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.
The accounting system on display in the documents found by 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.
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 each branch of al-Qaida replicates the same corporate structure.
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.
This detailed accounting system allows al-Qaida to keep track of the significant sums of money involved in feeding, training and recruiting thousands of fighters. It’s also an attempt to keep track of the fighters themselves, who often operate remotely.
For example, two receipts, for $4,000 and $6,800, are listed as funds for “workshops,” another concept borrowed from business. A flier found in another building occupied by their fighters confirm that al-Qaida held the equivalent of corporate training retreats. It lists detailed schedules: Early morning exercise from 5 to 6:30 a.m.; lessons on how to use a GPS from 10 to 10:30 a.m.; arms training from 10:30 a.m. to noon; and various afternoon classes on preaching to other Muslims, nationalism and democracy.
A relatively small ratio of the receipts are expense reports for fighters and weapons. One unit presented a politely worded request for funds, entitled: “The list of names of mujahideen who are asking for clothes and boots to protect themselves from the cold.”
Far more deal with the mundane aspects of running a state, such as keeping the lights on. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb invaded Timbuktu in April 2012, and took over its state-run utilities, paying to have fuel trucked in from neighboring Algeria. One invoice shows they paid $3,720 for 20 barrels of diesel for the city’s power station.
There’s also an advance for the prison and a detailed budget for the Islamic Tribunal, where judges were paid $2 per day to hear cases.
Along with the nuts and bolts of governing, it’s clear that the fighters were actively trying to woo the population. They set aside money for charity: $4 for medicine “for a Shiite with a sick child,” and $100 in financial aid for a man’s wedding. And they reimbursed residents for damages, such as $50 for structural repairs, with a note that the house in question “was hit by mujahideen cars.”
And it’s obvious that the fighters spent a good part of their time proselytizing, with expense reports for trips to distant villages to impart their ultra-strict vision of Islam. One receipt bluntly lists $200 for a “trip for spreading propaganda.”
While not overtly explained, the sizable receipts for car repairs suggest regular missions into the desert. The many receipts for oil changes, car batteries, filters and parts indicate the tough terrain battered the fighters’ Toyota Land Cruisers.
Finally, the names on the receipts reveal the majority of fighters on the group’s payroll were foreign-born. There’s a $1,000 advance to a man identified as “Talhat the Libyan.” Another is issued to “Tarek the Algerian.”
The names furthermore confirm that the top leaders of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb were based in Timbuktu. Among them is Abou Zeid, probably the most feared of al-Qaida’s local commanders who orchestrated the kidnappings of dozens of Westerners until his death this spring.
“In the name of Allah, the most merciful,” begins a request for funds dated Dec. 29, 2012, and addressed to Abou Zeid. “We are writing to inform you that we need rockets for our camp _ a total of 4 is needed. May God protect you.”