the Islamic State is profiting from looting, dealing and smuggling of antiquities from Syria and Iraq

The Syrian Heritage Task Force’s Prof. Salam Al Kuntar and Prof. Amr Al Azm (@alazmamr) have revealed to the Sunday Times that the Islamic State is ‘imposing a “tax” on looted antiquities‘ in Iraq and Syria. Its local ’emirs determine the tax rates and anyone refusing to pay is killed’.

As repeated in Al Arabiya‘s report on the Sunday Times‘ report, Prof. Al Azm observed that the Islamic State ‘is involved in illicit antiquities trading, but in a way… more complex and insidious than that reported to date’. It is ‘is involved and profiting at every level, from extraction to final sale and exit from ISIS territory’. ‘The damage is phenomenal. They’re not only digging up known sites; they’re bulldozing everything.’

For example, the head of the Arab States Unit at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Nada Al HHassan, observed that Interpol ‘intercepted’ (and Bonhams ‘withdrew’) a 2,700-2,800-year-old Assyrian black basalt royal stele because there was ‘proof‘ that the Islamic State had looted it (or directed its looting).

False evidence [Update (14th July 2014)]

Paul Barford identified that this was a reference to a stele for King Adad-nerari III from the Syrian site of Tell Sheikh Hamad, which was first offered for sale in 2000.

The Islamic State (IS, since 2014) had been the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, since 2013), which had been the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, since late 2006), which was a coalition of jihadists and tribes that had incorporated the Mujahideen Shura Council, which was a coalition of jihadist groups that had formed (at the beginning of 2006) around a core of jihadists who had been externally branded Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), internally branded the Organisation of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers (TQJBR, since late 2004), which was the al-Qaeda-aligned form of the original Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad (JTJ), which had been established in early 2004. In other words, if it was on the market by 2000, it probably wasn’t looted by or for the Islamic State.

Misunderstanding [update (14th July 2014)]

Even before my own enquiry could get a reply, Nada Al Hassan told Paul that the journalist had misunderstood her.

Misreported evidence [update (25th July 2014)]

Nada Al Hassan has very kindly explained what happened.

The Sunday Times journalist made a reference to ISIS in a photo caption. However, this was the journalist’s own mistake and was corrected by her as soon as she realised it.
I did not give any such information to the journalist and did not refer to ISIS in the interview.

How did the journalist first mistakenly use INTERPOL’s case as current evidence, then mistakenly attribute Al Hassan’s comments about something else to that case, which “corroborated” the case’s reality and relevance?


According to the Sunday Times, the Islamic State’s ‘main market’ is the paramilitary-controlled Syrian-Turkish border town of Tel Abyad. That makes the existing questions concerning the $36m from antiquities trafficking through the Syrian-Lebanese border town of Al-Nabuk or across Syria even more urgent.


The reported haul from the heist at Mosul central bank is probably an over-estimate – the Islamic State probably seized millions or tens of millions, not hundreds of millions, of dollars’ worth of Iraqi dinars.

I edited this post to remove the journalists’ names until it is known who did what (21st July 2014).

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