Islamic State cultural racketeering: looting, smuggling, taxation of excavation and export?

Archaeologists Amr Al-Azm and Salam al-Kuntar and cultural policy specialist Brian Daniels have written an op-ed on ISIS’ antiquities sideline in the New York Times, in order to highlight the social benefits of Syria’s historic environment (which is even more powerfully highlighted by the Islamic State’s efforts to destroy the multicultural places under its control), and to raise awareness of the Syria Campaign-led push for a ban on trading in undocumented Syrian antiquities.

Al-Azm, al-Kuntar and Daniels have been training Syrian professionals and volunteers ‘to document and protect’ cultural property, including people who live and work in Islamic State territory. Through ‘extensive conversations’ during the training (in Turkey), they have gained insights into antiquities looting and smuggling in Syria. What have they found out?

Cultural racketeering

Previously, Al-Azm had told the Sunday Times, ‘ISIS clearly is involved and profiting at every level…. They’re not only digging up known sites; they’re bulldozing everything.’ This appears to have been clarified. According to Al-Azm, al-Kuntar and Daniels’ sources,

ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites…. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a [khums tax] percentage of the monetary value of any finds.

Has Avrat commented, ‘just working like a regular government on the matter then’. Indeed. She wasn’t being flippant. As I observed to National Geographic in June, the Islamic State ‘want[s] to function as a state, so in that sense [it] would at least have to be doing taxation’.

The separate claim that ‘[a]ll large figures are typically destroyed according to strict Islamic provisions against idolatry’ appears to have been dropped. But does that reflect a correction of discredited testimony, a change in business model or simply a change in the focus of reporting?

Also, if, ‘[i]n general’, the Islamic State permits others to dig, does it, in certain cases, dig itself or prohibit digging?

Neither looting nor smuggling?

Beyond the still-unsolved mystery of the source and nature of the UNESCO-attributed mistaken example of Islamic State looting in that Sunday Times, then, these cultural heritage workers’ testimony appears to challenge the basic claim that the Islamic State is looting at all.

Indeed, this testimony appears to challenge local and international intelligence agencies’ assessments that the Islamic State has ‘reaped windfalls’ by ‘smuggling all manner of raw materials’, including ‘priceless antiquities’. Yet multiple sources have testified that the Islamic State has pillaged cultural heritage sites.

Has the Islamic State decided that buried antiquities, uniquely, are more profitably exploited by licencing private contractors? It’s not necessarily wrong (especially due to the connoisseur-driven pricing mechanism that distinguishes antiquities from many other commodities), but it is unresolved.

Islamic States?

Apparently, the tax regime varies geographically.

In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period… or made of precious metals like gold.

Does the tax regime vary for other commodities? If this is accurate, it may provide (further) evidence concerning the nature and functioning of the Islamic State (or states).

Mafia state and antiquities mafia

The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along Euphrates [which includes parts of both Aleppo governorate and ar-Raqqah governorate in Syria and other Caliphate territory in Iraq], ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.

Professional supervision?

Paul Barford and I are both confused by “official” supervision of ‘the proper use of heavy machinery’ (Paul more amusingly than me).

It doesn’t seem to mean direct supervision of the digging itself, to prevent diggers’ hiding of the products of their labour (1), as well as direct supervision (and taxation) of transactions between looters and smugglers or dealers. Is the Islamic State employing experts to monitor excavation and maximise the recovery of cultural assets through strip-mining?

Regardless, by “encouraging” and “licensing” international antiquities gangs to mine archaeological sites on “its” land, the Islamic State is getting closer to subcontracting than taxing the digging.

Official incompetence

This testimony implies that, while the Islamic State has industrialised the looting process and imposed a high tax rate in ar-Raqqah governorate, it has gone to the effort of industrialising the looting process yet not then bothered to impose a high tax rate in Aleppo governorate.

Are the profits of looting in ar-Raqqah governorate so much greater that it is still more profitable for gangs to work under a high tax regime there than under a low tax regime in Aleppo governorate? Is there so little communication between elements of the Islamic State that the Aleppo hand doesn’t know what the ar-Raqqah hand is doing?

What is – or is not – happening in Iraq?

This testimony also appears to affirm the long-reported engagement of international antiquities mafias that originally established themselves in Iraq. Yet that appears to contradict the previous claim that the Islamic State was destroying large antiquities, bulldozing whole sites (thereby destroying fragile antiquities), and so actively restricting the trade to a ‘bulk’ trade in low-value antiquities.

International antiquities looting gangs would not need to be experienced looters to bulldoze sites, they would not be able to sell bulk-buy objects to boutique dealers and connoisseur collectors, and they would not be able to achieve high profit margins. In fact, reports of looting under the Islamic State in Iraq have concerned highly professional theft of select pieces, such as that from Nimrud.

The lack of comparable testimony implies that the Islamic State has not industrialised the looting process in Iraq, despite the notorious market in its antiquities and the licensed looting gangs in Syria having come from there. Why have there not been similar reports of industrialised artefact-mining in Iraq?

If there has not been industrial looting in Iraq because the looting gangs have moved to Syria, have they moved to Syria because they have tapped out their resources in Iraq (or their market abroad)? That seems unlikely. Have they moved to Syria because they believe that they have a narrow window of opportunity and want to exploit it while they can?

I am not suggesting that there is not widespread and heavy looting of archaeological sites in Syria – or, indeed, Iraq. I am simply questioning the peculiarities of the evidence from Syria – and, particularly, the comparative lack of evidence from Iraq.

The balance of payments

Al-Azm, al-Kuntar and Daniels also observe that the Islamic State has ‘institutionaliz[ed]’ the illicit export of antiquities.

In addition to the looting, ISIS seems to be encouraging the clandestine export of archaeological finds, which is primarily centered on the border crossing from Syria into Turkey near Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold. There is reason to suspect that ISIS has approved and encourages the transborder antiquities trade.

That, too, is confusing. The Islamic State could hardly expect an autarchic (self-sufficient, exclusively internal) antiquities market. It must necessarily encourage and facilitate the transborder antiquities trade. Illicit antiquities are one of the Islamic State’s domestic products. It needs to sell those (or for those to be sold) abroad in order to balance its subjects’ consumption of external commodities and to fund its expenditure.

Paul queries ‘how that alleged khums is calculated‘. He’s asked a series of key questions:

[I]s there a middleman who buys the antiquities from the diggers and are the diggers taxed on what he pays them? When the stuff is taken across the border by the middlemen, are they too taxed on their profits? How? Or are the dealers coming across to the ISIS side of the border and the transactions taking place within the so-called “Islamic State”?

Apparently, the Islamic State taxes traffickers as well as looters – but, again, the connoisseur-driven pricing mechanism makes export duties difficult to impose on antiquities. Does the Islamic State simply take 40% of the price at the point of production (20% from the producer and 20% from the exporter) – the lowest possible price? Does it have expert antiquities tax collectors who can prevent officially lowly-priced (and thus lowly-taxed) deals where the looters and traffickers conspire to share the untaxed income afterwards?

Since many archaeological sites are remote and therefore difficult to monitor, if the Islamic State does not take its share at the point of production, it creates inefficiencies and space for massive tax evasion. Do the traffickers get itemised receipts to present to Caliphate border guards? Do the receipts have record numbers that enable the border guards to check for tax evasion?

According to previous accounts, Turkish antiquities dealers enter Syria, while dealers from elsewhere wait in Turkey – but many of the looting teams are international. Do they travel to Syria merely to carelessly bulldoze a site, then immediately sell the antiquities to a dealer, for 0.8% of their market value (the looters’ 1% share after tax)? How does the Islamic State determine the tax value of antiquities that gangs loot and smuggle themselves (for which there are, then, no transactions in Caliphate territory)?

[Update (3rd September 2014): As Paul observes, U.S. State Department-released satellite images of looting show hand-dug, not bulldozed sites.]

The imbalance of sources

These problems (and the lack of any mention of al-Nabuk) only reinforce the contradictions between the pieces of evidence concerning the value of the trade. I’m not saying that any of this information is wrong, but it is all very fragmentary and confusing. As Paul says, we ‘need some other sources of information’.


1: That would make sense. The situation could bring to mind Cypriot farmers’ (profiting and) resistance to British colonial rule through tax evasion.

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