Operation Aureus-Hieratica: Egyptian-Spanish antiquities trafficking may have funded Islamic State

The details of Operation Aureus (within Spain, Operation Hieratica) – a massive and remarkable Europol-coordinated, Interpol-assisted, UNESCO-supported investigation – are beginning to emerge. (Paul Barford has been keeping track of the news.) Now, a new report claims that the Egyptian-Spanish antiquities supply line was run to fund the Islamic State [but no evidence has yet been presented].

Lasting more than five months (2nd June 2014-19th November 2014), led by the Spanish civil guard (Guardia Civil) and the Cypriot police, checking 2,352 art and antiquities dealers, auction houses, second-hand shops and online traders as well as airports, seaports and land borders in 14 countries across the continent, the operation checked 6,244 individuals, 8,222 bikes/cars/vans/lorries and 27 boats/ships. So far, they have arrested 35 people and seized 2,289 antiquities.


Journalist Alejandra Elorza explained that the original police operation ‘was not directly linked to terrorism [no está vinculada directamente con el terrorismo]’, but that – based on the detainees’ criminal records – it might be(come) related. And initially, the Director of the Civil Guard, Arsenio Fernández de Mesa, only told el Mundo that ‘jihadi terrorism might be “being nourished by and seeking financial foundations in” the illicit traffic of cultural goods of high value [el terrorismo de la yihad podría estar “nutriéndose y recabando fondos económicos” del tráfico ilícito de piezas culturales de alto valor]’.

However, according to the Mirror, the Civil Guard have now explicitly stated that they captured a gang that was smuggling and selling Egyptian antiquities ‘to fund ISIS’, wherein the profits were ‘going directly to fund jihadists’ for the Islamic State. Police intercepted a shipment from Alexandria when it arrived in Valencia, but the paramilitary-funding traffickers evidently ran their operations through mosques and elsewhere in another port city, Barcelona.

[Following an English-language report in el País by Verónica Figueroa Ortega, I queried the differences in the Spanish and British newspapers’ stories. Ortega kindly explained: ‘The police believes it *did*, but they didn’t show proof. Hence the *might*’ in the Spanish media reports. I have still not received any reply from the Civil Guard or Europol even to my original enquiry.]

European police arrest 35 and recover thousands of stolen cultural artefacts (Europol, 28th January 2015)

European police arrest 35 and recover thousands of stolen cultural artefacts (Europol, 28th January 2015)

So far, 36 antiquities have been seized, which were seemingly looted from archaeological sites near Saqqara and Mit Rahina, as well as €10,000 cash and mobile phones; and four Egyptian antiquities traffickers and one Spanish antiquities dealer have been arrested in Spain, while ‘another two [suspects have been arrested] in Egypt [otros dos en Egipto]’.

The 36 Egyptian antiquities alone had a market value of €200,000-€300,000 – their black market value would have been lower, but obviously the gang smuggled and sold an unknown number of antiquities before they were caught, and so raised an unknown amount of money for the purpose of funding political violence. The suspects are being charged with ‘smuggling cultural goods, money laundering, and membership of an international criminal organisation‘.

Private trading, public markets, paramilitary financing

As I reported earlier this month, antiquities looted during unrest in Egypt are reaching public markets in the West. And, if Egyptian crisis antiquities are reaching public markets, Syrian and Iraqi conflict antiquities must be reaching private markets. Now, markets must confront the fact that even undocumented antiquities from outside conflict zones may be being trafficked and sold in order to fund conflict.

Academic and media requests for information

I appreciate that they cannot share intelligence concerning ongoing operations but, whether as an academic researcher or a freelance journalist, regarding previous public claims about paramilitary trafficking of antiquities from Syria and Iraq and Operation Aureus, I have requested information through official channels, but not received any reply beyond automated acknowledgement of receipt of my request(s).

Particularly when some of the unevidenced, public claims come from people in or associated with these law enforcement agencies and their cultural partner organisations, I do not think that it is too much to ask, to ask for some, any data or supporting documentation.

Egypt and where else?

Fourteen European states – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain and the United Kingdom – were involved in Operation Aureus. Already, two non-European states have become involved in the operation and/or its aftermath – one of which is Egypt, where another two suspects have been arrested, one of which is unknown. And another 38 investigations have been launched on the basis of the operation.


Despite being co-directors of the investigation, no information is yet available regarding the findings of the police in the Republic of Cyprus.


At the end of two (follow-up?) investigations (26th November 2014-26th January 2015), the Bulgarian State Agency for National Security (SANS) seized more than 2,000 antiquities through 36 raids in 11 cities. They also confiscated computers, communications equipment (mobile phones?), metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar, antiquities cleaning equipment, antiquities catalogues and other ‘specialist literature’ – even facilities for the manufacture of equipment – as well as invoices from the gang’s sales.

No information links that gang with the gang(s) elsewhere. It is unclear how many suspects were arrested there or what the SANS found when it ‘inspected one of the largest private museums‘ in the country.

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