As President Barack Obama moves ahead with his plan to confront Isil, all options, as they say, should be on the table. Thus, while “kinetic force” is a likely focus, terrorism financing must not be overlooked. By targeting one of the group’s funding sources, policy-makers can also help to preserve the history of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. What’s needed is an immediate, multifaceted initiative to curb the sale of “blood antiquities.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) is reported to be the world’s richest terrorist organisation, and it has been made rich, in part, by looting Iraq and Syria. The group’s advance has been fuelled by the sale of stolen artefacts that are vital to defining the Syrian and Iraqi cultures, which pre-date Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Indeed, the ongoing pillaging of this legacy is a blow to our collective humanity.
As reported by The Guardian, Isil has made millions from its plunder — including $36 million (Dh132 million) alone from the looting of Al Nabuk in Syria. With antiquities that are as much as 8,000 years old at its disposal, the group needs no state sponsor; it is financing its carnage with the wealth of past civilisations.
According to professor Amr Al Azm of Shawnee State University in Ohio, who recently returned from the region, Isil is not only looting these antiquities itself, but also has essentially licensed the plunder of others — providing permission to locals and organised gangs to loot artefacts, so long as Isil receives a 20 per cent to 50 per cent “tithe” on the proceeds. This has transformed what may have started as a localised effort into an international business.
“There is no doubt that looting and illicit trade in antiquities is highly lucrative, enough for Isil to be deeply engaged and implicated in it,” Al Azm said. “Stopping this illicit trade in antiquities, therefore, must be an imperative, not only because it is a major source of income for terrorist organisations such as Isil, but also because it is causing irreparable damage to Syria’s cultural heritage.”
Just as “blood diamonds” helped fund slaughters in Africa, “blood antiquities” are helping to finance terrorism in the Middle East.
Fortunately, such lootings have not gone unnoticed. During a June meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations, Representative Christopher Smith, New Jersey Republican, expressed interest in legislation to limit the sale of stolen antiquities from conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq. In Britain, Member of Parliament Mark Pritchard has raised the importance of broadening the discussion to auction houses that sell antiquities.
Considering that blood antiquities sometimes find their way into western markets — as demonstrated by the recent return of looted items from New York auction houses to Cambodia - it makes sense to consider industry action to stem terrorist financing. Indeed, such an approach may be critical, as the link between looter and collector may be closer than many suspect. As researchers Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis said in a recent study of stolen Cambodian artefacts: “The data begin to answer many of the pressing but unresolved questions ... of this particular criminal market, such as whether organised crime is involved in antiquities looting and trafficking (yes) ... and how many stages there are between looting at source and the placing of objects for public sale in internationally respected venues (surprisingly few).”
To be sure, governments and international organisations have taken important first steps to curb the sale of looted artefacts. Last year, the publication of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk was announced, while United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) recently held consultations on an emergency action plan to safeguard Iraq’s cultural heritage. More recently, the Antiquities Coalition has been helping to curb looting from Egypt, while the State Department provided funding to document and help preserve cultural heritage sites in Syria.
But those involved in the antiquities trade itself are likely the best placed to ensure that blood antiquities never enter the marketplace in the first place. A global stakeholder engagement group should be formed, perhaps in Davos, Switzerland, to ensure that all responsible parties in the antiquities market “value chain” — governments, auction houses, museums, dealers, insurers, free ports and collectors — agree to a common sourcing and sales standard, to guarantee that any antiquities from active and recent conflict zones have been properly sourced before they can be sold, transferred, insured, stored or displayed.
To carry this out, the world can learn from past examples of combating illicit markets, including the successful Kimberley Process, which was established to clamp down on blood diamonds. Working together, we can once again save lives while helping to preserve our common heritage.
Mark Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, was the head of operations of the joint World Bank-UN Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. He is also counsellor to the Antiquities Coalition.