Iraq/Syria: ISIL/ISIS fundraising by antiquities trafficking

There is now secure (if imprecise) evidence that, like the other parties to the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) is using the looting and trafficking of antiquities to fund its fighting. However, more interesting – and concerning – than the unsurprising news that ISIL are trafficking antiquities as well, are the implications for the relationship between the trade and the conflict.

Cultural property and counterinsurgency

Randomly, over the past few days, I’ve been discussing the potential use of antiquities trafficking as a funding source for ISIL with anthropologist Tommy Livoti (@LivotiTommy), who researches Counterinsurgency Approaches to the Archaeological Record on the Asymmetric Battlefield, and anthropologist Katie Paul (@AnthroPaulicy), who researches cultural racketeering (organised antiquities crime) and sustainable cultural heritage economies.

The destruction and exploitation of archaeology in counterinsurgency

There really hasn’t been much between our positions. At least according to an Assad regime official, when a Turkish antiquities dealer tried to buy a Byzantine mosaic from near Raqqa (and thereby revealed its existence to ISIL), they ‘blew [it] up and destroyed [it]‘.

But ISIS make their own bad news: they have ruled that all shrines and graves must be destroyed. And there is photographic/video evidence that ISIL have destroyed the lions of Arslan Tash in Raqqa (one original, one reproduction). There is also photographic evidence that ISIL have ‘reduced’ statues ‘to dust‘, though Paul Barford (@PortantIssues) suspects they may not be genuine, so (I wonder if) maybe ISIL unwittingly destroyed counterfeits of statues from ancient Šadikanni at Tell Ajaja/Tell Ajuja.

Tommy argued that ‘ISIS is [the] new name for AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] – AQI is known for smuggling & sale of antiquities‘, so it was reasonable to ‘doubt [that] their finance methods [would] change’. I argued that ‘ISIS [was] so extreme that it [had] destroyed (looted) “idols” rather than profit from them’, so ‘their funding strategy might be different‘, so we should await evidence specific to ISIL.

Update (17th June 2014): Thankfully, ‘Ibn Al-Athir’s tomb is a modern rebuilding’, though I’m not entirely confident that the ‘original tombstone is safe in [Mosul] museum’. Mosul’s Father Pios Affas has stated that its ‘churches haven’t been attacked’. Also, it’s worth remembering that just because something is missing, it doesn’t mean that the thing has been stolen. Father Pios Affas returned to ISIS-held Mosul to ‘retrieve the relics of his parish’ (and other citizens, likewise, may have taken things to protect them).

Forensic accounting of cultural racketeering

Last night, Guardian journalist Martin Chulov reported that Iraqi military intelligence had recovered just such evidence of fundraising antiquities trafficking by ISIL. Iraqi military captured and interrogated a courier/messenger, Abu Hajjar. They used his confessions to target the head of ISIL’s military council, Abdulrahman al-Bilawi. It’s not clear whether they tried to arrest al-Bilawi or intentionally assassinated him but, after they had killed him, they recovered 160 memory sticks from his home. [They went to his house, ‘shot him dead, and found 162 memory sticks’.]

As well as extremely detailed intelligence regarding the paramilitary’s organisation, they recovered extremely detailed intelligence regarding its administration and funding, which appears to include up to 36 million dollars’ income from the looting and trafficking of commodities from one Syrian region alone, al-Nabuk(1), which a British(?) intelligence official presented in the context of antiquities trafficking.

The British(?) intelligence official observed to Chulov, ‘[t]here was no state actor at all behind them…. They don’t need one.‘ The $875m that they raised in total – through extraction from oil fields, the theft of cultural and other assets, and the trafficking of antiquities and other commodities – enabled their recent operations, through which they have accumulated another $1.5b.

Hyper-industrial looting or high-end control of the market?

Regardless of the precise business model (direction, facilitation, taxation, etc.), regardless of the exact numbers, this demonstrates the key role that antiquities trafficking can play in enabling political violence. Yet neither al-Nabk nor the Qalamoun(2) mountain range (which are in the south-west) appears to have any oil fields or petroleum refineries (which are concentrated in the north-east); and, historically, smuggled commodities have encompassed wood, fuel oil, food products, etc.

Hyper-industrial looting?

It’s possible that ISIL are bunkering oil from pipelines to/through al-Nabuk/Qalamoun (as they are elsewhere). But otherwise, those $36m are coming only from generic multi-commodity trafficking, which previously supported family-level subsistence smugglers, and antiquities trafficking.

Normally, looters earn less than 1% or 2%, and a chain of middlemen take more than 98% or 99% of the final sale price. As I will discuss in my book, even early international middlemen may get only 1% to 2.5% before costs (and their suppliers, then, get far less than 1%).

So either ISIL alone are shifting unimaginable quantities of material – antiquities with a market value of up to $1.44b-$3.6b(3), or at least $81m-$800m(4), from al-Nabuk alone – or they are late middlemen (and the $36m is a larger proportion of the final sale price), or more mundane criminal activities form a larger proportion of the paramilitary group’s income.

High-end control of the market

If they are late middlemen, then, as I have demonstrated for the Cyprus Conflict and as Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis (@Terressa_Davis) have demonstrated for Cambodia – as Tess summarised in National Geographic – there are ‘very, very few steps between a looted Cambodian temple and a collector‘ – and even fewer between that collector and organised criminals and armed groups.

The point here, then, is that a correspondingly high proportion of the investment in the antiquities trade constitutes funding for paramilitaries and terrorists. It becomes ever more difficult to present the purchase of illicit antiquities as a humanitarian act of “rescue” rather than a driver of conflict. And it becomes ever more critical to analyse and prosecute the illicit antiquities trade in order to suppress armed conflict.


1: al-Nabuk is also written as al-Nabak and al-Nabk.

2: Qalamoun is also written as Qalamun.

3: if ISIL are early middlemen who take 1-2.5% and have already accounted for their payments to looters before calculating the $36m income.

4: if ISIL are early middlemen who take 1-2.5% and have not already accounted for their payments to looters of another 1-2% before calculating the $36m income, so the $36m income constitutes 2-4.5% of the final sale price.

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