international affairs

More Proof That Al-Qaeda Is Super Corporate

“Do you have a receipt for that?”

Upon discovering about 100 receipts in a building formerly occupied by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu earlier this year, the Associated Press noted that the international terrorist organization is not only “obsessed with documenting the most minute expenses,”  it is also running itself like a corporation (something we’ve known for a while.) The practice, it turns out, started back in 1976 “when a young Osama bin Laden entered King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia to study economics, and went on to run part of his millionaire father’s construction company.” As a result of that leadership, today’s extremists “assiduously track their cash flow, recording purchases as small as a single light bulb.”

What else is Al Qaeda buying? Perhaps donuts? The AP adds:

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.

Of these money matters, Brookings Institution fellow William McCants said, “They have to have bookkeeping techniques because of the nature of the business they are in. 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.”

Going further, Jason Burke, who wrote the book on Al-Qaida (literally, that’s what it’s called) added that such meticulous bookkeeping — in one example, a 1997 safe house raid uncovered eight year’s worth of gas-station receipts — has more to do with international organization than petty accounting: “Bureaucracy, as we know, gives senior managers the illusion they are in control of distant subordinates. But that influence is much, much less than they would like,” Burke said, citing a letter from the stash in which middle managers chide a terrorist for not handing his expense report in on time. So the next time you think about Al Qaeda, imagine them less like WMD-wielding boogie men and more like the sad, put-upon corporate lackey in your favorite slacker movie.