Al-Qaida's Paper Trail: A 'Treasure Trove' For U.S. From its earliest days, al-Qaida leaders insisted on receipts for everything from floppy disks to explosives. Experts say that was the influence of Osama bin Laden, who earned an undergraduate degree in economics and public administration. That obsession with record-keeping has come back to haunt the organization.
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Al-Qaida's Paper Trail: A 'Treasure Trove' For U.S.

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Al-Qaida's Paper Trail: A 'Treasure Trove' For U.S.

Al-Qaida's Paper Trail: A 'Treasure Trove' For U.S.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep, who is on assignment in Pakistan.

After U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani compound, they rounded up papers and CDs and thumb drives and carried them all out in document bags strung round their necks. That sweep was a key part of the operation, and it was confirmation of what the intelligence community had long believed - that Osama bin Laden was obsessive about documenting everything. That's unusual for a terrorist organization.

But as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, it turns out al-Qaeda is very corporate.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: From its earliest days, al-Qaida leaders insisted on receipts. If fighters were buying a car for an operation, or even disc drives for computers, they were required to return with an accounting of everything they'd spent. Experts say that was the influence of Osama bin Laden. Before he became the ideological leader of al-Qaeda, he studied economics and public administration and he clearly applied what he'd learned to the organization.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): I think this treasure trove of intelligence reflects the fixation or the preoccupation that al-Qaeda always had with massive record-keeping.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Which, of course, may be an effective way to run any kind of organization but also results in a windfall of intelligence to any counterterrorist agency or intelligence community charged with dismantling that organization.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Despite those risks, al-Qaida is built in a way that it has to create a paper trail.

Lieutenant Colonel REID SAWYER (West Point): There's almost this sense in that they can't help themselves.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer, the head of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. He says that because al-Qaeda has so many franchises - like its branch in Yemen, for example - it has to keep detailed records.

Lt. Col. SAWYER: It's this idea that when you have a distributed movement, that you have to gain efficiencies in various means, and one way to do that is to keep very good records and to understand the disparate parts of your enterprise.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The intelligence gathered on the bin Laden compound isn't the first time the U.S. has scooped up key al-Qaeda records. One of the first big troves was discovered in the fall of 2001, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Ground troops found literally hundreds of thousands of pages of records in an al-Qaeda safe house. The documents laid out al-Qaeda's founding bylaws - they included personnel records, receipts for explosives, and even detailed HR policies. That intelligence cache proved that al-Qaeda was unlike any terrorist organization that had come before it.

Again, Bruce Hoffman.

Prof. HOFFMAN: That's exactly the point. It was not organized and didn't function as a traditional or typical terrorist organization did. It functioned really like a multi-national. On the eve of 9/11, for example, the State Department has stated that al-Qaeda had over 60 offices worldwide. I mean in essence it was a multi-national.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Here's another example: As odd as it sounds, al-Qaida had excellent HR benefits. Seized documents show that the group paid attention to its fighters and their families. Married members were allowed to have seven days of vacation for every three weeks worked. Bachelors, they only got five days off a month. Married members, back in 2001, again, according to the seized documents, got a salary of $108 a month. Pay was smaller for single men, larger if the fighters had more than one wife. Now that the organization has less money and is under such pressure, it's unclear whether the benefits are as generous as they used to be.

Mr. RICK NELSON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): My name is Rick Nelson and I'm a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Nelson sees al-Qaeda's next stage - going through a succession -as just as corporate as its other practices. But for al-Qaeda, there's more than just shareholder anxiety at stake.

Mr. NELSON: Right now it's important for them to name a leader. It's important for them to show they are operationally in control of the organization, and they're not doing that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Part of the reason: bin Laden's obsession with record-keeping has come back to haunt the organization. Al-Qaeda doesn't know what the U.S. discovered at the compound, so leaders are laying low.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

KELLY: Tomorrow a look at one member of al-Qaida who is vying to become its next CEO.

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