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Al-Qaeda’s corporate accounting

The convoy of cars bearing the black al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda is obsessed with documenting the most minute expenses.

 

Al-Qaeda officers in Mali (Photo: AFP)
Al-Qaeda officers in Mali (Photo: AFP)

 

In more than 100 receipts left in a building occupied by al-Qaeda 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 superglue. 

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 schedules for corporate training sessions, spreadsheets with salaries, public relations directives, philanthropy budgets and letters from the equivalent of a human resources division. 

An al-Qaeda graduation course in Syria (Photo: Reuters)
An al-Qaeda graduation course in Syria (Photo: Reuters)

 

Taken together, the evidence suggests that far from being a fly-by-night, fragmented terror organization, al-Qaeda is attempting to behave like a multinational corporation, with what amounts to a companywide 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 US 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-Qaeda documents to be made public is of 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. 

Al-Qaeda’s grocery list

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. 

“For the smallest thing, they wanted a receipt,” said 31-year-old Djitteye, who runs the Idy Market on the main, sand-carpeted boulevard in Timbuktu. “Even for a tin of Nescafe.” 

A Syrian al-Qaeda course (Photo: Reuters)
A Syrian al-Qaeda course (Photo: Reuters)

 

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-Qaeda’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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda recruits, he said. 

In Aghanistan, detailed accounting records found in an abandoned al-Qaeda camp in 2001 included salary lists, stringent documentation on each fighter, as well as notebook after notebook of expenses. In Iraq, US forces recovered entire Excel spreadsheets, detailing salaries for al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda safehouse 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. 

Terrorist expense reports

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. 

In informal open-air markets such as those of Timbuktu, vendors didn’t have receipts to hand out. So, traders say, members of al-Qaeda came in pairs, one to negotiate the sale, and the other to record prices on a notepad. This practice is reflected in the fact that almost all the receipts are written in Arabic, a language few residents of Timbuktu know how to write. 

The fighters would ask for a price, and then write it down in their Bloc Note, a notebook brand sold locally, said pharmacist Ibrahim Djitteye. 

“It surprised me at first,” he said. “But I came to the conclusion that they are here for a very specific mission…. And when you are on assignment, you need to give a report. They have their own higher-ups, who are expecting them to account for what they spent.” 

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, listing detailed schedules for early morning prayer, weapons classes and seminars on the meaning of jihad. 

The nuts and bolts of governing

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-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. 

It’s also 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 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 was 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 December 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 theaters where al-Qaeda operates, does not mean the terror group runs as a well-oiled machine, cautions Jason Burke, author of the book Al-Qaeda. In other words, al-Qaeda’s structure as a company does not guarantee its success. 

“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.” 

Al-Qaeda’s accounting practices left a strong impression on at least one person in Timbuktu: Djitteye, the convenience store manager. 

The al-Qaeda commander who came in for mustard was Nabil Alqama, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s “Southern Command.” He became a regular. One day, he asked the store employee to get a receipt book printed so he could provide more official-looking invoices.

 

Djitteye obliged. 

The green receipt book with neat boxes now sits under his cash register. These days, whenever customers come in, he always asks if they would like a receipt. 

No one ever does.

 

AP

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#Syria: Al Qaeda Forcing Druze to convert

Syrian branch of Islamist terror group reportedly has forced 14 Druze villages to Islam – or die.

 

Syrian rebels from Al-Qaeda are systematically forcing Syrian Druze communities to convert to Islam – or die, Walla! reported Monday.

Syrian opposition forces have reportedly declared to the Israeli daily that at least 14 Druze villages have been forced to convert to Islam by the Islamist group so far.

The information has apparently leaked from representatives of the villages, who declared that they had no choice but to convert and had been threatened with death.

The specific group responsible for the attack is the Al Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS). The group has seized large sections of Northern Syria and has reportedly been implementing Sharia law there.

ISIS officials have openly declared that they plan to turn Druze places of worships in mosques and change the entire region to a fundamentalist Islamist state.

Israeli Druze leaders stated Monday to the daily that they have been aware of ongoing issues with Islamists near their Syrian communities, and that they have pledged to help Syrian Druze as much as possible.

Map: Idlib province, Northern Syria Google Maps

Al-Qaeda in Kentucky

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Several dozen suspected terrorist bombmakers, including some believed to have targeted American troops, may have mistakenly been allowed to move to the United States as war refugees, according to FBI agents investigating the remnants of roadside bombs recovered from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The discovery in 2009 of two al Qaeda-Iraq terrorists living as refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky — who later admitted in court that they’d attacked U.S. soldiers in Iraq — prompted the bureau to assign hundreds of specialists to an around-the-clock effort aimed at checking its archive of 100,000 improvised explosive devices collected in the war zones, known as IEDs, for other suspected terrorists’ fingerprints.

“We are currently supporting dozens of current counter-terrorism investigations like that,” FBI Agent Gregory Carl, director of the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), said in an ABC News interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News’ “World News with Diane Sawyer” and “Nightline”.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many more than that,” said House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul. “And these are trained terrorists in the art of bombmaking that are inside the United States; and quite frankly, from a homeland security perspective, that really concerns me.”

As a result of the Kentucky case, the State Department stopped processing Iraq refugees for six months in 2011, federal officials told ABC News – even for many who had heroically helped U.S. forces as interpreters and intelligence assets. One Iraqi who had aided American troops was assassinated before his refugee application could be processed, because of the immigration delays, two U.S. officials said. In 2011, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis were resettled as refugees in the U.S., half the number from the year before, State Department statistics show.

Suspect in Kentucky Discovered to Have Insurgent Past

An intelligence tip initially led the FBI to Waad Ramadan Alwan, 32, in 2009. The Iraqi had claimed to be a refugee who faced persecution back home — a story that shattered when the FBI found his fingerprints on a cordless phone base that U.S. soldiers dug up in a gravel pile south of Bayji, Iraq on Sept. 1, 2005. The phone base had been wired to unexploded bombs buried in a nearby road.

An ABC News investigation of the flawed U.S. refugee screening system, which was overhauled two years ago, showed that Alwan was mistakenly allowed into the U.S. and resettled in the leafy southern town of Bowling Green, Kentucky, a city of 60,000 which is home to Western Kentucky University and near the Army’s Fort Knox and Fort Campbell. Alwan and another Iraqi refugee, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 26, were resettled in Bowling Green even though both had been detained during the war by Iraqi authorities, according to federal prosecutors.

Most of the more than 70,000 Iraqi war refugees in the U.S. are law-abiding immigrants eager to start a new life in America, state and federal officials say.

But the FBI discovered that Alwan had been arrested in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2006 and confessed on video made of his interrogation then that he was an insurgent, according to the U.S. military and FBI, which obtained the tape a year into their Kentucky probe. In 2007, Alwan went through a border crossing to Syria and his fingerprints were entered into a biometric database maintained by U.S. military intelligence in Iraq, a Directorate of National Intelligence official said. Another U.S. official insisted that fingerprints of Iraqis were routinely collected and that Alwan’s fingerprint file was not associated with the insurgency.

“How do they get into our community?”

In 2009 Alwan applied as a refugee and was allowed to move to Bowling Green, where he quit a job he briefly held and moved into public housing on Gordon Ave., across the street from a school bus stop, and collected public assistance payouts, federal officials told ABC News.

“How do you have somebody that we now know was a known actor in terrorism overseas, how does that person get into the United States? How do they get into our community?” wondered Bowling Green Police Chief Doug Hawkins, whose department assisted the FBI.

Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Peter Boogaard said in a statement that the U.S. government “continually improves and expands its procedures for vetting immigrants, refugees and visa applicants, and today [the] vetting process considers a far broader range of information than it did in past years.”

“Our procedures continue to check applicants’ names and fingerprints against records of individuals known to be security threats, including the terrorist watchlist, or of law enforcement concern… These checks are vital to advancing the U.S. government’s twin goal of protecting the world’s most vulnerable persons while ensuring U.S. national security and public safety,” the statement said.

Last year, a Department of Homeland Security senior intelligence official testified in a House hearing that Alwan and Hammadi’s names and fingerprints were checked by the FBI, DHS and the Defense Department during the vetting process in 2009 and “came in clean.”

After the FBI received the intelligence tip later that year, a sting operation in Kentucky was mounted to bait Alwan with a scheme hatched by an undercover operative recruited by the FBI, who offered Alwan the opportunity to ship heavy arms to al Qaeda in Iraq. The FBI wanted to know if Alwan was part of a local terror cell — a fear that grew when he tapped a relative also living in Bowling Green, Hammadi, to help out.

The FBI secretly taped Alwan bragging to the informant that he’d built a dozen or more bombs in Iraq and used a sniper rifle to kill American soldiers in the Bayji area north of Baghdad.

“He said that he had them ‘for lunch and dinner,'” recalled FBI Louisville Supervisory Special Agent Tim Beam, “meaning that he had killed them.”

Alwan even sketched out IED designs, which the FBI provided to ABC News, that U.S. bomb experts had quickly determined clearly demonstrated his expertise.

‘Needle in a Haystack’ Fingerprint Match Found on Iraq Bomb Parts, White House Briefed

The case drew attention at the highest levels of government, FBI officials told ABC News, when TEDAC forensic investigators tasked with finding IEDs from Bayji dating back to 2005 pulled 170 case boxes and, incredibly, found several of Alwan’s fingerprints on a Senao-brand remote cordless base station. A U.S. military Significant Action report on Sept. 1, 2005 said the remote-controlled trigger had been attached to “three homemade-explosive artillery rounds concealed by gravel with protruding wires.”

“There were two fingerprints, developed on the top of the base station,” Katie Suchma, an FBI supervisory physical scientist at TEDAC who helped locate the evidence, told ABC News at the center’s IED examination lab. “The whole team was ecstatic because it was like finding a needle in a haystack.”

“This was the type of bomb he’s talking about when he drew those pictures,” added FBI electronics expert Stephen Mallow.

Word was sent back to the FBI in Louisville.

“It was a surreal moment, it was a real game changer, so to speak, for the case,” FBI agent Beam told ABC News. “Now you have solidified proof that he was involved in actual attacks against U.S. soldiers.”

Worse, prosecutors later revealed at Hammadi’s sentencing hearing that he and Alwan had been caught on an FBI surveillance tape talking about using a bomb to assassinate an Army captain they’d known in Bayji, who was now back home – and to possibly attack other homeland targets.

“Many things should take place and it should be huge,” Hammadi told Alwan in an FBI-recorded conversation, which a prosecutor read at Hammadi’s sentencing last year.

Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller briefed President Obama in early 2011 as agents and Louisville federal prosecutors weighed whether to arrest Alwan and Hammadi or continue arranging phony arms shipments to Iraq that the pair could assist with, consisting of machine guns, explosives and even Stinger missiles the FBI had secretly rendered inoperable and which never left the U.S.

But agents soon determined there were no other co-conspirators. An FBI SWAT team collared the terrorists in a truck south of Bowling Green in late May 2011, only weeks after al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan and Obama had visited nearby Fort Campbell to thank the SEALs and Army Nightstalker pilots for their successful mission. The Kentucky al Qaeda case drew little attention as the nation celebrated Bin Laden’s death.

Suspects Linked to Attack That Killed 4 US Soldiers

Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers who had served in Bayji in 2005 saw news reports about the two arrests, and Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Hedetniemi called the FBI to alert them to an Aug. 9, 2005, IED attack that killed four of their troopers in a humvee patrolling south of the town. The U.S. attorney’s office in Louisville eventually placed the surviving soldiers in its victim notification system for the case, even though it couldn’t be conclusively proven that Alwan and Hammadi had killed the Guardsmen.

The four Pennsylvania soldiers killed that day were Pfc. Nathaniel DeTample, 19, Spec. Gennaro Pellegrini, 31, Spec. Francis J. Straub Jr., 24, and Spec. John Kulick, 35.

“It was a somber moment for the platoon, we had a great deal of love and respect for those guys and it hit us pretty hard,” Hedetniemi said in an interview in the Guard’s armory near Philadelphia. “I think that these two individuals are innately evil to be able to act as a terrorist and attack and kill American soldiers, then have the balls to come over to the United States and try to do the same exact thing here in our homeland.”

Confronted with all the evidence against them, Alwan and Hammadi agreed to plead guilty to supporting terrorism and admitted their al Qaeda-Iraq past. Alwan cooperated and received 40 years, while Hammadi received a life term which he is appealing. A hearing for Hammadi’s appeal took place Tuesday in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio.

“We need to take this as a case study and draw the right lessons from it, and not just high-five over this,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who headed the military’s Joint IED Defeat Organization until last May. “How did a person who we detained in Iraq — linked to an IED attack, we had his fingerprints in our government system — how did he walk into America in 2009?”

Barbero is credited with leveraging the Kentucky case to help the FBI get funding to create a new state of the art fingerprint lab focused solely on its IED repository in a huge warehouse outside Washington. The new FBI lab assists counterterrorism investigations of suspected bombmakers and IED emplacers and looks for latent prints on 100,000 IED remnants collected over the past decade by the military and stored in the vast TEDAC warehouse.

The only man in the Humvee to survive the 2005 IED bombing in Bayji, Daniel South, who is now an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Texas, said he was stunned to learn al Qaeda-Iraq insurgents were living in Kentucky — but he’s glad they were finally brought to justice for attacking U.S. troops in Iraq.

“I kind of wish that we had smoked [Alwan] when it happened, but we didn’t have that opportunity so I guess this is second best,” South told ABC News.