Timbuktu, Mali • The convoy of cars bearing the black al-Qaida flag came at high speed, and the manager of the modest grocery store thought he was about to get robbed.
Mohamed Djitteye rushed to lock his till and cowered behind the counter. He was dumbfounded when instead, the al-Qaida commander gently opened the grocery’s glass door and asked for a pot of mustard. Then he asked for a receipt.
Confused and scared, Djitteye didn’t understand. So the jihadist repeated his request. Could he please have a receipt for the $1.60 purchase?
This transaction in northern Mali shows what might seem an unusual preoccupation for a terror group: Al-Qaida is obsessed with documenting the most minute expenses.
In more than 100 receipts left in a building occupied by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu earlier this year, the extremists assiduously tracked their cash flow, recording purchases as small as a single light bulb. The often tiny amounts are carefully written out in pencil and colored pen on scraps of paper and Post-it notes: The equivalent of $1.80 for a bar of soap; $8 for a packet of macaroni; $14 for a tube of super glue. All the documents were authenticated by experts.
The accounting system on display in the documents found by The Associated Press is a mirror image of what researchers have discovered in other parts of the world where al-Qaida operates, including Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. The terror group’s documents around the world also include corporate workshop schedules, salary spreadsheets, philanthropy budgets, job applications, public relations advice and letters from the equivalent of a human resources division.
Taken together, the evidence suggests that far from being a fly-by-night, fragmented terror organization, al-Qaida is attempting to behave like a multinational corporation, with what amounts to a company-wide financial policy across its different chapters.
"They have to have bookkeeping techniques because of the nature of the business they are in," said Brookings Institution fellow William McCants, a former adviser to the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. "They have so few ways to keep control of their operatives, to rein them in and make them do what they are supposed to do. They have to run it like a business."
The picture that emerges from what is one of the largest stashes of al-Qaida documents to be made public shows a rigid bureaucracy, replete with a chief executive, a board of directors and departments such as human resources and public relations. Experts say that each branch of the terror group replicates the same corporate structure, and that this strict blueprint has helped al-Qaida not just to endure but also to spread.
AL-QAIDA’S GROCERY LIST
Among the most revealing documents are the receipts, which offer a granular view of how al-Qaida’s fighters lived every day as well as its larger priorities.
"For the smallest thing, they wanted a receipt," said 31-year-old Djitteye, who runs the Idy Market on the sand-carpeted main boulevard in Timbuktu. "Even for a tin of Nescafe."
An inordinate number of receipts are for groceries, suggesting a diet of macaroni with meat and tomato sauce, as well as large quantities of powdered milk. There are 27 invoices for meat, 13 for tomatoes, 11 for milk, 11 for pasta, seven for onions, and many others for tea, sugar, and honey.
They record the $0.60 cake one of their fighters ate, and the $1.80 bar of soap another used to wash his hands. They list a broom for $3 and bleach for $3.30. These relatively petty amounts are logged with the same care as the $5,400 advance they gave to one commander, or the $330 they spent to buy 3,300 rounds of ammunition.
Keeping close track of expenses is part of al-Qaida’s DNA, say multiple experts, including FBI agents who were assigned to track the terror group in the years just after its founding.
This habit, they say, can be traced back more than three decades to when a young Osama bin Laden entered King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia in 1976 to study economics, and went on to run part of his millionaire father’s construction company.
After he was exiled to Sudan in 1992, bin Laden founded what became the country’s largest conglomerate. His companies and their numerous subsidiaries invested in everything from importing trucks to exporting sesame, white corn and watermelons. From the get-go, bin Laden was obsessed with enforcing corporate management techniques on his more than 500 employees, according to al-Qaida expert Lawrence Wright, author of a well-known history of the terror group. Workers had to submit forms in triplicate for even the smallest purchases — the same requirement bin Laden later imposed on the first al-Qaida recruits, he said.
In Afghanistan, detailed accounting records found in an abandoned al-Qaida camp in 2001 included salary lists, stringent documentation on each fighter, job application forms asking for level of education and language skills, as well as notebook after notebook of expenses. In Iraq, U.S. forces recovered entire Excel spreadsheets, detailing salaries for al-Qaida fighters.
"People think that this is done on the back of an envelope. It isn’t," says Dan Coleman, a former FBI special agent who was in charge of the bin Laden case file from 1996 to 2004.
One of the first raids on an al-Qaida safe house was led by Coleman in 1997. Among the dozens of invoices he found inside the operative’s home in Kenya were stacks of gas station receipts, going back eight years.
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