The making of the making of an urban legend?

Regarding the claim that the Islamic State has made $36m from the illicit trade in Syrian antiquities, Cultural Property Observer – and antiquities collecting lobbyist – Peter Tompa has rightly condemned the making of an urban legend, questioned both the reliability of the source (an official under a government with a ‘questionable reputation and desperate need for international support’) and the usefulness of the data (which may refer to the value of looted antiquities, but may refer to the value of any and all looted assets), and noted that I identified the two original reports of the data as contradictory.

But he is wrong to say that ‘[o]ne of the main justifications for the purported need for “emergency import restrictions” on Syrian artifacts is that ISIS has netted $36 million from the sale of artifacts from just one area in Syria alone’, to dismiss the evidence as an urban legend, and to allege that I have (in my Reuters analysis and opinion piece) ‘now latched onto it because [I] think it will help give [the archaeological community’s] demands to suppress all trade in undocumented artifacts some additional traction’.

The making of an urban legend

The Islamic State’s illicit antiquities income is somewhat more troublesome than other armed groups’ cultural racketeering, because the Islamic State is committing genocide. But, as I’ve asked before, would collectors and dealers be reassured if the Islamic State taxed illicit sales rather than sold illicit antiquities, or if illicit purchases had funded the Assad regime rather than the Islamic State?

As Syrian archaeologist Amr Al-Azm wrote, and the humanitarian Syria Campaign shared, the ‘extremist group known as ISIS is one of a number of actors turning antiquities into guns pointed at Syria’s own people.’ As I explained in the Reuters piece, all parties – apart from, perhaps, the Kurds – are profiting from illicit antiquities.

Smuggler Abu Khaled told Time that the Assad regime was selling antiquities to pay its henchmen. Senior Free Syrian Army fighters told the Washington Post that looting antiquities was “a vital source of funding.” Another smuggler told Le Temps that Islamist fighters take control of trafficking when gaining territory.

Ultimately, the two main justifications for emergency import restrictions are that illicit trading funds any political violence, and that antiquities looting deprives communities of their history. Whether or not the Islamic State has made thirty-six million dollars, whether or not the Islamic State even exists, makes no difference whatsoever.

But obliteration of communities’ pasts and funding of organised crime are also justifications for general trading controls. As police officer Sylvelie Karfeld implies, why (under German law) should ‘a normal chicken egg’ be ‘better protected and better declared than the most valuable antiquity [wird ein normales Hühnerei besser geschützt und besser deklariert als die wertvollste Antike]’?

I agree with Paul Barford’s suggestion of a “health certificate” (or pet passport) system.

The making of the making of an urban legend

I did note that Iraqi intelligence had ‘claim[ed] that Islamic State alone has collected as much as $36 million from the sales of artifacts’. Several months ago, Guardian journalist Martin Chulov reported Iraqi forensic accounting of Syrian cultural racketeering by the Islamic State, which documented $36m of income from antiquities trafficking. But I made a point of saying that an intelligence agent had claimed it, and I also noted that the ‘accounts data [had] not been released for verification’. I emphasised that the claim had not been verified.

Tompa linked to a post where I reiterated that it was ‘(literally) unimaginable that the Islamic State [was] making $36m from a 0.2%-0.4% share of the market value of the antiquities that have been looted from one district under its rule (as $36m from a 20% khums tax on looters’ and traffickers’ own 1%-2% share would imply a trade value of $9b-$18b of antiquities from al-Nabk alone)’. I stand by that. But just because the scale of and mechanism for profit are not known exactly, just because some evidence contradicts some other evidence, it does not mean that there is no evidence or even no problem about which to have evidence.

$36m is not implausible in and of itself

There was an unavoidably missing detail: who leaked the data and why? And some avoidable confusion: did the Islamic State make $36m off antiquities looted in al-Nabk, antiquities trafficked through al-Nabk, all (non-cash, non-energy, non-military) assets looted from al-Nabk…? Those uncertainties make it difficult to judge: is the information reliable and representative? But the key information remained: ‘either ISIL alone are shifting [literally] unimaginable quantities of material… or they are late middlemen (and the $36m is a larger proportion of the final sale price)’.

An antiquities tax is not implausible in and of itself

At around the same time, Syrian cultural heritage professionals, who were opposition activists, started releasing information from workers and volunteers in Syria. The early information was somewhat generic but nonetheless plausible. The most (and still) noteworthy feature of the original article was the false information from another source that Paul Barford exposed.

The al-khums [one-fifth] tax is a standard strategy, and it is very well-attested that the Islamic State is taxing its subjects (whether using the khums measure or another), so an antiquities tax is not implausible in and of itself. Significant questions remain, and continue to be raised on Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues, but they query confusing evidence of a complicated problem, not the existence of a problem.

Laptops and memory sticks: ultra-modern terrorism requires ultra-modern accounting

It may seem too good to be true that the Iraqi military killed an Islamic State strategist in Mosul Province and recovered 162 memory sticks, which included operational accounts that documented $36m of income (including) from the illicit antiquities trade.

But Syrian rebels cleared an Islamic State hideout in Idlib Province and recovered a laptop with 146 gigabytes of data (1), which included training materials and biological weapon development instructions. And the Caliphate (publicly) publishes annual reports, which detail their activities, and brochures of violence, which document their destruction, so these data are being recorded, collated and processed.

I explicitly stated in the Reuters piece that how much material had been looted was not known, and how much profit had been made by paramilitaries was not known. But a lot has been looted and a lot of money has been made. How much would need to be looted, and how much money would have to be made by which paramilitaries, for the Cultural Property Observer to accept the genuine need for antiquities import restrictions?


The Islamic State (IS) has also been known as the Caliphate, Da’ash, Da’esh, Da’ish, the Islamic State of Iraq and Lebanon (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

1: The laptop contained 35,347 Arabic-language, English-language and French-language files in 2,367 folders, all of which were hidden.

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