Islamic State has become notorious for vandalizing antiquities sites in Syria, most infamously at Tadmur (Palmyra), where the organization blew up several extraordinary archaeological monuments about a year ago. But in reality it destroys relatively few antiquities — it usually prefers to steal and sell them. Nor does it have any qualms about dealing in pre-Islamic relics, including idols. All that matters is their monetary value.
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In Tadmur, for instance, one of the videos Islamic State made of the destruction shows two statues that are seemingly waiting their turn to be blown up. But the following month, the Turkish border authorities seized those very statues as they were being smuggled out of Syria.
Other relics stolen from the Museum of Palmyra have been seized by the Assad regime in Syria, en route to being smuggled abroad.
Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s department for preventing antiquities theft, has just written a paper detailing Islamic State’s theft and sale of antiquities. The paper will be presented at a conference in the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute next week.
Though global attention has focused on major archaeological sites in Syria like Tadmur and Nimrod, satellite photography reveals that Islamic State has systematically looted many other sites as well. For instance, photographs show that about six months after the organization took control of Tell Mari and Dura-Europos — two important archaeological sites in eastern Syria — thousands of holes had been dug at these sites in a search for relics to steal and sell.
Klein found similar pictures from many other sites.
Altogether, Islamic State has been conducting one of the largest and most effective antiquities theft operations in history, which is liable to affect the global antiquities trade for years and even decades to come.
Experts say this theft has also destroyed any chance of conducting scientific archaeological digs at these sites, some of which are among the most important in the entire Middle East.
“The area that fell into their hands is an enormous one, a fertile trading center, the cradle of human culture,” said Klein. “There are sites of enormous importance to human culture there. They understood this from the outset and wanted to hurt the West by destroying it. But primarily, they used it to finance their activities,” he added.
In contrast, the photographs show no signs of antiquities destruction in sites under the Assad regime’s control, indicating that the central government remains relatively effective in those areas.
In May 2015, the West obtained information on how ISIS organized its looting expeditions, when the U.S. Army killed the organization’s “oil minister,” Abu Sayyaf. The files captured in the operation showed that Islamic State had set up a “Resources Ministry” responsible for extracting natural resources from the territory it captured. These resources included oil, gas, metals and antiquities.
The documents also contained licenses issued by the organization to those who wanted to dig for saleable antiquities. The licenses stipulated that 20 percent of the antiquities’ value would be paid to Islamic State.
In total, the FBI estimates the value of the group’s antiquities trade at over $200 million.
Nevertheless, most of the looted artifacts have yet to surface on global antiquities markets. In recent years, Interpol has discovered some efforts by Islamic State to market such relics via eBay or social media, and has worked to shut those channels down.
Klein, whose job requires being in contact with overseas law enforcement agencies, said he believes Islamic State is having trouble getting the antiquities out of Syria, and especially to Western markets.
“Some of the antiquities are apparently being sold eastward, through Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Thailand and Hong Kong,” he said. “But most people are apparently waiting until the world has moved onto the next conflict, when the focus will no longer be on them, and then they’ll bring them out.”
Judging by what happened in Iraq, which also suffered large-scale antiquities theft after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003, there’s usually a lag time of several years between the theft and when the artifact hits the market, Klein noted.
About six months ago, Interpol and UNESCO announced a worldwide operation to seize antiquities looted from Iraq. Israel participated in this effort, and IAA inspectors searched antiquities shops in Jerusalem’s Old City and elsewhere.
Hundreds of items were seized in these searches, including clay tablets with cuneiform writing, figurines and incantation bowls (inscribed with curses or oaths that were used in certain rituals). The courts recently approved their confiscation by the state, and Klein said the goal is eventually to return them to the Iraqi government via an international agency.
Until recently, Israel was a major center for international trade in illegal antiquities, due to the comparative leniency of its law regulating the purchase and sale of antiquities. But recently, it enacted tougher regulations, which the IAA hopes will make it much harder to deal in looted antiquities here.