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Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades

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Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades | Al-qaeda-Al-queda | Fatah-Fateh | Fatah Constitution | Hamas | Israeli national anthem | Israel national anthem | Map of Middle East | Map of the Middle East | Middle East Map | Middle East Terrorism | palestine national anthem |Islamic Jihad - Jihad Islami  | palestinian national anthem | Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) | Tanzim


Also see Fatah

Source: International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism

A political tool with an edge

Yael Shahar
ICT Researcher

Last month, the United States Government added the Palestinian militant group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The designation makes it illegal under U.S. law to provide material support to the organization and requires banks to freeze its assets. The move marked the first time the Bush administration has taken active steps against an organization directly linked to Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades first emerged on the scene shortly after the outbreak of what has come to be known as the al-Aqsa conflict, in late September 2000. In a very real sense, the Martyrs Brigades was a response to the need to suit actions to words.

At the close of the Camp David talks, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had been offered a Palestinian state alongside of—but not instead of—Israel, declared that the Oslo Peace Process was at a dead end. At the time, the Fatah militias, consisting of the Fatah Tanzim, Force-17, and the various Palestinian security services, were still viewed, both by Israel and by the Palestinians themselves, as moderate forces. Ideologically, they supported what had been, up until then, the Palestinian leader's stated goal of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Over the past year and a half, these stated goals have undergone a change, and the nature of the Fatah-linked groups has altered accordingly. Since the outbreak of hostilities, Arafat has consistently preached "Jihad" against Israel. However, at first it was mostly the Islamist groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that carried out the mass-casualty attacks inside Israel. The Tanzim, which lacked the resources for carrying out the kind of "professional" bombings typical of Hamas, confined itself to shooting attacks on Israelis on roads in the disputed territories.

All of this began to change towards the end of 2000, when Arafat ordered his security services to release the majority of the imprisoned Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants—many of them convicted terrorists who had been jailed under the terms of the Oslo agreements with Israel. Hamas was invited to join the Palestinian Authority's governing body; and while the invitation was not accepted, a new level of cooperation between Fatah and Hamas began to take shape. The first joint attacks against Israeli civilians were not long in coming.

To date, the Fatah Tanzim and the Martyrs of al-Aqsa have taken responsibility for more than 300 terror attacks in which Israeli civilians were killed. Israeli authorities say that since September 2000 the Fatah-linked groups have carried out more than 1,500 attacks and attempted attacks, including car bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and knife attacks.

Arafat's private militia
Military sources said that among the documents seized in a raid on Arafat's headquarters was an invoice from the al-Aqsa Martyrs asking for reimbursement for, among other things, explosives used in bombings in Israeli cities. The document was addressed to Brig. Gen. Fouad Shoubaki, the Palestinian Authority's chief financial officer for military operations, and contained numerous handwritten notes and calculations, apparently added by Shoubaki's staff. (See Appendix, for translation.)

The document was the first direct proof of what the Israeli intelligence establishment has claimed for some time: the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are not a "rogue militia" as Arafat claims. Rather its members are on the Palestinian Authority's payroll, it activities are financed out of Palestinian Authority coffers, and its attacks are carried out with the knowledge and backing of Yasser Arafat's inner circle.

The invoice was sent by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to Shoubaki's office, located in the Palestinian Authority's headquarters in Ramallah. Dated 16 September, it outlines expenses through September 6 and asks Shoubaki's office for money to build additional bombs, and to finance propaganda posters promoting suicide bombers.

The seven-point financial report lists the projected cost of various attack-related activities, including "electrical components and chemical supplies to produce charges and bombs." The cost of each bomb was listed as $150. "We require on a weekly basis 5-9 explosives charges for squads in various areas," the document read.

Also cited were the costs for printing posters of al-Aqsa members killed in conflict with Israelis, for printed announcements, invitations and mourners' tents, for mounting "martyrs' portraits" on boards, and for funerals. Another item asked for the transfer of $17,930 to cover purchases of AK-47 assault rifles.

Colonel Miri Eisen, a senior intelligence officer who presented the document, said that she did not have information on whether the transfer of funds was carried out. However, she pointed out the in the time since the letter was sent, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade had carried out eight suicide bombings in Israel. In addition, the group has carried out about 300 attacks in which Israeli civilians were killed or wounded, including roadside ambushes, driveby shootings, and car bombings.  "You could probably call this a terror invoice. How much does terrorism cost?" Eisen told reporters.

Nor is the involvement of Fouad Shoubaki in all of this particularly surprising. Shoubaki, a close associate of Arafat for more than 30 years, first rose to public prominence in the wake of the "Karin A Affair," when it emerged that he had paid out some $200,000 for the purchase of a ship to haul weapons from Iran to the Palestinian Autonomous territories. The ship was seized by Israeli commandos on the Red Sea in January, and was found to be carrying some fifty tons of weapons in violation of Arafat's agreements with Israel.

In a bid to deflate international criticism and distance himself from the affair, Yasser Arafat announced that Shoubaki would be fired from his post and tried for his role in arranging the arms deal. However, the arrest and proposed trial were widely considered to be public relations gestures.

Israeli military sources say that the many documents seized in Shoubaki's office showed that he continued with "business as usual" after the Karin A affair. Shoubaki, also known as abu Hazm, is currently trapped with the Fatah leader in his Ramallah headquarters, which was surrounded by Israeli forces last week.

According to the Israeli military establishment, Shoubaki was also responsible for financing the activity of the al-Aksa Brigades in the Bethlehem region, transferring monthly salaries to the organization's activists in the area. In addition, he was involved in purchasing a cache of weapons stolen towards the end of the year 2000 from an IDF base in the area. These weapons were later used to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians in the area of Jerusalem.

Dore Gold, an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Tuesday that Shoubaki had visited Baghdad in August 2001 in order to coordinate positions with the Iraqi government, and that in May 2001 he was present at a meeting in Moscow during which the draft for joint activities between Iran and the PA was agreed upon.

Both Iraq and Iran have become increasingly involved in providing financial and military support to Palestinian groups since Arafat first declared the peace process at a dead end and returned to armed conflict. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein announced last week that he is increasing the sum offered the families of suicide bombings from $10,000 to $25,000, in order to encourage more young men to "choose the path of martyrdom."

The emergence of the Islamic nationalists
Unlike the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad—the groups usually associated with mass-casualty attacks against Israel—the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was at first thought of as a secular, nationalist group, rather than an Islamic one. Thus it came as something of a surprise when the group began carrying out suicide bombings. On hindsight, however, this appears as a natural step. Islamic motifs had been part of the "al-Aqsa" conflict from the beginning—the very name of the conflict was derived from the notion that Israel had plans to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. Religious motifs have been used extensively by Arafat in his diatribes against "Israeli occupation of Muslim holy places." Thus, having made Islam-vs.-Judaism a central tenet of the war, it was natural for Fatah to alter its own character to suit the rhetoric that had launched the conflict and kept it going.

The Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian government—and more importantly, the media and the schools—has generally enjoyed wider popularity than either of the more insular Islamist groups. The movement had lost ground during the earlier stages of the conflict, when the Palestinian leader's rhetoric outstripped Fatah's actions in confronting Israel. The popularity of the Islamic groups was given a boost when it appeared that only Hamas and the PIJ were acting to implement Arafat's calls for "rivers of blood in the streets of Tel-Aviv." However, in the past few months, the al-Aqsa group has almost completely eclipsed the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, both in the number and in the deadliness of its attacks. The current predominance of the Martyrs of al-Aqsa in carrying out terrorist attacks in Israel has done much to restore Fatah's popularity on the Palestinian "street."

The question of Arafat's control
The role of the Martyrs of al-Aqsa Brigades in rebuilding Fatah's popularity has raised questions about Arafat's power to restrain it. Many argue that any attempt by the Palestinian leader to rein in the militants now, when they are the key to his popularity, would only lead to a mutiny against his rule or to his assassination.

At the heart of Arafat's dilemma is the need to continue to mobilize his society for conflict with Israel, despite the fact that he can present his people with no real achievements after eighteen months of the "intifada." The ultimate victims of Palestinian terrorism have been the Palestinians themselves, due in large part to the failure of the Palestinian Authority to develop a self-sufficient economy. The livelihood of most Palestinians has always depended—directly or indirectly—on the earnings of Palestinians working in Israel. Since the outbreak of hostilities, Israel, fearful of terrorist attacks, has virtually closed its borders to Palestinian laborers. At the same time, tourism, a mainstay of both the Palestinian and the Israeli economies, has dropped to a trickle. Thus, Arafat is forced to continue to justify a war that, while saving him the need to address domestic concerns, has brought the Palestinian people nothing but grief.

His true dilemma is that only by continuing with his war can he maintain his popularity among his own people. His propaganda machine has done its work too well; at this point the Palestinians have been fed the story of the supposed Israeli plan to take over the Muslim world to the point where the majority actually seem to believe it. Any attempt by Arafat to put out the fire at this point would only erode his popularity and credibility. He cannot suddenly turn around and say to his own people, "Sorry, but most of what I've been telling you for the last two years was untrue! Now, after more than 1,000 of us have been martyred, we're going to accept the Palestinian state that we were offered in 2000."

Arafat's problem is thus the need to justify an investment that has so far failed to deliver any profit at all. The same dilemma faces Arafat with respect to the activities of his own terrorist apparatus. Taken together, the Fatah groups enjoy the overwhelming support of Arafat's constituency, and he has invested a great deal in keeping them armed and active, even while his civilian infrastructure languishes for lack of funds and attention. Meanwhile, the leaders of the al-Aqsa Martyrs insist that, while they hold Arafat in high esteem, they do not take their orders regarding individual attacks from him.

However, Israeli security officials maintain that Arafat exerts a large measure of control over all the Fatah-affiliated organizations, paying the salaries of their members and supplying them with weapons. And while he may not determine the target and timing of each individual attack, he definitely sets the overall agenda. In fact, this was true to a great extent even with regard to the "opposition" Islamist groups prior to the outbreak of hostilities. These organizations, while not directly controlled by Arafat, were still dependent upon his willingness to leave their military capabilities intact. Had he chosen to disarm and outlaw the Islamic Jihad and the armed wing of Hamas, the Islamists would have been largely marginalized.

Moreover, Arafat remains in control of the media. This means that while Arafat's credibility with his own people may suffer some erosion, his position as a symbol is unassailable. His popularity may be expected to weather the storm, if only because by controlling the media, Arafat controls the standards of popularity. From the outset, it was the official messages, disseminated through the radio, television and the PA-salaried preachers, that most strongly influenced the thinking of the Palestinian street. Terrorist attacks, formerly portrayed as a politically counter-productive tool to be used only as a last resort, are now hailed as the pinnacle of glory in the Palestinian cause. Having sold martyrdom as the highest goal for which every Palestinian child should strive, Arafat has been forced to match his actions (or at least the actions of those who take his orders) to his words.

However, just as the media was used to fuel the hatred of the Palestinian in the street, it could also be used to sell coexistence and the benefits of peace. While it may be argued that, for the younger generation raised on a steady diet of hatred, the damage is irreversible, this probably does not apply to the generation currently most active in the violence.

While the degree to which Arafat controls the Tanzim—and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—is still subject to debate, most analysts are in agreement that his control is much greater than he makes it out to be. And while restoring calm may be a daunting task, it is nevertheless one within reach. However, it now appears unlikely that Yasser Arafat will choose to put out a fire that he has so carefully fed with the bodies of his own people. Rather than being recorded in history as the leader who agreeed to a state on only part of historic Palestine, Arafat is likely to choose to prolong the conflict indefinitely. It will be left to his successors to undo the damage that he has done.

Source: Council on Foreign Relations

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades
Palestinian nationalists

What are the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades?
The brigades are a group of West Bank militias affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's al-Fatah faction and have been one of the driving forces behind the current Palestinian intifada (uprising). While the group initially vowed to target only Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in early 2002 it began a spree of terrorist attacks against civilians in Israeli cities. In March 2002, after a deadly al-Aqsa Brigades suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the State Department added the group to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Are the brigades an Islamist movement?
No. The brigades began in 2000 as an offshoot of Fatah, the secular Palestinian nationalist movement led by Arafat. Fatah is the largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization. (When Israel and the PLO signed a peace deal in 1993, Arafat renounced terrorism and founded a new, Palestinian-led administration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.) The al-Aqsa Brigades commit the same sort of suicide bombings widely associated with such Muslim fundamentalist groups as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but the group's ideology is rooted in Palestinian nationalism, not political Islam. In early 2002, the al-Aqsa Brigades' attacks killed more Israelis than those of Hamas.

What sort of attacks do the brigades launch?
Mostly shootings and suicide bombings, experts say, including attacks by female suicide bombers. Brigade members say they draw inspiration from Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese militia whose attacks drove Israel out of its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000. Similarly, the brigades hope to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by force. The group began by targeting Israeli roadblocks and settlers in the West Bank, but since shifting its tactics in early 2002, the brigades have claimed responsibility for some of the conflict's most significant attacks, including:

  • A pair of January 2003 suicide bombings in downtown Tel Aviv that killed 23 people and injured about 100 more, in one of the bloodiest attacks of the current Palestinian uprising;
  • A November 2002 shooting spree at a kibbutz in northern Israel that killed five Israelis, including two children, and wounded seven more;
  • A March 2002 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed three Israelis, prompting Israel to call off ceasefire talks with Arafat's Palestinian Authority;
  • Another March 2002 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem café that killed 11 Israelis and wounded more than 50;
  • A March 2002 sniper attack on an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank in which the gunman methodically killed 10Israelis, including seven Israeli soldiers, before escaping;
  • A January 2002 suicide attack in Jerusalem by a female terrorist that killed an elderly man and wounded about 40 oother people.

When did the group begin to target civilians inside Israel?
Experts say the shift began in early 2002, when the Palestinian death toll in the current uprising was nearing 1,000 and the popularity of Arafat's secular Fatah faction was waning in comparison to the Islamist militants of Hamas. (Polls say that most Palestinians support suicide bombings.) The al-Aqsa Brigades' attacks became more deadly after January 2002, when the group's West Bank leader, Raed Karmi, was killed in an explosion—widely believed in the region to have been a "targeted killing" by Israeli forces. The al-Aqsa Brigades claim that deaths of women and children in their attacks are accidental.

Does Arafat control the brigades?
Arafat's advisers say he does not; Israeli officials say he does; and different leaders of the group tell different stories about whether they take their orders from Arafat. "Our group is an integral part of Fatah," Maslama Thabet, one of the group's leaders in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, told USA Today in March 2002. "We receive our instructions from Fatah. Our commander is Yasir Arafat himself." But another of the group's leaders, Naser Badawi, told the New York Times days later that while "we respect our leader," the decision "to carry out attacks remains with the Aqsa Brigades leadership." Badawi added that Arafat has never approached the group to ask it to stop its suicide bombings, which Arafat has publicly condemned. Palestinian officials have said that most of the group's members are on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority, often because they serve in both the brigades and in one of Arafat's 14 formal security services. In April 2002, Israel captured Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah and a leading figure in the brigades. In June 2002, President Bush decided to call for Arafat's removal after receiving Israeli intelligence reports showing that Arafat had approved a $20,000 payment to the brigades.

What does the name al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades mean?
The group's name refers to the al-Aqsa Mosque, located atop the contested Jerusalem holy site known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Palestinians killed in the current intifada. Arabs refer to the uprising, which began in September 2000 after a controversial walk atop that holy site by Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, as the al-Aqsa intifada. Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, whose name is Arabic for "the farthest place." The individual militias that make up the group are often named after recently killed Palestinian militants.


Source: Center for Defense Information

Since early 2002, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have carried out more attacks on Israelis than its Islamist counterparts, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As a result, the U.S. State Department designated the organization as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) on March 27, 2002, marking a strategic shift in U.S. policy toward Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

Western security agencies, led by the Israeli and American governments, claim that the group is supported and supervised by Arafat's Fatah-Tanzim, an extremist youth military wing of the Fatah movement, and one of Arafat's numerous security forces in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has long been pointing toward Arafat's alleged involvement in terrorism since he had signed several treaties outlying non-use of terrorism in the mid-1990s. The ongoing allegations by Israeli politicians emphasize the increasing number and magnitude of attacks carried out by the organization, which may be the missing link between tying high officials in the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps Arafat himself, directly to terror attacks.

History and Foundation

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades emerged on the scene soon after the break of the current intifada (uprising) on Sept. 30, 2000. Like the uprising, usually referred to as the al-Aqsa intifada, the organization derives its name from the al-Aqsa mosque, located on top of the disputed holy site in Jerusalem called by Jews the Temple Mount and by Muslims the Holy Sanctuary. A visit by then Likud Party leader and current Israeli Prime-Minister Ariel Sharon to the site sparked the ongoing violence in the area.

The group consists of young, radical Fatah-Tanzim activists. In general, the Tanzim sect has enjoyed an increased support from the Palestinian street. Palestinians see it as a grass-root, popular movement, unlike the Palestinian Authority, which is constructed of officials that were in exile until the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. Many of the Tanzim members are graduates of the 1987 intifada, and are popular among the socio-economically devastated Palestinian people.

Goals and Doctrine

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades strive to drive Israeli forces out of Palestinian territories, i.e. the West Bank and Gaza strip, and establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Its affiliation with Arafat's Fatah movement appears to dictate the Brigades' non-religious nature. However, the Palestinian street, followed by Palestinian officials, has turned to use of Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric since the recent outbreak. Answering Arafat's calls in Arabic for martyrdom and as part of the massive radicalization of the Palestinian side since the latest outbreak, the organization emerged as the secular counterpart of the fundamentalist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad for carrying out terror attacks against Israelis.

Operating Methods

The Brigades operate mainly in the West Bank, the stronghold of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, it has claimed responsibility for attacks inside Israel as well as in Gaza, where Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have traditionally enjoyed undisputed popular support. In addition to shootings, ambushes, and car bombs, the past six months saw the group engaging in an increasing number of suicide bombings inside Israel, literally outnumbering Hamas and the Islamic Jihad's suicide operations. The group was the first to use a female suicide bomber in a Jan. 27, 2002 operation. Some experts tie the group's increasing expertise to its Palestinian Authority-based funding and infrastructure.

According to Israeli authorities, Fatah-linked groups have committed more than 1,500 attacks and attempted attacks since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. The Fatah-Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have claimed responsibility for more than 300 attacks in which Israeli civilians were killed. Among the recent, most severe attacks carried out by the Brigades were:


May 27, 2000 — a suicide bomber detonated himself outside a mall in Petah Tikva; two Israeli civilians were killed, and 37 injured.
April 12, 2002 — a woman suicide bomber detonated herself in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market; six people were killed and 104 wounded.
March 30, 2002 — a suicide bomber detonated himself in a Tel-Aviv café; one was killed and about 30 others injured.
March 29, 2002 — a woman suicide bomber detonated herself inside a supermarket in Jerusalem; two people were killed and 28 injured.
March 21, 2002 — a suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of King George Street in Jerusalem; three people were killed and 86 injured.
March 2, 2002 — a suicide bomber detonated himself near a bar-mitzvah celebration in Beit Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem; ten people were killed and more than 50 injured.
Jan. 27, 2002 — a woman suicide bomber detonated herself in Jerusalem; one person was killed and more than 150 wounded.


Israeli forces arrested Marwan Barghouti on April 15, 2002, believing him to be directly involved with the operation of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Barghouti possesses a somewhat unique political status; he is a prominent Palestinian political leader who is the leader of Arafat's Fatah in the West Bank, but has also criticized the chairman and his Palestinian Authority for corruption and human rights violations. Barghouti is popular amongst Palestinians, and is affiliated with the grass-roots echelon. In 1996 he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council.

In addition, Raed Karmi, the group's leader in the West Bank, was killed in January, and Mahmoud Titi, the group's leader in the Balata refugee camp was killed last month. Other local leaders found the same fate as Israel increased its operations in the territories.

The Arafat Connection?

There is a disagreement among the sides about the control that Arafat has over the Brigades. Palestinian officials and spokesmen have repeatedly denied any connection between the chairman and any terrorist organization. Members of the group were inconsistent in describing their leadership and their relation to the Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, and to Arafat. Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah leader, acknowledged Fatah's control over the terrorist group. In an interview with USA Today on March 14, 2002, Maslama Thabet, one of the group's leaders, described the group as "an integral part of Fatah," and that the organization's "commander is Yasser Arafat himself." But Arafat's chief spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, denied the allegations in the same article, while another of Arafat's spokesmen confirmed the brigades' loyalty to the chairman.

Israel, on its part, is convinced that Arafat is directly involved. In a recent file, "The involvement of Arafat, PA senior Officials and Apparatus in Terrorism against Israel, Corruption, and Crime," the Israeli government argues that "Arafat was personally involved in the planning and execution of terror attacks. He encouraged them ideologically, authorized them financially and personally headed the Fatah Al Aqsa Brigades organization." As evidence, Israeli intelligence presented several documents found in Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. The documents include a request for financial aid outlying operations, propaganda, and arms purchases, as well as other documents signed by the group and addressed to Arafat and other high Palestinian officials. All the documents were signed by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and referred to themselves as part of Fatah.

In an interview with CNN, Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian representative to the United States, rejected the Israeli allegations, claiming the documents were a sham.

In any case, it appears that the organization consists of individual small cells spread throughout Palestinian towns. It is well funded and achieved high proficiency at carrying out its missions, wherever they come from.


As if the threats of suicide attacks by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were not enough, it appears that the Brigades are the new, strong, rich kid in town. Their attacks are well funded, well executed, and innovative when needed. The group is a new threat that Israeli forces must deal with, and represents a new secular front of Palestinian terrorism. While its possible connection to the Palestinian Authority command and funding is tactically alarming, the strategic implications remain simple: The Palestinian nationalistic movement sees terrorism as a legitimate method to achieve independence. And thus the Palestinian political question and Palestinian terror are coupled. If Israel and the United States want to eliminate Palestinian terrorism, they must address the secular political issues at hand.


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