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Islamic State isn’t just destroying ancient artifacts – it’s selling them

Mideast_Iraq_Looting_Heritage-0636f-6730People observe ancient artifacts at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad on March 15, 2015, after its reopening in the wake of the recent destruction of archaeological sites by Islamic State. (Karim Kadim/AP)

Islamic State militants have provoked a global outcry by attacking ancient monuments with jackhammers and bulldozers. But they also have been quietly selling off smaller antiquities from Iraq and Syria, earning millions of dollars in an increasingly organized pillaging of national treasures, according to officials and experts.

The Islamic State has defended its destruction of cultural artifacts by saying they are idolatrous and represent pre-Islamic cultures. Behind the scenes, though, the group’s looting has become so systematic that the Islamic State has incorporated the practice into the structure of its self-
declared caliphate, granting ­licenses for digging at historic sites through a department of “precious resources.”

The growing trade reflects how Islamic State fighters have entrenched themselves since seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul a year ago Wednesday, in a dramatic expansion of the territory they control in this country and neighboring Syria.

The extremist group’s recent capture of Syria’s majestic 2,000-year-old ruins at Palmyra threw a spotlight on the risk that the Islamic State poses to the region’s rich cultural heritage. It is, however, just one of 4,500 sites under the group’s control, according to the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force.

“They steal everything that they can sell, and what they can’t sell, they destroy,” said Qais Hussein Rasheed, Iraq’s deputy minister for antiquities and heritage.

“We have noticed that the smuggling of antiquities has greatly increased since last June,” he added, referring to the month in which Islamic State militants took control of Mosul and large parts of northern Iraq.

At that time, militants also seized the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. In a video released earlier this year, the Islamic State showed its fighters drilling off the faces of the mighty stone-winged bulls on the gates of the city. The militants also filmed themselves destroying statues at Mosul’s museum. But many of those items were actually replicas of antiquities kept in Baghdad, Iraqi officials said. Anything genuine and small enough to move was likely sold off or stockpiled by the militants, they said.

Iraq has suffered from years of despoilment of its historic sites, as thieves have taken advantage of instability in the country. The sacking of the poorly guarded National Museum in Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 was decried around the world.

The Islamic State’s plundering began in a haphazard fashion when the extremists first gained a foothold in Syria. But the trade has become more organized as the group has conquered territory.

The Islamic State grants licenses for the excavation of ancient sites through its “Diwan al-Rikaz” — a governing body for overseeing resources in the “caliphate.” The body has a department for oil and gas, as well as antiquities, documentation from the group shows.

“Islamic State has incorporated the activity of excavation into its bureaucracy,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher on jihadist groups at the Britain-based Middle East Forum who has compiled an archive of Islamic State administrative documents.

How much the Islamic State earns from the trade is difficult to estimate. Iraqi officials say it is the group’s second most important commercial activity after oil sales, earning the militants tens of millions of dollars.

With the extremist group struggling to maintain its oil revenue in the wake of U.S. airstrikes that damaged infrastructure, experts and officials worry that the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — might focus even more on illegal excavations.

“It’s a dependable source of revenue, which makes it very attractive, and it’s surprisingly untapped,” said Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University. “Over time, we’ve seen ISIL and organizations like it increase their ability to draw revenue from these crimes.”

Danti, who advises the State Department on the trade in plundered antiquities from Iraq and Syria, said some looted items have made their way to U.S. and other Western markets — especially antiquities in the lower- and medium-price ranges, such as stone seals with cuneiform inscriptions.

Larger, more conspicuous items will probably go through a laundering process that takes years and involves the forging of documents to suggest a legal provenance. To be traded legally, the items must have been excavated or exported before 1970, when a UNESCO convention came into force prohibiting trade in such cultural property. But the market is poorly regulated and the Archaeological Institute of America estimates that as many as 90 percent of classical artifacts in collections may be stolen antiquities.


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