Islamic State Isn’t Just Destroying Ancient Artifacts — It’s Selling Them


How much the Islamic State earns from the trade is difficult to estimate. Iraqi officials say it is the group’s second most important commercial activity after oil sales, earning the militants tens of millions of dollars

BAGHDAD — Loveday Morris writes: Islamic State militants have provoked a global outcry by attacking ancient monuments with jackhammers and bulldozers. But they also have been quietly selling off smaller antiquities from Iraq and Syria, earning millions of dollars in an increasingly organized pillaging of national treasures, according to officials and experts.

“They steal everything that they can sell, and what they can’t sell, they destroy.”

— Qais Hussein Rasheed, Iraq’s deputy minister for antiquities and heritage

The Islamic State has defended its destruction of cultural artifacts by saying they are idolatrous and represent pre-Islamic cultures. Behind the scenes, though, the group’s looting has become so systematic that the Islamic State has incorporated the practice into the structure of its self-declared caliphate, granting ­licenses for digging at historic sites through a department of “precious resources.”

“The longer until Mosul is liberated, the more the danger that our human legacy will be wiped out.”

— Amr al-Julaimi, a lecturer in Mosul University’s antiquities department

The growing trade reflects how Islamic State fighters have entrenched themselves since seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul a year ago Wednesday, in a dramatic expansion of the territory they control in this country and neighboring Syria.

“Islamic State has incorporated the activity of excavation into its bureaucracy.”

— Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher on jihadist groups at the Britain-based Middle East Forum

The extremist group’s recent capture of Syria’s majestic 2,000-year-old ruins at Palmyra threw a spotlight on the risk that the Islamic State poses to the region’s rich cultural heritage. It is, however, just one of 4,500 sites under the group’s control, according to the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force. “They steal everything that they can sell, and what they can’t sell, they destroy,” said Qais Hussein Rasheed, Iraq’s deputy minister for antiquities and heritage.

FILE- In this file photo taken on Monday, Sept. 15, 2014 photo shows, a calcareous stone statue displayed at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.  The videos of Islamic State militants destroying the ancient artifacts in Iraq’s museums and blowing up temples and palaces are chilling enough, but one of Iraq’s top antiquities officials said it is all a cover for an even more sinister activity _ the wholesale looting and selling of the country’s cultural heritage. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

A calcareous stone statue is displayed at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

“It’s a dependable source of revenue, which makes it very attractive, and it’s surprisingly untapped. Over time, we’ve seen ISIL and organizations like it increase their ability to draw revenue from these crimes.”

— Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University

“We have noticed that the smuggling of antiquities has greatly increased since last June,” he added, referring to the month in which Islamic State militants took control of Mosul and large parts of northern Iraq. At that time, militants also seized the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. In a video released earlier this year, the Islamic State showed its fighters drilling off the faces of the mighty stone-winged bulls on the gates of the city. The militants also filmed themselves destroying statues at Mosul’s museum. But many of those items were actually replicas of antiquities kept in Baghdad, Iraqi officials said. Anything genuine and small enough to move was likely sold off or stockpiled by the militants, they said.

[Read the full story here, at The Washington Post]

Iraq has suffered from years of despoilment of its historic sites, as thieves have taken advantage of instability in the country. The sacking of the poorly guarded National Museum in Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 was decried around the world. Read the rest of this entry »