the connection of looting and terrorism (or political violence) in cultural heritage advocacy

Derek Fincham (@derekfincham) has queried the looting-terrorism connection in cultural heritage advocacy. I want to say, first of all, that I share his wariness of the use of the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” (which is why I tend to use the terms “paramilitary” and “political violence”), his wariness of presuming connections between antiquities looting and political violence (which is why I was cautioning to wait for evidence specifically on ISIS on the day that it was published), and his desire for cultural heritage to be protected because of its own value as a community resource.

However (in a collegiate pub chat way), I’m not sure that the connections between antiquities looting and political violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are ‘cheap’. I’ll discuss the evidence concerning those situations in the next post, in my response to an antiquities collecting lobbyist’s comment on my work.

Derek argues that making ‘cheap connections‘ between looting and ‘the activities of terrorists, ISIS, and other unsavory groups’ causes ‘harm’, because it ‘diminishes the importance of antiquities looting as an issue…. undermines the cause and seriousness of the theft and looting’.

Imagine a terrorist network is apprehended and we know it received funding by looting sites. If the network is “dismantled” by prosecution or drone strike, the site is still there, still unprotected, and still not a priority.

Surely, if the archaeological site is still unprotected and still not a priority, the prosecution of the terrorist network has not had any negative effect on the protection of cultural property; the site has merely remained neglected and unprotected.

Any specific emergency of paramilitary looting/destruction educates policy-makers and publics about the general consequences of losses of cultural assets (diminution of identity, disruption of shared community life, destruction of sustainable cultural heritage economies…). And the prosecution has had a direct positive effect, because it has closed down the violent criminal organisation that was plundering the site and thereby (at least temporarily) halted the site’s destruction.

Even if armed groups do ‘engage in lots of other more lucrative criminal activity‘, that does not mean that raising funds through looting and trafficking antiquities is no more significant than ‘play[ing] video games’. If armed groups do loot and/or traffic antiquities, they choose to engage in looting and/or trafficking instead of devoting that time to their other enterprises. Evidently, whether they engage in antiquities trafficking because it is low-effort, because it is low-risk or because it is high-reward, they themselves judge it to be a worthwhile activity or they wouldn’t engage in it at all.

Finally, Derek is concerned about an ‘unfortunate trend’: ‘Chasing the looting/terror connection means that some heritage advocates can even attempt [to] lump collectors and museums into funding terror[ism].’ If such advocates do so when the money is not funding terrorist activity (or paramilitary activity), then obviously that is wrong.

But if terrorist (or paramilitary) groups are involved in the illicit trade, then they profit from it; and their profits are derived from buyers’ spending; so, by definition, the buyers are funding political violence. (Even if they’re not, they may well be funding organised crime.) Ultimately, the question remains, do paramilitaries/terrorists fundraise through antiquities trafficking; and, if they do, which do, when, where, how and why?

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