The corporation behind the corpses

FASTIDIOUS: Al Qaeda commander Nabil Alqama asked for a receipt for $1.60 of mustard.
FASTIDIOUS: Al Qaeda commander Nabil Alqama asked for a receipt for $1.60 of mustard.

It turns out that while much of the world is intent on holding al Qaeda to account, the terrorist organisation's own middle management has much the same agenda. At least when it comes to requiring operatives to keep up receipts for their spending.

A stash of documents discovered in Timbuktu reveals that though this outfit seeks to create international anarchy, it has an internal system of stony accountability for even the most modest purchases.

Like a receipt for a US60c cake - suggesting al Qaeda isn't entirely scornful of earthly pleasures - and one for a US$1.80 bar of soap. If that seems pricey by our standards, well we should probably put that down to Mali's economic issues, rather than leaping to assumptions about the financial integrity of religious zealots.

The Associated Press has backed up the impression created by the receipts themselves with reports of a Mali storekeeper recounting how he was fully expecting to be robbed when he was approached by al Qaeda commander Nabil Alqama - only to be politely asked for a pot of mustard and a receipt.

Some Western commentators have even suggested that the Pentagon would do well to follow the jihadists' lead and show a bit more steel itself when it came to keeping within budgets.

Another school of thought, however, is that fanatical adherence to the corporate mentalities has already proven highly effective at destroying America, so it's little wonder the nation's enemies have adopted it.

Other reports from around the world also speak to a weird mix of politeness, formality and irony in al Qaeda's bureaucratic innards. One request, from December 29, 2012, read: "In the name of Allah, the most merciful, we are writing to inform you that we need rockets for our camp - a total of 4 is needed. May God protect you."

Elsewhere, gas station receipts were found in a safe house in Kenya in 1997. They went back eight years.

One upshot of the Timbuktu report, inevitably, is that office staff worldwide will, without fear of exaggeration, be taking up the cry that the company bean-counters giving them a hard time about their expense receipts are behaving like al Qaeda.

Mind you, the bookkeepers can say the same about the errant staffers. One of the Timbuktu documents chides a terrorist for not handing his expense report in on time.

You might think that a terrorist organisation being pursued as ardently as this one would think twice about creating a finely detailed paper trail. But perhaps here's where we should remember that before he got involved in event management, Osama bin Laden studied economics, ran his father's large construction company, and founded conglomerates aplenty. It certainly wasn't his most well-known obsession, but he had long been a stickler for accountability and the trait is still apparent throughout the organisation he has left behind.

Its similarities to the business world also extend to running the equivalent of corporate training retreats - and even a complaints department, as evidenced by a reassuring posting from Syria: "Anyone who has a complaint against any element of the Islamic state, whether the Emir or an ordinary soldier, can come and submit their complaint in any headquarters building in the Islamic state."

Now if they could find an al Qaeda complaints file, that would be a story we'd like to read.

The Southland Times