Shutting Down ISIS’ Antiquities Trade

Issue Briefs | National Security

No. 185
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
by David Grantham

The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, reminded the world that the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is at war with western civilization. The U.S. government desperately needs a more comprehensive strategy for combating this threat than simply drone warfare and piecemeal deployments of “specialized expeditionary targeting forces.”

And a top priority of a new, broader campaign should be the destruction of ISIS’ financial networks.

ISIS and Antiquities. ISIS poses a national security threat to the United States primarily because of the resources it commands. The organization boasts an impressive network of revenue streams, ranging from oil proceeds and racketeering profits to money seized from local banks. But ISIS also profits from its lucrative trade in pilfered Roman, Greek, and other antiquities found in Syria and northern Iraq. This lucrative operation presents a national security dilemma because it helps fund ISIS’s international war machine.

The U.S. government and international bodies have tried in the past to undermine the global trade in looted antiquities by international conventions that disallow signatory countries from participating in the theft and
transportation of looted antiquities. But the illegal antiquities market remains notoriously difficult to regulate. Moreover, officials often treat the illegal antiquities trade as a victimless crime run by criminal organizations. Few acknowledge the definitive links between illegal antiquities and terrorism. The challenges of enforcement and lack of attention keeps the market for illicit antiquities strong.

This Is Not a Recent Phenomenon. During World War II, Nazis looted public and private collections from across Europe. Looters reaffirmed the importance of the antiquities market by ransacking regional museums in Iraq in the wake of the First Gulf War. Between the end of the war in 1991, and 1994, eleven museums lost 3,000 artifacts and 484 manuscripts to theft. A majority have yet to be recovered. Years later, the Taliban earned a reputation as a broker of Afghan antiquities, even though it spent enormous time and energy destroying historical landmarks throughout the country.

Al Qaeda was also involved in the trade. In 1999, Mohamed Atta, who piloted the plane that crashed into Tower Two of the World Trade Center, tried to sell Afghan antiquities to a German university professor. Atta “claimed that he was selling artifacts in order to purchase an airplane.” The Iraqi museums looted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 only reiterated the national security implications surrounding unprotected antiquities. As of 2008, authorities have only recovered about 6,000 of the 15,000 items stolen. Experts fear that Al-Qaeda offshoots like ISIS are today selling some of the unaccounted for antiquities to fund their terrorist operations.

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