The Deadly Mistakes of the US Intelligence Agency (Part 1)

by Oliver Schröm and Dirk Laabs
August 13, 2003

http://www.stern.de/politik/ausland/index.html?id=511557&nv=ma_ct&eid=501259

[translation into English by Gandalf]

Washington, September 11, 2001

At 8.50 am, CIA director George Tenet is sitting at his breakfast table in the St. Regis hotel, only a few blocks away from the White House. He is together with David L. Boren, former senator of Oklahoma, an old friend and supporter.

He was the most important person for Tenet’s career. The CIA director is talking about his favorite topic again: Osama bin Laden. Boren was anxious about his friend: Half the city was slandering, because Tenet has been warning of imminent attacks for months without being able to provide a proof.

“Mr. Director, there is a serious problem”.

Tenet agrees that he was wrong again and again. For instance, he has predicted a terror attack for the national holiday, July 4. Nothing happened on that day, but Osama bin Laden made him sleepless nevertheless. Their talk was abruptly interrupted: Security personnel enters the room. “Mr. Director”, one of them says, “there is a serious problem.”

“What’s the matter?,” Tenet asked. The security officer hesitates. Tenet indicates that he should speak freely even in the presence of Boren. “A tower of the WTC has been attacked.” Another guard offers Tenet a mobile phone. Tenet at once calls the CIA headquarter in Langley and asks for details.

“They steered the plane directly into the building?” he asks incredulously. He orders his closest employees to the conference room and wants to be there himself within 15 minutes. “That looks like Bin Laden” Tenet said to Boren. Without waiting for a reaction Tenet thinks aloud: “I wonder if this has something to do with the guy who trained for a pilot’s license.”

Hamburg, December 1999

Thomas Volz is not very popular among his German colleagues. When the CIA officer again drops by at Johanniswall 4 in Hamburg, the German agents (of the German domestic intelligence agency) roll their eyes. “The little one visits the boss again”, they say to themselves. The CIA agent hopes for support for his investigations in the Islamistic milieu in Hamburg. Volz treats the Hamburg agents condescendingly, therefore the Germans give him only little information.

The businessman Mamoun Darkazanli

The CIA agent has only been in Hamburg for a few months. Officially Volz is accredited with the American Consulate. The white building is situated directly at the outer Alster. Here only few know what Volz is doing in reality. He is an inconspicuous person, little. But when Volz has set a goal, he goes for it fervently. This time Mamoun Darkazanli has to be “turned around.”

Darkazanli was born in Syria. However, the 41-year-old has lived in Hamburg for many years and has become a German citizen in the meantime. Together with his German wife he lives in a yellow-painted apartment building at the Uhlenhorster Weg [address], on the other side of the outer Alster. His private address serves as his business address as well. 1993, he used this address to register the “Mamoun Darkazanli Import-Export Company” with the Chamber of Commerce. The purpose of the company was to trade goods of all kinds, especially machinery and electrical machines. For two years the business rests.

Since 1993 the CIA has been watching the Islamistic milieu in Germany. And since this time “the firm” is watching Darkazanli. The Americans found the Hamburg address of the Syrian with members of the terrorist organization al Qaeda in Africa. In August 1998, after the attacks on the embassies of Nairobi and Daressalam, CIA investigators found a trace. Soon, one of the planners of the attacks, which were the cause for 224 persons killed and more than 4500 hurt, could be arrested. He was a Lebanese with a US passport.

An old acquaintance of bin Laden

The Lebanese was an old acquaintance of bin Laden. In the US, he had, as camouflage, set up an import and export business and traded in used tires. When he was arrested, the authorities found his business cards. On his cards he gave as a business address Darkazanli’s address in Hamburg.

At the same time US agents stumbled upon the Syrian a second time. Because of the attacks on the US embassies the German federal police (BKA) arrested in Grueneck (Bavaria) the supposed financial chief of Bin Laden, on September 16, 1998. CIA and FBI had followed the man around half the globe. When he finally entered Germany, the BKA was asked to help. The officials arrested the man and extradited him to the US.

The state police has to set him free

From the financial chief of Bin Laden there was a direct lead to Darkazanli. Until 1997, the Syrian had a bank account on his behalf with Deutsche Bank in Hamburg. Was it possible that via this account al Qaeda money was laundered or even terrorist attacks had been financed? Darkazanli played the innocent. He admitted to the Hamburg state police (LKA) that he knew the arrested man, but explained that he knew nothing of his terrorist background.

The only purpose of this account was to enable the purchase of a transmitter for Sudan. But the deal was never closed. The LKA had nothing against Darkazanli and had to set him free. The CIA, however, saw in him an important junction in the network of the terrorists around Osama bin Laden.

Langley, Virginia, mid December, 1999

Since the attacks on the US embassies the CIA was under pressure to present a success. The attacks one and a half year earlier had caught the agency on the wrong foot. But Osama bin Laden had warned the US: “I prophesize a black day for America.” He had announced this shortly before the attacks in an interview with the US channel ABC. But in Langley, in the CIA’s headquarter, nobody had believed the son of a Saudi millionaire.

The most important man in the intelligence community

And now George Tenet has to be afraid for his job. Only at the end of 1997 he was made Director of Central Intelligence and thus the most powerful man in the US intelligence community. The son of Greek immigrants had an unusual career background for this job. He was not experienced intelligence man, but a typical career official, like many in the Capitol and White House. Grey CIA veterans are skeptical about him.

Of his agents Tenet demands a change of course regarding the fight against terrorism, after the disasters in East Africa: “With our efforts against Bin Laden, we have to enter a new stage. Up to now, our work was noteworthy and in some cases even heroic; up to the day that we have to recognize as the day on which we had to suffer an inevitable blow, the consequences of which might be bigger than we expected,” writes Tenet. “We are now at war, and I will not save personnel and resources.”

The plan: human sources

The boss has a strategy elaborated how to best answer the new kind of terror. He simply calls the strategy paper “the plan.” According to “the plan”, the CIA should use Human Intelligence (HUMINT), so called “human sources”, to a higher degree. “The plan” even suggests to subvert the terror network with its own undercover agents. This would be a costly and timeconsuming matter, because in the CIA at this time there are almost no agents who speak Pashtu or Arab fluently.

By December 1999, not much of “the Plan” has been realized. But in Langley more and more reports are gathered that al Qaeda is now planning attacks inside the US, also. The CIA has every reason to take these warnings seriously. By accident, only some days earlier, the police arrested an al Qaeda operative at the Canadian border with 50 kilos of explosives. The man was traveling to Los Angeles, where he was to conduct a bomb attack on the international airport during the millennium celebrations. Since then, Langley was very alert.

Already on December 11, a CIA agent sent an urgent telegram to the Langley headquarters. He recommends to ask the State Department, the Immigration Bureau and the FBI to put all persons identified as terrorists on a watch list, even if only alias names and first names are known.

They only know a first name

At this time, the CIA is following one man who will later be identified as a member of al Qaeda. They only know his first name, Khalid. He was suspect to the agents because he was a frequent visitor in a conspiratorial apartment of important al Qaeda men. Still they do not know that Khalid has a visa for the US, issued by the US consulate in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on April 7, 1999. It is valid till April 6, 2000. The visa permits him to enter and leave the US as he likes. Only three weeks later they will learn the real identity of the man.

Hamburg, end of December 1999

Thomas Volz sees in an opportunity the CIA’s difficult position a possibility to further his career. If he succeeds in recruiting Darkazanli as an informant for “the firm” this would be a good thing for his career. However, this is not an easy task. Volz has the address and telephone number of Darkazanli, but he knows that he needs help. Using only money it would be impossible to recruit a convinced Islamist for the CIA.

CIA asks the German domestic intelligence service for help (Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz, LfV). Without pressure such a thing is difficult. And Volz has nothing to use against Darkazanli. He cannot threaten to arrest or expel him. Legally, he is not allowed to recruit an informant without consent of the German authorities. The only possibility for the CIA agent is to ask the Hamburg state domestic intelligence service for support.

The Hamburg LfV resides in the center of the city, not far from the central station and the Al-Kuds mosque, where Darkazanli uses to meet friends. The Hamburg LfV is one of the smallest domestic intelligence agencies in Germany. As of 1999 it has 125 employees, including assisting staff. The department for extremist foreign nationals has 10 employees who watch the Islamistic milieu and other radical groups like the Kurdish PKK or the Turkish extremists around Milli Görös.

The department is desperately short of personnel; only one employee speaks Arab. Wiretapping operations make no sense because it would take too long to analyze the records. The agency knows Darkazanli as a fanatic Muslim. When Volz presents his intention to recruit him, the German refuse.

The Germans are irritated

According to their information, neither by money nor by any other means could Darkazanli be motivated to cooperate. The agency thinks it completely impossible that Darkazanli would betray his fellow believers to the CIA, the intelligence agency of the arch enemy.

Volz does not agree with his German colleagues. He is persistent. Again and again he talks to the agency. The Germans from the department for extremist foreign nationals are thus already on edge. When they explain to him that they judge his plan as forlorn, Volz angrily presents to them a basic CIA handbook to recruit informants.

Finally, Volz tries it on his own. When the Hamburg investigators get wind of that, they make it unmistakably clear to him that his solo is espionage for them. Volz recognizes that he can do nothing. If he does not want to provoke a diplomatic scandal, he has to stop the operation. That’s what he does, being very angry.

The suspect lives off social welfare

But Darkazanli is not the only Islamist in Hamburg who is interesting to the CIA. For many years they have been watching another Syrian, whom they regard as one of the most important contact persons and recruiters of al Qaeda in Germany: Mohammed Haydar Zammar. He was born in 1961 in the Syrian city Aleppo, but grew up in Hamburg and is a German citizen since 1982. He has 6 children and lives off social welfare.

In the organization of Osama bin Laden he is one of the oldest members. Already in 1991 he fought in Afghanistan on the side of the Mujaheddin, 1995 he is in Bosnia. Since mid nineties, he is commuting between Hamburg and Afghanistan. He maintains a close contact to one of the chiefs of operation of al Qaeda and recruits new members who learn the basics of terror in Afghan camps. However, the CIA thinks it not necessary to explain to the German intelligence agencies the importance of the Syrian for the network of al Qaeda.

The German federal domestic intelligence agency finally gets a hint from Turkish colleagues that Zammar is running a dubious travel agency in Hamburg. According to this information Zammar organizes flights for radical Muslims via Istanbul or Ankara to Afghanistan. The German authorities thought at first that Zammar was head of a head of a gang that organizes the transport of refugees.

A religious fanatic

But when they have a closer look at Zammar and his environment, they detect that he is not an ordinary criminal – but a religious fanatic, who agitates especially in the Al Kuds mosque near the Hamburg central station. There the bearded man openly shows his admiration for Osama bin Laden, whom he – according to his own explanation – has met personally in Afghanistan.

Proudly he tells visitors – most of them young – how he has learned to handle weapons and explosives in the camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He calls upon his listeners to follow their religious duties; they should join the holy war and fight the infidels. He himself already had done that – in Bosnia and Afghanistan on the side of the Mujaheddin.

But with these claims he cannot impress the German intelligence agencies. Boasters like Zammar can be met often in the relevant mosques. However, in 1998, the domestic intelligence agency gets a hint from Italy which induces the agency to have a closer look at Zammar. In Turin, Islamistic extremists have been arrested, who, according to the Italian authorities, were close to mount attacks against US facilities in Europe.

In the flat of the men a huge reservoir of weapons and ammunition had been found, also wigs, false beards and a list of addresses. On this list was the Hamburg address and the mobile phone number of Haydar Zammar, together with a notice “Fratello Mohammed” and the addendum “Abu al-Hassan”, the father of Hassan.

“Operation Tenderness”

The German investigators quickly found out that Zammar had a son named Hassan. The federal domestic intelligence agency (BfV) in Cologne has to rethink its opinion. Apparently , Zammar at least had contacts to possible terrorists. An extensive surveillance starts.

The operation was named “Operation Tenderness”. This is kind of ironic, after all, Zammar has almost 2m in height and a weight of 140 kilos. The operation comprises the whole set of intelligence gathering techniques. Zammar is watched, agents interview his environment, and always when “brother Haydar”, how he is called in the milieu, uses the telephone or gets a telephone call, the conversation is automatically recorded.

On January 31, 1999, Zammar gets a call from a Marwan. The caller wants to know how he and his brothers are doing; Zammar talks about his being jobless and that he has the possibility to go on a training course, financed by the state. Marwan reports from his studies in Bonn; Zammar asks him to come to Hamburg soon. The caller promises to come not later than May, when he will have finished his exams. The conversation seems to be boring, yet, the agency investigates the telephone number of the caller. Result: The call came from a mobile phone, registered in the United Arab Emirates.

Meager information for the CIA

The German investigators think the caller so important that they inform the CIA. The CIA can prove connections not only to Zammar, but also to Darkazanli. At least, since spring 1999, in the databases of the CIA, there is an entry “Marwan”, student in Germany and citizen of the United Arab Emirates, important contact person of Zammar and Darkazanli. His full name is Marwan al-Shehhi. Two and a half years later he would pilot the Boeing that crashes into the WTC south tower.

In the meantime, the German intelligence agencies continue “Operation Tenderness.” They notice that Zammar calls the telephone number 76 75 18 30 in Hamburg, the extension of a apartment-sharing community of Arab students, Marienstraße 54, Hamburg-Harburg. The extension was registered by Said Bahaji, a German-Moroccan and student of electrical engineering.

Also registered in the flat are the Egypt Mohammed Atta, student of urban planning, and Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemenite, a sporadic student. The Moroccan Mounir el-Motassadeq, student of electrical engineering, and the Lebanese, Ziad Jarrah, who studies airplane construction, are often visitors in the flat.

The investigators notice that at least Bahaji and el-Motassadeq regularly met Zammar. The officials set up a “border control”: Their name, residence, and passport number, are put into the police information system INPOL. So it can be checked where they are and where they travel while they know nothing about being watched. And INPOL is operating faultlessly.

From Fuhlsbüttel to Afghanistan

For instance, when el-Motassadeq travels from the airport Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel to Istanbul (flight TK 1662), the intelligence agency is notified immediately. Naturally, the officials know that Istanbul is not his real destination but only the usual stopover on his way to Afghanistan, to the camps of Osama bin Laden.

On September 21, 1999, early in the morning, Zammar calls the flat Marienstraße 54, at 8.33 am. The agents are surprised that not one of the students takes the call but Marwan al-Shehhi, whom they have noticed 9 months ago as the contact person of Zammar. The Arab seems to have realized his plan to move to Hamburg. Together with Atta and Jarrah he is planning to travel to Afghanistan in the near future.

Obviously Zammar knows about his friend’s intention to travel. At least, he asks for Marwan al-Shehhi’s blessing. “Don’t forget us in your prayers”, said al-Shehhi. “You also, and send my love to the other brothers,” Zammar replied. “One moment, Said [Bahaji] wants to talk to you.” "Salam aleikum, brother," Bahaji says. “It is good to hear your voice.” “Where are you, man?,” Zammar asks him. “I have not seen you for a long time. I was in Hamburg and visited the brothers, I even spent the night there. But I did not see you.”

One of them still wants to marry

Bahaji has his reasons not to live any longer in the flat share in the Marienstraße. He wants to marry soon, and before the others set off to Afghanistan. Zammar seems to understand. He wants to know if Bahaji wants to marry according to German law. “My best wishes to Mohammed Amir [Atta] and the other brothers.”

The marriage takes place on October 9, 1999, in the Al-Kuds mosque in Hamburg, Steindamm [address]. The best man is Zammar. Darkazanli, a friend of the bridegroom, has come, as well as acquaintances of the shared apartment. Soon after the party Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah travel to Afganistan for several months. The other part of the student group flies over later. Only Ramzi Binalshibh doesn’t go to Afghanistan. The charismatic head of the Hamburg cell has an important appointment in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur, January 5, 2000

When Khalid al-Mihdhar arrives at the capital of Malaysia, it is very hot. January in the southeast-Asian country is the hottest month of the year, with an average temperature of 31 degrees Celsius. But in the huge arrival area of the international airport it is agreeably cool.

The Saudi doesn’t attract any attention

Al-Midhar passes the passport control without any problems. The 25-year-old Saudi doesn’t attract any attention. Malaysia is a country for immigrants and Kuala Lumpur a melting pot of different nationalities and religions. More than 50 per cent of the inhabitants are Muslim, the rest consists of Hindu, Buddhists and Christians. Even though he is an al Qaeda member since some time, al-Midhar is not concerned to use his real identity. He is sure not to be on any international watch list.

That might be one of the reasons why he has been chosen by the al Qaeda leaders for the coming operation. Besides, al-Midhar has proven courage and determination while fighting the so-called infidels, when he was fighting in Bosnia on the side of the Mujaheddin in the mid nineties.

There is another reason for al-Midhar. Via the relatives of his wife he has close connections to the terror network. His father in law has a conspiratorial apartment in Yemen that is an important junction for al Qaeda in the east African area. And his father in law is not the only one in his wife’s family who swore the “Bayat”, a vow of fidelity to Bin Laden, and who works wholeheartedly for the organization.

A powerful cell in Hamburg

For more than five years Ramzi Binalshibh, one of her cousins, lives in Germany and has created together with his fellows a powerful cell in Hamburg. Al-Midhar’s wife’s family seems to resemble the mafia a little bit. Who belongs to the family, no matter if by marriage or by birth, at least sympathizes with al Qaeda or praises its leader Osama bin Laden.

In the arrival hall of the airport of Kuala Lumpur al-Mihdhar is already expected. A follower of al Qaeda drives him to Bandar Sungai Long, a cloned city 30 driving minutes away from Kuala Lumpur. There al-Mihdhar has an appointment in a conspiratorial apartment with Binalshibh and with Tawfiq bin Attash, one of the highest-ranking chiefs of operation of al Qaeda. In the end of the eighties the Yemenite has fought together with Bin Laden in Afghanistan against the Red Army and lost a leg, that is the reason why he is called “the single-legged.”

The CIA is following him

Al-Midhar doesn’t notice that since he left Saudi Arabia he has been constantly watched by the CIA. Agents of eight bases and offices in the Arabian and Asian area work together in this operation. They hope that the young man might lead them to high-ranking members of al Qaeda. In order to ensure that they could follow the terrorist around the world in the worst case, they had asked half a dozen friendly foreign intelligence agencies to help.

The big interest of the CIA in al-Midhar is the result of the wiretapping of the apartment of Ahmad Muhammad al-Hada, his father in law. That is the reason they know that via his extension 967-1-200578 in Sanaa important operations of meetings of al Qaeda are managed.

In the end of 1998 investigators found this apartment. At this time they searched for the head organizer of the bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania together with the FBI. Immediately after the attacks a first interesting trace was found after in London via fax a letter was received the author of which claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Within hours it was possible to identify the sender. The fax came from an extension in Baku, Azerbaijan. From there a direct trace led to al-Midhar’s father in law in Yemen: Shortly after the attacks he was phoned in Sanaa. This seemed to be suspicious to the CIA, they investigated the owner of the extension and since then surveyed house and telephone. Shortly after the attacks on the US embassies a call from a satellite telephone was directed to this extension. The CIA had already before assigned this satellite telephone to Osama bin Laden. Since then at the latest it was clear to the CIA that this telephone extension was a “hot wire” to the leading group of al Qaeda.

Hustle and bustle

In December 1999 CIA agents registered hustle and bustle in the conspiratorial apartment of al-Midhar’s father in law. Parts of recorded phone calls made it clear that a high-ranking chief of operations of al Qaeda wanted to meet other terrorists of the organization. A “Khalid” and a “Nawaf” should also participate in the meeting. In Langley it was supposed that these two were also important members of al Qaeda who had an appointment with their commander in order to prepare an attack.

At first, however, it was impossible for the agents on site to find out the complete names of the two men. But, soon, they could identify at least “Khalid”, a Saudi, in his mid-20es, with black hair and slight mustache. The man is watched at once: It was al-Mihdhar.

But only when al-Mihdhar traveled to Malaysia the CIA could find out his complete identity. During a passport control at the airport his passport was copied without al-Mihdhar’s knowledge. This was how the CIA got his photo and his personal data. His complete name is Khalid bin Muhammad bin Abdallah al-Mihdhar, born in 1975 in Saudi Arabia. Horrified the agents noticed: The man already possessed a valid US visa. They must accept the possibility that he will use the visa in order to enter the US and prepare or commit a terror attack.

Langley, January 6, 2000

Soon after al-Midhar’s arrival in Kuala Lumpur the local CIA resident sends an email to the headquarters in Langley: “Khalid identified. Arrived in Malaysia”. The information is passed on immediately to the Counter terrorist Center. The CTC has a huge database. It contains every relevant piece of information relating to the topic “terror” from the last two decades.

The living legend of Langley

The special department was founded already in 1986. For almost one year it is has been headed by Cofer Black, a veteran of counter terrorism. Black has the reputation of a living legend in Langley. During his long career as CIA agent he was assigned to Sudan from 1993 to 1995. In this time he had an important role in the arrest of Carlos, the Jackal. The man from Venezuela was then the most-wanted terrorist in the world. For more than 20 years the paid killer had been able to escape his hunters while he worked for several dictators and despots – until Black found him in Khartoum.

At this time Osama bin Laden was in Khartoum also. He gathered former Mujaheddin from Afghanistan around him. The activities of the Saudi multimillionaire aroused the interest of Cofer Black who had to leave Sudan shortly afterwards. Supposedly Osama bin Laden had given the order to murder the CIA agent. Black at least likes to tell the story that “the guys of this Osama bin Laden just wanted to kill me.”

Generally Black likes dramatic stories. “We are at war”, he declares, following his boss’ memorandum, and adds: “We from the CTC know that. Therefore we give everything we have. We, the CIA, are the spearhead of the US to fight the terror threat. We are ready to do this brutal job.”

Facts hinting at attacks

In the public Black openly underscores the dangers of terrorism. During a committee meeting of the House of Representatives he indicated to the shock of many representatives that Osama bin Laden was already preparing attacks in the US. Cofer Black orders that he will be informed continually of the operation in Malaysia. Tenet, the CIA director, is informed as well.

The operation is a matter for the executives. Black and Tenet know that among the terrorists in Kuala Lumpur are those with a valid US visa which they can use to freely enter the US, if they are not put on a watch list at once and State Department, Immigration authorities, FBI and Customs are informed.

But the FBI gets only incomplete information about the operation in Malaysia. “The operation is still going on”, writes the CIA liaison officer in an email to his contact person of the FBI. “Until now, many suspicious activities were watched. But no evidence was found that indicated a coming attack or criminal acts” he writes and promises: “If relevant information is available, the CIA will report”. The CIA does not disclose the fact that among the terrorists in Malaysia someone has a valid US visa.

Kuala Lumpur, January 7, 2000

Sometimes al-Midhar and his accomplices leave the apartment in Bandar Sungai Long and are driven by a Malaysian representative of al Qaeda to Kuala Lumpur to shop. This is a good possibility for the Malaysian security officials who support the CIA in Malaysia to photograph the terrorists. Like normal tourists they stroll through the city and are impressed by the Petronas twin towers, the tallest buildings in the world. Sometimes they visit an internet café where they spend hours at the computers.

Surveillance operation of the CIA

After the terrorists leave Malaysia on January 8, 2000, the Malaysian security service hands the results of the three day surveillance operation over to the CIA. Part of the material are photos that show “the one-legged” together with al-Midhar, and snap shots of Binalshibh. On January 9 the CIA analysts in Langley have every piece of information of the Malaysian operation, including photos and names of participants of the terror summit. One of the participants is the Saudi Nawaf al-Hazmi, a school day friend of al-Midhar, who already fought in Bosnia and had sworn a vow of fidelity to Osama bin Laden in an Afghan training camp.

But by this time the terrorists have disappeared in all directions.

Matter finished

The Malaysian security staff is astonished. They had learned nothing from the CIA about the real background of the operation. But they are faced by the problem of al Qaeda themselves and knew what the matter was. For a long time they've known that the terror organization has a working network in the southeast Asian area and even its own training camps.

The security service offers to the American agents to survey the Malaysian representative after the departure of the foreign terrorists. Perhaps the rented flat in Bandar Sungai Long was used for further conspirative al Qaeda meetings. But the CIA agents refuse. In Langley they have “decided to view the matter as finished.”

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See also: Tenet Knew America Was Under Attack on 9/11 - Why didn't Anyone Else?


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