Islamic State Loots Archaeological Sites for Cash
Publication: Terrorism Monitor
By: John C. K. Daly
The Jamestown Foundation
By late 2013, more than 90 percent of Syria’s cultural sites lay in regions affected by fighting and civil unrest, leaving them open to plunder. In addition, regions of Iraq now under the control of the Islamic State militant group and its allies include roughly 4,500 of Iraq’s 12,000 known archaeological sites.  UNESCO recently reported that the “armed extremists in Iraq” are targeting “cultural heritage, cultural and religious minorities, as well as the documents and written evidence of one of the oldest civilizations in human history” (al-Akhbar [Beirut], February 4). In addition to destroying the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, there is also evidence that such activities are providing an important revenue stream for the Islamic State. U.S. officials have estimated that up to $100 million worth of antiquities from Syria and Iraq are being sold off each year, a significant portion of which is likely to pass through the hands of the Islamic State (Wall Street Journal, February 10). Similarly, on February 13, a UK Conservative member of parliament, Tim Loughton, told the House of Commons that antique buyers in the West could be unwittingly “feeding insurgencies,” citing Iraqi intelligence claims that the Islamic State “had collected as much as $36 million from the sale of artifacts” (Daily Telegraph, February 13).
In late 2012, the Islamic State dramatically increased its financial income when it secured Syria’s eastern oilfields. However, due to the fall in oil prices and U.S.-led airstrikes on oil facilities in its territories, the antiquities trade has become an increasingly important source of Islamic State funds. In one recent media report, an Iraqi intelligence official was quoted as saying: “They [the Islamic State] had taken $36 million from al-Nabuk alone (an area in the Qalamoun Mountains west of Damascus). The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old” (Guardian, June 15, 2014). However, some such figures may be too high as they are based on Western auction house prices rather than initial Islamic State deals with smugglers. Despite this, while the Islamic State continues to rely on black market oil sales, earning an estimated $850,000-1.65 million per day, the antiques trade is an important additional income source, helping it to become financially self-sustaining and less reliant on wealthy Gulf state donors (al-Akhbar [Beirut], February 12).
In terms of Syria specifically, an estimated one third of Syria’s museums and 16 major archaeological sites are believed to have been pillaged, fuelling an illicit trade in stolen Syrian artifacts estimated by one expert to be worth more than $1.89 billion (Sunday Times, May 5, 2013). The Islamic State typically profits from this trade by providing authorization to local inhabitants to loot archaeological sites under its control in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of the excavated objects. The Islamic State’s share is based on the Islamic khums tax system, which specifies that Muslims must pay to the government a predetermined percentage of the value of the retrieved items. This rate, however, reportedly varies from as high as 50 percent in the Raqqa region down to 20 percent in Islamic State-held areas of Aleppo province.  One smuggler told the media that bigger traders with better connections “sold pieces worth $500,000, some for $1 million” (BBC, February 16).
Besides looting, Islamic State militants in Syria have also engaged in acts of ideologically-driven vandalism. In May 2014, for example, the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) obtained photographs of Islamic State militants smashing Assyrian statues and artifacts, believed to be 3,000 years old that had been illegally excavated from Tell Ajaja (Assyrian International News Agency, May 17, 2014). A further UN report from December 2014 based on satellite evidence, which focused on 18 areas, of which six are UNESCO-listed, noted that nearly 300 cultural heritage sites have been destroyed, damaged and looted in Syria since 2011 (AFP, February 4). The six UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed as affected include the Old City of Aleppo, Bosra, Damascus, the Dead Cities of northern Syria, Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra. Imagery of 290 locations at these sites showed 24 of them had been destroyed, 104 severely damaged, 85 moderately damaged and 77 possibly damaged (UNESCO, February 2015). 
The situation is arguably even worse in Iraq, which has been wracked by strife since before 2003. In March 2003, the former head of Iraq’s Department of Antiquities, Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, said that archaeologists believed that 500,000 archaeological sites in Iraq that remain undiscovered and unstudied, along with 10,000 registered and discovered sites, including at least 25,000 highly important ones (al-Akhbar [Beirut], February 3). Many of these sites have subsequently been looted, including by extremist groups. For instance, within weeks of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Assyrian artifacts are reported to have been looted by al-Qaeda, which then reportedly sold them to finance its operations (Assyrian International News Agency, April 1, 2003). When the Islamic State captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nineweh province in June 2014, they gained access to almost 2,000 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites, at least some of which are likely to have since been looted under their watch.
The extent to which the Islamic State has gained financially from such activities is currently unclear, but this may change as since June 2014, Iraqi intelligence officers have been analyzing more than 160 flash drives captured near Mosul from dead Islamic State military council head Abdulrahman al-Bilawi to determine the exact role that the group has played in Syria’s illicit antiquities trade.  In addition to providing funds for the Islamic State, looting also provides employment in areas controlled by the Islamic State. Sadly, the problem of archeological smuggling is not limited to Syria and Iraq in the Middle East; since 2011, $3-6 billion worth of antiquities have reportedly vanished from Egypt, although a far smaller proportion of these are likely to have passed through the hands of militant groups (Al-Monitor, February 5, 2014.)
While the Islamic State’s degradation of the region’s cultural and historic sites is unlikely to end anytime soon, the international community is taking belated steps to limit its effects. Local and international organizations like The Syrian Campaign are pushing for the UN Security Council to ban the trade of undocumented Syrian and Iraqi artifacts.  In early December, UNESCO Chief Irina Bokova called for the creation of “protected cultural zones” to save heritage sites in conflict-torn Iraq and Syria that were at risk of “cultural cleansing” via “stronger engagement with local actors” (al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 4, 2014). The problem is broader than just the Islamic State, however, as groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army have also admitted to looting sites to raise money for weapons. There are also international efforts to disrupt the trade at “end use” countries such as Germany, which has become the “el Dorado of the illegal cultural artifacts trade,” with Munich serving as Europe’s transit hub (Deutsche Welle, October 24, 2014). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also weighed in on the Islamic State’s looting, telling an audience in New York in September 2014:
Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than [the Islamic State]… These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand. 
In a further—and more concrete—step, on February 12, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2199 banning all trade in antiquities from Syria, among other measures aimed at reducing the group’s income from oil and kidnapping (al-Shorfa, February 17). However, while this is an important step, such efforts will take time to bear fruit. Meanwhile, more archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq will come to resemble the moon’s cratered surface as Islamic State looters feed the artistic addictions of wealthy Western collectors while at the same time generating further income for the Islamic State’s military operations.
Dr. John C. K. Daly is a Eurasian foreign affairs and defense policy expert for The Jamestown Foundation and a non-resident fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC.
- Hosham Dawod, “Patrimoine irakien en danger,” L’Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes, June 25, 2014, http://www.ifea-istanbul.net/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=3576%3Apatrimoine-irakien-en-danger&Itemid=450&lang=fr.
- Justine Drennan, “Report: The Black-Market Battleground,” Foreign Policy, October 17, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/10/17/the-black-market-battleground/.
- “UNESCO Director-General welcomes UN Security Council Resolution to step up protection of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq,” UNESCO, February 12, 2015, http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1236/.
- Heather Pringle, “ISIS Cashing in on Looted Antiquities to Fuel Iraq Insurgency,” National Geographic, June 26, 2014, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140626-isis-insurgents-syria-iraq-looting-antiquities-archaeology/.
- See: http://thesyriacampaign.org/en/actions/save-history.
- “Remarks at Threats to Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria Event,” U.S. State Department, September 22, 2014, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/09/231992.htm.
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Photo: Stolen funeral busts from Palmyra, one of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (Source: Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums)