Hoe IS illegal kunst vernietigt en verhandelt om de strijd te financieren

Ben van Raaij and Nell Westerlaken have published a (Dutch-language) discussion of looting and destruction in the Islamic State, how IS destroys and deals in illegal art to finance the war.

Higher? Higher? Lower! Lower!

Obviously, the Associated Press report on the UNESCO conference included a transcription error. It mistakenly quoted the Director-General, Irina Bokova, as saying that ‘trafficking of objects obtained through illegal excavations in both countries [Syria and Iraq] is an industry worth between $7 billion and $15 billion‘, when she had guesstimated the global trade in illicit antiquities.

Instead, van Raaij and Westerlaken reported, Bokova/UNESCO had announced that the ‘trade in illicit archaeological objects from Iraq and Syria, in looted art, has grown into a billion[-dollar(?)] business [handel in illegale archeologische voorwerpen uit Irak en Syrië, in roofkunst, is uitgegroeid tot een miljardenbusiness]’. It’s a far lower number. But is it an any more scientific one?

In a companion piece by Westerlaken and van Raaij, cultural property specialist Joris Kila comments: ‘Besides, unique pieces do not even come onto the market, they go directly to collectors. [Unieke stukken komen bovendien niet eens op de markt, die gaan direct naar verzamelaars.]’ As I said in my last post, private antiquities trading is invisible, not non-existent.

Interviews by e-mail from now on

Honestly, it would be easier to leave this article in Dutch – it would probably not reach an English-language audience. But it includes a short version of a long conversation, and I don’t think it would be right not to translate it, clarify it and deal with whatever follows.

Sharing information

As Jesse Casana and Mitra Panahipour noted, citing Salam Al Kuntar and Cheikhmous Ali, the reports of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), which operates in regime territory, ‘have been criticized as politically motivated propaganda because they report almost exclusively on damage to sites that are in opposition-held areas and lay all blame at the feet of rebels and thieves, meanwhile failing to report on well-documented cases of site damage and looting in Assad regime-held regions’. (That is obviously a reflection on regime control, not the archaeologists who labour under it.)

The Heritage Task Force, which operates in opposition/rebel territory, has worked on the ground to prevent harm to cultural property, to document loss and to prepare for reconstruction. It has warned that both regime and rebel forces are destroying militarised cultural heritage sites, causing collateral damage to historic buildings and committing punitive violence against symbolic sites. The task force’s Amr Al Azm has also stated that looting is ‘happening all over Syria: regime held areas, opposition areas, no man’s land’, and judged it to be the ‘most dangerous, destructive and most widespread’ threat to cultural heritage.

Reporting information

There is an obvious media focus on the Islamic State, to which I can testify, because I have repeatedly been approached to discuss it, and to which I may have contributed, because I have sometimes been interviewed about it (including on this occasion). And, though I have always pointed out that there are problems in areas under other armed groups’ control too (as Volkskrant duly noted), that focus obviously produces more discussion regarding the Islamic State than the Assad regime or the opposition coalition. Nonetheless, whether in itself or to outsiders, some of the information is difficult to explain.

As the half-hour-plus conversation happened several days ago, after I’d stayed up all night working, I can’t remember it well enough to recall it word-for-word. I’ve translated the troublesome bit back from the published Dutch summary.

[Would IS,] in the course of this year, suddenly become a lot more professional in its work with licensing and supervision of large-scale excavations[?]…. Why would they have waited so long? I think it’s bullshit. [IS zou in de loop van dit jaar ineens veel professioneler zijn gaan werken, met die vergunningen en met toezicht op grootschalige opgravingen…. Waarom zouden ze zo lang hebben gewacht? Volgens mij is het flauwekul.]

Antiquities are not simple commodities to price (and to price-check) like bread, tea and oil. An antiquities taxation system requires a complex bureaucracy to monitor others’ excavations and to assess prices (as well as to prevent corruption in price-setting and taxation). Why would an emir contract an international mafia simply to bulldoze a site? If an international mafia was contracted because it could smuggle antiquities out to its select clientele, how would an emir tax the antiquities on site, where there was no financial transaction?

If international antiquities mafias can choose between a 10%, a 20% and a 50% tax regime, why do any of them choose the 50% regime? Are the profits in high-tax Raqqa so much greater than those in low-tax Aleppo that it pays off to work there? If they need to maximise the value of their product, why would they destroy tons and recover low-value commodities?

It might make sense, if the Islamic State was simply taxing pre-existing local criminal enterprises, but international antiquities mafias would not generally operate by bulk delivery rather than boutique smuggling. And if an established gang were offered a contract by the Islamic State on the understanding that it would destroy their most valuable commodities, why would they accept it? Wouldn’t they make more money with less effort by maintaining their existing business?

Furthermore, since early 2013, it has been global public knowledge that it is profitable for armed groups in Syria to have “archaeological wings” that conduct illicit excavations. Why would a group that embodies the ‘ultimate professionalization of terror‘ have neither known that nor acted on the information immediately? I appreciate that the state decentralises some control to its emirs, and that some emirs may promote destruction or prohibit looting, but the same question could be asked of all of the other emirs.

Explaining information

The sources are all archaeologists affiliated with the Syrian opposition. [De bronnen zijn allemaal aan de Syrische oppositie gelieerde archeologen.]

I am not saying that the archaeologists are either restricting or fabricating evidence. As I’ve said, Heritage Task Force members have publicly stated that there is looting in opposition territory as well as in regime and jihadist territory. And, as I observed for die Zeit’s investigation, I’m able to ask questions precisely because they’ve produced actual information, rather than speculation and churnalism. However, I do think it’s possible that some of their sources are restricting or fabricating evidence. Much false evidence of destruction has been spread by (genuinely) victimised communities.

Otherwise, I find it difficult to explain how we have so much more information about the functioning of the antiquities trade in Islamic State territory than we do about it in regime and rebel territory, and how we have so much more information about the functioning of the antiquities trade in IS-controlled Syria than we do about it in IS-controlled Iraq. And, even thinking in terms of Islamic States rather than Islamic State, I find it difficult to explain how we have so much contradictory information – not from distant speculation, but from multiple in-depth investigations, by large networks, across wide social and geographical ranges.


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