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
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies