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“People think that this is done on the back of an envelope. It isn’t,” said 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-Qaida safe house 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
The majority of the invoices found on a cement floor in a building in Timbuktu were scribbled by hand, on Post-it notes, on lined math paper or on the backs of envelopes.
Others were typed in what may serve as formal expense reports. Al-Qaida clearly required such expense reports — in a letter from the stash, middle managers chided 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 said, members of Al-Qaida came in pairs, one to negotiate the sale, and the other to record prices on a notepad.
The fighters would ask for a price, and then write it down, 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.”
The corporate nature of the organization was also on display in the types of activities they funded.
For example, two receipts, for $4,000 and $6,800, were listed as funds for “workshops,” another idea borrowed from business. A flier confirmed that Al-Qaida held the equivalent of corporate training retreats.
Al-Qaida’s accounting practices left a strong impression on at least one person in Timbuktu: Djitteye, the convenience store manager.
The Al-Qaida commander who came in for mustard was Nabil Alqama, the head of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s “Southern Command.” One day, he asked the store employee to get a receipt book printed so he could provide more official-looking invoices.
The green receipt book now sits under his cash register. These days, when customers come in, he always asks if they would like a receipt.
No one ever does.