Seized receipts reveal al-Qaida's meticulous book-keeping

Paperwork discovered in Timbuktu demonstrates fastidious accounting in the terror organisation

More than 100 receipts retrieved from a building occupied by al-Qaida’s North African branch in Timbuktu, Mali, reveal an organisation intent on documenting even the most miniscule of expenses.

The group obsessively tracked its cashflow, recording purchases as small as a single light bulb. The often tiny amounts were painstakingly written out in pencil and coloured pens on scraps of paper and Post-it notes.

A large number of the receipts catalogued day-to-day groceries and some of the items included the equivalent of $0.60 (£.037) for a light bulb; $0.40 (£0.24) for tomatoes; and $1.40 (£0.85) for charcoal.

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 spread sheets, 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 fragmented terror organization, al-Qaida is attempting to behave like a multi-national 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," 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 hoards of al-Qaida documents to be made public is that of a rigid bureaucracy, which is replicated across each branch of the terror group.

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 Mohamed Djitteye, who experienced al-Qaida’s obsession with receipts first-hand at his store, the Idy Market, 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 (£0.37) cake one of their fighters ate, and the $1.80 (£1.09) bar of soap another used to wash his hands. They list a broom for $3 (£1.82) and bleach for $3.30 (£2.00). These relatively petty amounts are logged with the same care as the $5,400 (£3,279) advance they gave to one commander, or the $330 (£200) they spent to buy 3,300 rounds of ammunition.

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 spread sheets, detailing salaries for 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. 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.

The majority of the invoices found on a cement floor in a building in Timbuktu are scribbled by hand, on post-it notes, on lined math paper or on the backs of envelopes, as if operatives in the field were using whatever writing surface they could find. Others are typed, sometimes repeating the same items, in what may serve as formal expense reports for their higher-ups. 

The corporate nature of the organization is also on display in the types of activities they funded.

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 confirms 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 neighbouring 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."

The extent of the documentation found here, as well as in the other theatres where al-Qaida operates, does not mean the terror group runs as a well-oiled machine, cautions Jason Burke, author of the book "Al-Qaida."

"Bureaucracy, as we know, gives senior managers the illusion they are in control of distant subordinates," Burke said. "But that influence is much, much less than they would like."

Additional reporting from Associated Press

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick