A civil lawsuit filed today by the U.S. government sheds startling new light on the brutality of the Syrian looting operations of the Islamic State.
The lawsuit seeks the forfeiture of four looted objects – a gold ring, two gold coins and a stone relief – that were allegedly sold by the Islamic state to fund terrorism. Photographs of the objects were recovered during the May 2015 special forces raid on Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS leader in Deir Ezzor, Syria charged with managing the region’s Ministry of Natural Resources, which included looting operations.
The records show Sayyaf, who was killed in the raid, was part of a well-organized looting bureaucracy that ISIS used to generate revenue, as shown in this organization chart that was found among the documents recovered from his house:
As a regional chief, Abu Sayyaf issued looting permits and charged looters a Khums tax, 20% of the value their finds. He also had the ability to arrest individuals excavating archeological objects without authorization.
Much of the evidence from the Sayyaf raid cited in the case was first released publicly in November 2015 – and greeted with some skepticism by experts on the illicit trade, including myself. In particular, the raid fueled the heated debate about how much revenue ISIS actually generates from looting. The seized documents showed just $211,000 in revenue generated by the looting tax, suggesting the millions in looting revenue cited in some news accounts could be far off the mark.
But Thursday’s filing includes new records from the Abu Sayyaf raid that have not previously been released. Among other things, they include a harrowing account from looters who were extorted by ISIS – Abu Sayyaf ordered their child kidnapped when they refused to pay an low-ball price for a cache of gold and relics they had discovered.
The four objects being sought were shown in electronic images seized from Abu Sayyaf during the raid and were sold directly by him, according to the complaint. As detailed below, the FBI’s subsequent investigation was able to find additional information about at least one of the objects as it passed through the illicit trade.
Taken together, the newly released records give us a detailed but narrow window into ISIS’ efforts to profit off the international market in ancient art.
Like the evidence released before it, these new records should be considered critically – particularly at a time when a U.S. military intervention in Syria appears more likely. It is worth asking why the U.S. government has filed the complaint now, more than a year and a half after the evidence was gathered; why the government seeks the forfeiture of objects whose current location is unknown; and why this information is being released publicly, when it virtually guarantees the objects will not surface on the art market.
UPDATE 12/16/16: On Friday, I spoke with Arvind Lal and Zia Faruqui in the US Attorneys Office of the District of Colombia. Lal is the chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and Faruqui is the Assistant U.S. Attorney from that section who did much of the work on the complaint. Here is a summary of their answers to the questions above.
Where are the objects? Lal and Zia declined to say whether they knew where the objects were, citing the on-going investigation of the Abu Sayyaf material. But they said the complaint makes clear they are not currently in the United States.
Why file the complaint now? Lal said that the time between the May 2015 raid and the forfeiture complaint was necessary to conduct a thorough investigation of the records seized from Abu Sayyaf, consult with experts on the objects depicted in those records, coordinate with other federal agencies (FBI, State, Treasury and “other government agencies”) and compile the complaint. “We feel like we’ve done our homework with respect to these four items,” Lal said, suggesting that additional items may be added to the complaint in the future.
What is the strategy in filing a complaint against missing assets? “By filing this action, we hope we’ve dropped the market value of these four items to zero, along with anything else that may have passed through the hands of ISIS. Hopefully the market is now on notice that if something goes through the hands of ISIS, that item is subject to being seized.”
The most revealing exchange, in my view, was Lal’s response to my question about the strategy. Filing the complaint makes it nearly certain that these will never surface, I pointed out. Why not monitor the art market to see where they pop up and seize them at that time?
“I have a case load from narcotics to fraud to national security cases,” Lal said. “I don’t have a staff available to monitor the international art market. When I find out about a crime, I feel obligated to do what I can.”
Where there political motives driving the decision to file? “I’m a prosecutor,” Lal said, “I don’t give an damn about the politics of this.”
The Looted Objects
The four objects described in the forfeiture complaint range in estimated value from $50,000 to a few thousand dollars, and date from various periods and civilizations found in Syria. Below I’ve posted below the highest resolution images available from the U.S. Attorney’s office, along with details described in the federal complaint.
- A gold ring, photographed in November 2014, may depict the Greek goddess of fortune, Tyche and dates to approximately 330 BC – 400 AD. It is believed to come from Deir Ezzor, Syria. Investigators found an earlier picture of the same ring showing soil embedded in the carving, suggesting it had been recently excavated and was later “enhanced” for international sale, the complaint alleges. The ring was part of a set that sold previously (presumably in Syria) for $260,000.
2. Another photograph recovered from Abu Sayyaf shows a Roman gold aureus dated to 138 – 161 A.D. showing Antoninus Pius on one side and the goddess Liberalitas on the reverse. It was photographed in November 2014 and may have been looted from one of the numerous Roman or Greek sites in Syria, the complaint states.
3. A second gold coin depicted on images found on Abu Sayyaf’s hard drive shows Emperor Hadrian Augustus Caesar saying from 125 – 128 AD, the complaint states.
4. The fourth object, depicted in an image found on Abu Sayyaf’s WhatsApp account on his cellphone and created in August 2014, shows a stone relief with cuneiform writing. The inscription, which is legible from the photographs, is an Assyrian dedication to King Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC). The object is believed to be from the archaeological site of Tell Ajaja in northern Syria. The relief has an estimated value of $30,000 – $50,000, the complaint states.
Looters Testify about Extortion, Kidnapping under ISIS Antiquities Authorities
ISIS’ taxation system for looted antiquities has an obvious flaw: the value of the finds are difficult to know before they are sold on the international market. As a result, the basis for the Khums tax imposed by Abu Sayyaf’s department was often quite arbitrary. Not surprisingly, this led to conflicts between looters and their ISIS tax collectors.
Remarkably, one of these disputes is detailed in the newly released documents. The records show that ISIS authorities concluded that Abu Sayyaf had used his position of power to extort looters and kidnap one of their children when they refused to pay ISIS levies.
Remarkably, the documents seized from Sayyaf include direct testimony from some of his victims, who filed a complaint with the Islamic State’s General Supervising Committee. A redacted translation of the testimony, as well as images of the original document, is included in the forfeiture complaint. What follows is an account based upon these records:
In 2013, seven women from the village of al-Duwayr spent eight months digging with pick axes in the al-Salihiyyah archaeological site
outside Damascus. (There are two locations named al-Salihiyyah in Syria, but as Paul Barford notes in the comments below, given the context this likely refers to the site outside Deir ez-Zor, where Abu Sayyaf was based.) During the illicit dig they found a cache of gold and other ancient relics.
The women asked a male relative, whose name is redacted, to sell the finds, but he could not reach an agreed upon price with local merchants, who offered up to $180,000. (It is not clear what currency is being discussed, but else where the records note many deals were transacted in U.S. dollars.)
Abu Sayyaf’s deputy, Abu Layth, learned of the find and came to collect the ISIS Khums tax, 20% of the discovery’s value. He put the value of their discovery at just $70,000 and offered to buy it all. When the looters refused the low ball price, Abu Layth attempted to take one-fifth of the find in lieu of the tax. That too was refused by the women.
Days later, Layth and five members of the Islamic State arrived at the house of one of the looters in masks and toting guns. Abu Layth, brandishing a pistol, demanded to know where the gold was. The women said it had already been taken to Turkey.
At that point one of the ISIS men grabbed a 15-year-old boy. Abu Layth stated, “I will take the boy to al-Raqqah and I will not bring him back until you bring the gold.”
The boy testified about his abduction, saying he was blindfolded, beaten in the back of the vehicle, threatened with a pistol to his head and then held for 15-days in al-Raqqah.
In his own testimony, Abu Layth acknowledged he had no experience with antiquities. He had worked for the ministry of natural resources for nine months, and had previously sold clothes and food.
Abu Layth testified that he was given $130,000 to purchase the relics but offered only $70,000 to the looters. Merchants in Turkey, who he communicated with “via mediators,” said the finds could be worth as much as $200,000. He said he had arrested the boy at the order of his boss, Abu Sayyaf.
Having heard the testimony, the Islamic State’s General Supervising Committee issued its ruling: Abu Sayyaf should fire Abu Layth, hire own responsible men, and apologize to the family for arresting the boy without justification.
Below are links to the federal complaint and attachments containing the documents it references. I welcome your additional thoughts in the comments section.
Federal complaint: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3239356-Forfeiture-Complaint-Stamped-Copy-12-15-16.html
Attachments to the complaint: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3239355-Attachments-to-Forfeiture-Complaint.html
Thanks for your reporting on this. Obviously, if the exact items turn up (not just similar ones) they should be seized and forfeited. Hopefully, they will not be returned to the Assad regime, but given to Syrian exile groups in the US. (Better for them to maintain artifacts as tangible evidence of Syria’s past rather than the dictator responsible for running them out of the country and for his own intentional destruction of cultural property.). In any event, as you note, the filing of this Complaint is curious. It does not appear the items are here or even that their whereabouts are known. So, why file a lawsuit here? Why now?
I share your questions Peter and am pressing the AUSA’s office today on this. Seems the filing of the lawsuit will almost guarantee these objects don’t pop up on the market, which deprives us of a key opportunity to trace their route through the illicit trade.
The prices named are eyepopping, and make clear that whatever the amount that ISIS made, the possibility of finding a single artifact worth $180,000 is enticing enough for anyone in their right mind — whether or not living in poverty under ISIS — to spend months and months digging, as the seven women mentioned did.
why do you say “al-Salihiyyah archaeological site near Damascus”? That area is not in ISIL hands. Surely this is what is meant: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Salihiyah,_Deir_ez-Zor_Governorate
I am very sceptical about this ‘convenient’ rewriting of the Abu Sayyaf tale.
I would suggest the answer to Mr Tompa’s question about the timing could be ‘to focus attention of the incoming administration on this problem and urge them to allow continued scrutiny of the antiquities trade’….
Paul, there are indeed two Al-Salihiyahs in Syria. I agree it makes more sense that the documents are referring to the one in Deir ez Zor, given Abu Sayyaf was based there. I’ll correct it above.
As for the “convenient rewriting” of the Abu Sayyah tale, I’m not sure what you mean. Explain?
When antiquities looted and found on a hard drive of a Isis computer turn up in the Antiquities market, it is a documented not “alleged” crime to own
Thanks for the update. As for the coins, I would put their value at no more than about $2,000 each (here) in that condition. A few other observations, for what they are worth. I think it’s much more likely that they were stolen from a museum or from a local collector or dealer (yes ancient coins were collected in pre war Syria! It’s my understanding there were stores selling ancient coins in Palmyra before it fell to ISIS.). There is no dirt on the coins and they appear to have been carefully cleaned. Gold is typically found in hoards not single finds. One would think there would be lots more if it was part of a hoard. I also wonder if they may have been melted by now. While their numismatic value exceeds their metallic value, ISIS was planning a Caliphate coinage. It’s my recollection the only gold coins found in Abu Sayaf’s cache were Islamic gold coins (which don’t have graven images on them.). It is also my understanding that a crucible was also found with Abu
Sayaf’s stash– why else would you have one other than to melt precisous metal? Of course, we don’t know for sure and it is possible that the coins were for sale and went into the market. However, there are other possibilities as well that also should be considered. I just hope people don’t assume any coin of the same type they see (neither type is considered “rare” as far as I know), belonged to Abu Sayaaf. Of course, collectors should only buy from reputable sources, but the odds that these particular coins will show up in the US is probably fairly remote. I’m sure we will hear lots more if they ever do.
Peter Tompa surmises: “I think it’s much more likely that they were stolen from a museum or from a local collector or dealer”, but that makes no difference to whether they should be being sold…
What is a “reputable source” that cannot provide any paperwork to support their freely-given verbal assurances that all and any unpapered dugup antiquities in their stockroom is kosher? Is that a “reputation” for “not having been caught out yet (because he and his mates have got rid of all the paperwork and the trail has gone cold)”?
The only dealers I have heard of as having a ‘bad reputation’ among collectors (and I spend a lot of time monitoring what they say and write) are those that sell fakes as authentic antiquities. Mr Tompa can correct me i am sure if I have missed the name of any specific dealer who has a bad reputation among collectors in general for selling authentic but considered dodgily-sourced artefacts. What do we mean by that “reputable source”?
“it is possible that the coins were for sale and went into the market”. Indeed, and the person who bought them, no doubt, believed they were sold to him by a “reputable dealer” who could well also have belonged to one of a number of professional’ numismatic associations which tout their ethical codes but do zero monitoring of their members’ conduct – including those Mr Tompa lobbies for. So how can we tell?
How in the actual (not imagined) manner in which this opaque and secretive market operates can we prevent items like those coins being sold – in the absence of an alert like the one for these four objects based on records obtained by a government-sponsored raiding party breaking into a guy’s house, killing one of the dealers involved in the chain and stealing his computer? How else would the market be alerted to the origins of these four antiquities – no different from the hundreds that ‘surface’ without papers on the international market weekly?
Due dilligence is to be encouraged, but it needs to be of the common sense sort. We’ve been through this before. The documentation you demand simply does not exist for most coins. Lots of documentation was lost over time because it was not thought important to keep it at the time. Lots of countries never required export permits until quite recently. Others did but gave export permits for bulk lots of items without specifically identifying them. If you think you need papers to prove your collection is legitmate, that also applies to ethnological objects which are also covered by UNESCO. Please don’t demand export permits or other documentation proving good title if you can’t supply them yourself for your own collection of Japanese prints.
Mr Tompa, you have not answered the question. HOW can we prevent items like those coins being sold under the conditions which exist in the market in the situation you describe where (you say) since the writing of the 1970 Convention, the majority of dealers handling imported dugup material have refused to keep any of the documentation for anything and people say not to bother about diue diligence if ‘common sense’ says its not worth bothering about because carefree collectors will buy the lot regardless?
Can you tell us how to define a “reputable source’ and how that actually would help not buying the other things Mr Lal knows about on Abu Sayyaf’s hard drive which are NOT in this lawsuit? How would the average US dealer getting coins from (say) Munich, know a picture of that item is not on that hard drive? What kind of due diligence, not requiring any existing paperwork, could actually be done?
[Clownish ad personam comments about industrially-produced printed material of the late nineteenth century on the European antiquarian book market being “ethnological” are simply getting off the topic. Let us see some proper answers, not speculation and smokescreens].
Hardly clownish. Same reasons you evidently have little or no hard provenance information for your antique Japanes prints apply to common ancient coins also produced on an industrial scale (in far greater numbers than prints). Best advice. Buy from trusted sources. Buying from dealers who are members of trade associations with ethics rules good idea for collectors. Dealers need to assess the source of their own purchases. Levels of due dilligence will depend on the source. Obviously, buying from a collector you have known for decades different than buying from someone you don’t personally know. It will depend on the facts and circumstances of the individual transaction.
Readers should also be aware that Mr. Barford apparently believes information about the seizure is false and presumably done for propoganda reasons. http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2016/12/what-is-going-on-here.html?m=1 Obviously, this is a very serious charge and would render the forfeiture complaint a fraud perpetrated on the Court. I don’t doubt the seizure, but do question the timing of this lawsuit. The USAO is not supposed to be political, but the State Department, which has been pushing the issue certainly is.