When ISIS seizes a new city, it often loots the museums and cultural sites for artifacts it can sell on the black market to make money.
This not only provides a significant source of income for the terrorist group, but it also represents a systematic destruction of the region’s cultural heritage. And it’s difficult for authorities to recover stolen artifacts or prevent their sale on the black market, according to a report in The New York Times.
The Times outlines the problem:
Laws around the world are weak and inconsistent, and customs enforcement can screen only a portion of what crosses international borders, according to officials and experts in trafficking. Long-established smuggling organisations are practiced in getting the goods to people willing to pay for them, and patient enough to stash ancient artifacts in warehouses until scrutiny dies down. Despite a near-universal outcry over the Islamic State’s actions, few countries have shown interest in imposing new restrictions to curb the booming trade in antiquities, estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year.
ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh) has looted up to $300 million worth of antiquities, which it routes to the black market through Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, according to Bloomberg. The output of antiquities from Iraq and Syria have reportedly boomed since ISIS started expanding its influence in those countries.
Bloomberg described how it works: “The extremists are closely linked to Turkish crime networks in the border towns of Gaziantep or Akcakale,” the outlet reported.
“Once the artifacts are smuggled into Turkey, a broker will cash them for resale to dealers who have pockets deep enough to pay for storage and wait up to 15 years to sell, when law enforcement is less focused on them.”
Satellite images have confirmed that ISIS-controlled areas are now full of holes where ancient ruins lie.
France Desmarais, director of programs and partnerships at the International Council of Museums, told The Times that “we’re faced with the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War.”
Michael Danti, a Boston University archaeologist who advises the US State Department on smuggled antiquities, made a similar assessment to The Wall Street Journal last year.
“What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into an organised transnational business that is helping fund terror,” he told the newspaper. “It’s the gravest cultural emergency I’ve seen.”
And ISIS selling antiquities on the black market isn’t all historians have to worry about. ISIS has also been known to destroy large-scale historical sites that they can’t plunder. The militants have released videos showing them taking sledgehammers to historical artifacts and blowing up temples. Several UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been significantly damaged.
The Associated Press reported in May that ISIS destroys what it cannot easily sell.
Experts told The Associated Press that large artifacts “are destroyed with sledgehammers and drills for the benefit of the cameras,” while more “portable items like figurines, masks, and ancient clay cuneiform tablets are smuggled to dealers in Turkey.”
Members of the United Nations Security Council have vowed to take steps to block ISIS’ trade in antiquities, and the US State Department has announced a $5 million reward for information that “leads to the significant disruption of” ISIS’ trafficking of oil and antiquities, according to The Times.
But so far, governments have not been able to stop the looting and smuggling, and there appear to be willing buyers in the Middle East and the West, The Times noted.
There are also more unofficial attempts to preserve the Middle East’s historical artifacts. The Journal chronicled how a “loose-knit band of academics” has taken matters into their own hands to fight smuggling.
The academics — who pose as antiques dealers so they’re able to photograph the looted artifacts they’re tracking — are taught how to document which artifacts are at key sites and what is already missing from them; how to hide artifacts that might be at risk of looting; and to record those objects’ locations so they can be retrieved later, according to The Journal.
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