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Smuggled Antiquities Fund ISIL’s Campaigns

December 6, 2014

By Aliaume Leroy

It is no secret that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) makes about $1 million per day selling petrol from the oilfields it had captured during its striking advances in Iraq and Syria over the past three years. Much less discussed in the mainstream media is ISIL’s other source of income: looted antiquities.

The scope and depth of this business should not be underestimated. Currently, ISIL controls more than 4, 500 archeological sites solely in Iraq, some of them classified under the UNESCO World Heritage label. Satellite images of the ancient city of Apamea, located in Syria and founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, reveal the intensity of the looting activities. The business is so thriving that it actually became the second source of ISIL’s funding. According to files retrieved by the Iraqi intelligence services last June, the group made as much as $36 million from the sales of antiquities found in al-Nabuk alone, an area located in the Qalamoun mountains. How does ISIL cash on this activity? What is the trade pattern? Who buys the looted artifacts?

Before answering these questions, it is key to understand that relying on smuggled antiquities for cash inflows is not new. The lawlessness created by the 2003 American invasion turned Iraq into a paradise for arts traffickers. As soon as US forces entered Baghdad, looters rushed into the National Museum of Iraq and plundered its treasures. Furthermore, Thomas Livoti, PhD student at the University of Montana, indicates that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have always looted artifacts in order to fund their campaigns. Interestingly, this information reveals that networks of arts looters and smugglers have been thriving in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan over the past decades. ISIL simply had to capitalize on these well-established organizations. Finally, it must also be clear that ISIL is not the only entity tapping in this business. A youtube video records Syrian government forces placing statues from the ancient Roman Palmyra city (looters’ holes on this site can be seen in the featured picture of this article) into the back of a pick-up truck.

ISIL cashes in on looted antiquities in two ways. First, the group provides authorization to local inhabitants to loot archaeological sites it controls in exchange for a levy – a percentage of the monetary value of the objects found – based on the Islamic khums tax system. The khums specify that Muslims must pay to the state a predefined percentage of the value of the goods they retrieve from the soil. This percentage varies across ISIL’s territories. It reaches as high as 50% in the Raqqa region while it remains at 20% in the ISIL-held areas of the Aleppo province. Up to now, ISIL’s involvement in the trade of smuggled antiquities was thus financial. However, Sam Hardy, an archaeologist at the University College of London, wars that ISIL might very well be running the trafficking operations itself.

How does the trafficking network function? Once in the hands of ISIL or semiprofessional looters taxed by ISIL, the artefacts are either driven overland to Syria with the final destination behind Turkey or Lebanon or are sent to the Gulf States. Since Iraq and Syria are war-torn regions, border checks are practically inexistant. When they arrive in Beirut or Ankara, the antiquities remain underground for a couple of months. Acquired by a middleman, they “reemerge” accompanied by fake export papers. These documents often contain vague information on the origin of the plundered object such as “Near East.” The intermediary then either sells the looted antiquities to a private arts collector or send them to auction houses in Europe and the US. Germany, and more precisely Munich, has become one of the hotspots for the trade of smuggled antiquities. Why? Germany has a Cultural Property Restitution Act which states that countries wanting to retrieve an object they believe to be part of their historical collections must prove that it indeed belong to them. However, lists detailing Syrian and Iraqi cultural and historical objects are practically inexistant. To fill the void, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) recently published an Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects At Risk.

At the end of the day, the existence of a looted artifacts trade is fuelled by the Western demand for Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman arts. As Michel Van Rijin, a famous antique artifacts smuggler, eloquently put it: “Many antique collectors unwillingly support terrorists like the Islamic State.” Between 2012 and 2013, US imports of Syrian and Iraqi cultural objects respectively surged by 134% and 492%. Even though most of the artifacts are copies, many originals make their way through the American and European Customs agencies under the label “handicrafts.” The number of plundered artifacts entering the US and European legal arts market is also likely to witness a sharp increase in the future years. As stated earlier, it takes months and sometimes even years to launder antiques.

What line of actions should be taken by governments, international organizations, and law enforcement agencies to limit the extent of this business? Targeting the supply side is for the moment impossible. Most Syrian and Iraqi archaeological sites are firmly in the hands of ISIL, the Syrian government forces, or other armed groups. As the 2003 Iraq War demonstrated, sending troops on the ground can actually make matters worse. It thus appears very unlikely that there will be a Middle East version of the “Monuments Men” in the near future. Rather, the line of actions is limited to the demand side. Local and international organizations like The Syrian Campaign are pushing for the UN Security Council to adopt a ban on the trade of undocumented Syrian and Iraqi artifacts. This is would be a strong forward, raising awareness and sending a strong message to the international antique markets. The only problem is that looted antiquities usually have fake papers, enabling them to legally enter the US and European arts networks. For the moment, the key response is to draw lists, like the one published by the ICOM, of looted artifacts in order to facilitate their identification by Customs and law enforcement agencies. Another important change must occur at the national level. European countries such as Germany and the US must implement tougher regulations to pinpoint smuggled antiques and return them to their true owners: the Syrian and Iraqi states. One way would be to seize objects that do not have proper and precise reference of origin on their documents.

No one should fall for the argument stating that buying artifacts is a way to protect them from the ravages of the conflicts in Syrian and Iraq. Despite being true, it overlooks the central role played by the demand side in funnelling looting activities for profits. As long as the demand will be high, ISIL will grow richer thanks to its smuggling operations and tax system. Breaking it is thus essential to ensure the preservation of one of the Humanity birthplaces.

 KEY UPDATE: The $36 million figure mentioned in the article has been denied by various experts and archaeologists.  TheNational states: “So how much money is ISIL making from looted antiquities? Several media reports over the past two months put it at millions of dollars. One said ISIL had made $36m (Dh132m) alone from looting at one site in Syria. A spokesperson for Unesco’s Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project also called the high figures being quoted grossly inaccurate. Desmarais agrees: ‘If someone gives you a number today, they are lying to you.’ ” Credit goes to Peter Tompa for bringing this to the attention of the author  (see comments below).

Aliaume Leroy

Aliaume Leroy is an open source investigative journalist with the Africa Investigations unit of BBC World Service. At Bellingcat, he concentrates his research on Africa and Latin America. Contact via Twitter @Yaolri or email in English, French, or Spanish.

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  1. Peter Tompa

    This article repeats wild claims by archaeologists who hate private collecting and are trying to use the tragedy in Syria to advance their own agenda. There is some looting going on in Syria, and presumaly ISIS is trying to make money off it, but it has not been established looting is a major funding source or that any of the artifacts are coming to the West in quantity. Indeed, antiquities are not very “liquid” compared to oil or “easy money” like kidnapping and extortion. Those pushing this agenda are also loath to mention that the Syrian Regime itself controls Apamea and Palymyra, two of the most important sites that have been looted or that the Regime is reponsible for intentional destruction of early Sunni religious sites. (ISIS is destroying Shia religous sites in revenge.) Why is that? Could it be that they are hoping for a return of “business as usual” (excavation permits and other collaboration) if Assad wins? Or, could it be they don’t want to mention that under UNESCO procedures any artifacts that US Customs and other Customs Services seize should be repatriated back to Assad? The issues are simply far more complicated than this article suggests.

    • Aliaume Leroy

      I agree with you that the issues in regards to looting are very complicated and there is a lack of report on the ground, but your comment makes a couple of wrong assumptions. First, as the data mentioned in my article shows (and you can find other on internet), it has been shown that there has been a significant rise of artifacts coming to US and Germany from Syria and Iraq over the past months. Second, since ISIS tends to rely on the khums tax system, looting is “easy money.” The group directly gets cash by imposing a levy on what locals find. Finally, archaeologists have certified the extent of the looting made by ISIS from inside sources in Turkey as well as tools like satellite images. Nonetheless, you are right to point out that ISIS is not the only group taking part in such activities. As you indicated, the Syrian Regime controls Apamea and Palymyra and I should have made this more clear in my article.

  2. Peter Tompa

    Thanks for your note and the mention of the Assad Regime’s part in the problem. Yes, I agree there is looting, but the question is whether it’s really a significant funding source and whether its coming to the West in quantity. The $36 million figure you cite from one province in Iraq has been debunked by a number of commentators. Even assuming the figure itself is credible (it supposedly comes from Iraqi Intelligence, not necessarily a trustworthy source), follow up reports suggest that the number relates to all sources of income from that specific province, not looting. As to the figure of imports, I would not put too much stock in that as the values associated with the increases are small compared to the wild claims about the value of looted material in toto. I believe the number also relates to all antiques made in those countries not necessarily where they were imported from or when they left Syria or Iraq. It would be interesting to go behind those figures and see if they include imports for museum exhibitions and the like and whether a few high value figures skewed the numbers. It could also reflect a general uptick in trade due to better economic conditions worldwide. As for the khums tax, my understanding is that is applied to everything, not just antiquities. Also, there are issues again about how much that would actually generate. Overall, I suspect not much, especially compared to hot oil and the like. Anyway, there is nothing wrong with investigating this further, just let’s be careful before we make hard conclusions that are not necessarily verifiable. My personal concern is that all this is being used to justify placing the “devil’s proof” on collectors of artifacts made in Syria or Iraq thousands of years ago that have been collected in the West for hundreds of years. Also, the cynic in my will note that in the US its also being used as a justification for further funding for archaeologists– the exact same group that is pressing the issue the hardest.

    • Aliaume Leroy

      Thank you for your reply. The question of whether looting represents a significant portion of ISIL’s revenues is certainly controversial and hard to answer due to the lack of information. However, there is no doubt that trafficked artifacts enter the Western market. Between 2011 and 2013, US imports of Iraqi antiques and works of art was multiplied by 4. Specialists agree that such a significant rise is often the result of looted artifacts piggybacking onto the legal marketplace. What is more compelling is the fact that the imports actually decreased from 2011 to 2012 (when Iraq was more or less “stabilized”) and then witnessed a sharp rise from 2012 to 2013 and is suspected to rise even more (as Iraq re-descended into chaos and ISIS started to make major gains against the Iraqi state). The facts are undeniable but I do not draw from them the conclusion that arts collectors are to blame for it. As you stated, the situation is complex. The increase in looting in Iraq and Syria is the direct result of years of instability. Regulations should thus target the goods themselves in order to limit the number of looted antiquities that enter the legal arts market. This is sadly extremely difficult to put in place…

  3. Peter Tompa

    Thanks. Again, my understanding of the import figures is that they are based on country of origin (manufacture). So, they apply to material “made in Iraq” which came from third countries (not just Iraq). One cannot necessarily assume that the material (which I believe includes all antiques, not just archaeological material) exited Iraq within the last few years as opposed to decades ago. It’s also important to look at the absolute dollar figures. Changes in percentages are one thing, but if the values are not huge in art terms anyway, not sure its much evidence of anything.

    As for the $36 million figure, I just saw this which is worth quoting, ” So how much money is ISIL making from looted antiquities? Several media reports over the past two months put it at millions of dollars. One said ISIL had made $36m (Dh132m) alone from looting at one site in Syria. A spokesperson for Unesco’s Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project also called the high figures being quoted grossly inaccurate. Desmarais agrees: “If someone gives you a number today, they are lying to you.”” See “

    As for regulations, in my view they only hurt legitimate businesses and not those who would smuggle the items. It’s far harder as a practical matter to come up with documentation for legal import under US law than some suggest.

    • Aliaume Leroy

      Thanks for the quote. As you can see, I updated the article in order to mention it (I also felt free to credit you for it if you don’t mind, although I do not know if Peter Tompa is you real name…).
      For the import figures, see this link for the actual changes in dollars from 2011 to 2013: It is also key to understand that a large portion of these imported archaeological antiquities and antiques are just fakes.
      In regards to regulations, it might be the case for the US as you do indicate. On the other hand, countries like Germany have really lenient legislation that regulates the legal arts market, making it very difficult for law enforcement agencies and experts to actually differentiate between trafficked antiquities and ones obtained through “legitimate” and “legal” means (according to the legislation of the country, hence the brackets).

  4. Mpeace

    Interesting enough you have not mentioned that the US had every chance to destroy the convoy of ISIS, as per pictures all over the internet and didn’t do it. As Chris Hedges have said: the most to benefit from ISIS is NATO nd the US.

    If the US can send drones to kill Afghanistan families, weddings, etc, it can kill ISISL as they cross the desert.

    I believe in the fairy tales, green monsters and in Saint
    i don’t buy the kool aid.

  5. Mpeace

    After you read The French Intifada, by Andrew Hussey, Full spectrum dominance by William Engdahl, The invisible Government by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross and the United States of Fear, among a list of incredible well thought out research, you connect the dots…
    Read pages 196 to page 212 of Full Spectrum Dominance. Read Michi Kaku – and Daniel Axolrod – To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon Secret Wars’ Plan – Boston South End Press 1987…
    You are a young fellow, I am 72. I have been around. I never had a teevee. My entertainment is to read on finances, geo-politiks, and I have the advantage to speak 5 idioms…hey glorious time I have had watching all of the parts paying it to make money, destroy the environment, murder humans in grand scale and destroy the little democracy we have had in Canada and abroad.
    You are very naive to think that the Russians or the US and NATO are there to bring democracy to countries. They follow Sir Halford Mackinder’s strategies, taken up by Brzezinsky and Condi Rice…economics by Hayek, Strauss, Minsk and Freedman…
    Your generation will be more screwed that mine.
    Just read Graham Steele what I learned about Politics and you will realize, you were better off learning how to grow food or become a veterinarian. McGill University is the place where M-K Ultra experiemnt took place –

    Every one inside McGill and governments can deny having a hand in it, but McGill is not a temple of learning. McGil is a temple of creating massive brain washing students, just like any other university when dealing with political sciences and other subjects that helps to create fear and manipulate the population inteo compliance…
    Nothing better than the naive to believe things…OMG….

    • Aliaume Leroy

      Thanks for your comment. I however find it quite difficult to see how it ties to the subject I discussed in this article. Drawing from how the US should deal with ISIL in order to outline a general thesis on “how screwed the world is at the moment” is a simple minded generalization. It underestimates certain complexities. Furthermore, I never wrote in my article that I “think that the Russians or the US and NATO are there to bring democracy to countries.”

      On another note, I find your nihilism quite destructive. Starting with the premises that “[my] generation will be more screwed than [yours]” or that “McGill is a temple of creating massive brain washing students” are inherently blocking the possibility of a better world. It locks the mind into a negative framework whereby destructive, rather than constructive, criticism reigns. Rather, we should start with the premise that there is certainly some problems with our modern democracies, opening the space to think of possible improvements. You seem to confuse naivety with a sense of idealism. The latter is the ability to see and understand the current issues in order to think of future solutions. As to your view on education, it is quite reductionist. University aims at developing critical thinking. In order to see that, you just have to spend time with some students-ran organizations and witness the potential that high-level education offers. Did you study or are you currently working at McGill? If yes, I would be more than happy to prove my point by showing you personally.

      Finally, your gloomy vision of the future partially stems from reading the news. Here is a little article (compiling and analyzing data) that explains how and why the world is not falling apart: Nihilist thinking leads to a dangerous vicious circle: you start to see corruption, violence, war, conspiracy theories (like the one you discuss in regards to university), etc… all over the place. It does not leave place for improvements. You might retort that full idealism is also dangerous. I would agree with you since it deprives one from the ability of seeing the realities of the world. Yet, idealism has sometimes changed things in the past for the best . That’s not the case with nihilist thinking.


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