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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.




John Brennan and the Bin Laden Files

During a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center on April 30, 2012, John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, discussed “The Ethics and Efficacy of the U.S. President’s Counterterrorism Strategy.” Brennan explained that President Obama has “pledged to share as much information with the American people ‘so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable.’ ” Obama, he continued, “has consistently encouraged those of us on his national security team to be as open and candid as possible.” After all, “our democracy depends” upon “transparency.”

John Brennan

John Brennan


But nearly two years after the May 1, 2011, assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the Obama administration has made public just 17 documents out of the huge cache of information captured during that raid. U.S. intelligence officials tell The Weekly Standard that the vast collection includes “hundreds of thousands of documents and files.” Obama administration officials themselves have referred to the documents as a “treasure trove” the size of a “small college library.” Why hasn’t the public seen them?

One of the main reasons: John Brennan.

The Obama administration, with Brennan as its top counterterrorism adviser, has worked hard to convince the American people that al Qaeda “is a shadow of its former self,” in the words of the president. Its affiliates are atomized cells that operate without serious coordination, they’ve suggested, and with the assassination of several top leaders, the defeat of al Qaeda is, according to Obama, “within reach.” The war on terror, or whatever it is, is nearing an end.

These claims are important to the administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the key to its broader counterterrorism posture.

Immediately after bin Laden’s demise, there was a natural inclination to trumpet the al Qaeda CEO’s importance in the overall war. This was an honest assessment. But over the year that followed something interesting happened. Key administration figures decided to downplay bin Laden’s role in managing the groups that fight in al Qaeda’s name, even as many facts cut against their revised narrative. Why? It is easier to declare the 9/11 wars near their end if al Qaeda is all but dead, leaving little for bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, to oversee.

Al Qaeda cannot be “on the path to defeat,” as President Obama repeatedly claimed during the 2012 presidential campaign, if bin Laden’s vision of terror lives on. That vision is outlined in bin Laden’s documents.

Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, was among the first administration officials to discuss bin Laden’s files. One week after the Abbottabad raid, during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on May 8, 2011, Donilon described the recovered files as “the largest cache of intelligence derived from the scene of any single terrorist.” Citing the CIA, it was Donilon who said the files would fill a “small college library.”

Donilon also weighed in on what the documents showed about bin Laden’s role within the al Qaeda network. The documents indicate “to us that in addition to being the symbolic leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was involved operationally in strategic direction, in the direction of operations, including their propaganda efforts,” Donilon said.

Meet the Press host David Gregory repeatedly pressed Donilon on this point, noting that Donilon’s characterization of bin Laden’s active role was “something different than what intelligence officials have believed.”

Donilon conceded that the intelligence community was “just starting to go through this treasure .  .  . this large cache of information.” But he didn’t back down. Donilon insisted that bin Laden “had an operational and strategic direction role, which makes the raid last Sunday night .  .  .  all the more important in terms of our ultimate strategic goal, which is the strategic defeat of this organization.”

A few days after Donilon’s interview with Gregory, Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica published a fascinating look at bin Laden’s world. Citing U.S. intelligence officials who had reviewed the al Qaeda CEO’s files, Rotella described bin Laden as a “fugitive micro-manager” who “clearly played a role in al Qaeda’s operational, tactical, and strategic planning.”

Although communications were hampered by security protocols, Rotella continued, bin Laden “managed to retain authority over al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, and Iraq.” He sent messages to them, and they sent responses. In one instance, some in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) suggested that Anwar al Awlaki take over leadership of the group. Bin Laden nixed that idea, preferring to keep his longtime aide-de-camp, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, in charge. Wuhayshi remains in that position today.

There are additional examples in this early reporting that support the same view: Osama bin Laden managed a cohesive, international terrorist network.

Nearly one year later, however, the fix was in. Some in the Obama administration had decided to spin bin Laden’s documents to portray the slain al Qaeda chieftain as a recluse with little sway over the terror network he had helped build.

This new narrative was first pushed by administration-friendly journalists such as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who characterized bin Laden as “a lion in winter” in a March 18, 2012, article. A month and a half later, in a May 3 opinion piece riddled with logical contradictions, CNN’s Peter Bergen described bin Laden as “isolated” and yet a “micromanager.” Bergen has repeatedly argued that the threat from al Qaeda is insignificant, and his reporting on the documents more often than not is intended to buttress his view.

A pathetically small sample of documents, the 17 mentioned above, was given to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), which analyzed them and concluded that bin Laden “enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al Qaeda in name,” such as AQAP or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), “or so-called fellow travelers,” such as the Pakistani Taliban.

The CTC’s analysis, also published on May 3, 2012, clearly contradicted the initial assessments made in the wake of the Abbottabad raid. We cannot say that the CTC report’s authors had better access to the documents in the year that followed, though, as the documents they looked at were not even a significant percentage of the vast cache recovered. Moreover, even the documents analyzed in the CTC report do not support its conclusions.

What has been reported about the documents excluded from the administration-approved subset does not support the CTC’s conclusions either. Consider what the Guardian’s Jason Burke reported on April 29, 2012—just days before the CTC report was published. Burke reported that the documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound “show a close working relationship between top al Qaeda leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the Taliban, including frequent discussions of joint operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government, and targets in Pakistan.” Both Osama bin Laden and his replacement, Ayman al Zawahiri, were involved in coordinating attacks with the Taliban.

Mysteriously, the documents Burke reported on were not among those the administration allowed the CTC to publish just four days later. Why? As Burke noted beforehand, the documents “undermine hopes of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, where the key debate among analysts and policymakers is whether the Taliban—seen by many as following an Afghan nationalist agenda—might once again offer a safe haven to al Qaeda or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.”

Indeed, the Obama administration has repeatedly pushed for fantasyland peace talks with the Taliban. At one point, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that the Taliban must renounce al Qaeda, which it has repeatedly refused to do. Simultaneously, administration officials, including the president, have sought to downplay al Qaeda’s presence inside Afghanistan. If the Taliban and al Qaeda are closely cooperating on attacks, and they are, then the entire rationale for drawing down forces in Afghanistan comes into question.

Another, more startling example of what the administration excluded from the documents released to the public was offered by Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to President Obama. Riedel said the files show a close relationship between bin Laden and the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed. The LeT is a Pakistan-based terrorist group with known ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. It was responsible for the November 2008 siege in Mumbai, India, in which 166 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.

“The documents and files found in Abbottabad showed a close connection between bin Laden and Saeed, right up to May 2011,” Riedel told the Hindustan Times. And that’s not all. Riedel said that the recovered intelligence “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many assumed.”

This is a bombshell. It changes the public understanding of how al Qaeda operates both inside and out of Pakistan. The Hindustan Times reported Riedel’s comments on April 4, 2012. Yet less than one month later, there was no sign of the Mumbai connection in what the administration released to the public.

The story of bin Laden’s documents is not merely a historical curiosity. The files have a direct bearing on the future of America’s counterterrorism strategy.

This brings us back to John Brennan, the man President Obama would have lead the CIA. It was Brennan who announced, during his Wilson Center speech last April, the pending release of the 17 bin Laden documents. It was in that same speech that he reiterated President Obama’s promise of more transparency.

The linchpin of Brennan’s approach to fighting al Qaeda is the use of pinprick drone strikes and special operations raids to take out select al Qaeda members who are thought to threaten the American homeland. Brennan and his fellow administration officials certainly know that al Qaeda’s affiliates are growing in places like Syria, where upwards of 10,000 al Qaeda fighters are on the ground today. But they want to define the threat in such a way that a more robust American military response is not necessary.

Brennan portrays al Qaeda’s South Asian “core”—itself imprecisely defined—as a threat distinct from al Qaeda’s affiliates. Coincidentally, this is what the administration-approved assessment of the 17 documents suggested. Others should carry out most of the fighting against the affiliates, the administration believes. Only certain al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists should feel the wrath of American drones.

The Drone

But if al Qaeda lives on as an extended network, with Ayman al Zawahiri at its helm, then the picture becomes far more complex. Drones cannot contain the growing threat from al Qaeda in places like Syria. Similarly, it took French military forces to stem al Qaeda’s advances in Mali. The administration and its surrogates would have us believe that these are all discrete problems, and America can mainly “lead from behind.”

It is for that reason, among others, that the American public deserves to see bin Laden’s files. To use Brennan’s own words, let the American people “make informed judgments” about the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. Let them see bin Laden’s files.

Widely distributed Muslim text shows lie of Hamas-linked #CAIR’s #MyJihad campaign

In “The Meaning of Jihad,” the ever-vigilant Kamala explores a popular Muslim text’s teaching on jihad to expose the hypocrisy and deception of Hamas-linked CAIR’s #MyJihad campaign:

CAIR’s Ahmed Rehab describes their #MyJihad ads this way: “The campaign is about reclaiming Islam, and not just ‘jihad,’ from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremists… Whether it’s the bin Ladens and the al-Qaidas of the Muslim world, or the Pam Gellers and Frank Gaffneys of the non-Muslim world, ironically — even though they come from the two opposite ends of the spectrum — they agree exactly on the same definition of ‘jihad’ and on the same worldview of Islam versus the rest of the world.”

CAIR would have you believe that “extremists” like bin Laden and al-Qaeda are the only Muslims that think Jihad means anything other than to “build friendships across the aisle,” to “not judge people by their cover,” or to “stay fit despite [a] busy schedule.

But if that’s the case, then extremists like al-Qaeda must be running the San Francisco Bay Area Muslim Community Association, the Islamic Circle of North America in New Jersey, the Muslim and Islamic Center in Willowbrook, Iillinois, and the Dar Elsalam Islamic Center in Arlington, Texas.

All of these American Muslim organizations teach and/or promote a book on Islam called Minhaj al-Muslim. This book offers a simple definition of Jihad that has little to do with fitness or friendships:

“The specific ruling of Jihad – which is fighting against the disbelievers and those who wage war against Islam – is that it is a collective compulsory duty.” (Vol. 2, p. 165)

This book is sold by the MCA bookstore, among a small number of “authentic” books about Islam. It’s also sold by the bookstore of the New Jersey chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America.

On YouTube, you can find multiple video lectures of this book, taught at the Dar ElSalam Islamic Center in Arlington, Texas. It’s also taught in a weekly college student “Halaqa” (religious gathering for learning) in Willowbrook, Illinois.

For more detail about Minhaj al-Muslim’s take on Jihad, here’s an excerpt from a previous article analyzing Minhaj’s perspective on Jihad and Islamic positions on other subjects such as homosexuality, apostasy, and women’s rights:

Four types of jihad are listed. The first: “Performing Jihad against disbelievers and those who wage war against the Muslims.” Number two is jihad against “rebellious sinners,” and number three is jihad against “Satan.” Only the fourth type is “Jihad against one’s self.” While Minhaj acknowledges that this type “has even been called the greatest Jihad,” this claim is accompanied by a footnote pointing out that “this is based on a weak Hadith [saying by or about Muhammad]…” (Vol. 2, p. 167)

In his fascinating book, Inside Jihad, former Egyptian Islamic Jihad member Tawfik Hamid explains the significance of this specific attribution:

Abu Bakr Al-Jazairy – a lecturer in the Nobel Prophetic Mosque in Saudi Arabia wrote in his well-known, widely-distributed book, Minhaj Al-Muslim, that this hadith “…is based upon a weak Hadith…” As we can see, on the one hand Islamists show non-Muslims a peaceful Hadith to improve Islam’s image, and on the other teach Muslims, that it is weak (and by implication, that Muslims should not follow it). In contrast, Islamists teach Muslims that the following hadith is sahih, or “strong,”accurate” and “authentic,” and thus cannot be ignored:

I have been commanded to fight all mankind until they testify that none has the right to be worshiped except Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah… (Agreed upon) Minhaj Al-Muslim, Vol 1, p. 402

The phrase “agreed upon” at the end of the above hadith means that it is narrated as sahih by both Al-Buchary and Muslim, which communicates to Muslims that it is extremely powerful… In this case, Muslims are taught that the violent hadith is strong and the peaceful hadith is weak. This theological tactic deceives countless non-Muslims. (pp. 106-107)

Feisal Abdul-Rauf, of Ground Zero Mosque infamy, explains in his 2000 book, Islam: A Sacred Law, that a weak hadith “is a hadith against which serious doubts can be raised.” (p. 151) Thus, the notion that self-Jihad is the “greatest Jihad” – a view Islamic spokesmen are always quick to espouse – is a dubious one.

Read it all.

Posted by Robert