Al-Qaeda is obsessed with documenting the most minute expenses.
In more than 100 receipts left in a building occupied by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu earlier this year, the militants 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 The Associated Press is a mirror image of what researchers have discovered in other parts of the world where Al-Qaeda 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.
The picture that emerges from what is one of the largest stashes of Al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda replicates the same corporate structure.
Among the most revealing documents are the receipts, which offer a granular view of how Al-Qaeda’s fighters lived every day as well as its larger priorities.
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.
In Afghanistan, detailed accounting records found in an abandoned Al-Qaeda 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, US forces recovered entire Excel spreadsheets, detailing salaries for Al-Qaeda fighters.
This detailed accounting system allows Al-Qaeda 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. Al-Qaeda clearly required such expense reports — in a letter from the stash, middle managers chide a terrorist for not handing his in on time.
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 confirm that Al-Qaeda 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 militants 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-Qaeda 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 fighter’s 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-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were based in Timbuktu. Among them is Abou Zeid, probably the most feared of Al-Qaeda’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.”