The self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ (‘IS’) is stronger than it was when it was first proclaimed on 29 June last year. The group’s ability to keep winning victories was confirmed on 17 May in Iraq, when it seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and again days later in Syria, when it took Palmyra, one of history’s most famous cities and a centre of modern transport routes. The sustained successes of the Islamic State, an armed terror group with neo-medieval political aspirations across Syria and Iraq, has brought to attention a less-debated but hugely consequential aspect of IS activities: the rampant desecration of vastly important sites of antiquity. The Islamic State’s pillaging of the ancient Assyrian sites at Nimrud, Nineveh, and Hatr, videos of museum statues and carvings destroyed in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and now the seizure of the Syrian heritage site of Palmyra underscore the world’s powerlessness in saving some of its most precious archaeological treasures. It is the jihadists’ destruction of ancient artifacts, shrines, statues, even mosques, often recorded and then distributed on social media, that have caused global outrage. At the same time, the group has also been selling off smaller antiquities, earning millions of dollars in an organized ransacking of national artifacts. This growing trade reflects how IS fighters have entrenched themselves in Iraq and Syria since seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul a year ago, and the dramatic expansion of the territory and influence they wield in the Arab world. The destruction and plunder of historic sites across the region is in danger of becoming even more widespread.
While the looting of archaeological sites has been widespread in the region for years, its scale has grown in recent months. Since February, the Islamic State has released videos detailing their destructive activities on social media, showcasing militiamen destroying ancient Assyrian and Akkadian artifacts with pickaxes in Nimrud, knocking over statues in the Mosul Museum, and most recently, blowing up two ancient tombs near Palmyra. IS defends its destruction of these sites by saying they are idolatrous and represent pre-Islamic cultures. The militants espouse a radical sect of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism whereby all shrines or holy sites that honour beings lesser than God are considered apostate. Behind the scenes, they also pillage these archaeological sites and sell their loot to collectors around the world to help fund insurgency operations. By advertising their attacks on supply, the group hopes to increase demand. While it defaces and destroys large monuments it cannot sell, evidence suggests it is trading in smaller moveable objects, such as ancient tablets, seals, jars, coins, glass and mosaics. IS has no issue selling these prized antiquities to subsidize their continued efforts.
The looting of ancient sites has become so systematic that the Islamic State has incorporated the practice into the administrative structure of its caliphate. IS grants licenses for the excavation of ancient sites through its ‘Diwan al-Rikaz’ — a governing body for overseeing resources under its control, with departments for oil and gas, as well as antiquities. The group either uses bulldozer archaeology (unearthing sites using any equipment available which is extraordinarily destructive), or employs locals to dig up sites and tombs, taking 20% of their earnings as khums, an Islamic tax. From Iraq and Syria, antiquities are smuggled to Lebanon, Kuwait, Israel and Turkey, which are all regional transit hubs. Antiquities trafficking of the approximately 4 500 archaeological sites currently under IS control across Iraq and Syria have provided the group its second-largest revenue stream after illicit oil sales. Archaeologists estimate that as much as $300 million USD worth of antiquities are now flooding the market as part of Islamic State’s transactions. As Western air strikes continue to barrage the oil installations it has captured, the need for these antiquities will only rise. Moreover, the problem is deeply systemic, afflicting sites across the Middle East regardless of which faction is in charge, with armed groups such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army persistently looting valuable antiquities. The treasures from Syria and Iraq are increasingly circulating on the Western black market. Between 2012 and the IS advances of 2013, the import of declared antiquities from Iraq and Syria soared by 672 % and 133% respectively. The inability of the international community to stem this flow of goods has allowed IS to accumulate wealth on a scale that has made it the world’s richest terror group.
So far, the search for an effective counter-strategy is uphill. Short of methods to restrict supply, international bodies instead attempt to curb demand. In February, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2199 banning the sale of antiquities from Syria as well as Iraq in an effort to target sources of financing for IS and protect cultural heritage. Despite some moderate successes in recovering objects, the international effort is constrained by the piecemeal approach of national authorities, a failure to disrupt smuggling networks and a lack of information about the market they trade in. While the UN’s cultural agency has led world calls for a halt to the destruction, its own resources and legal power are limited. To be traded legally under international law, items must have been excavated or exported before 1970, when a UNESCO convention came into force prohibiting trade in such cultural property. The Hague Convention of 1954 provides additional legal cover, requiring signatories “if necessary, [to] put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property”. Yet only two countries, the United States and Switzerland, directly implement the UNSECO convention, and for 60 years, Britain, the principal hub of the global antiquities market, has refused to ratify the Hague Convention. These trends provide striking evidence of the West’s unwillingness to constructively combat such a lucrative market, so poorly regulated that as many as 90 percent of classical artifacts in collections may be stolen antiquities. Western museums, long under pressure to repatriate the loot of an earlier age, now promote themselves as asylums for Middle Eastern heritage. But just because objects are safer in Western cities does not justify the retention of such objects over legitimate claims for repatriation. Rather, the widespread collection of such antiquities only serves to justify the violent and destructive financing activities of IS.
With major powers unwilling to put troops on the ground, IS fighters have extended the reach of their caliphate against demoralized government forces. The scope of Islamic State’s excavations is unprecedented, facilitating the group’s financial self-sufficiency in its commitment to the creation of a proto-state. The weakness of regimes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have enabled the group to exhaustively exploit peoples and resources under its control. As a result, a number of local and foreign experts have demanded military action to save the precious sites, calling for the United States to extend the responsibility to protect to objects of ‘cultural genocide’. Western experts fear defending such places by force could turn them into battlefields. Military action for the defence of archaeological sites, in the midst of numerous humanitarian crises and systematic killings, may also serve to further turn the region against Western powers.
Understandably, the world’s failure to stop the daily killings and mounting humanitarian crises in the two countries gets most consideration, but there is also an urgent need to safeguard protected heritage sites and disrupt a major flow of Islamist funding. The ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Syria must be prioritized to push IS back from areas it controls and deny the militant group the ability to profit from extortion, taxation, the looting of artefacts and other resources. The United States and its international partners should continue airstrikes targeting IS financial hubs, as well as smuggling routes known to be used to move contraband such as antiquities and narcotics. Moreover, more must be done to isolate IS and other terror groups from the international financial system and leverage financial and other intelligence to target criminal middlemen moving antiquities to the market, as well as those who transport and facilitate this process. Over the long term, affected governments must facilitate real political reforms and create legitimate security and law enforcement bodies able to disrupt criminal enterprises financing IS and other groups. Additional efforts must also be expanded to counter IS and affiliated groups in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Yemen and a number of other Arab and African countries suffering similar threats to protected sites. The Cairo Declaration, a 2015 joint initiative by 10 Arab and North African countries and the UN, dedicated to halting the supply of antiquities for terrorist financing, is a good start. Britain has also recently agreed to ratify the Hague Convention. More can be done. IS has shown a growing capacity with recent victories, and it is clear that conflicts in Iraq and Syria will take many years to resolve. Without proper mediation, these sites of antiquity in one of the world’s richest archaeological arenas will continue to be looted and destroyed.