Al-Qaida 'run like a business,' records every expense
By Rukmini Callimachi, APTIMBUKTU, 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.
December 31, 2013, 12:07 am TWN
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 US$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 (AQIM) 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 US$1.80 for a bar of soap; US$8 for a packet of macaroni; US$14 for a tube of super glue.
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.
'For the smallest thing, they wanted a receipt'
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.”
This receipt for groceries, which includes prices paid for tomatoes, onions, charcoal, meat and a lightbulb, was retrieved from a building occupied by al-Qaida's North African ...