Is there significant evidence of paramilitary funding from the illicit antiquities trade? Yes.

According to antiquities collector and paid antiquities collecting lobbyist Peter Tompa (@Aurelius161180), ‘the archaeological lobby is cynically exploiting the rise of the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq to try to justify a further clamp down on collectors’.

Apparently, I am that lobby. And apparently a wish for antiquities traders only to trade in demonstrably legal antiquities is a call for a clamp down. Is there any evidence for my allegedly ‘dubious’, ‘wild claims’?

Dubious, wild claims

To justify his statements, Tompa cited a former Senior Special Agent on art crime for U.S. Customs and Homeland Security and art collector advisor, James McAndrew, and cultural heritage law professor Derek Fincham (@derekfincham). Since Tompa didn’t demonstrate any faults in the sources of my allegedly ‘dubious’, ‘wild claims’ or even provide many sources for his own claims, it’s worth noting that some other academics do agree with Derek (and our disagreements are empirical).

For example, archaeologist-criminologist Donna Yates has ‘doubt[ed] they [ISIS] are making millions of anything at all’, because of their ‘silly high‘ financial figures, for which ‘[n]o proof or info[rmation]‘ has been provided; and she has supported Derek’s querying of the ‘antiquities/terror press hoopla‘ (unnecessary fuss) – much of the hoopla surrounding a report that ‘New Evidence Ties Illegal Antiquities Trade to Terrorism, Violent Crime‘. So what is the evidence?

Tompa’s sources: James McAndrew

Notably, in the broader discussion of the connections between antiquities trading and organised crime, McAndrew observed that it was ‘easy’ to forensically demonstrate connections between antiquities trafficking and narcotics trafficking, and antiquities trafficking and money laundering. Is that the most reassuring source that professional antiquities collecting lobbyists can find?

Still, Tompa said that McAndrew had ‘debunked‘ claims of links between antiquities trafficking and terrorism, and McAndrew had indeed firmly stated that the U.S. government’s cultural property crime investigations had ‘absolutely not‘ ‘establish[ed] a connection with terrorism’ (because, if they had, they would have publicised it). Yet a report for the Acquisitive Crime Team at the British Home Office stated that ‘it is clear from NCIS, Special Branch and FBI information that there is a link between the removal and transport of cultural objects and the funding of terrorism’.

Technically, McAndrew’s claim was that the FBI had ‘never… made a successful criminal investigation that relate[d] cultural property to the support of terrorism’. That may be true. However, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – the service through which McAndrew entered homeland security – has repatriated Indo-Greek antiquities that had been ‘looted from Kabul [by] Taliban factions‘ during the Communist-Mujahideen war of 1989-1992.

[Classicist Llewelyn Morgan (@llewelyn_morgan), who wrote the Buddhas of Bamiyan, has pointed out that the ‘Taliban weren’t signif[icant] in 92, didn’t capture Kabul till 96. That particular linkage to the Taliban[‘s] not strong.’ I assume that ICE meant mujahideen but backdated their terminology. I used the whole quote to show that I hadn’t twisted their words, but it’s an important clarification.]

Those antiquities’ looting and trafficking generated an income for the Mujahideen/Taliban from those antiquities’ buyers. (If those particular antiquities did not generate any income, it was only because they were caught in the act, and it would be implausible to claim that the case that was caught was the only attempt ever made.)

Tompa’s sources: Derek Fincham

On Chasing the Looting/Terror Connection, Derek didn’t find one. He recognised that Col. Matthew Bogdanos had ‘publicly stated that terrorists loot’, but he was ‘not aware of specifics [that Bogdanos] can point to’; he acknowledged that an unnamed intelligence official had claimed that ISIS had ‘partially funded its activities through looting antiquities from ancient sites, though it surely gained far more by commandeering oilfields‘ (as the article stated); and he judged antiquities looting to be a ‘very minor’, ‘inconsequential’ element of insurgent activity.

Derek traced the belief in the antiquities-terrorism connection back to the German Federal Police’s report that Mohammed Atta ‘may have tried… to finance the attacks of 11th September 2001 through the illicit art trade [haben… möglicherweise versucht, die Anschläge vom 11. September 2001 durch illegalen Kunsthandel zu finanzieren]’. He didn’t think that report should be used as a source, because the police (didn’t name their source and) provided ‘little concrete information‘. Derek believes that the ‘data simply is not there’ to connect antiquities trading to terrorism. That is all empirical argument, which can be resolved empirically, and it appears to support Tompa.

However, Derek actually ‘suspect[s] many terrorist and insurgent groups probably do engage in antiquities looting to some extent’ so, while he doesn’t believe there is evidence of a significant connection between antiquities trafficking and terrorist financing, he does expect that many terrorists derive funding from antiquities trafficking. Is that the most supportive academic that professional antiquities collecting lobbyists can find?

My sources, and my sources’ sources

Something that didn’t come through in the press hoopla was that Heather Pringle’s article was a catch-up presentation of Peter Campbell’s analysis of illicit antiquities networks (and Sarah Parcak’s satellite analysis of illicit excavations) as well as a presentation of Tess Davis and Simon Mackenzie’s study of trafficking of antiquities from Cambodia. Likewise, Kathleen Caulderwood‘s article on ISIS (which I discussed in the post that Tompa criticised) drew on Peter’s study (which I also cited directly).

Something else that didn’t come through is that, while new things are being done with old data, much of it is old data. In a blog post eight years ago, which Saving Antiquities For Everyone (SAFE) lists as a resource on the looting crisis and the antiquities trade (and which was once plagiarised by someone at UNICRI then published in ISPAC conference proceedings), I collated evidence of connections between antiquities trafficking and (organised crime and) political violence. The antiquities collecting lobby may choose to ignore it, but it will not cease to exist. So, what is it?


During the Afghan mujahideen wars of 1992-1996, ‘[e]ach time a new faction triumphed [in the battle for Kabul], it would loot the ruins‘ of Darulaman; 70,000 artefacts were looted from Darul Aman Palace Museum alone.

During the Northern Alliance-Taliban war of 1996-2001, ‘looting continue[d]’. ‘Mujahideen commanders‘ throughout Afghanistan were ‘involved in this illicit activity.’ As one of Heather Pringle’s sources insisted, the illicit market for Afghan antiquities ‘went hand-in-hand with the smuggling and sale of weapons and drugs‘.

As Trafficking Culture’s Neil Brodie has concluded, illicit antiquities profits ‘replenish depleted warchests‘, ‘some of the proceeds from looting are used to keep armed militias in the field’. In 2001, British art and antiquities police intercepted £3m of Bactrian antiquities, which had been ‘looted by members of the Northern Alliance and sold via Pakistan to fund the war effort against the Taliban regime’.

In the NATO-led alliance’s war with the Taliban since 2001, as archaeology director Abdul Wasay Ferozi and others have testified, commanders have used the ‘antiquities trade to fund their fighting‘; sites have been trawled with ‘bulldozers in broad daylight… under the auspices of the region’s controlling warlord‘.

One of Pringle’s sources, transnational criminologist Gretchen Peters, secured testimony from an al-Qaeda-aligned insurgent Haqqani Network commander that the Taliban collected tax-like protection money from antiquities traffickers (which Peter Campbell explained in more detail).


In the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led war with the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers that ‘looting artifacts [was] ethical so long as the money goes for guns or building mosques’.

Insurgents had ‘discovered a new source of income in antiquities’, so the U.S. Central Command Joint Interagency Coordination Group (CCJIACG) – the Deputy Director of which was Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos – ‘track[ed] down terrorists’ and ‘f[ou]nd antiquities’. Whether from insurgents or organised criminals, they ‘almost never recovered an antiquity without recovering weapons as well’.

As I noted the other day, in a single raid in 2008, Iraqi security seized 228 looted antiquities that were going to be trafficked and sold ‘to fund insurgent groups‘.


In Syria, there is a wealth of testimony from dealers, smugglers and the paramilitaries themselves that the paramilitaries are looting and trafficking antiquities to barter for arms or to raise money to buy arms. In 2000, British art and antiquities police seized an Indian stone frieze that was being auctioned ‘by Sri Lankan terrorists [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers)] to fund their war effort’. Phalangist militias looted and trafficked antiquities during the Lebanese civil war. Ultranationalist paramilitaries took control of the illicit antiquities trade through the Cypriot civil war… It does not happen everywhere, all the time, but it does happen.

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