Transnational Terrorism: The Role of Financial Intelligence Examined

Dale Duchesne

Transnational Terrorism: The Role of Financial Intelligence Examined

Transnational terrorism remains at the forefront of concern on the part of most security agencies throughout the Western World and indeed in many other parts of the world as well, particularly the Middle East, North Africa, Pacific Rim, South and Central Asia.  Though there has been a concentrated effort on the part of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the West to combat the threat of terrorism and there have been a number of documented successes at thwarting impending terrorist incidents, the threat remains. Given the number of contemporaneous terrorist attacks and lives lost in the years following 9/11, it would appear that the threat of terrorism remains a valid concern.  Acts of terrorism obviously threaten the safety of citizens in a targeted community.  Though this is a real fear, it is also important to understand the profound impact terrorist acts can have on political and socio-economic sectors of targeted communities.  There is no doubt that the physical destruction of the Twin Trade Towers on 9/11 in and of itself orchestrated a major economic setback for the United States.  It is also important to recognize that it significantly impacted other global capitalist economies that are intimately tied to the U.S.

Even countries that do not have close relationships with the U.S. were affected by the event.  Terrorist acts have had a significant impact on the financial and economic functioning of communities where such acts have been directed.  “Transnational terrorism is a different breed because it increases uncertainty on a global rather than on a national scale and because it reduces trust between and within trading nations and their populations” (Van Bergeijk, 2006, p.12).  A number of terrorist groups target economies as a priority and in general terrorist acts have a significantly negative impact on economic growth (Barth, Li, McCarthy, Phumiwasana and Yago, 2006). 

In this globalized economy where market interdependence is the norm, there is no doubt that an act of transnational terrorism perpetrated in one country can have a profound effect on another country or demographic region.  This collateral damage characteristic of acts of transnational terrorism is not only a U.S. and/or a Eurocentric issue but relates to the overall globalized market place, as well.  Van Bergeijk (2006) elaborates:

Given the terrorist threat, it is clear that a more or less free flow of people and goods can no

longer be guaranteed to the full extent: perhaps the largest economic victory of terrorist activity so far.

Every time the alarm goes off, the first reaction is to close down an airport, city or whatever. (p.13)

In such circumstances trade relationships are impacted significantly, particularly trade between Western and non-Western nations.  Therefore the U.S. and the West may have more to lose in real or absolute terms.  In relative terms, however, the Middle East, Southern Asia and North Africa inadvertently suffer the most (Van Bergeijk, 2006).

This author views the negative impact of terrorist acts on economies as significant; however, the central thesis of this paper purports that the overall economic dynamic of terrorism in general is an important issue.  This economic dynamic is multi-faceted.  If authorities are to engage in successful intelligence and enforcement interventions, then it is important to focus on the economic impacts of terrorism.  However, it is also important to view the economic aspect of the financing of terrorist organizations as key.  Authorities must fully understand that there are different types of terrorism resulting in a number of organizational structures and varied logistical support related to money, equipment, capacity, etc.  Though ‘home grown’ terror cells are a threat, the idea that the financial support networks normally associated to transnational terrorism will no longer be of significant concern is, to say the least, short-sighted.

This author’s thesis will focus primarily on the continued threat posed by transnational terrorism and those regional jihadist franchises that have shown the intent and capability to conduct transnational attacks and are beneficiaries of transnational funding initiatives.  The discussion of transnational terrorism refers specifically to radical Islamic groups and organizations.  Though this author delineates between transnational and regional terrorist groups, it is important not to limit one’s understanding of the inter-connectedness between the different terrorist organizations.  This discussion is intended to foster an understanding of how such groups operate and are financially funded.  The following outlines the ever-changing nature of the threat matrix posed by terrorist groups, and this author contends that such organizations are never static, but are continually evolving.

Regional terrorist franchises such as al Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Taliban and Lashkar e Taiba are dependent on not only regional funding but also on funds raised in foreign jurisdictions.  In terms of financing, these terrorist entities are transnational in nature.  These so-called regional terrorist entities can markedly de-stabilize emergent economies.  Consequently, regional terrorism can have a profound negative impact on the economic functioning of the various regions of operation in which these entities are located.  It is this author’s contention that the recent upswing in home grown terrorist trends is related by ideological influence to transnational, and more specifically regional, terrorist groups.  For example, even with the demise of Osama Bin Laden it is important to realize that transnational terrorism can influence a number of terrorist groups and actors around the world.  What have historically been referred to as regional terrorist franchises are not only characterized by transnational fundraising but can also be described as internationally dynamic, particularly in the context of ideological influence and subsequent dissemination of propaganda.

The al-Qaeda propaganda magazine Inspire, though published and maintained on the internet by what is considered a regional terrorist franchise, the AQAP, is in fact an important brand building tool of al-Qaeda.  This propaganda tool could be instrumental in influencing home grown terrorist actors.  By radicalizing disenfranchised individuals, or at the very least those who feel disconnected from Western mainstream values, such a tool can in turn foster an ideological commitment to extremist jihadism on the home front in countries of the West.  Though Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan were responsible for maintaining and editing Inspire, their subsequent deaths as a result of a CIA drone attack disrupted the propaganda capability of the magazine for nothing more than a brief moment.  Shortly after the drone attack the publication denied their deaths would stop the magazine or jihad (Kreider, 2012).  The potential for an increase in home grown terrorist actors in the future seems by all indication to be a reality.  It is therefore important to underscore the notion that terrorism is multi-dimensional and should be viewed as relational and inter-connected.

The Financing of Transnational Terrorism

Transnational terrorism is characterized by its ability to move between nations: its ability to reach beyond borders and strike at a target on an international level.  Transnational terrorism can be characterized as possessing ideological support and a fundraising ability that transcends local or regional boundaries.  An interesting and somewhat motivational definition of transnational terrorism is outlined by Schneider (2010) when he states:

A major goal of Al-Qaeda is to weaken Western civilization; to unleash a ‘Global Jihad’.

Al-Qaeda is ‘only’ a brand with an extremely shallow hierarchy. Instead of being an organization

it is rather a ‘virtual business corporation;’ its slogan is that ‘dying is more

important than killing’ and ‘mass murder becomes a sacred act’, meaning that there are no

limits to the choice of means. There is no global strategy, apart from destroying Western civilization.


This definition of transnational terrorism captures an important aspect of the issue.  The idea that transnational terrorism, in particular the brand of terrorism either guided or ideologically influenced by al-Qaeda or its numerous jihadist ideological manifestations, is a virtual business warrants further discussion.  It is this characteristic of transnational terrorism that affords authorities an opportunity to understand the financial networking involved in the commission of terrorist acts.  This understanding of the phenomenon will enhance the capabilities of those tasked with policing it.

Transnational terrorism, in order to flourish, requires financial support.  The ability of transnational terrorists to conduct terrorist operations is obviously facilitated by money and the support networks that procure funding on behalf of these respective terrorist groups.  It is these financial support networks and subsequent monies derived that are used to finance transnational terrorism.  These financial networks must be identified and understood in order to collect meaningful strategic and tactical intelligence.  Doing so will consequently enhance police interdictions and enforcement actions pertaining to terrorism.  The nature of these financial networks is complex and multi-dimensional, which presents a formidable challenge to those tasked with anti-terror policing and/or intelligence collection.  Rudner (2006) summarizes the extent of the financial facilitation process, “Terrorist organizations typically raise funds by soliciting private donations; by diverting revenues from quasi–legitimate businesses, charities, and religious institutions; by setting up so-called front benevolent societies; and through criminal activities” (p.4).

Transnational terrorist groups are involved in revenue generation via a number of means, and given their organizational structure, present some very interesting and unique challenges to authorities.  Soon after 9/11 there was a concerted effort made by authorities, particularly in the U.S., to focus on the financial support networks associated with transnational terrorism.  It was soon discovered that al-Qaeda was a multi-dimensional organization that had evolved into a complex network of planning, recruiting, fundraising and mission execution.  According to Yepes as cited in Schneider (2010):

Al-Qaeda´s controlled companies in Africa included the holding company Wasi al AQuq, a Sudanese

construction firm, Al-Hiraj, an ostrich farm, and shrimp boats in Kenya. In the Middle East, the group has

shares in the Al-Shamal Islamic Bank and large tracks of forest in Turkey; in Asia, it has agricultural

holdings in Tajikistan; in Europe and the United States, holding companies, venture capital firms, banks,

and import-export companies. (p.5)

Schneider (2010) following Yepes further elaborates that:

… foreign currency accounts were set up at Al Shamal for a number of the companies belonging to Bin

Laden. Shamal´s correspondent banking relationships were with a variety of reputable banks such as City

Bank and others, which is why Al-Qaeda was able to move money rapidly and without impediments around

the world. (p.5)

The Role of Financial Intelligence

To say the least, the discovery of al-Qaeda’s financial networking, including connections to legitimate banking institutions located in the U.S., was important.  It was instrumental in the way authorities began to conceptualize financial investigative approaches regarding terrorism as a whole.  The idea that financial intelligence was of pivotal importance in tracking and investigating terrorist entities began to take priority.  The U.S. passed the PATRIOT Act to ensure that both combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) and anti-money laundering (AML) were given adequate focus by U.S. financial institutions; this had extra-territorial impact and non-U.S. banks having correspondent banking accounts or doing business with U.S. banks had to upgrade their AML/CFT processes (Bedi, 2007).  The subsequent focus on AML in the effort to combat the financing of terrorism initially seemed like an appropriate methodology to pursue; however, such an approach is characterized by significant limitations.  If authorities are to be effective at developing an accurate and truly comprehensive conceptualization of terrorist financing, then these limitations must be understood and overcome.

The exposure by authorities of the financial networks associated with al-Qaeda indicated financial fundraising from a number of legitimate sources; as a result it became obvious that the initial emphasis on AML regarding terrorist financing was somewhat overly simplistic.  The idea that standard money laundering behavior could be indicative of terrorist activity, though useful to a degree, is premised on a one-dimensional and dated methodology.  The notion that the detection of money laundering is solely important in identifying and ferreting out terrorist financing is rooted in the belief that terrorist organizations are operating in the same manner as other criminal groups.

Though terrorist groups may in fact derive funding from some criminal activities, there is a strong likelihood that financing is also obtained from legal sources.  The idea that money obtained from criminal activity as this relates to terrorist groups requires laundering, in an effort to legitimize funds in the usual sense, is somewhat misguided.  Financial institutions and financial intelligence units began to understand that terrorist financing also encompasses the use of legitimate or ‘clean’ funds.  It’s only when these funds are utilized in the facilitation of terrorist acts or linked to a terrorist group that the money becomes associated with criminality.

In the case of traditional money laundering activity a predicate offence must exist: an act of criminality must have been committed generating revenue.  This revenue then requires laundering in an effort to obtain the guise of legitimacy.  If the usual placement, layering, and integration of such funds are encountered, authorities will then proceed with an investigation in an effort to detect the predicate offence, link the two, and follow up with the appropriate enforcement action.  This works well when applied to criminal money laundering in the traditional sense.  However, terrorist financing as a predicate offence to money laundering is insufficient and cannot be identified a priori.  If money is of legitimate origin it can only be tied to criminality upon being received by or linked to a listed terrorist entity or utilized in a terrorist act.  This presents difficulties in the detection and countering of terrorist financing.

There is no doubt that terrorist groups are involved in criminality in an effort to finance their activities.  For this reason financial intelligence, which utilizes traditional AML approaches, still has a role to play.  However, legitimate financing of terrorist groups can be related to legal activities conducted by charities, diaspora, and businesses, which can act as financial facilitators involved in raising, moving, and storing money.  Therefore targeted strategies are required. Both the illegal and legal sources of terrorist financing need to be accounted for in the context of financial intelligence investigations if authorities are to adopt a truly comprehensive approach.

Another area within the realm of financial intelligence regards the delineation between fundraising in general and the funding of specific terrorist acts. Raising money in an effort to support terrorist groups is significantly different than terrorist funding regarding specific operations.  The process of raising the money, placing the money in the respective financial structure, and then moving the money to fund a specific operation is indicative of a multi-staged process.  Funds raised from various sources differ greatly from the use of funds that have been made available to terrorist groups (Lormel, 2007).  Lormel (2007) elaborates on this concept by stating that, “as a result, detective and preventive strategies must be modified to specifically focus separately and collectively on the sources and application of funds” (p.6).  This is an important point and cannot be overstated.  Again Lormel (2007) summarizes the salient points when he states that:

Larger amounts of money will be deposited or transferred in the financial

dimension, consistent with the donor or business activity. The second dimension is the operational

dimension which requires the availability and ultimate disposition of funds. In this dimension, terrorists

will use smaller monetary amounts. In either funding stream, terrorists will take the necessary steps to

avoid detection. (p.7)

Financial intelligence units (FIUs) are the recipients of suspicious transaction information from financial institutions.  In the case of Canada, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center (FINTRAC) requires that financial institutions, along with a variety of other reporting entities such as casinos and money service businesses, report suspicious transactions in a number of circumstances.  With regard to financial institutions there are basically three types of transactions that financial institutions must report to FINTRAC: FINTRAC receives suspicious transaction information in the form of suspicious transaction reports or STRs; financial institutions must also report any large cash transfers or LCT’s involving amounts of $10,000 CAD or more received in cash; a financial institution must also report any international electronic funds transfers of $10,000 CAD or more that are sent or received (FINTRAC, 2014).

FIUs such as FINTRAC, upon receiving such information, conduct follow-up analyses and produce more detailed reports or disclosures for further dissemination to interested enforcement entities.  Therefore, the quality at the point of initial financial transaction information upload is critical if FIUs are to produce viable intelligence products for dissemination to law enforcement agencies of jurisdiction.

As financial institutions comply with various federal legislations regarding the reporting of financial anomalies to FIUs, it is imperative that the duality of the financial facilitation process described above is taken into account.  This should inform the policies regarding the detection of suspicious transactions and determine the extent of know your client (KYC) strategies.  KYC strategies significantly factor into the decision-making process particularly when forwarding STRs to FIUs.  Likewise, it is equally important that FIUs adopt approaches that focus on both the financial fundraising dimension and the operational (fund disposition) dimension of terrorism.  How then does suspicious transaction information factor into the financial intelligence process?  What role do KYC strategies play and what action can be taken in an effort to improve the current situation?

Authorities must be able to analyze financial information and as a result of this analytical process, maximize the intelligence potential that is often hidden within the information under review.  True intelligence is information that has been subjected to a detailed analytic process.  Intelligence is the finished product of an intelligence cycle that includes collection accompanied by collation, processing, and thorough analysis.

In the realm of financial intelligence, suspicious transaction indicators may suggest anomalous behavior that warrants further review on the part of those involved in financial intelligence investigations.  However, the conundrum faced by financial intelligence practitioners is related to what constitutes financial anomalies, i.e. what is suspicious transaction behavior, and how do financial institutions, FIUs, and other law enforcement authorities determine what requires following up?  In many instances this is prescribed by law or regulatory act and as such compels financial institutions to report those financial transactions that ‘fall within’ specific parameters, for example the ten thousand dollar minimum reporting threshold.  Unfortunately these parameters are based on traditional AML practices and as such the potential for significant intelligence gaps to exist is a reality.  In the past, potential information that needed to be identified and forwarded to FIUs for more detailed analysis may have gone undetected.

The Increased Role of Financial Institutions

Following the recommendation of Lormel (2007), it is imperative to incorporate a somewhat more comprehensive approach to financial intelligence regarding terrorism in all its manifestations.  One area that remains pivotal regarding such an approach refers to the previously mentioned KYC strategies utilized by the banking and financial industry.  KYC involves knowing a client’s identity and knowing what activity to expect from them.  By simply knowing one’s client, it is easier for bank officers and relationship managers to relate, making it easier to ask, check, and monitor the transaction in the interests of preventing money laundering (Low Kim Cheng, 2011) and the financing of terrorism as well.

Historically, financial institutions have implemented a number of protocols regarding personal and business information relating to clients seeking the services of financial institutions.  Inquiries regarding personal details, nature and level of business, origin of funds, and source of wealth are directed to clients in an effort to elicit profiles of those seeking out financial services.  Shortly after the recommendations made by the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) post 9/11, most European and Western nations, along with a number of other countries throughout the world, have mandated their financial institutions to implement KYC strategies.  Therefore in many countries this information is routinely solicited from clients.  This is done in an effort to obtain as much knowledge about the potential client as possible in an effort to minimize any risks associated with money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

Financial institutions are the conduits by which information enters the financial intelligence cycle.  By reviewing the information solicited by KYC strategies, a financial institution can better assess a client’s profile so that fraud, money laundering, and terrorist financing risk can be understood, rated, and tracked accordingly.  Financial intelligence practitioners are tasked with effectively surfacing and identifying suspicious transactions, and analyzing them.  In an effort to produce a viable financial disclosure (intelligence product) practitioners must take into account a number of considerations.

In an effort to contend with the potential intelligence gaps referred to above, a number of mechanisms at the level of the financial institution have been implemented.  This was necessary in order to identify emerging trends, and should be incorporated into the risk analysis process at the point of initial contact between client and financial institution (Lormel, 2007).  These mechanisms need to identify suspicious activity related to clients that would most likely ‘fall’ outside the traditional AML and CFT parameters regarding financial transactions.  Other methodologies capable of surpassing the usual KYC approach are also recommended.

KYC strategies need to be more robust and provide information which lends itself to a finer, more detailed analytic process.  In many instances employees of financial institutions are responsible for identifying suspicious behavior detected in clients while they are presenting to the bank.  These bank employees are responsible for completing unusual transaction referrals or UTR’s (internal reports) and forwarding these to the internal compliance department of the institution in question (Iafolla, 2012).  These UTR’s may eventually form part of an STR which is referred to the respective FIU.  Bank employees are therefore viewed as the frontline of defense regarding risk mitigation as it relates to money laundering and terrorist financing.

An effective and concise way to surface suspicious transaction activity in the context of the dual nature of terrorist funding requires a more universal application.  Most financial institutions utilize computerized software to augment the employees involved in screening or detecting suspicious transaction behavior.  However, the capability of such software varies significantly, and its application is ad hoc.  In fact a number of countries, particularly with emerging economies, require the use of automated software in an effort to detect suspicious transaction activities related to money laundering and terrorist financing.  Interestingly, however, this is not a legal requirement of many developed countries such as the U.S. (Guide to U.S Anti-Money Laundering Requirements, 2012).  Surveillance monitoring software programs, often referred to as automated account monitoring, is designed to cover multiple types of transactions and most commonly use AML technologies.  These are characterized as either rules based software, profiling software, and predictive or artificial intelligence analysis software (Guide to U.S Anti-Money Laundering Requirements, 2012).

Rules based software detects known patterns of suspicious transaction behaviour for the most part as is defined by regulatory act.  For example, those transactions that fall within defined reportable activities such as the ten thousand dollar minimum reporting threshold would be flagged and recorded.  Profiling software makes predictions based on a client’s financial transaction activity.  It does, however, use various rules to identify potentially suspicious behaviour by comparing one’s historical activity and flagging transactions that deviate from a client’s normal or usual activities.  The information or data analyzed by such software targets and identifies defined patterns and transaction activity that is unusual for that specific client.  Predictive or artificial intelligence software continually updates specific customer profiles based on aggregate account transaction behaviour.  Such programs review and analyze cumulative currency transactions over a specific number of days and then report on all aggregations that exceed the previous behaviour of a specific client.  Once these transaction patterns are identified by such predictive software, a comparative analysis against known terrorist financing behavioural indicators can assess transactions for suspicious activities.  Artificial intelligence or predictive analysis technologies should incorporate specific business rules facilitating the identification of suspicious activity based on terrorist financing patterns; such technologies utilize sophisticated algorithms and are considered more effective than rules based software, thereby enhancing detection in this area (Guide to U.S Anti-Money Laundering Requirements, 2012)

The terrorist financing behavioural indicators referred to above must account for the dualistic nature of the organizational and operational aspects of terrorist financing methodologies.  Also the myriad of other behavioural indicators that are unique to terrorist financing specifically must be accounted for in the analytical technologies associated with artificial intelligence or predictive software programs.  Though some of these indicators have been incorporated especially into the predictive/artificial intelligence software analysis technologies, historically this analysis has largely been predicated on traditional money laundering.

The widespread utilization of predictive and artificial intelligence software designed to analyze data  specific to terrorist financing, is necessary.   Indicators such as the duality of terrorist financing, financial transactions involving charities, and businesses that can act as financial facilitators involved in raising, moving, and storing money must be identified.  The need to calculate the role of monies derived from legitimate sources and subsequently used to illegally finance terrorist groups must be integrated into predictive software technologies.  Those accounts demonstrating suspicious behaviour can be analyzed in the context of whether there are transaction relationships to those countries that are ‘red flagged’ or defined as ‘scheduled’ by the respective financial institution.  As a result, more meaningful information will be forwarded to FIUs.  This will allow FIUs to conduct the appropriate analysis.  Once analyzed by the FIU this information may then be drafted into a viable intelligence product or FIU disclosure.  Such a product, once forwarded to enforcement entities, will result in a more detailed criminal investigation on the part of the authorities of jurisdiction.

Another tool worthy of mention is enhanced due diligence (EDD).  This process involves ensuring that the reliability of information provided by the client is accurate.  This is accomplished by verifying the type and quality of the information sources used.  Properly trained analysts familiar with open source queries and deep web data searches, as well as how to corroborate, interpret, and make decisions regarding information with respect to its accuracy and reliability, are necessary to the stability of the financial industry. Low Kim Cheng (2011) states that:

Knowing the customer is the difference, to detect money laundering, bank officers and relationship

managers really need to know the bank account applicant’s true identity as well as knowing enough about

the type of transactions expected in relation to a particular customer at the outset” (p.134).

Though quite controversial, some individuals within the field of AML and CFT have gone so far as to even suggest that information obtained by financial institutions as a result of KYC strategies should be queried on non-public data bases.  For example, access to police records from enforcement agencies, shared through secure channels, in an effort to confirm identities and surface any known criminality or links to terrorist groups could be implemented (Bedi, 2007).  Such practices will potentially minimize risk at the level of the bank or financial institution.  By verifying the veracity of this information, the accuracy of the financial profile of the client will be enhanced.  Such a risk mitigation strategy will ensure that any information forwarded to authorities will be of the highest quality regarding confirmation of client particulars related to the financial behavior identified.

More robust KYC and EDD strategies are required in an effort to improve the capability of the financial industry at identifying potential risks associated with terrorist activity.  Enhancing the initial screening process at the point of client contact with the financial institution and subsequently improving the ability to surface genuinely suspicious financial transactions is paramount.  This will in turn improve the overall intelligence cycle and enable FIUs to conduct follow-up analysis, and ultimately to produce intelligence that is meaningful and applicable to terrorism in all its manifestations.  These usable intelligence products or disclosures will better inform and equip law enforcement in their efforts to conduct investigative follow-up on terrorist matters.


There are different types of terrorism, and there are different funding processes involved in terrorism.  Each is characterized by unique financial behavior or indicators.  There is an inter-connectedness to regional terrorism and subsequently a potential relationship to individual home grown terrorist actors.  Traditional AML and CFT measures have arguably been inadequate when it comes to identifying suspicious financial activity as it relates to terrorism.  Similarly, enhanced measures can be implemented by financial institutions with regard to KYC strategies and EDD in an effort to maximize the potential of identifying suspicious financial behavior attached to terrorism.  In order to increase vigilance and maximize successful monitoring and detection of terrorist financing, those involved in financial intelligence need to recognize the dynamic nature of terrorism and calculate this into the analytical equation.

About the Author:

Dale Duchesne is a police officer who has served 22 years as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He has performed both uniformed and plainclothes federal enforcement duties, including assignments with the Integrated Border Enforcement Team in partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as assignments with the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team. He has also worked with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force on assignments relating to listed terrorist entities, and he was a member of the Joint Intelligence Group attached to the Integrated Security Unit of the 2010 G8/G20 Summits. Currently he is an investigator with the Integrated Proceeds of Crime Unit and works in money laundering and criminal proceeds investigations. Dale received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Anthropology from Trent University; a Master of Arts in Sociology (Advanced Deviance Theory) from Queen’s University, a Post Graduate Certificate in Addiction Studies (Cognitive Therapy) from Adelphi University and is presently working on his Doctorate in Political Economy. He can be reached at


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