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How ISIS funds activities through sale of ancient artifacts

Videos showing ISIS destroying antiquities have provoked outrage, but the jihadist group has left far more of the priceless treasures intact and found a way to profit from them.

Militant group may already have taken in millions by selling antiquities

The fortified city of Hatra withstood repeated attacks by the Roman Empire, but this wall of an ancient building fell to a militant wielding a hammer, seen in this image made from an ISIS video posted on YouTube. (Associated Press/YouTube)

Videos showing ISIS destroying antiquities have provoked outrage, but the jihadist group has left far more of the priceless treasures intact and found a way to profit from them.

"You see very slickly produced videos of ISIS publicly destroying the Assyrian reliefs, the human-headed winged bulls, destroying Nimrud, destroying Hatra," says U.S. marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who works with many international agencies to prevent the smuggling and sale of ancient artifacts.

"What you don't see is the pieces that they can move. What you don't see is that ISIS is selling far more pieces than they are destroying."

And those sales, Bogdanos says, are partially funding the militant group's activities. 

Bogdanos was instrumental in protecting the Iraqi National Museum after it was looted in 2003 and set up an amnesty program that helped return about two-thirds of the objects stolen.

"It wasn't until almost two years later that we began uncovering evidence that antiquities trafficking in Iraq was funding terrorism."

Bogdanos says that discovery shouldn't have surprised him at that time, and similar activity shouldn't surprise anyone now.

"In Afghanistan, for example, you see the Taliban using opium to fund their activities because opium is a cash crop in Afghanistan.

Destroying symbols

"Well, they don't have opium in Iraq but what they have in almost limitless supply are antiquities. And so (ISIS) simply adapted and they began using antiquities as cash."

In February, a video of ISIS destroying antiquities in Iraq's Mosul Museum went viral.

While it was not immediately clear whether originals were being smashed, what the video did portray was ISIS's message to the rest of the world: any symbols of idolatry or deity must be destroyed.

This image made from video posted on a militant social media account affiliated with ISIS on April 11, 2015, purports to show a militant taking a sledgehammer to an Assyrian relief at the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. (Associated Press)
In ISIS's interpretation of the Koran, polytheism in ancient artifacts — such as the worshipping of images seen in bas-reliefs or statues — is forbidden.

Any pre-Islamic heritage is at risk because it was made in a time before Muhammad and, in ISIS's view, should be destroyed.

Such a view has prompted outrage and concern from those who see virtue in preserving the historic works of art.

"This unconscionable destruction is an argument for why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place," wrote James Cuno, former museum curator and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, in a letter to the New York Times on March 11, 2015.

"ISIS will destroy everything in its path."

Going to the black market

And the items ISIS doesn't demolish are being sold on the black market, also removing those items from public purview.

"They're destroying anything figurative and they're taxing the rest," says Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, a former antiquities smuggler.

In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, Middle East reporter Nicolas Pelham says that ISIS's video was "designed to market what it did not destroy."

The artifacts for sale were not filmed, he says, and the destruction was orchestrated to increase demand and raise prices.

An unnamed Iraqi government adviser in the article estimates that ISIS may have already earned hundreds of millions of dollars through the sale of antiquities.

ISIS recently seized control of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria, fuelling fears that it, too, will be demolished.

In another video released on May 27, which shows the site of Palmyra intact, ISIS stated it would only destroy idols, statues and deities — of which there are few — and not the site itself.

Earlier this year, however, the group razed the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra, after first destroying their artifacts. Both are located in Iraq.

An antiquities professor at Mosul University, Amir al-Jumali, has determined that ISIS has demolished 160 sites since June 2014.


On CBC Radio's Ideas

Listen to the two-part series Who Owns Ancient Art?, including interviews with Matthew Bogdanos, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry and James Cuno, on CBC Radio's Ideas on June 12 and June 19.


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