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05/29/2013

Terrorism, expense forms and other bothers

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(Courtesy Reuters)

Who doesn't hate expense forms? All that accountability and trying to read ripped and faded receipts from places you can't remember and oh, the currency exchange? Nightmare, right?

Apparently, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, the one-eyed Algerian leader nicknamed "Mr. Marlboro" for his cigarette smuggling business, felt the same way. 

Rukmini Callimachi, the West Africa Bureau Chief for The Associated Press, found a 10-page letter in a Timbuktu building once occupied by members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and wrote this amazing tale about Belomoktar.

It begins:

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — After years of trying to discipline him, the leaders of Al Qaeda's North African branch sent one final letter to their most difficult employee. In page after scathing page, they described how he didn't answer his phone when they called, failed to turn in his expense reports, ignored meetings and refused time and again to carry out orders.

Most of all, they claimed he had failed to carry out a single spectacular operation, despite the resources at his disposal.

The employee, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, responded the way talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group. And within months, he carried out two lethal operations that killed 101 people in all: one of the largest hostage-takings in history at a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria in January, and simultaneous bombings at a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger just last week.

Beyond the fact that apparently AQIM has expense forms, there is some good intelligence in the document, such as the discussion about ransom for kidnapped Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay.

When the pair was released by AQIM in 2009, after four months of captivity, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied any ransom was paid. Fowler has always said he doesn't know. But the document obtained by The AP claims nearly $1 million was handed over -- a "meagre" sum that Belmoktar negotiated himself. 

In general, the document confirms the importance of the group's kidnapping operations -- approximately $89 million it states. It also explains why Belmoktar broke off relations with AQIM to form his own group, which reportedly led the January attack against an Algerian gas oil facility, with the help of two Canadians.

But let's face it.. it's the expense forms that are most talked about. It's like a perverse US Weekly magazine feature of "Stars Are Just Like Us." (Just in: Pregnant Reese Witherspoon had a tough time balancing her cell phone and grocery store purchases - Ciao Bella gelato squares and Palapa Azul fruit bars. She shops! She has babies! She eats fruit bars!). 

But maybe understanding this strange normalcy of the "corporate" side of the terrorist group is important too. We've had other glimpses into Al Qaeda's operations (and in-fighting) in the documents uncovered in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, or discovered when the former leader of Al Qaeda in East Africa was killed in Somalia.

We know the group and its franchises have grappled with branding issues and there are even reports that they've had to adhere to the sex sells adage by trying to recruit on porn sites.

Getting inside the group -- even the business side -- may help counter its operations.

So beyond the ridicule, knowing that AQIM has some form of accounting department could help, in, uh, downsizing.

Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm

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