The WCO did not claim to have evidence that church icons had been stolen in Kosovo and sold to finance terrorism

In comments that have been reported [some of which have been misreported] by the Serbian newspaper Evening News (Večernje Novosti), and translated by the broadcaster B92, a representative of the World Customs Organisation (WCO) has revealed the findings of an international operation: ‘Church icons [that were] stolen in Kosovo [were] sold to finance terrorism. [Update (16th April 2015): the officer has been kind enough to correct the report for me.]


Between the 17th and 19th of March 2004, there was an outbreak of spontaneous and organised communal violence in Kosovo and reactive communal violence in Serbia; eleven Albanians and eight Serbs were killed, four thousand Serbs were displaced, and hundreds of Serb homes and 35 Orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged or destroyed in Kosovo; Albanian, Gorani and Turkish (Muslim) minorities’ private and community properties as well as two mosques and an Islamic centre (medzlis) were attacked in Serbia; and Roma and Ashkali were attacked by the dominant communities in both places.

Operation Odyssey

Apparently, last month, the agencies of the WCO conducted Operation Odyssey against art and antiquities traffickers in 43 countries. I heard the news via the Museum Security Network (MSN).

Not surprisingly but still interestingly, the Head of Customs Investigations in the Customs Administration of the Republic of Serbia, Branka Knežević, observed that ‘the unstable political situation and wars in the Middle East and Eastern Europe’ had driven up ‘smuggling of cultural treasures from Iraq and Syria, but also from Cyprus, Lithuania, and Russia’ through Serbia.

Notably, Knežević observed that the prices as well as the demand on the illicit market in Western Europe had increased. So, material is reaching the market, but not enough is reaching the market to crash it, though that is at least partly due to increased demand. That suggests the existence of a burgeoning group of opportunistic investor-buyers, like those who exploited the Cypriot civil war.

Financing terrorism through ethnic cleansing?

An officer of the Italian financial police (Guardia di Finanza), who is also a Technical Attaché at the WCO’s Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for Western Europe (RILO WE) and a Representative of the WCO, Lieutenant Colonel Gaspare Cilluffo is an expert on the business. Evidently [Večernje Novosti reported that], in reference to the attacks on churches in 2004, Lt. Col. Cilluffo [had] stated that ‘some of the money earned through the sale of the stolen religious artefacts was also used “to finance terrorism”‘. Obviously, a lot more information is needed and I am looking and asking for it [I’ve found some].

[Lt. Col. Cilluffo has kindly explained that he used the events of 2004 in Kosovo to remind his audience that what is happening in West Asia and North Africa now was happening in south-eastern Europe just years ago. He said that some icons had very probably been stolen from churches during the unrest, and sold by criminals (not terrorists), but he had no evidence of terrorism-financing antiquities trafficking.]

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