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Al Qaeda crosses the Ts in 'terrorist'

Declassified papers reveal the group isn't immune from petty bureaucracy.

April 16, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Mohammed Atef was furious.

The Al Qaeda leader had learned that a subordinate had broken the rules repeatedly. So he did his duty as the feared military chief of a global terror network: He fired off a nasty memo.

In two pages mixing flowery religious terms with itemized complaints, the Egyptian boss accused the militant of misappropriating cash, a car, sick leave, research papers and an air conditioner during "an austerity situation" for the network. He demanded a detailed letter of explanation.

"I was very upset by what you did," Atef wrote. "I obtained 75,000 rupees for you and your family's trip to Egypt. I learned that you did not submit the voucher to the accountant, and that you made reservations for 40,000 rupees and kept the remainder claiming you have a right to do so. . . . Also with respect to the air-conditioning unit, . . . furniture used by brothers in Al Qaeda is not considered private property. . . . I would like to remind you and myself of the punishment for any violation."

The memo by Atef, who later died in the U.S.-led assault on Osama bin Laden's Afghan refuge in 2001, is among recently declassified documents that reveal a little-known side of the network. Although Al Qaeda has endured thanks to a loose and flexible structure, its internal culture has nonetheless been surprisingly bureaucratic and persistently fractious, investigators and experts say.

The documents were captured in Afghanistan and Iraq and date from the early 1990s to the present. They depict an organization obsessed with paperwork and penny-pinching and afflicted with a damaging propensity for feuds.

"The picture of internal strife that emerges from the documents highlights not only Al Qaeda's past failures but also -- and more importantly -- it offers insight into its present weaknesses," concludes a study of the documents issued in September by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. "Al Qaeda today is beset by challenges that surfaced in leadership disputes at the beginning of the organization's history."

In the years after 2001, anti-terrorism officials worked to understand a foe that defied a Western mind-set. In contrast to state-sponsored extremist groups, Al Qaeda was a decentralized alliance of networks. Recruits in Afghanistan had access to Bin Laden and other bosses. Operatives were often given great autonomy.

But the egalitarian veneer coexisted with the bureaucratic mentality of the chiefs, mostly Egyptians with experience in the military and highly structured extremist groups.

"They may have imposed the blindingly obdurate nature of Egyptian bureaucracy," said a senior British anti-terrorism official who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. "You see that in the retirement packages they offered, the lists of members in Iraq, the insecure attitude about their membership, the rifts among leaders and factions."

Like newly arrived fighters in Iraq today, recruits in the 1990s filled out applications that were kept in meticulous rosters. The shaggy, battle-scarred holy warriors of Afghanistan were micromanagers. They scrupulously documented logistical details -- one memo accounts for a mislaid Kalashnikov rifle and 125 rounds of ammunition. They groused and nagged about money.

In a brief letter from the late 1990s, a militant wished Atef "Peace and God's mercy and blessings" and "praise to the Lord and salvation to his prophet." Then he got down to business: "I have not received my salary in three months and I am six months behind in paying my rent. . . . You also told me to remind you, and this is a reminder."

A stern Egyptian bean-counter set the austere policies. Mustafa Ahmed Al Yahzid, a 52-year-old trained as an accountant, ran the network's finance committee between 1995 and 2007, said Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda."

"He is known as being a very stringent administrator, who keeps tight control of Al Qaeda's finances," Gunaratna said.

Committees and titles proliferated. And for years, schisms pitted Bin Laden's inner circle against factions who saw him as a chaotic commander prone to military miscalculation. They also faulted him and his deputies for disdain toward non-Arabs, a persistent point of conflict, according to the West Point study.

Dissent was loud. Two influential Syrians scolded Bin Laden "like a disobedient child" in an e-mail in 1999, the study says. They urged him to end tensions with Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief.

"I think our brother [Bin Laden] has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans and applause," the Syrians wrote. "You should apologize for any inconvenience or pressure you have caused."

The documents also suggest a vexing struggle to retain operational control in recent years.

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