Tag Archives: ISIS

UPDATED > Inside the ISIS Looting Operation: U.S. Lawsuit Reveals Terror Group’s Brutal Bureaucracy of Plunder

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.abu-sayyaf-isis-leader-2

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:

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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.

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Objects seized from Abu Sayyaf during a special forces raid in May 2015

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.

  1. 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.

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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.

gold-coin-featuring-antoninus-pius3. 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.

gold-coin-featuring-emperor-hadrian-augustus-caesar4. 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.

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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. screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-3-46-29-pm

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

 

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The Lessons of Palmyra: Iconoclasm in the era of Clickbait

Breaking IconoclasmLast December I was invited to Harvard to participate in a round table on ISIS and iconoclasm. The event, organized by archaeologist Bastien Varoutsikos and sponsored by Harvard’s Standing Committee on Archaeology, sparked a fascinating discussion of iconoclasm through the ages, putting the destructive impulse of the Islamic State into a context that I, for one, had been missing.

The speakers included Harvard’s James Simpson, author of Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, who offered a reminder that iconoclasm is a central strand in Western history. “This is not the other,” Simpson said. “This is us, we’ve been here.” Peter Der Manuelian, director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, discussed iconoclasm in ancient Egypt and how 3D technology was allowing us to recreate the destroyed past. Joseph Greene, also at the Semitic Museum, surveyed the destruction of museums –  repositories of cultural icons – across Syria and Iraq. And Matthew Liebmann reviewed the smashing of church bells – icons of Spanish colonization – during the Pueblo Revolts of 17th Century New Mexico. Moderating with Bastien was Clare Gillis, whose intrepid reporting on the ground in the region with her friend James Foley is captured in the must-watch documentary about his life and death, Jim.

My contribution to the panel was “ISIS and the Media: Iconoclasm in the Era of Clickbait,” a review of how the media has covered the iconoclasm of ISIS. In short, I argued that ISIS iconoclasm was largely (not exclusively) a propaganda effort, and that many of us in the media and social media became complicit in their crimes by spreading those images as clickbait.

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With the fall of Palmyra to Assad forces this month, Bastien and I decided to revisit the subject in an essay for this week’s The Art Newspaper. What follows are excerpts of that essay with a few slides from my Harvard presentation.

The early assessments [of damage by ISIS] contain several important lessons for those of us who watched the destruction of Palmyra in horror last summer—and then shared it virally on social media.

First, they lend credibility to on-the-ground reports during the city’s harrowing occupation that the Islamic State’s destruction of historical monuments was motivated less by twisted ideology than a far simpler craving for attention.

“In-country sources… have overheard Isil commanders comment that attacking the ancient monuments ‘makes the whole world’ talk about them,” noted a September report fr om the American Schools for Oriental Research, an archaeological group tasked by the US State Department with monitoring heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq.

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Notably, the destruction of historical sites had started months earlier, after international media outlets had collectively decided to stop broadcasting gruesome images of Isil hostage beheadings.

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If media attention was indeed what Isil had wanted, the destruction of Palmyra was a coup.

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Respected international media outlets republished Isil’s carefully choreographed shots of the detonation of the iconic Baalshamin Temple on social media as if they were news photos, not the propaganda of a terrorist regime.

In Palmyra, we first witnessed the collision of iconoclasm and clickbait.

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Increasingly, modern media is funded by clickbait and the advertising revenue it generates.

This fact was not lost on Isil, whose sophisticated propaganda machine has created pre-packaged viral content—slick YouTube videos, Facebook posts and 140 character Tweets—designed to be spread on the web.

It is Isil’s ability to marry ancient iconoclasm with modern clickbait that has spread their appetite for destruction so far and fast. And it is our fascination with sharing their snuff films on social media that make us complicit in their crimes.

You can read the complete essay here. My thanks to Bastien for his help with it.

 

Danti’s Inference: The Known Unknowns Of ISIS and Antiquities Looting

Over the last month, a new meme has spread like a sandstorm across the internet: Looting of antiquities, we’re told, has become “the second largest source of revenue” for the hated terror group ISIS.

The claim is almost certainly false, as I explain below. Its provenance can be traced to a State Department-funded archaeologist who is now leading U.S. efforts to protect heritage sites in Syria.

The first reference to it came on October 17 in the magazine Foreign Policy, which published a provocative report on the role that antiquities looting plays in funding the Islamic State terror group.Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 9.40.48 AM

The terror group’s profits from antiquities looting “are second only to the revenue the group derives from illicit oil sales,” the article stated. “So understanding the Islamic State’s approach to the fate of ancient artifacts actually could be key to stopping its advance.” The article’s headline went even further: “Degrading and destroying ISIS could take place in the halls of auction houses, not the Pentagon.”

mdantiForeign Policy’s source was Michael Danti, an assistant professor at Boston University and co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s State Department-funded campaign to track cultural heritage destruction in Syria. In August, the State Department gave ASOR $600,000 to launch the Syria Heritage Initiative. The project is doing important work documenting the destruction of cultural heritage sites in the country, primarily through the use of satellite imagery. Weeks before a week after the Foreign Policy article appeared, Sec. of State John Kerry gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum calling Danti and his ASOR colleagues “literally the gold standard” for information on the issue. (Danti and his ASOR colleagues will give a public presentation on their work in San Diego on Nov. 23rd.)

Danti’s claim was surprising for those of us who have followed the looting in Syria. The scale of looting is devastating, undeniable and relatively well documented in satellite imagery. But to date, very little reliable evidence has come to light about where those looted objects are being sold, much less the profitability for sponsors of the plunder. I’m not aware of a single object offered for sale in auction houses having been reliably traced back to the conflict so far. And past research shows that the biggest profits in the illicit antiquities trade happen far upstream from the excavators, who take a paltry share of profits compared to middlemen and dealers.

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Curious about his sourcing, I asked Danti for more information in an exchange on Twitter. Initially, Danti said the claim was based on “in-country sources.” Danti has dug in Syria for years, but did his Syrian sources really have access to ISIS accounting records? When pressed, he referred to “analogies with AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] finances,” and pointed me to a 2010 RAND study, Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The study is based on data from Iraq’s Al Anbar province dating to 2005 – 2006.

Of course, ISIS did not exist in 2010, much less 2005, and there is ample evidence that, while structurally similar to its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS enjoys different funding streams. Further, the RAND study Danti cited makes no mention — zero — of antiquities looting. The only reference to “looting” in the entire paper is this chart:

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In context, its clear that this “looting” refers more broadly to the spoils of war — seized cars and other commercial goods. “The provincial administration collected revenue mostly from the sale of stolen commercial goods and did not collect much revenue from black market fuel sales, large-scale extortion, or direct taxation,” the report states. “The financing of the western sector was similar, where AQI funded itself through the sale of cars and lesser-valued commercial goods.”

In short, the study sheds no light on contemporary archaeological looting in Syria by ISIS or any other group, something Danti has conceded only half-heartedly: “Needt to know more on how these estimates are made. In Syria/Iraq ‘ghanima’ is used for all looting/theft.”

I called Danti last week for more thoughts on the issue. After a lengthy discussion, he asked not to be quoted, saying he would need to clear any comments with the Department of State. (He hasn’t taken that stance in dozens of other interviews.) In essence, Danti said he stands by his claim while acknowledging there is little public evidence to support it. He also noted that as a “dirt” archaeologist, he is unaccustomed to the media attention his recent role has given him, and says he may have been misquoted.

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

There is no question that looting of archaeological sites has exploded across Syria in recent years, and the satellite evidence is unmistakable. I and others have argued that the various groups involved in looting on the ground — ISIS, al Nusra, Syrian opposition groups, the Assad regime, criminal groups and desperate civilians — would be unlikely to engage in such vast, laborious mining efforts if they weren’t paying off in some way. So, who’s to say Danti’s claim may not be right?

330px-David_S._CohenJust a week after Danti’s Foreign Policy article, David S. Cohen, the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, gave a talk at the Carnegie Endowment describing the U.S. government’s best assessment of the Islamic States’ sources of funding. The assessment is based on intelligence sharing between Treasury, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, law enforcement and foreign governments.

In order, Cohen said ISIS’ primary funding sources are:

1.  The sale of oil from seized fields and refineries, estimated to generate $1 million a day.

2. The kidnap of civilians to profit from ransoms. With ISIS making “at least 20 million” in ransom in 2014 alone, Cohen described it as “one of the most significant terrorist financing threats today.”

3. Sophisticated extortion rackets, which bring in “up to several million dollars per month,” Cohen said.

4. Criminal activity, including bank robberies, stealing livestock and crops from farmers and, yes, looting antiquities.

Cohen’s testimony did little to stop the spread of Danti’s “second biggest source” meme. On Oct 27th, the claim was repeated by the U.S. Naval Institute in a article written by a retired brigadier general and two terrorism finance researchers at the Monterrey Institute (“How ISIS Funds Terror Through Black Market Antiquities Trade.” Soon after, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, Stephennie Mulder, an assistant professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, repeated the claim. (She had it removed from the article after Danti’s sourcing was brought to her attention by other experts.) On Nov. 6th, Newsweek reported it again.

By Nov 13th, the claim was being repeated by Congressmen during a hearing on terror financing on Capitol Hill:

Danti is hardly the first to speak beyond the available evidence. I have spoken with imprecision about the link between terrorism and the antiquities trade. UNESCO officials frequently cite a $7 billion dollar figure for the global illicit antiquities trade that has a very shaky foundation. The Antiquities Coalition has referred to $3 – $5 billion generated by looting in Egypt alone since 2011 (or in some instances, per year), but the research supporting that claim has yet to be published. Rajendra Abhyankar, a professor at Indiana University and former Indian Ambassador to Syria, declared in the Huffington Post earlier this month that “thirty to fifty percent” of ISIS income comes from the theft and looting of antiquities. When asked for a source, he told me it was based on notes he had taken while reading articles that he could no longer find. (I’m now told Abhyankar relied in part on this story in Al-Monitor, which states, “Some even say the looting of historical artifacts has become the Islamic State’s main source of revenue…”) The problem is significant enough that Dr. Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities has made a cottage industry of debunking such claims.

The truth is we have very little reliable data on the global revenue generated by the illicit antiquities trade, and even less on the role it plays in funding terror groups. It is, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown: we know it happens, but not much more. Claiming otherwise may in the short term bring  attention to the issue of looting, but ultimately saps it of credibility – and the urgency to answer those important questions with well-documented research. It can also taint important policy decisions, as Patty Gerstenblith, chair of the State Departments Cultural Property Advisory Committee, noted in response to Danti and similar claims: “Commentators and scholars should avoid sensationalism…Exaggerated [or] baseless claims hinder rational policies to restrict trade in illegal antiquities.”

This is particularly true, and troubling, when baseless claims come from a highly respected academic group being paid — and held out as the gold standard — by the State Department. When John Kerry gives a speech about looting at the Met, he is using the issue to help justify the escalating U.S. military intervention in Syria.

In that context, it is more important than ever to stick to the known knowns.

Twenty Percent: ISIS “Khums” Tax on Archaeological Loot Fuels the Conflicts in Syria and Iraq

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Early Sunday morning, a Twitter account associated with ISIS posted a horrifying photo gallery documenting the group’s destruction of religious sites.

The images show the demolition of several shrines in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to ISIS forces on June 1oth. Similar pictures and videos, touted by ISIS and its supporters via social media, have in recent months galvanized the world’s outrage and inspired rebellion in the local population.

Those dramatic images obscure a far larger and more alarming pattern of destruction, experts say: the rampant pillaging of archaeological sites across the region, with proceeds going to fund all sides in the conflict. Most recently, experts say ISIS has encouraged systematic looting of major archaeological sites in northern Syria and Iraq, and is now taxing the illicit trade under the Islamic principle of Al-Khums, the Arabic word for one-fifth.

“And know ye (O’ believers) that whatever of a thing ye acquire a fifth of it is for God, and for the Apostle and for the (Apostle’s) near relatives and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer …” (8:41)

In the Koran, Allah instructs his followers to pay him one-fifth of what they acquire. While the Shia interpret this as an annual tithe on their earnings, the Sunni tradition believes it applies only to war booty. ISIS has cited Al-Khuns in ordering locals to pay one-fifth of the proceeds of looting, which they have sanctioned and overseen across the archaeologically rich northern Iraq and Syria, experts say, citing local sources.

The income from this looting tax is hard to pin down. A report in the Guardian citing flash drives seized from ISIS leadership suggested the group may have brought in as much as USD$36 million from looting in al-Nabuk area, west of Damascus. This figure seems outlandish to many experts, and has not been independently verified. But local sources tell observers that ISIS is dedicating manpower to supervising the looting at major excavation sites, something they would be unlikely to do unless it provided meaningful income.

These now-famous satellite images of Apamea, Syria hint at the scale of destruction:

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

 

While less photogenic than the demolition of shrines, experts say this wave of illicit excavations will have a more lasting impact not just on our understanding of human history, but on ISIS finances and the ability of local communities to find common ground after the conflict. In a region where ancient history is underfoot every day, the archaeological record provides one of the few glues that hold multi-ethic societies together.

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MONITORING AND PROTECTION EFFORTS

The situation has intensified efforts by governments, NGOs and foreign and local archaeologists to assess the damage and prevent further destruction to cultural heritage in the region.

In late May, UNESCO hosted an emergency experts meeting with representatives from 22 countries, including Assad’s regime and Syrian opposition groups, to discuss ways to protect heritage sites and prevent illicit trafficking. While much of the destruction in Syrian can be attributed to the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs on historically important sites, participants said the focus was on the less contentious issue of looting, which has been conducted by all sides in the conflict. At the conclusion of the meeting, UNESCO agreed to establish an observatory to monitor “monitor the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” It is unclear in the months since the meeting if progress toward the Observatory has been made. According to one participant, “No one has a plan to reach people inside of Syria.”

On the ground in Syria, groups like Association for the Protection of Syrian (APSA) are risking their lives to document the damage to cultural heritage. The Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center have been working with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force in Turkey to train local archaeologists and museum officials to protect high-risk collections and sites, such as the Ma’arra Museum’s collection of Byzantine mosaics.

The American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) has signed a $600,000 agreement with the Department of State to “to comprehensively document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and assess the future restoration, preservation, and protection needs for those sites.” The effort will include the use of Cold-War era satellite imagery to record previously unknown archaeological sites in the region and track any subsequent destruction.

The Syria Campaign, funded by non-political Syrian expats, has gathered more than 9,000 signatures as part of a social media effort to ask the UN to ban on the trade in Syrian antiquities. Heritage for Peace, based on Girona, Spain, has received funding from the Dutch government for a variety of protects to protect cultural heritage in Syria.

There are many similar efforts afoot. Please provide links to others in the comments section below.

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THREE TYPES OF THREATS

aalazm-220x260I recently spoke with Dr. Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist at Shawnee State University who is involved in several of the above efforts and is in frequent touch with Syrians who are monitoring the situation on the ground. Here’s an edited version of our discussion:

Jason Felch: What are the current threats to cultural heritage in Syria?

Amr Al-Azm: Generally speaking we can identify three types of threats.

First is intentional damage due to it being a war zone. Monuments become part of the war zone. For example, the regime air force dropping bombs on Crac de Chavealier, a world heritage site, because opposition had taken up residence in then. In Aleppo, itself a world heritage site, the regime takes up residence and the opposition tunnels underneath the building they’re in and blows up the entire building. We’ve seen severe damage to monuments like the minaret at the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, which was brought down by the regime because it was a high point. That’s one type of casualty.

Then there’s punitive damage, such as what was done to the souks in Aleppo. The burning of the souks was entirely a punitive act by the regime who had told the citizens that if they allowed their citizens to fall prey to the uprising, “we’ll destroy your livelihood.” It was one of the oldest covered bazaars in the world. Now its gone. Also punitive is ISIS blowing up shrines in Iraq and Syria. They’re trying to destroy the identity of one side or the other.

The third type is the most serious and by far the most common: archaeological looting. Its happening all over Syria: regime held areas, opposition areas, no man’s land. That’s the most dangerous, destructive and most widespread.a22_RTR38PMA

JF: What is driving the looting?

AA: First, there is an established historical knowledge that there is wealth to be found under the ground. In times when there is a breakdown of law and order and no authority, combined with extreme poverty, people will reach into their collective memory and someone will remember their great grandfather dug up a tomb and found a pot of silver and was able to survive the winter.

Another reason: Anything to do with your cultural heritage in Syria belongs to the Assad family. That kicks back if you’re rebelling against the state and the regime. Anything associated with them becomes an acceptable target. Syria had some of the most stringent laws in terms of antiquities ownership. If you’re plowing your field and you hit a stone and discover a mosaic, you must inform the state. The state will come, surround the area, rip out the mosaic and it will disappear. You’re not a stakeholder. All he sees is a valuable item removed from him and taken by a kleptocracy. He says, Why should I let the state have it?660x39062663b27d00de1852b44033ec8a9e3c74736900a

JF: Why do you say the looting is worse that the destruction of monuments or holy sites?

AA: It’s very widespread…just about everybody is doing it. Its happening all over. Especially in the Eastern areas, along Euphrates, there are thousands upon thousands of archaeological sites. They’re destroying many many layers of history and culture that we’ll never recover. It’s so systematic right now, huge chunks of our history is disappearing.

Now with ISIS on the scene, this has become much much worse. ISIS has instituted the concept of khums, the 20% tax, and said to the locals, you can dig on your own land but pay us a fifth of what you make. On public land, they’ve started licensing crews to come in – Turks, Kurds, Iraqis coming with bulldozers to get at the few bobbles coming out. Most of the stuff coming out is not priceless artifacts. They’re pots, a small statue, a tablet or cylinder seals. This stuff is small potatoes economically, so the income is based on bulk more than a significant piece of great value.

JF: What evidence is there to support this?

AA: The evidence comes from locals who we know who I communicate with regularly. They tell is ISIS representatives are at the archaeological sites to make sure the khums is paid.

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JF: What are the trafficking networks that move the objects out of the country to the market?

AA: My sources tell me a lot of this stuff ends up crossing the Turkish border. Some international dealers, non-Turks, started to come in to Syria but it quickly got too dangerous for them. Now the dealers all hang out across the border in Turkey. Only Turkish dealers come into Syria to meet with locals. They buy and take it back. One of the main centers for the illicit trade is Tell Abiab, on the Syrian side, across the border from Urfa. There is also lots of smuggling in Kilis, some of it archaeology. From there, I don’t know where it goes.

There is also evidence of some looting to order by wealthy private collectors. For example, in Palmyra, which is under regime control, there is a famous Roman tomb called the Brothers Tomb. I’ve been told the Tomb of the Three Brothers has been looted and sold off. My suspicion is that it’s looting to order for a collector. Something that well known and important won’t show up on the market.

SYR-Tomb3Bros-conservators-

JF: What are you and others doing to stop the trade?

AA: There’s now a concerted campaign to try to talk to the main auction houses and the art dealers to persuade them not to deal with these antiquities. We’ve had fairly good progress on that front. Another thing we’re working on is setting up and training locals who are no longer employed in museums or archaeological sites because they’re not in regime areas. We’re getting them working again in a semi-formal function to protect sites and document damage. And we’re working with local activists who are out there with their cameras. One of the problems we have is revealing our sources because they’re working in a very dangerous state. So for now, much of the information they collect can’t be shared.

JF: Given all the loss of human life in the conflict, why should people are about cultural sites?

AA: This cultural heritage is important because it’s directly linked to national identity of Syrians. Syria’s borders were created artificially. It’s very important that Syrians gather around something that helps them claim their common identity, because otherwise the whole things break down. They’ve been able to do this despite a lot challenges. If this cultural heritage is destroyed, they’re going to lose that. Once the current violence ends, if we don’t have this cultural heritage and the symbolic value of it, how are we going to unite ourselves across religions and religious sects? The country’s past is going to be key to reestablish this national identity and reconnect with the symbols its provides.

ISIS knows this. When they target shrines, that’s what they are trying to destroy. But those highly visible and publicized acts are nothing compared to the daily looting of the sites. The history is not in these one or two important shrines. The history is in those hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites stretching hundreds of miles. It is that repository that is being completely decimated.

The destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas as was a catastrophe, but it didn’t destroy the history of Afghanistan. In Syria and Iraq, we focus on the Bamiyan Buddhas and forget the rest. There are no big statues coming out of those sites, so we don’t see the damage. But in years and decades and centuries to come we’ll have huge gaps in our history because of this cultural violence ton an industrial scale.