ISIL PILLAGING ARTIFACTS RAISES MONEY FOR THESE TERRORISTS
Looting priceless artifacts has raised tens of millions of dollars for Isil – a sum comparable to the profit the terrorists have made by the kidnap and ransom of Western hostages
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has established a "ministry of antiquities" to maximize the profits from looting priceless artifacts across the territory it controls.
Since its lightning sweep through Iraq and Syria last year, Isil has sought to transform itself into an organization capable of ruling its own state, setting up an elaborate hierarchy of leadership and ministries. But while elsewhere in the Middle East, ministries of this kind try to protect antiquities; Isil's version was established to pillage and smuggle these treasures in a territory replete with classical ruins.
"They happened upon a pre-existing situation of looting and turned it into a highly organized trade," said Amr al-Azm, a former official in the Syrian antiquities ministry who now runs a network of archaeologists and activists to document the destruction of the country's treasures.
In Iraq, the jihadists have desecrated and looted the Assyrian remains at Mosul, Nimrud and Hatra. Earlier in May they captured the Roman city of Palmyra in Syria, raising fears that it might suffer the same treatment.
When Isil set up its self-described "Islamic Caliphate", it imposed a 20 per cent tax on looted antiquities. The jihadists then tried to gain control of the trade by regulating access to ancient sites.
By last summer, various "antiquities ministries" had been established across their strongholds. They have since been drawn together to form part of a "Ministry for Precious Resources", according to Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who has helped to gather an archive of Isil's operational documents.
A number of groups have been contracted to carry out digs, helped by local archaeologists who identify the most lucrative sites. Accurate estimates for the revenue raised through this trade are hard to establish. But the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body, has put the figure at tens of millions of dollars.
Experts say the focus on figures distracts from the human consequences of the smuggling trade.
"The bottom line is that it's funding terrorism – and the deaths of Iraqi and Syrian people," said Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University who is advising the US State Department on how to tackle the problem. Isil is believed to have developed a network of middlemen for the onward trade of the artifacts, providing one dealer with an armed escort for trips to the Turkish border.
In other cases, local people sell the treasures to middlemen, paying Isil a tax of at least 20 per cent on the profits.
The spoils have also been found in the possession of senior commanders. When US commandos killed Isil's alleged chief financial officer, Abu Sayyaf, on May 16, they discovered various relics inside his home, including an ancient Assyrian Bible.
Archaeologists say they are beginning to find evidence of organized pillage on a scale unseen throughout the Syria's civil war.