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September 30, 2011 8:00 AM Al Qaeda leader killed in Yemen

By Steve Benen

It’s been quite a losing streak for al Qaeda lately, and the overnight developments in Yemen are another major blow to the terrorist network.

In a significant and dramatic strike in the campaign against Al Qaeda, the Defense Ministry here said American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in the group’s outpost in Yemen, was killed on Friday morning.

In Washington senior Obama administration officials confirmed that Mr. Awlaki was dead. But the circumstances surrounding the killing remained unclear.

Initial reports indicated that Yemeni forces had carried out the attack, but those reports have since been revised. U.S. forces have targeted Awlaki for months, narrowly missing him in a strike earlier this year, and NBC’s Richard Engel quotes an unnamed source saying U.S. planes launched the attack.

Nevertheless, while we wait for additional details, Awlaki’s demise is no small development. An American-born terrorist of Yemeni descent, Awlaki has been considered a leading operational planner for al Qaeda, and the network’s top English-language propagandist, linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the West, including the botched underwear bombing in 2009.

As for the larger context, Awlaki’s death comes closely on the heels of U.S. forces killing Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al Qaeda’s second-ranking figure, in late August, which came soon after the strike on Osama bin Laden in May.

And those deaths follow U.S. forces killing al Qaeda financial chief Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and al Qaeda spiritual leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, among others.

Adding to al Qaeda’s losing streak, the underlying point of the terrorist network’s message throughout the Middle East — that terrorism and anti-Western violence are the only means towards social progress — has been proven false by the Arab Spring and the changes seen in Egypt and elsewhere. It also comes as al Qaeda’s fundraising efforts, thought to be thriving a half-decade ago, are reportedly struggling badly.

I’ll look forward to conservatives explaining to the public why all of this is evidence of weakness under the Obama presidency.

This is not to say al Qaeda is no longer dangerous, but the network appears to be reeling. This larger trend is clearly heartening.

Update: BBC reports that President Obama “is said to have personally ordered [Awlaki’s] killing.”

Second Update: There’s a larger question about the propriety of the U.S. killing an American-born citizen, even one who leaves the country to join al Qaeda, without due process. For more on this question, consider analyses from Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer.

Third Update: More questions on the legal, moral, and political propriety of the attack.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • c u n d gulag on September 30, 2011 8:10 AM:

    When do we start targeting members of The American Taliban?

    Not with guns, planes, or drones, but with a calculated campaign of education for the people in this country that counters their religious lies, and squashes their hopes to establish a Dominionist Christian Corporate States of America.

    Like home grown right wing reactionary Conservative terrorists, these religious zealots are far, far more dangerous to us here in the US than any foreign terrorists, or Muslim radicals.

    Having said all of that, the world is a better place without Anwar al-Awlaki.

    But ask yourself this: How much different is he than Eric Robert Rudolph, the bomber behind the Atlanta Olypmics, abortion clinics, and other locations WITHIN the US?

  • DAY on September 30, 2011 8:23 AM:

    Chapter Two of gulag's thoughts:

    Just as our volunteer soldiers are useful tools for carrying out the agendas of our masters, so too are the tea partiers useful FOOLS for the self same masters.

    The Top Two Percenters that own America share percale sheets with the mainstream media, assuring that we concentrate on celebrity gossip and reality shows that are nothing like our own daily reality.

    Keith Olberman seems to be the sole reporter on the citizen occupation of Wall Street. And several other cities. Sad, that if it ain't on TeeVee, it ain't happening. . .

  • dr. bloor on September 30, 2011 8:25 AM:

    Iíll look forward to conservatives explaining to the public why all of this is evidence of weakness under the Obama presidency.

    Just the usual, I would imagine: Black, black, blackity, BLACKITY BLACK!

  • TT on September 30, 2011 8:26 AM:

    It's evidence of weakness because everyone knows only Republicans kill terrorists.

  • steve duncan on September 30, 2011 8:27 AM:

    American born? So, he was a U.S. citizen? Deprived of his life without a trial. Can a U.S. President legally order the death of a citizen in an undeclared war? Yes, he likely deserved it, but have the courts ever ruled on the legal right of a President to order a U.S. citizens death for crimes they haven't been convicted of in a court, a tribunal, before any sort of legal or quasi-legal panel or jury? Was there ever a presentation of evidence and lodging of charges, followed by an invitation of the accused or his designated counsel to refute them?

  • Walker on September 30, 2011 8:36 AM:

    No matter how bad this individual was, the assassination of an American citizen is an extremely dangerous precedent to be setting. As Gulag said, if the president can do this, why cannot he start assassinating leaders of the anti-abortion movement?

  • DAY on September 30, 2011 8:38 AM:

    @steve duncan:
    "Due Process" is SO 20th Century! Thank Dick Cheney for our new paradigm.

  • stevio on September 30, 2011 8:38 AM:

    Now Wolf Blitzer and Davis Gregory can praise the POTUS on their cable shows. NOT!

    Blitzer/Gregory: "So, president Obama has personally ordered the killings of numerous terrorists crippling al Qaida leaders including Osama bin Ladin. Doesn't this show his strength in being able to find these killers and remove them from operational leadership of these organizations whose primary goal is to kill americans?"

    Place the name here of whomever from the GOP: "Our primary goal is to remove Obama from the presidency because he's black and smarter than us, and really is making us look bad. Nonetheless, killing a few bad guys pales in comparison to the millions we killed in attacking a sovereign nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. Go Saudi Arabia!! Go Tea Party!! "

  • c u n d gulag on September 30, 2011 8:46 AM:

    Steve Duncan,
    Some really good points. And I can't argue with you.

    Unfortunately, when Darth Cheney had Little Boots open up that "Unitary President" bottle, and the genii escaped, legal rights went out the window.

    And, to expect a Democratic President, whose party has long been accused of being weak on national defence, and an African-American one at that, is a pipe dream.


    Yes, CAPTCHA, opposed context, is spot on!
    Whatever furies were unleashed by Cheney and Bush, will take a long time to be corralled, maybe not in my lifetime - and maybe not at all.

    There have been fundamental changes over the last 10+ years (30+ if you want to go back to Reagan - 40+ if you want to go to the source, Richard Nixon). And I have little hope that we'll ever go back to what we once were - a beacon for democracy. An imperfect one, to be sure, but not the fearful, corrupted, corporatist monster that we are becoming.

  • berttheclock on September 30, 2011 8:49 AM:

    @DAY, excuse me, but, have you not seen the fine work of Lawrence O'Donnell running the videos of the vicious attacks by the White Shirts (Higher commanders) of the NYPD? Had not he kept running them, no one would know it was a Deputy Inspector, Anthony Bologna, who walked up to peaceful protesting women and pepper sprayed them. The protests were being peacefully conducted until the White Shirts arrived and starting punching, pepper spraying and hurling video camera toting protestors into parked cars. So, now, Internal Affairs will be given the task of whisking all of this under the rug at NYPD HQ.

  • karl on September 30, 2011 8:57 AM:

    You made some typos in the lede. I believe it should read:

    "Itís been quite a losing streak for U.S. CITIZENS lately, and the overnight developments in Yemen are another major blow to the CONSTITUTION."

    Awlaki may have been a murderous scumbag who deserved death, but he was a citizen -- no less than you or I. To just sweep that under the rug is disgraceful.

  • Josef K on September 30, 2011 8:58 AM:

    I echo steve duncan's comments at 8:27am.

    This action, especially if the President himself gave the go-ahead, is rather more disturbing than it is reassuring. It sets an unsettling precedent for both this administration and ones to come, broadening the list of 'acceptable' targets for extra-judicial killing to include American-born citizens.

    This is a point that doesn't seem to get a lot of airtime or discussion: our government now claims it can and will kill anyone it deems a threat, without fear of censure or sanction by the public it obstensibly serves. Yes, the US has in the past (and will likely continue as long as the Republic endures) to assassinate those it deems threats; I'm not naive enough to think otherwise.

    However, what makes the al-Awlaki killing so worrying is the fact he was (a) American-born, and thus an American citizen, and (b) there is no record or indication of any legal process involved in the President's decision.

    I welcome correction on either point, but the underlying criticism remains: the President of the United States order the US military to assassinate a United States citizen, one whose professed sympathies and beliefs are neither popular nor shared by the mainstream. If such unpopularity is sufficient reason for al-Awlaki's killing, how many people reading this (or Redstate or Daily Kos) could likewise be deemed a target?

    Food for thought.

  • martin on September 30, 2011 9:00 AM:

    I'm sure Greenwald will have much more on this, but we now have an American president personally ordering the death of an American citizen. The goalpost have now moved so far off the field they are in a different stadium. This is not good, although I do look forward to the Right Wing gymnastics to follow.

    We're not sure what avigie hopes. for Mr Captcha, but we do to.

  • zeitgeist on September 30, 2011 9:08 AM:

    i'm all for due process, but surely no one is suggesting that in the midst of WWII, had an American citizen voluntarily joined one of the Axis armies in a foreign country that the US would have had to stop our campaign lest we kill an American citizen fighting for the other side without due process?

    unlike Iraq, the fight against AQ is the right post-9/11 fight. They are novel in that they are stateless, but that shouldn't totally tie the hands of a state that they attacked.

  • AndThenThere'sThat on September 30, 2011 9:14 AM:

    No matter how bad this individual was, the assassination of an American citizen is an extremely dangerous precedent to be setting. As Gulag said, if the president can do this, why cannot he start assassinating leaders of the anti-abortion movement?

    Get a fucking grip. This wasn't some perp apprehended by police down at the local Burger King. This was a terrorist plotting attacks on Americans from unfriendly foreign soil. Do you get it? He was waging war. I suppose you would prefer dozens of troops were killed attempting to apprehend him from a foreign nation so that he could be put on trial? Or that he continued to plot devastation on innocent victims in order to protect his precious citizen's rights? Good god, get some perspective.

  • J+1 on September 30, 2011 9:41 AM:

    Conservative friends are already crying "lack of due process!" Funny how they give a damn about it now, hm?

  • DAY on September 30, 2011 9:42 AM:

    -I stand corrected, berthteclock! I often get confused, flipping between Keith and Lawrence at 8PM.

  • FRP on September 30, 2011 9:43 AM:

    I thought at this late point I was going to need to point out that a smoking gun is a smoking gun .
    I see even as late as 9:40 am est , zeitgeist , and AndThenThere'sThat , have leavened the dough so that even something as common as sense may be employed .

  • Anonymous on September 30, 2011 10:00 AM:

    Iíll look forward to conservatives explaining to the public why all of this is evidence of weakness under the Obama presidency.

    Murdering American citizens without even the pretense of due process is your idea of "strength"?

    @Martin--Greenwald's column on the killing is up now at Salon.com.

  • dsimon on September 30, 2011 10:01 AM:

    AndThenThere'sThat: "This wasn't some perp apprehended by police down at the local Burger King. This was a terrorist plotting attacks on Americans from unfriendly foreign soil. Do you get it?"

    I get it. And if that was the case, then it should have been no trouble at all to get a warrant or some kind of approval from a court, and then go after him. Otherwise, we cede all authority to one person's decision as to whether someone else should be killed, and there is no check on that authority. Could be any of us. Do you get it?

    I don't have a problem with going after and even killing those who plan to do us harm. I do have a problem when there seems to be no check on that power. That's what the basis of our government is supposedly all about, isn't it?

  • Steve Paradis on September 30, 2011 10:01 AM:

  • steve duncan on September 30, 2011 10:19 AM:

    AndThenThere'sThat on September 30, 2011 9:14 AM

    "Get a fucking grip. This wasn't some perp apprehended by police down at the local Burger King. This was a terrorist plotting attacks on Americans from unfriendly foreign soil. Do you get it?"
    ~~~~~~~~~~
    OK, say that's the case. Was a court shown proof of this by the executive branch before the kill order was issued? Was any proof offered to anyone of the terrorist plots or does the public have to grant the President the latitude for these killings sans any judicial intermediary? If preventing terrorism is the justification and the executive has sole authority to act alone what is to stop (as others have noted) the President from conducting such an operation within our borders. Pretend it's April 10th, 1995. Would a President be able, in this new environment, to order the drone destruction of Timothy McVeigh's home (hoping or being told he was in it and for some unique reason arrest was nearly impossible) if it prevented the destruction of the Murrah Building?

  • Lance on September 30, 2011 10:29 AM:

    Sigh,

    If that f**ker gave a rat's ass about his rights, he ought to have come here and defended himself against the charges leveled against him in that same court of law that his citizenship entitled him to demand.

    I'm glad your concerned about his rights, far more than he was concerned about yours, of course. Keep going on about that.

    But for me, this is a BIG WIN. And I can only thank the President and the administration that got this one too.

  • steve duncan on September 30, 2011 10:39 AM:

    Lance on September 30, 2011 10:29 AM:

    "....he ought to have come here and defended himself against the charges leveled against him..."
    ~~~~~~~~~~

    So he was formally charged in abstentia in a U.S. court of law?

  • FRP on September 30, 2011 10:41 AM:

    Thank you Lance for pointing out that if there was a problem with the gentleman's legal status the obligation to object was centered far away from the smell of cordite and viscera .
    As for understanding of simple things involving the origin of the wafting odors of carnage , once the action is taken that completes the thought , it is at that point that it is too late to object through lesser means than the first instance of violence . Either in the serene hostility of the rooms where judges hand out rulings , or the streets where the niceties of courtesy are accounted fer by reflex .

  • dsimon on September 30, 2011 10:50 AM:

    Lance: "If that f**ker gave a rat's ass about his rights, he ought to have come here and defended himself against the charges leveled against him"

    There were no "charges." That's the problem. He was never charged with anything. He was ordered killed on one person's say-so. There was no review outside the administrative branch. If the guy was obviously so terrible, wouldn't it have been easy to go through the regular judicial process and then kill him?

    "I'm glad your concerned about his rights, far more than he was concerned about yours, of course."

    I'm not concerned just about his rights, I'm concerned about your rights. If the president can do this, what's the limit on presidential power to order anyone killed without any process? I see no reason to limit it to citizens who happen to be living abroad...

  • steve duncan on September 30, 2011 11:01 AM:

    The same people that think this killing is OK think the 4th Amendment is unnecessary. Illegal search and seizure? Why, if you have nothing to hide and aren't doing anything illegal what do you care if a police officer wants to take an uninvited tour of your home? What have you got to hide? Nothing? Well then, might as well do away with the 4th Amendment. What's it for anyway? The only people that need it are the crooks. Just like the only people that need worry about being killed without benefit of charges and a trial are the crooks. I mean, the President would certainly never make a mistake and kill an innocent person, right? He's infallible. Like the Pope. Or God. Right? Who needs checks and balances when all you need is an infallible President?

  • Ryan on September 30, 2011 11:17 AM:

    Any defense of the assassination of al-Awlaki is also a defense of the assassination of anyone the President is convinced has committed or is about to commit a serious crime. No one here's seen any proof, other than the President's say-so, that al-Awlaki did more than publicly endorse terrorist attacks, which he's allowed to do under the First Amendment. The President's say-so might be enough for you, but it's not enough for me.

  • mikeyes on September 30, 2011 11:20 AM:

    This case was brought up in court, albeit in a collateral manner, when his father sued after it was discovered that Awlaki was placed on a kill list. Here is the finding (https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2010cv1469-31) which basically says that the father has no standing.

    Judge Bates did a pretty good job looking at the other issues, however, and it appears that he also concluded that the issue of assasination was unreviewable. In other words the President had the right to put Awlaki on the list.

  • Bob M on September 30, 2011 11:20 AM:

    First al Qaeda, then Texas.

  • Ryan on September 30, 2011 11:30 AM:

    Steve,

    Please fill in the blanks:

    "Awlaki has been considered [by ____ to be] a leading operational planner for al Qaeda, and the networkís top English-language propagandist, linked [by ____] to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the West, including the botched underwear bombing in 2009."

    Thx.

  • TG Chicago on September 30, 2011 11:57 AM:

    Anybody who applauds this killing is saying that they don't believe in the Fifth Amendment.

    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    How can anybody claim that Obama acted in accordance with the Fifth Amendment?

  • rumpole on September 30, 2011 12:26 PM:

    Try him, then fry him. Not the reverse.

    Note to dissidents: don't leave the country, or you're toast. Where's the limit to this? How is this any different from the pres claiming the authority to fry a child in front of his father to gain information? If he's a bad man, snatch him, bring him home, and put him in jail or give him the death penalty.

    It ain't like Yemen or most any other authoritarian US-allied country's going to complain.

  • thecrow on September 30, 2011 12:33 PM:

  • Vince on September 30, 2011 1:07 PM:

    This is absolutely a disgusting day in U.S. history and a day that we should all be ashamed to be U.S. citizens. Instead, the Obama sycophants are doing a victory dance. When the POTUS can simply kill a U.S. citizen with no proof and no formal charge where does it end? Obama never provided any evidence that he did anything other than voice support for terrorist attacks. You mother fuckers think that is enough to order his assassination. Jesus fucking christ what is wrong with you people?!?!?!?!?!?

    All of you mother fuckers, including Benen, who thinks this is some kind of success are disgusting and you all should be ashamed of yourselves.

    If Bush had done this all of you mother fuckers would be going ballistic on unchecked presidential power. You are all disgusting.

    That you all seem to think you have to cheer your team on no matter how badly it behaves is truly pathetic.

    Did I mention you should all be ashamed of yourselves?

  • AndThenThere'sThat on September 30, 2011 1:42 PM:

    I get it. And if that was the case, then it should have been no trouble at all to get a warrant or some kind of approval from a court, and then go after him. Otherwise, we cede all authority to one person's decision as to whether someone else should be killed, and there is no check on that authority. Could be any of us. Do you get it? -dsimon 10:01 AM

    I get the danger in unchecked power. But with the blueprint you're laying out, any future terrorist simply need acquire a U.S. citizenship and he/she will be completely untouchable. They just hideout in a foreign country and laugh at the irony of plotting against a country that is protecting them from harm.

    Of course,this all just philosophical conjecture anyway, as anyone trying to apprehend al-Awlaki would have killed him in the ensuing firefight. Or do you think he would have gone willingly in handcuffs as just a haplessly innocent preacher exercising his first amendment rights?

    Pretend it's April 10th, 1995. Would a President be able, in this new environment, to order the drone destruction of Timothy McVeigh's home

    Last time I checked, Timothy McVeigh's home wasn't in Yemen. I suppose we should've gotten deputy sheriff Fife to waltz on over to Yemen and serve al-Awlaki his notice to appear in court. Common sense says otherwise.

  • steve duncan on September 30, 2011 1:55 PM:

    "...with the blueprint you're laying out, any future terrorist simply need acquire a U.S. citizenship..."
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Yeah, that should be pretty easy. The State Department dispenses U.S. citizenships from a vending machine in the lobby.

  • Daniel Kim on September 30, 2011 2:04 PM:

    I must admit that when I first read about this, I was OK with it. After reading a bit more, I have since become disturbed by the lack of due process. I don't suppose al-Awlaki did anything that could be seen as giving up his U.S. citizenship? He was quoted as being 'proud of being a traitor', but that still leaves him a citizen, I think.

    As has been noted by others in this forum thread, some effort should have been made to present evidence to a judge, and some kind of trial should have preceded the killing. Is this one of those "combatant vs criminal" distinctions that make him a valid target?

    Surely there is some precedent that sets the status of a citizen of a country who takes up arms against his own country. Any historians out there who can clarify this one?

  • dr2chase on September 30, 2011 2:20 PM:

    I'm not happy about this, and I wish that the people who think it's okay to toss due process out the window would stop and think for a bit. He's a US citizen. There's a constitution, it has a Bill of Rights. When I imagine impeachable offenses, I think of things like what just happened here.

    It's also not clear that this was necessary. Al Qaeda has been tremendously impaired, and had several embarrassing failures in recent years. Does this one guy's death make Al Qaeda that much less effective? We're not required to kill each and every evildoer on the planet, nor are we able. Once the threat from terrorism is below some risk we live with every day (say, death from falling out of bed), maybe we adjust the priority of fighting it, and declare a war on Dangerous Beds instead.

  • Anonymous on September 30, 2011 2:27 PM:

    I wonder, it seems the chief beef with Alwiki is he (allegedly) spurred others to commit acts of terrorism directed at the U.S. or its citizens. I don't see where he personally took up arms, he merely instigated it in others.
    Qualitatively, how does this differ all that much from Sharron Angle suggesting to her supporters they take advantage of "Second Amendment solutions" to effect change in government if they can't succeed in doing it at the polls?

  • ObamaGot007? on September 30, 2011 3:30 PM:

    The personal 'order' was being mentioned in some outlets around the time of the mystery killing of OBL, a 10 year construct of a legacy diminished in seconds and the crown quickly imposed on another head of the phantom hydra, continue the omen. Why should fear stop short of a visage, when it's works.

    Now, another face is down, who's next? King of Al Queda, he is dangerous, let me tell you...and he is all over the place, so everything has to go!

    The BHO brand will benefit from this, some weight for the scales come election, but mostly will the Maestri, as always.

    But what about that guy on BBC, Alessio Rastani, think we should all learn to till the soil?

  • John on September 30, 2011 7:51 PM:

    Dr Bloor, you are the ignorant POS I've ever read in these pages.

    To quote Greenwald: What amazes me most whenever I write about this topic is recalling how terribly upset so many Democrats pretended to be when Bush claimed the power merely to detain or even just eavesdrop on American citizens without due process. Remember all that? Yet now, here's Obama claiming the power not to detain or eavesdrop on citizens without due process, but to KILL THEM; marvel at how the hardest-core White House loyalists now celebrate this and uncritically accept the same justifying rationale used by Bush/Cheney (this is war! the President says he was a Terrorist!) without even a moment of acknowledgment of the profound inconsistency or the deeply troubling implications of having a President -- even Barack Obama -- vested with the power to target U.S. citizens for murder with no due process.

    Rot in pieces you inconsistent, race baiting pile of trash.

  • Doug on September 30, 2011 10:14 PM:

    Why do I doubt this is a case of President Obama summoning some lackey and saying, in effect: "Bring me the head of Awlaki!"
    What President Obama undoubtedly did was to authorize the use of force if necessary to capture or kill Awlaki. You know, just as police are are authorized to use force when necessary in apprehending other criminals?
    I will admit, however, that it's much more dramatic to accuse the President of "assassinating a US citizen" rather than saying he authorized the use of deadly force in apprehending a dangerous terrorist.
    Then again, I don't expect accuracy from from Mr. Greenwald anymore, John's rants notwithstanding...

  • dsimon on September 30, 2011 11:45 PM:

    AndThenThere'sThat: "But with the blueprint you're laying out, any future terrorist simply need acquire a U.S. citizenship and he/she will be completely untouchable."

    Not at all. There just needs to be a requirement to go to a court first. "Due process" doesn't mean that there can't be targeted assassinations. It just means that the executive can't make such decisions without some kind of review outside the executive branch. How much review may depend on the circumstances.

    In this case, I'd guess a court would approve executive action fairly easily. Surely the administration has ample evidence to present. But even though it's easy in this case, we still should put the government through its paces. We do this in trials too, even where evidence may be overwhelming. There has to be some kind of check on executive power. But this is one area where the Obama administration has been extremely disappointing.

  • Hsu Tong Shang on October 01, 2011 11:54 PM:

    Funny, Democrats went from hating war to loving it in just one day.

    Actually, it's not funny. Not at all.

    Enjoy, Rats. What goes around and all that.

  • Xanthippas on October 03, 2011 9:49 PM:

    Hey, if you can use it to attack Republicans, it's all good! What's the Constitution compared to a re-election campaign, eh?

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