Before I say anything else, I want to reaffirm that it’s very difficult to get good evidence – some evidence is unreliable, some evidence is false – but it’s still very clear: everybody’s involved somehow – Assadist forces, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) (the secularist, democratic men-with-guns), Islamist/jihadist militias, seemingly even foreign militaries (as well as, of course, non-combatant mafias). The only armed groups for whom I’ve seen no evidence are the Kurdish defence forces.
Khums: a traditional tax on antiquities digging
In the same way that I won’t comment on traditional disputes regarding the sacredness of historic sites, I won’t comment on traditional disagreements over the the interpretation of religious tax law. Suffice it to say, Shia Muslims believe that al-khums (one-fifth) is a flat-rate income tax/tithe, while Sunni Muslims believe that it is a windfall tax on the profits of war. Still, intriguingly, the tax appears to have originated in the already standard ancient legend of buried treasure, as an obligation to share the profits of antiquities digging for social welfare:
Acting upon a command of God given to him in his dream, when Abdul Muttalib rediscovered the well of Zamzam, he found in it many valuable things that [had been] buried in [the] very remote past by the Ismailites when they feared that their enemies would usurp them. When Abdul Muttalib found that buried treasure, he gave away one fifth… in the way of God [to good causes] and kept the remaining four fifth[s for] himself.
Thus, it became a customary obligation; then the Prophet Muhammed ruled that ‘any wealth that was buried under the ground in the Days of Ignorance (Ayam al-Jahiliyah)’ – the time before Islamic rule – was ‘subject to al- Khums’; then the tax on pre-Islamic antiquities was established as a more general tax on Islamic antiquities and everything else.
Khums: a religious tax on property crime as political strategy
Criminologists Penny Green and Tony Ward identified ‘dual-purpose criminality’, where activity benefited both organised crime and violent insurgency, soon after the U.S-led coalition’s 2003 invasion. Mahdi Army leader ‘Muqtada al-Sadr… issued the “al-Hawasim” fatwah decreeing that looters could retain their stolen property as long as they made a contribution of 20 per cent of the value of the looted goods (khums) to their local Sadrist office’. (As a questionable back-up, that has been very closely paraphrased elsewhere.)
According to one of Green and Ward’s sources, the International Crisis Group (ICG), the “theft” fatwa flatly declared that ‘”the state does not own anything”, allowing Iraqis to take possession and sell these goods, so long as they [paid] khums‘. Another, political scientist Prof. Ahmed Salah Hashim, said that “many” future insurgents ‘”prefinanced” their activities by looting’ public assets and extorting private wealth through racketeering and kidnapping.
(Well-known art and cultural property, which can be difficult to sell on to collectors or dealers, is sometimes “kidnapped” and ransomed back to its owners or their proxies; so, the insurgents would have gained experience in the procedures of cultural property crimes.)
At least in Najaf, the Mahdi Army specified that ‘looting artifacts [was] ethical so long as the money [went] for guns or building mosques’. So, using the khums tax to justify and structure cultural property crime as a funding mechanism for paramilitary activity is an established practice amongst Islamist paramilitaries (and antiquities trafficking is a standard strategy for insurgent movements).
Organised crime, formalised state
Achieving financial independence through organised crime is a growing aim (and necessity) for armed extremists, whose donors can be pressured and sanctioned. And it has long been known that the Islamic State (in its present and past forms (1)) has collected tax (الضريبة) from its subjects, that it has ‘finance[d] itself through extortion and protection rackets [يمول نفسه عن طريق ألابتزاز وفرض ألاتاوات]’. Although there is evidence that the Islamic State has destroyed some cultural goods that it could have sold, there is no evidence that it has refused to be involved in the “un-Islamic activity” of antiquities trading (which necessitates preserving and profiting from “idols”).
Looting of museums and sites
Indeed, the Director of the Archaeological, Scientific and Reconstructive Laboratories in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, Dr. Komait Abdallah, informed the (Italian) Centre of Archaeological Conservation (Centro di Conservazione Archeologica) that the Islamic State had ‘pillaged’ Raqqa Museum; the Chief of the Arab States Unit of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Nada Al Hassan, said that it had looted the museum and some of its artefacts had been recovered in Turkey and Lebanon.
The Director of Antiquities and Museums, Maamoun Abdulkarim, stated that first twenty ‘armed men specialized in antiquities theft‘ had tried to rob Heraqla/Herqla excavation’s storehouse in March 2013, then a hundred well-equipped ‘rebels’ had pillaged it in June 2013. However, since the city/province had already been conquered and become the first territory of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, they would not have needed to fight to loot the property, and they certainly would not have been fended off by a team of museum guards.
It seems reasonable to accept (seemingly Assadist) citizen journalist Arabi Souri’s report that the Al Nusra Front (ANF) and other Islamist groups had managed to loot three trucks’ worth of cultural goods from the museum in March, and that some of the vehicles in the convoy had Turkish licence plates.(2) According to Dr. Emma Cunliffe, who has surveyed so much evidence, another six boxes were looted in August 2013; three were recovered, but the museum may have been ‘cleared’ (though it may simply have been pillaged again) in December 2013.
The Islamic State ‘ransacked’ Tell Sabi Abyad excavation’s storehouse in Raqqa. And citizen journalist Lama Aldirani reported that ‘some’ of the Islamic State’s ‘members’ conducted illicit ‘excavations of historical sites in Der Ezzor (Halabia and Zalabia) and stole and smuggled’ the illicit antiquities.
It has just been publicly reported that the Islamic State has looted a mural from Nimrud in Iraq (though private reports have suggested that a gang did it).
The Caliphate has formalised the definitive, sovereign state-style control of a classical Mafia, which ‘legislate[s]… and administer[s] justice, lev[ies] taxes and excises (through extortions), provide[s] services and social security, reward[s] the faithful and punish[es] those who are not, and exert[s] control on the labour market, trade and productive activities’. (It has even formalised the guarantees of its protection rackets through the establishment of the Consumer Protection Authority.)
Looting, smuggling, asset seizure, taxation?
Based on captured (but still unpublished) accounting records, investigative journalist Martin Chulov reported that the Islamic State had ‘reaped windfalls from smuggling all manner of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs’, which apparently meant specifically ‘smuggling… priceless antiquities from archeological digs’ (rather than taxing others’ smuggling).
On unknown evidence, intelligence consultant Robert McFadden said that the Islamic State made money ‘by selling valuable antiquities seized during its takeovers‘, which implied the confiscation and sale of (museum or private) collections (and, perhaps, exposed assets such as architecture and statuary), rather than any smuggling or even the illicit excavation of archaeological sites. Yet the IS had not sold off the contents of Mosul Museum a month after they had conquered the city and, as far as is known, it still has not done so (two months since). Is this story like the bank heist that never happened?
Cultural racketeering: direct management and taxation of illicit excavations
Prof. Amr Al Azm has discussed the khums antiquities tax with Think Progress intern Will Freeman and investigative journalist Jason Felch. Freeman relayed that ‘ISIS militants don’t do the digging themselves. Instead, they sanction illicit excavation by locals and then levy a special Islamic tax, called khums, that takes 20 percent of all profits on treasure for the state.’
Freeman also relayed that ‘professional excavators and their crews are now working under the direct supervision of ISIS representatives to dig up more artifacts’. So, the militants don’t “invest” by doing the digging or otherwise paying the cost of the digging work, they oversee the work to ensure that they are obeyed and paid. As Felch highlighted, ‘ISIS is dedicating manpower to supervising the looting at major excavation sites, something they would be unlikely to do unless it provided meaningful income‘.
Onward sale before trafficking, trafficking through Turkey, sale within the Middle East
Freeman also detailed: ‘Some local ISIS leaders have ratcheted up this rate to 50 percent when Islamic, rather than pre-Islamic, artifacts are discovered, and the tax can climb even higher when relics contain gold.’
The higher rate for Islamic antiquities is very interesting. It is a scripturally incorrect rate – an un-Islamic tax on Islamic antiquities. I talked this over with someone else who works on these matters. We agreed that (if it isn’t false evidence) this may be circumstantial evidence of market demand, and thus of the Islamic State’s biggest buyers and markets – collectors of Islamic antiquities, who are most likely in countries within the region.
Amr Al-Azm explained that the Islamic State permitted locals to dig on their own (private) land (as long as they paid the tax), and licensed national and international ‘crews’ of ‘Turks, Kurds, Iraqis’ with ‘bulldozers’ to strip-mine public land for low-value antiquities for ‘bulk’ sale. Freeman paraphrased: ‘All large figures are typically destroyed according to strict Islamic provisions against idolatry.’ (Obviously, the rules are not very strict if they don’t require the destruction of small “idols”.)
According to Al Azm’s sources,
a lot of this stuff ends up crossing the Turkish border. Some international dealers, non-Turks, started to come in to Syria but it quickly got too dangerous for them. Now the dealers all hang out across the border in Turkey. Only Turkish dealers come into Syria to meet with locals. They buy and take it back.
Apparently, a key trading point is Tell Abyad, which is under Islamic State control. So, again, while a lot of the evidence is weak in and of itself, when it is pieced together, it suggests that the Islamic State is a significant actor in the trade in Syrian conflict antiquities.
Yet, if the Islamic State is imposing a “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” model on its producers – destroying the most valuable products and taxing local producers (and exporters), rather than taxing market suppliers who get the final sale price from buyers, let alone running the business and taking all of the profits – how can it be supplying elites and making massive profits?
As I said to National Geographic, potential buyers need to ask themselves one key question: ‘What are the chances that my money is going to buy bullets?’ (Or, as Paul Barford rephrased it, ‘what are the chances that [it is] not[?]’)
In other news, Christopher Jones has rounded up the latest information on the humanitarian and cultural crises in Iraq; as he tweeted @cwjones89, the Islamic State has ‘start[ed] to run out of historic religious sites to blow up in Mosul’.
1: the Islamic State is also known as the Caliphate, Da’ash, Da’esh, Da’ish, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
2: Arabi Souri originally identified the looters generically, as fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).