Did antiquities trafficking significantly facilitate the development of ISIS?

CNN’s Anderson Cooper (@andersoncooper) interviewed Martin Chulov (@martinchulov) regarding the inner workings of ISIS(1). In his original presentation of the $875m of assets that ISIS had accumulated before its conquest of Mosul, Chulov quoted an intelligence official who said that ISIS ‘had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone‘ (by implication, through local/regional antiquities looting); but, in the CNN interview, Chulov said that ’36 million of it, according to these accounts, had come from looting and pillaging antiquities and archaeological digs around the country’ (at 2 minutes, 6 seconds).

$36m, from antiquities collectors, through organised criminals, to paramilitaries

Whatever the details, this does suggest that ISIS have made at least $36m by trafficking antiquities, but the details still matter.

  1. Al-Nabuk(2), in Rif-Dimashq Governorate, is a small town/city (and district), 20km from the Lebanese border. Was it the last ISIS-controlled point in the supply line, where they received $36m for the antiquities that they had collected and transported from around the country? If so, there was a single supply line for antiquities. Also, either they’re trafficking unimaginable quantities, or they are involved at a high level of the trade; either way, the antiquities trade is underwriting the violence.
  2. Was it an on-the-spot misremembering?
  3. Were both statements correct? Did ISIS raise ~$36m through illicit dealing in a range of commodities in Nabk, and ~$36m through antiquities trafficking throughout Syria? (Such a coincidence of numbers is very unlikely, but I can’t ignore the possibility.)
  4. Was it a correction of the original report? (A spontaneous spoken correction of a carefully-written statement is extremely unlikely, but I can’t ignore the possibility.)

Did antiquities trafficking significantly facilitate the development of ISIS?

‘The rest [of the $875m] had come from commandeering the oil fields of eastern Syria, and either selling that oil either back to the regime itself or across the border into Iraq or into Turkey.’ It was already clear that, by the time ISIS was ready to take Mosul, less than 5% of its income came from antiquities trafficking. However, this interview (implicitly) suggests that antiquities trafficking was still the second-largest funding stream (at least until ISIS was able to plunder central banks).

Moreover, considering the logistics of oil field annexation in contrast to the logistics of cultural commodity smuggling, it seems likely that cultural commodity smuggling was one of the first-used funding streams, alongside other mafia strategies.

It seems unlikely that there was absolutely no foreign state support, but it still seems likely that antiquities trafficking provided the income that funded the development of the paramilitary to the point where it was capable of taking over oil fields and conquering territory. And they’re not mutually exclusive sources of funding. Indeed, there is limited, circumstantial evidence of foreign state involvement in Syrian antiquities trafficking


1: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Da’ash or Da’esh.

2: Al-Nabuk is also transliterated as al-Nabak, al-Nabek and al-Nabk.

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