German media investigation does not disprove Islamic State antiquities trafficking, may corroborate it and its $36m income

Hyperallergic have published my post on claims and denials of antiquities trade funding of paramilitary activity in Syria and Iraq.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR have analysed some of the data from the notorious haul of 162 USB memory sticks from Islamic State military councillor Abdulrahman al-Bilawi. Antiquities trade representatives have claimed that the German media report disprove claims that the Islamic State is profiting from looting and trafficking of antiquities. They imply that Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR’s investigation exposes the Guardian’s report as false. In fact, the representatives’ claims are false and Georg Mascolo, Volkmar Kabisch and Amir Musawy’s findings lend credibility to Martin Chulov’s claims.


There was a slip-up in sub-editing, when they tried to simplify an accurate but ugly sentence. Investigative journalist Jason Felch reported that the claim that antiquities looting was the Islamic State’s second-largest income stream was actually an inference from the value of all commodity looting to a different Islamist paramilitary. That is to say, Felch debunked the mistaken/misinterpreted claim.

Better luck next time?

The journalist for CoinsWeekly and MünzenWoche and the Cultural Property Commissioner for the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), Ursula Kampmann, commented that “German journalist[s] ha[d] checked all 160 data carriers [USB memory sticks]” that the Guardian had discussed. That was not true. Two German journalists, Georg Mascolo and Volkmar Kabisch, and an Iraqi journalist, Amir Musawy, had not checked all 160 memory sticks, and they explicitly stated that they had not.

Moreover, those documents that they accessed ‘confirm[ed] much that has been suspected and add[ed] many details [bestätigen vieles, was vermutet wurde, und fügen zahlreiche Details hinzu]’. And antiquities trafficking data may be secret ‘due to ongoing [police/security] operations [wegen fortlaufender Operationen]’. Indeed, the content of the article is so contrary to its use, it is difficult to explain why antiquities trade representatives used this material to defend their position.

Special thanks

Special thanks go to Volkmar Kabisch (@volkab1), who enabled me to access the original German-language articles and English-language press release, and to Esther Saoub (@esaoub) and Michael Müller-Karpe, who spontaneously provided information (after my article had gone to press).

I cannot emphasise enough how ridiculous it is that, months later and while the Guardian’s report is being attacked as false, we are dependent upon other reporters’ kindness and concern in order to secure indirect corroboration of the Guardian’s evidence.

In the meantime, Paul Barford has published a string of challenges to antiquities collectors, dealers and their lobbyists, which addressed their demands and expectations and the construction of their arguments. Since then, he has also used Nathan Elkins‘ coin research data to highlight the scale of the problem. The comment thread underneath Jason Felch’s blog post is lively.


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