ISIS’ Looting Economy: Financial and Cultural Implications

The Islamic State (or, alternatively, ISIS or ISIL) is considered to be the richest terror organization in the world; as of June 2014, it was estimated they held approximately 2.4 billion USD in assets.[i] A February 2015 Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Report identified its primary source of income as derived from its occupation of territory, including bank looting, extortion, control of oil fields and refineries, and robbery of economic assets.[ii] As U.S.-led airstrikes on oil refineries and tankers have reduced ISIS’ once $1million daily oil revenue by nearly two-thirds, alternative sources of funding have become increasingly important for the group.

Image courtesy of Varun Shiv Kapur, © 2010.

Image courtesy of Varun Shiv Kapur, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Mathew Levitt, Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, testifying to the House Committee on Financial Services, estimated that the illicit trafficking of stolen antiquities has become ISIS’ second largest revenue source.[iii] In June 2014, Iraqi Security Forces seized more than 160 flash drives detailing the financial transactions of the Islamic State. The group had managed to net almost $36 million USD from one area of Syria alone, Al-Nabuk, where antiquities are up to 8,000 years old. The territory under ISIS control is home to some of the world’s oldest cultures and countless Roman, Babylonian, Greek, and Assyrian sites; according to a National Geographic Report, 90% of Syria’s cultural artifacts are located in war-torn areas.[iv]  While it is impossible to calculate the exact amount of money ISIS is making from antiquities trafficking, UNESCO estimates that the global trade in conflict antiquities is a multiple billion-dollar industry.[v]

The Islamic State benefits from antiquities trafficking in several different ways. While ISIS occupies an antiquities site, larger figures are destroyed by sledgehammer and drills, usually for the benefit of the camera, while smaller and more portable items are looted and smuggled out of the country. In April 2015, ISIS released videos that appeared to depict its militants taking sledgehammers to the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, south of Mosul.  Qais Hussein Rashid, head of Iraq’s State Board for Antiquities and Heritage, explained, “according to our sources, the Islamic State started days before destroying this site by digging up the area, mainly the palace. We think they first started digging around these areas to get the artifacts, then they started demolishing them as a cover-up.”[vi]

More often, however, ISIS fighters do not do the digging themselves but sanction the illicit excavation to locals in the areas. They then levy a special Islamic tax called khums, which takes 20 percent of all treasure for the state. It can be up to 50% in the case of Islamic-era artifacts, however, and even more so if ISIS-owned equipment is used in the excavation process.[vii]  The artifacts are then smuggled via traditional routes through Turkey’s relatively lawless borders. From there, several different things may happen. The artifacts can be kept in Turkey; sold via private illicit sales to wealthy Saudis, Emiratis, and Iranians; or smuggled through the Balkans and Bulgaria into Western Europe and the U.S.[viii]

The U.S. has places the total volume of illicit trade coming from Syria at more than $100 million USD a year. Yet more than the financial implications, the Islamic State’s antiquities trafficking has profound culture implications. Looting to fund military and paramilitary operations is nothing new in the area, both Al Qaeda and the Taliban have profited from illicit antiquities trafficking, and it makes sense for ISIS (as an offshoot of Al Qaeda) to use the same funding model. What is different, however, is the Islamic State’s sheer scale and systematic nature. They have displayed a particularly organization form of looting, including, according to reports, establishing an office in Manbij to handle looted antiquities.[ix]

In March 2015, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared, “The deliberate destruction of our common cultural heritage constitutes a war crime.”[x] In response to the destruction of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria’s Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums explained that the ancient city stood for, “tolerance and multiculturalism, the things that ISIS hates.”[xi] UNESCO has referred to such acts by the Islamic State as example of, ‘cultural cleansing’. In response to criticism that too much emphasis is placed on preserving heritage sites when people are suffering and dying, The French ambassador to UNESCO, stated, “When people die in their tens of thousands, must we be concerned about cultural cleansing? Yes, definitely yes… culture is a powerful incentive for dialogue that the most extreme and the most fanatical groups strive to annihilate.”[xii] Indeed, ISIS looting economy allows the terrorist organization to assert their iconoclastic ideology while simultaneously benefiting financially from the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage.

Accepting that there are both cultural and practical significance behind stopping the Islamic State’s antiquities trafficking, there are limits to what the international community can do. In February 2015, the U.N. Security Council officially recognized that ISIS was, “generating income from the direct or indirect trade” in looted artifacts, adding a ban of illicit sales of Syrian antiquities to a pre-existing ban on Iraqi artifacts. [xiii] While this international ban makes the ultimate sale of illicit antiquities difficult, it is still not impossible. It is most likely that artifacts will not end up on the open international market for at least several years, but instead sold via private dealers to wealthy collectors. Michael Danti, an archeology professor at Boston University who is advising the U.S. State Department on the matter, estimates that wealthy enough dealers will ‘sit on’ looted artifacts for 10-15 years before releasing them onto the open market, when law enforcement will be less interested.[xiv]  Even now, however, prosecuting suspected cases is difficult because it is so easy to forge documentation on the provenance of such objects.

Danti suggest that a more effective solution is to focus on securing the borders of Iraq and Syria, if we can hold the material inside the two states, he says, “ISIL can’t get the money for it and it will make it easier for the world to repatriate the annuities when the conflict ends.”[xv] Until then, art experts and academics are working on ‘red lists’, inventories of cultural goods that are at risk of being illicitly trafficked. Some hope raising awareness of the connection between smuggled artifacts and ISIS financing will diminish the market for such goods in the West, which is still the ultimate destination for valuable antiquities.

However, concern over the exploitation of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage for ISIS profit will not truly diminish until rule of law is re-established. Amr Al-Azm, chair of the Syrian Opposition’s Syrian Heritage Task Force, does not see an end to the crisis in the near future, “the trafficking industry in Iraq and Syria is like what Hollywood is for Los Angeles. Just like everyone is an aspiring actor in LA, everyone in Syria and Iraq is a deal in some trafficked goods. The people won’t stop hustling until the war ends.”[xvi]















[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] ibid