival commemorating `Ali’s investiture. See Franck Mermier, “Recit D’Origine et Rituel D’Allegeance,” Peuples Méditerranéens, 1991.

[30] The passage in question speaks of purchasing an `uqal in a market. The word does not exist in this context in Yemeni Arabic. In pre-modern usage, it connotes a tribal chieftain. See Moshe Piamenta, Dictionary of Post-Classical Yemeni Arabic (Leiden: Brill, 1991), p. 335 where he states it connotes a tribal chieftain. It is used in this manner in the Kitab al-Tabyin, an 18th century text on tribal law. A German scholar translated the word as Sippenführer, head of the clan or tribe. See Christoph Rauch, “Die jemenitischen higras zwischen Stamm und Staat,” in Michael Kemper and Maurus Reinkowski eds., Rechtspluralismus in der Islamischen Welt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), p. 79. It is, however, an item people in Persian Gulf countries find in the market. There it connotes the headband worn by men. See Hamdi Qafisheh, NTC’s Gulf Arabic-English Dictionary (Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill, 1997), p. 438.

[31] Graham Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shi’a (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 180.

[32] Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, “The Rafida and the Arabian Peninsula,” Sada al-Malahim, No. 12, February 2010; Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, “The Sunnis Between the Rafidi Hammer and the Collaborators’ Anvil,” Sada al-Malahim, No. 13, May 2010. Also see a recording by Muhammad al-Rashid entitled “I am a Sincere Advisor to You.” The organization has made passing comments about the Shi`a in several other articles, but nothing as comprehensive as the four items issued by the Saudis.

[33] Wahayshi Interview.

[34] Ibid.

[35] For Taliban justice, see Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 105-116.

[36] See, for example, the praise the organization heaps on him in “Yusuf’s Seminary Peace Be Upon Him,” Sada al-Malahim, No. 1, January 2008.

[37] Sada al-Malahim, No. 8, March 2009; Sada al-Malahim, No. 10, August 2009.

[38] For a partial translation of an al-Zarqawi speech AQAP has twice cited, see Barak Barfi, “The Great Divide,” Jerusalem Report, October 1, 2007.

[39] Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, “The Rafidiyya..and the Stages of Confrontation,” Sada al-Malahim, No. 11, October 2009; Wahayshi Interview.

[40] In his interview with Sha’a, al-Wahayshi noted the Shi`a engaged in “idle talk” (khuza’balat). The word is rarely used in Arabic, but does surface in al-Zarqawi’s speeches.

[41] Wahayshi Interview. Also, for details on the attack, see Hassan Fattah, “Suicide Attacks Foiled at 2 Oil Sites, Yemen Says,” New York Times, September 16, 2006.

[42] For how tribal law differs from Islamic Shari`a in Yemen, Carl Rathjens’ article still remains the best introduction: “Tâgh`t gegen Scher`a,” Jahrbuch des Linden-Museums, 1951, pp. 172-187.

[43] For AQAP’s relationship with its tribal hosts, see Barfi, “Yemen on the Brink? The Resurgence of al Qaeda in Yemen,” p. 8 and the works of Sarah Phillips.

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