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Why ISIL Both Destroys and Exploits the Middle East’s Antiquities

On May 20, forces of ISIL (the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and in the Levant, also known as IS or ISIS) managed to take control of the Syrian city of Palmyra. The city, which has a population of 50,000, is of importance for its strategic position near gas fields and roads that cross the desert in the center of Syria. But the name also evokes the ancient remnants of the country’s history. As UNESCO states, “Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world.” Once more the alarm is being raised about the risk that, together with extreme violence against the local population, ISIL will carry out systematic destruction of the archeological sites that come under its control, as it has done before elsewhere in Syria and in Iraq.

It is by now accepted that the sale of looted antiquities is one of the sources of financing of the group, and that coordinated efforts have to be directed at disrupting this market.

But ISIL’s attacks on heritage sites are not limited to destruction in the name of religion. While the organization has made sure to publicize the wanton destruction of artifacts deemed to be idolatrous, numerous reports have claimed that in fact ISIL uses pillaged antiquities to help finance itself, either selling the objects on the black market or taxing traffickers active in territories they control. On some occasion, witnesses have reported, artifacts have been directly exchanged for weapons.

The problem of destruction and looting of heritage, especially in conflict areas, is as long as human history. During World War II, Hitler notoriously pilfered masterpieces from most countries he invaded, and legal proceedings for the restitution of stolen artifacts are still ongoing. More recently the world has witnessed the destruction and plundering of historical heritage driven by ideological motives in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mali, and many other countries rich in archeological heritage.

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ISIL’s actions, however, pose new challenges to those who fight it. Less than a year ago, in June 2014, Iraqi and American forces near Mosul, Iraq retrieved numerous flash-drives that detailed the various sources of financing of the Islamic State. It emerged that ISIL had raised almost $36 million (US) from the sale of antiquities pillaged from the Syrian region of Al-Nabuk alone. While experts have difficulties assessing accurately the total size of this black market and how much it is bringing to ISIL’s coffers, it is by now accepted that the sale of looted antiquities is one of the sources of financing of the group, and that coordinated efforts have to be directed at disrupting this market.

One indicator that new attention is being devoted to this issue is its inclusion in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199 of February 2015 on combating the terrorist organizations of ISIL, Al-Qaida, and Al-Nusrah Front. The resolution, which is legally binding, emphasizes that “the looting and trafficking of cultural objects is one of the sources of financing for the Islamic State in Iraq and in the Levant (ISIL), al-Nusra Front (ANF) and other individuals, groups and entities associated with al-Qaida”. It further indicates that “such funding is being used to support recruitment efforts and to strengthen operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks”; and it imposes a new ban on the illicit trade of antiquities from Syria (besides the already existing one on the trade of Iraqi antiquities). All member states are expected to report by June 2015 to the Security Council’s Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee on the measures they have undertaken to comply with the directions given by the resolution.


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The U.S.-led International Coalition to counter ISIL (which comprises more than 60 countries, including Canada) has also included the fight against looted art trafficking among its priorities. In March 2015, the Coalition established a Counter-ISIL Finance Group tasked with studying different strategies to combat ISIL’s financial activities. Among its priorities is to understand how ISIL exploits the archeological patrimony of the territories it holds, and to disrupt this source of financing for the group.

The challenge that the international community is facing now is therefore especially daunting. On one hand, it must prevent the destruction of monuments that represent the historical memory not only of the Syrian people, but also of humanity itself. On the other, it must map and disrupt the black market of looted antiquities which, removed from their original location and archeological context, find their way in the hands of collectors all over the world—possibly even in the very countries that are fighting to defeat ISIL.

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