THE BELGIAN SYNDROME: From Rear Base to Front-Line State for European Jihadis

By Patrick BAHZAD

Capture - CopyEarly this morning, Brussels was rocked by a string of explosions which hit both the main airport terminal and the city's subway network, close to the headquarters of the EU. Based on what is known so far about the attacks, it looks like the death toll will be quite high and law enforcement will have their hands full going after the perpetrators of these cowardly attacks. However tragic the events unfolding before our eyes, it should be noted however that there were ominous signs regarding a paradigm shift within the Belgian Jihadi for some time already. Over a year ago, SST published a piece about the very same topic after a raid that was launched by Belgian police against a terrorist cell which had been planning attacks from the Eastern Belgian city of Verviers. It is no coincidence that some of the names mentioned in this piece rose to dubious fame since, in relation to the Paris attacks.

 First published on January 16th 2015

Last night's raids by Belgian police (i.e. the raid of January 2015), and the ensuing shootout in the city of Verviers, bear the hallmarks of a gradual shift in the nature of the Belgian jihadi and radical Islamic scene. While authorities are denying any connections with the Paris attacks, there's enough circumstancial evidence to suggest a more complex picture.

Anyone who has ever been to Brussels could easily be fooled by the apparent tranquillity of the Belgian capital. If you had to ask Rummy, a.k.a. Donald Rumsfeld, he would tell you that this is deep "chocolate making country". But looks can be deceiving and Belgium has actually played a major role over the years in the spread of radical Islam and its most violent proponents, as evidenced by last night's events. Belgian Federal Police stormed a building in the small town of Verviers, 70 miles east of Brussels. Just like the previous week in Paris, the suspects came out all guns blazing, before being cut down by Belgian SWAT after a 10 minutes firefight. Two of the men were killed, a third one seriously wounded.

Wiretaps helped foil the planned attacks

Details are slowly emerging about the nature of the plot that was foiled by thursday's police operation. The two men killed had returned from Syria about a week ago. Wiretaps show they had been in contact with a third man, likely to be the leader of this "cell", whom Belgian police believe to be Abdelhamid Abaaoud.

Just like the two men killed in the assault, Abaaoud is originally from the area of Molenbeek, and had left for Syria to join ISIS. He's no longer fighting there however and is supposedly staying either in Turkey or Greece, from where he was coordinating the plans for the coming attacks. Finally, the man who was wounded and arrested in the Verviers raid, 25 year old Marouane El Bali, is another resident of the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels. His mother and cousin, who had initially also been taken into custody, have now been released.

According to several sources, the group had sent threatening letters to stores selling the "Charlie Hebdo" magazine and was planning for the bombing of Brussels' main court and attacks on police officers or police stations. This last piece of information in particular has raised concerns within Brussels' police to an even higher degree, given that several members of this police department had been under investigation for a number of months, on suspicion of having infiltrated the police on behalf of radical islamic groups.

Brussels … Europe's "secret" jihadi capital

To counter-terrorism analysts and experts, thursday's events don't come as any surprize. Belgium has been a hotbed of radical Islam in Europe for many years, even though it had mostly been spared the kind of bloodshed we recently witnessed in the streets of Paris.

In May 2014 however, Algerian-French Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire on visitors of the Jewish Museum of Brussels, killing four and injuring one. He was arrested a week later in Marseille, in Southern France, and is now awaiting trial. Nemmouche is yet another example of this new brand of jihadi who started out as a gang member, before turning to radicalism while serving time in prison, just like the Paris hostage taker Amedy Coulibaly (see "THE 'HYBRID' TERROR CELL BEHIND THE PARIS ATTACKS – Part 1").

The May 2014 attack in Brussels undoubtedly marked a turning point in Belgium's awareness of radical Islam and its proponents in the country. Up until then, Belgium had mainly served as a rear base for militants from various countries, particularly during the days of the Afghan Jihad and the Algerian civil war. Back then the country was seen as a convenient hideout for radicals who would take advantage of lax surveillance, combined with easy access to a flourishing illegal arms market and proximity to the French border, where some of the Belgian based radicals organised a major terror campaign back in 1995 and planned for another one, in 1998, that was foiled by French intelligence. Already back then, some of the associates of the Paris attackers had close links to the Belgian terrorist nexus.

But just as in France, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more recently the start of the civil war in Syria, marked a quantum leap in the expansion of the Belgian jihadi scene. The country is home to a large Muslim community, with a strong Moroccan or Turkish background. In some areas with large Muslim populations, small political parties or militant groups have also surfaced advocating either for a greater visibility of Islam or the straight out introduction of sharia law.

Writing on the Wall

Belgium is also the European country that has sent the largest number of fighters to Syria (in per capita figures): according to conservative estimates, several hundred Belgian citizens have left to fight in Syria, with a substantial number having already returned. Mehdi Nemmouche, the shooter in last year's attack on the Jewish Museum, had joined ISIS in 2012, before coming back in March 2014, just one month before he went on his killig spree. And while technically, Nemmouche is not Belgian (he's Algerian-French), it should be noted that his place of birth is Roubaix, a French industrial town just south of the border.

This element actually points to the far reaching and longstanding connections that exist between jihadis in both countries. Interestingly, the brother of another notorious French terrorist, Mohamed Merah (involved in attacks against police and members of the French Jewish community that left 6 people dead in 2012) was frequently seen in a Brussels mosque, even though the Merah family was based 600 miles south of the Belgian capital.

Thursday's police raids definitely confirm that's Belgium's status in the landscape of Islamic radicalism in Europe has shifted: the three men who were shot yesterday in Verviers had recently returned from Syria and didn’t hesitate to use automatic weapons to attack the police.

Links to the Paris attacks

While Belgian police have emphatically denied any connection with the ongoing investigation into the Paris attacks, one cannot but wonder about possible links, in particular with Amedy Coulibaly. In fact, there were strong ties between Coulibaly and radicals in Belgium. In 2010 already, Coulibaly had been involved in another foiled terror plot in France (see "THE 'HYBRID' TERROR CELL BEHIND THE PARIS ATTACKS – Part 2") and had tried to buy weapons in Belgium.

The military grade arsenal that was found in connection with the Paris attacks have also been traced back to Belgium. In recent days, the town of Verviers – where last night's raid took place – was mentioned several times as one of the places where Coulibaly had been to get weapons. The small town in Eastern Belgium is known both as a hotbed for Islamic radicalism and a stronghold of organised crime. Kosovo-Albanian gangs control the illegal arms trade here and weapons are allegedly cheaper and easier to come by than in Brussels. But establishing a direct link between the Verviers group and Coulibaly would be far-fetched at this point, based on existing evidence, especially since the three men had stayed in Syria for an undetermined amount of time, while Coulibaly never left France to fight in the Middle-East.

It should be mentioned however that Coulibaly was known as a close friend and associate of a notorious ISIS-terrorist in Syria and had ties to a Tunisian radical who's also member of a group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS. Short of ISIS claiming and proving its responsibility, only time and a thorough investigation will prove whether or not these personal links might help establish a connection with the three Verviers terrorists.

Illegal arms trade

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the police raid in Verviers was by no means the only one to take place last night. In fact, search warrants were executed in various neighbourhoods of Brussels, where Coulibaly supposedly also bought automatic weapons as well as a Serbian made RPG. The suburb of Molenbeek in particular, home to two of the men targeted in thursday's raid in Verviers, has a well established reputation as a trading place for illegal arms.

In February 2013 for example, police arrested a local man after they had searched his home and found two AK-47s, several handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, explosives, chemical manuals, 130 000 US dollars' worth of gold and, even more chilling, a map of the London subway. Likewise, in 2012, a network of illegal arms dealers was dismantled in cooperation with French police. Serbian and Turkish criminals had set up this business and police managed to seize dozens of automatic weapons, several handguns, two RPG rockets and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Incidentally, the arms dealers were working hand in hand with a French gang from Roubaix, the very same town where Mehdi Nemmouche, the killer from the Jewish Museum, had started his career both as a criminal and a terrorist.

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52 Responses to THE BELGIAN SYNDROME: From Rear Base to Front-Line State for European Jihadis

  1. LeaNder says:

    even before I read, Patrick, glad you are around on the issue. As not really a fan of twitter combined with limited time. 😉

  2. LeaNder says:

    Ok; Pat tricked me, with this republication. 😉
    Obviously Patrick’s concern is more on “origins” then “Western aspects”. 😉

  3. Not sure what you mean ? In any case, it’s way too early to indulge in assumptions, or worse, conspiracy theories of all sorts.

  4. I was writing a piece on the whole Abdelslam issue when I got word of the most recent attacks … I’m on it.

  5. LeaNder says:

    Looked up your alternative communication channel.
    origins, at least on admittedly rather superficial sight. Is too early to leave traces anyway. “Origins” one of the origins? The struggle in Syria. …
    Conspiracy. I am rather glad that I “endured”, maybe experienced is the better term, some type of self-exploration in the field. 😉
    I doubt any type of literary assessment would have helped me to understand.

  6. Barish says:

    Meanwhile, a certain statesmen has shown remarkably timed prescience in recent days, prior to news breaking in Bruxelles (Türkçe Brüksel – yes, it’s pronounced that way):
    “Erdoğan Söylemişti: Bu Bombaların Brüksel’de Patlamaması İçin Sebep Yok
    22 Mart 2016 Salı 09:41
    Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan, 4 gün önce yaptığı konuşmada “Brüksel’de veya AB’nin herhangi bir şehrinde bu bombaların patlamaması için hiçbir sebep yok” demişti.”

    “Erdoğan had said: No Reason For These Bombs Not To Explode In Bruxelles
    22 March 2016 Tuesday 09:41
    4 days ago, president Erdoğan had said this while giving a speech, “There is no reason whatever for these bombs not to explode in Bruxelles or any other city in the EU”.”
    Talk about unfortunate timing. Or rather accurate auguring on the part of his excellency, the Padişah?

  7. Tyler says:

    It must be annoying for some people how reality keeps siding with Trump.

  8. SmoothieX12 says:

    It could be merely a coincidence. Erdogan, however repulsive he is, by far is not alone in his predictions for mayhem in Europe. I wrote about upcoming “events” on March 19. I am sure for any more or less informed person anticipation of terrorist acts in Europe is a natural state of mind for 10-15 years at least.

  9. turcopolier says:

    I did not re-publish anything in connection with PB’s Belgium post. pl

  10. Is this why NATO HQ wants to relocate?

  11. PL,
    Thought Leander meant me. I republished this one early on. Too early to draft anything of consistence regarding this morning’s events.

  12. LeaNder says:

    I realized, Pat.
    but yes, for not quite discernible reasons in my own human-animal-universe, I seem to have become vaguely a fan of Patrick.
    why do you keep capitalizing the “A”. Strictly why should I worry about an aka I choose in the conspiracy universe. 😉

  13. Jov says:

    I’m not sure Belgium, among European countries, has the most similar jihadi fighters in Syria (per capita), since Bosnia (the part of the Bosnia-Croat federation), Albania and the Albanians from Kosovo and Metohia, have each a couple of hundred fighters in Syria.
    Also, although it’s off topis, I have to mention that sometimes when Albanian criminals born in Kosovo and Metohia (some of them have old Serbian passports), get caught in criminal activities , some Western news sources like to portrait them as ”Serbian criminals”.

  14. turcopolier says:

    Better? pl

  15. David J. says:

    If countries with aging populations can create a path for refugees and migrants to participate in the economy, everyone benefits. (sarcasm)

  16. LG says:

    No, it should be Leander

  17. LG says:

    Sorry spell check spoilt it. LeaNder

  18. LeaNder says:

    Whatever you like Pat. Really. I wouldn’t have been able to become a “vaguely” fan of Patrick if I hadn’t been a fan or yours “vaguely” earlier. Never mind our disagreements on whatever now or in “times ahead”. Does this work? In the future, anyway. 😉

  19. turcopolier says:

    What disagreements? pl

  20. SmoothieX12 says:

    ” some Western news sources like to portrait them as ”Serbian criminals”. ”
    Same with “Russian” organized crime, which is mostly (not all) non-Russian. As per “similarity” between jihadis–doesn’t make that much of a difference. Some purely ethno-cultural factors may, of course, have some influence but, in the end, it is al-fikr kufr which rules the day in the end.

  21. LeaNder says:

    nothing that is important really, otherwise I wouldn’t have returned after what felt like our most serious “dissent”.
    I am aware though, that my perception during the last decade was shaped by being around here.
    Come to think of it, if I like it or not an aka that initially was shaped ad-hoc at the time, nay profit of adjustment:
    Lea N(no) der
    None? maybe some? more mental ones, that manage to convince? After all they always exist around us. And it would be stupid to not consider influences?
    Leander is fine, though. I am way too lazy to invent a different aka.

  22. LeaNder says:

    ‘may’ profit of=by. I would select on second look.
    bad proofreading while trying to keep matters short.
    take care anyway. 😉

  23. Liza says:

    Fort Russ is reporting that Russian intelligence warned Belgian authorities about this attack. According to the report, two brothers and an accomplice carried out the attacks after arriving in Belgium from Belarus in February. The three terrorists are reported to have trained for the attacks in Syria. It will be interesting to see if this report holds up.

  24. Haralambos says:

    This caught my attention shortly after the attacks in France last November:
    I felt at the time that this would not be the end of these, especially as I watched the influx of migrants/refugees from my perch in Greece as a long-time (American) denizen. I wish I had something insightful to add to the discussion at this point aside beyond my opinion that attitudes will harden in Europe against more accepting more immigration and refugees and against the entire concept of the currently-constituted European Union.

  25. SmoothieX12 says:

    I doubt it very much. The source of this info is famous Russian tabloid TV Channel Life News.

  26. The Beaver says:

    This was decided back in 1999 (four years after the EU started to build their own campuses) with the aim and hope of expanding NATO. Now with 28 countries it does make sense

  27. Amir says:

    Some additions to Mr. PB’s post:
    One of the main reasons for the infiltration of Jihadism in Belgium: the Grand Mosque of Brussels was/is financed by Saudi Arabia, who appoints the Imam (!?) and this set-up had been created with full encouragement from the former Belgian King Boudewijn. In 1969 he held a meeting with the then King of Saudi Arabia, Faisal and gave the latter the key of the World Expo building in exchange for preferential oil deals ( ). Ever since, the Saudi Ambassadeur in Belgium is the President of Board of Directors of the Grand Mosque of Brussels. ( )
    “Brussels … Europe’s “secret” jihadi capital”:
    Belgium: also rear base for the Yugoslavia civil war and the war on Serbia. At the time, I could not believe the Serbian statement that Salafists were fighting them in Bosnia and thought that it was baseless communist propaganda.
    “Writing on the Wall”:
    “Since 1967, the Saudi Imams and diplomats (!?) spread Wahhabism in Brussels, Belgium and Europe…” declared the Belgian Socialist Parliamentarian Yamila Idriss (SP.A), in Nov 2015. ( )
    Since the attacks in Paris, the Belgian policy and the appointment privileges of the imams were not adjusted by the Belgian government and the Saudi’s kept the prerogative to arrange for the leadership of the Muslim Executive in Belgium ( )
    “Links to the Paris attacks”:
    By shutting down the Central-European route of immigration from Erdogan’s Turkey, the Kosovo-Albanian mob has become instrumental in setting up or expanding the existing Adriatic route. Obviously, the same route that the immigrants use, is going to be used by Jihadis. Their advantage is going to be that they will have a shorter commute to Italy and then rest of Europe as opposed to crossing multiple borders through out Central Europe and Balkans.
    For additional reading, please check the following link:
    Paris attacks: How the influence of Saudi Arabia sowed the seeds of radicalism in Belgium:

  28. Amir says:

    2 years ago, on this very blog and other places, I mentioned that within an hour to a day walk from NATO headquarter and EU Parliament, Jihadis mosques are recruiting for Syrian civil war and that some day, these gentlemen will come back to return the favor. I specifically mentioned that those that play with scorpions, should not be surprised and complain when they are stung, despite that is sounds insensitive. it sounds.

  29. Amir says:

    Asad mentioned this 2-3 years ago. The difference is that Erdogan was supporting the organization that synthesizes bombers (thus is directly or indirectly responsible for the victims) while the former is combating them.

  30. Haralambos says:

    Thanks for adding to my link. I would highlight, however, the western Balkan route through the eastern Aegean islands and into the soft underbelly of the EU via Greece is the most attractive route since it is the closest, and, despite the Greek efforts, they are not equipped to deal with this. It has been obvious for over a year. The Greek responses by individuals on the islands here and in many places are highly moving, since many have their memories from their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of arriving before and after the exchange of populations in the 1920s.

  31. Kooshy says:

    PB, if I may ask, how safe is Paris for (teen)foreign (American) visitors in school tour, I was told by many, that it’s better if they could avoid the metro, and very crowded tourist sites, is that what you would do as well. Thanks in advance.

  32. BostonB says:

    I don’t think it’s accidental that Trump chose a guy to head his campaign who is a former cop (NH state police). Corey Lewandowski grew up in working class Lowell, MA, and went through Catholic schools and on to less-prestigious University of Lowell (now UMass-Lowell). He’s worked hard for everything he’s gotten and you will never see the Trump campaign stoop to the level we see other campaigns do (most notably Cruz).

  33. LeaNder says:

    Both Belgium and France do not allow women to wear the niqab?
    No? These ladies make me feel very, very uncomfortable too, I have to admit.
    Yes, apparently true:
    Was that you, Amir, that once posted several links (partly to De Morgen articles too?) concerning a Turkish women that had been under surveillance 24/7 by police in Brussel but disappeared anyway? Member of some left-wing group? In any case, she wasn’t Islamist but somehow wanted by the Turkish state? My memory is leaky.

  34. Amir says:

    I think you might be talking about a Kurdish member of PKK, who was accused of terrorism by the Turkish government: Fehriyeh Erdal.

  35. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Niqab is an excellent option for ugly women.

  36. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I remember what you wrote about that mosque and who controls it.
    But do not forget; New Zealand has a boat in Persian Gulf helping defend Gulfies from Iran.
    On Monday 03/14/2016, in Christchurch – during his public lecture there – Zarif was asked six or seven times about Iranian missiles. He finally said something to the effect that “if you think by us (Iran) committing suicide your problems are going to go away you are mistaken.”

  37. Tidewater says:

    Tidewater to LeaNder,
    What needs to be explained here is that this confusion is essentially ethno-linguistic. Your nom de Net “LeaNder” sounds to the Virginian ear like that fine old English (and therefore southern American) babyname, “LEEANNE.” Now I assume that your Continental ear would tell you that this ought to be pronounced something like “Lee-ahnnn”, particularly if one were ‘stylish’, as my great-aunt, who was very Richmond, would say. Actually, because the pronunciation is somewhat drawn out by southerners, it comes out sounding like: “Leee-An,” with perhaps inappropriate stress on the front. As in: Dammit, LEEE-AN! How many time I tol’ you to pick the gills out of the possum?”
    The etymology of the name Lee comes from “one who is a dweller by the wood,”(Black Forest?), and the name Anne means “gracious” or really nice. So, see?
    We are also very charming.

  38. Belgium has the highest per capita rate among EU countries, which is the most relevant dimension because of (lack of) border control. Bosnia and Balkans have seen a significant increase in their share of Jihadis all along 2015 in particular, as recent LE operations in Central and Northern Bosnia have shown.
    That being said, this piece is an unedited piece from January 2015, so bear that in mind. If you got anything of substance to say in relation to Belgium Jihadi scene, feel free to do so.

  39. Some people were saying this 20 years ago already.

  40. Kooshy, I don’t know where you got this info from. Paris is very safe overall, much more than any of the large US cities when it comes to violent crime (talking about centre here, not some of the suburbs).
    So, I wouldn’t avoid any of the places and transportations you talking about. you’re more likely to get hit by a mad driver than anything else.
    A piece of reasonable advice though, the touristy places are well known for high density of pickpockets. So just don’t do stupid shit and watch out a little (don’t be paranoid though).

  41. Fred says:

    “…you’re more likely to get hit by a mad driver than anything else.”
    That almost happened to me in my last visit to Paris. Getting run over by a teenager in a Hummer was the last risk I would expect to face. I had no trouble at all on the metro.

  42. Fred says:

    I see the PC crowd successfully purged a piece of work that could be helpful in understanding what the West is facing:

  43. Amir says:

    I agree. It was a pity that lots of them had extreme-right wing personal or family history, at least in Belgium. Their warnings were ignored due to their association with WWII past, in Flanders. And honestly, they are not pretty themselves.

  44. Amir says:

    I agree with Mr. PB.
    Average death toll, due to traffic accidents, is similar to these current terrorist attacks in Belgium. Belgium remains a super safe country.
    Obviously, criminal aspect, the number of wounded and the random as well as INTENTIONAL plan to kill, maim and destroy as many as possible, sets this atrocity apart.
    I would walk in Brussels or Paris any day or night, even now. This State Department warnings are ridiculous. They can start giving warnings about visiting Bronx, Harlem, Queens or inner city DC with more validity and accuracy.
    Why Brussels:
    I have not watched the whole thing but a few lines grabbed my attention:
    “…(the Syrian Government / Assad) were willing to give us to the French government, for example, names of French terrorists in Syria, and the French government declined this list because they didn’t want to collaborate with the Syrian government…”
    “…the problem of chaos, the chaos is there, we have to stop it somewhere….”
    “…BRICMONT, freely summarized: … almost the entire political class in Belgian was absolutely unanimous in favor of the war (in Libya +/- Syria), which means that the far right and the most left wing Greens, voted all for the war and there was no dissent. There’s complete unanimity in the political class, in the media and so on, in favor of this military intervention. I participated in many debates about the Syrian rebellion. … there had been calling, even in France, for intervention in Libya +/- Syria…”
    “… Given this policy, they have got the same people now say you have to welcome the refugees.
    But the people who didn’t want that intervention in the first place will say, why do we have to welcome the refugees? Why is it our fault, why is it our business?…”
    “…And the left has followed the policy which I think is completely suicidal, talk in holistic terms about what the effects are using international treaties…, which were violated in the humanitarian wars to begin with…”
    “… that’s going to make a big rise for the far right… as an alternative …, because people don’t want it.”

  45. Babak Makkinejad says:

    El Paise also as neo-con as you could get.
    They are all mad…

  46. Thomas says:

    “Leander is fine, though. I am way too lazy to invent a different aka.”
    I am the one who intentionally spelled your name that way. It is good you noticed, it shows your meanderings are finding moorings.
    As for a new name, what did you mother and father call you when you entered this world?

  47. Actually i was thinking more of french intelligence which traced the ringleaders of the 1995 bombings back to Belgium. Same goes for thwarted bombings of 1998 Soccer world cup. Or 2001 killers of Massoud in Afghanistan. Or 2004 Madrid train bombers. I could go on …

  48. Fred, glad you got on nicely in metro. Sorry to hear about the Hummer incident. American cars right 😉

  49. kooshy says:

    PB, thank you very much, I had a conversation with a older french shop keeper from Marseille he told me that. But now we got e mail from the school tour operator /guide that they will try to avoid the metro since a lot of parents got concerned.

  50. Amir says:

    My mistake, I thought you were talking about political parties.

  51. Amir says:

    If you are interested in the police structure in Molembeek: “This is the Belgium disease,” he added. “Everyone always says it is not their fault, and they are often right.”

  52. F5 F5 F5 says:

    Patrick Bahzad – In France there is a very shady story about how Coulibaly got his weapons, and maybe also how the Kouachi brothers got some of theirs.
    The man who obtained the guns is a French white supremacist with a very colourful past: Claude Hermant. Former marine para(RPIMa), he was a volunteer foreign fighter in Croatia, then member of the very shady security service of the Front National, and an operative in Angola and the Congo where he got imprisoned. Basically a low-level spook/mercenary. He finally settled in Northern France where he ran a survivalist bootcamp… and a chip shop. In parallel, he was a gunrunner as well as a paid informant for the French border police and the Gendarmerie.
    The guns in question are demilitarized AKs and Tokarevs from Slovakia imported via Luxemburg, which Hermant admits he had sold but denies having re-militarized.
    Also, the man who facilitated the deal for Coulibaly was Amar Ramdani, a French national, jewelry-robber/drug trafficker/gunrunner-turned-djihadi whose girlfriend is none other than Emmanuelle C., divorced mother of 3 who converted to Islam, and who happened to be an intelligence officer at the Gendarmerie… Her involvement in the gun deal is not known, but she was convicted of giving classified information to Ramdani, fired, and got a suspended prison sentence.

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