ISIS 'earning big bucks selling looted antiquities'

Up to $405m of artifacts from Iraq, Syria flooding market, say experts

NEW YORK - The Whatsapp message appeared on his iPhone: Photos of an ancient Mesopotamian vase worth US$250,000, (S$337,000), part of a highly valued set, waiting to be extracted.

The recipient, Professor Amr Al Azm, replied that he was interested. A message from a different account followed. The vase could be smuggled through Lebanon.

An anthropologist in Ohio, Prof Al Azm, was faking it, as he does when photos of looted antiquities are sent to him in the belief that he is a collector or dealer. He is a detective - self-appointed - hoping to save some of mankind's rarest and most vulnerable artifacts by tracking the burgeoning antiquities trade of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The world went into shock earlier this year after ISIS released videos of operatives smashing ancient artworks with sledgehammers and drills. But after United States-led air strikes on refineries and tankers reduced the group's US$1 million daily oil revenue by nearly two-thirds, the destruction gave way to looting for sale via eBay, Facebook and Whatsapp.

The self-declared caliphate is now a growing player in the US$3 billion global antiquities market. Buyers are filling ISIS' coffers.

"Islamic State operates like a diversified criminal business," Ms Louise Shelley, author of Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime And Terrorism, said. "They think like business people."

The group's fund-raising structure has rapidly evolved from collecting a 20 per cent tax from diggers and dealers operating on their territory to running their own digs and trades.

Prof Al Azm, who is chair of the Syrian opposition's Syrian Heritage Task Force, says the group has recently set up a government branch, chillingly known as the archaeological administration, near the Turkish border, which manages looting and sales.

"They bring in their own trucks, their own bulldozers, hire their own work crews and pay them salaries," he said.

ISIS is a supplier for a chain involving at least five brokers and dealers, said Professor Michael Danti, an adviser to the US State Department on plundered antiquities from Iraq and Syria.

The extremists are closely linked to Turkish crime networks he said. Once the artifacts are smuggled into Turkey, a broker will cash them for resale to dealers with pockets deep enough to wait up to 15 years to sell, when law enforcement is less focused on them. Archaeologists estimate as much as US$300 million worth of antiquities are now flooding through Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as part of ISIS transactions.

The US International Trade Commission reported that between 2012 and 2013, when ISIS expanded its reach, American imports of declared antiquities from Iraq increased by 672 per cent and those from Syria by 133 per cent.

"Shady dealers sit on smuggled items for years to launder the provenance before trying to sell them for lump sums," said Mr James McAndrew, who worked for 27 years for US Customs and Department of Homeland Security.

"There's enough awareness among major auction houses, such as Sotheby's and Christie's, to avoid handling any antiquity believed to be from Iraq or Syria," he said. "I'm pretty confident those pieces from Iraq and Syria are being sold to locals in the region."

The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution banning the sale of antiquities from Syria and Iraq and the US House of Representatives has made it illegal to sell looted artifacts from Syria.

"The trafficking industry in Iraq and Syria is like what Hollywood is for Los Angeles," Prof Al Azm said. "Just like everyone is an aspiring actor in LA, everyone in Syria and Iraq is a dealer in some trafficked goods. The people won't stop hustling until the war ends."


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline ISIS 'earning big bucks selling looted antiquities'. Subscribe