February 12, 2015

Syria and the looting of antiquities by ISIS

Posted at 2:13 pm in Similar cases

Many photos have appeared in recent months showing the extent of looting and vandalism by ISIS in Syria and Northern Iraq.

Attempts are now being made to prevent this, which is a great step forward.

Many reports however also claim that the looting is the terrorist organisation’s second largest revenue stream after oil, although this link is as yet completely unproven and most likely incorrect, as proved by Jason Felch’s article here.

Archaeologists Rene Teijgeler and Isber Sabrinelooking for looted antiquities at a market in Gaziantep, Turkey

Archaeologists Rene Teijgeler and Isber Sabrinelooking for looted antiquities at a market in Gaziantep, Turkey

Wall Street Journal

Culture Brigade
Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror
By Joe Parkinson, Ayla Albayrak and Duncan Mavin

TURKEY-SYRIA BORDER—In a hotel basement on the Turkish side of this combat-scarred frontier, a group of unlikely warriors is training to fight on a little-known front of Syria’s civil war: the battle for the country’s cultural heritage.

The recruits aren’t grizzled fighters but graying academics, more at home on an archaeological dig than a battlefield. For months, they have journeyed across war-torn regions of Syria, braving shelling, smugglers and the jihadists of Islamic State. Their mission: to save ancient artifacts and imperiled archaeological sites from profiteers, desperate civilians and fundamentalists who have plundered Syria’s rich artistic heritage to fund their war effort.

Art historians and intelligence officials say that antiquities smuggling by Islamic State has exploded in recent months, aggravating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions. Looting, often with bulldozers, is now the militant group’s second-largest source of finance after oil, Western intelligence officials say.

“What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into an organized transnational business that is helping fund terror,” said Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University who is advising the U.S. State Department on how to tackle the problem. “It’s the gravest cultural emergency I’ve seen.”

In sessions at this secret location, the loose-knit band of academics is being trained how to fight back. They are instructed on how to get to key sites and document both what is there and what is already missing. Another skill: how to hide precious objects that may be at risk of looting and record the GPS locations so they can be retrieved at a later date. The group also uses disguises: posing as antiques dealers to take photographs of looted artifacts.

The group is led by a portly, middle-aged archaeologist trained at Damascus University, who with his colleagues operates in secrecy because of the dangerous nature of the work. He likens his group to World War II’s “Monuments Men”: a small group of academics that helped save Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazis and became the subject of a 2014 Hollywood film starring George Clooney.

“It’s dangerous work. We have to get in and out of a site very quickly,” he said, speaking in a dimly lighted basement room used for the training. “The looting has become systematic, and we can’t keep up.”

The war in Syria has taken an epic toll, with more than 200,000 people killed since the uprising began in 2011.

Alongside the human cost, the cultural damage has mounted. Ancient cities such as Homs and Aleppo have been reduced to rubble. Roman, Greek, Babylonian and Assyrian sites have been destroyed by fighting and looting, and five of the six Unesco World Heritage sites in Syria have been seriously damaged.

Some of the country’s grandest museums have been plundered or are at risk, including the Mosaic Museum in Idlib province, filled with Roman-era works. In the markets in southern Turkish cities like Gaziantep, Roman vases robbed from graves are being sold by the boxload.

“We’ve seen a lot of artifacts turning up here…Ottoman-era coffee pots, and older coins and statuettes,” said Harun Unvar, who runs an antiques store in Gaziantep’s old bazaar, as he rejected a Turkish man’s efforts to sell a marble bird’s-head figurine for around $220. “Refugees try to sell small items, but the big stuff is stolen and sold privately for big money.”

Market traders say small items such as figurines and carved cylinder seals sell for prices varying from a few dollars to up to several thousand. Buyers range from locals picking up small pieces in Turkish and Lebanese markets to investors and collectors in the West, China and the Persian Gulf, according to antiquities specialists and U.S. officials.

In the U.S. alone, government data show the value of declared antiques imported from Syria jumped 134% in 2013 to $11 million. U.S. officials estimate the value of undeclared pieces is many multiples higher.

The total volume of illicit trade is impossible to accurately assess but is thought to have mushroomed to more than $100 million a year, according to U.S. officials.

A key driver of the dramatic expansion in looting is the rise of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Academics and government officials say the vast majority of the illicit trade is run by the group—whose worldview sanctions destroying artifacts considered idolatrous. In addition to selling oil, the group also makes money from hostage ransoms and racketeering, officials say.

In neighboring Iraq, Islamic State is also looting and destroying ancient sites on an alarming scale, according to satellite imagery, archaeologists and government officials. In recent days, local activists reported that the militants destroyed a large portion of the ancient city wall at Nineveh in Iraq, which dates back 2,700 years and was once the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It is unclear whether Iraqi archaeologists are training and deploying into conflict zones to try to limit the damage to their cultural heritage.

In Syria, satellite imagery updated in December by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Washington-based non-governmental organization, showed how the jihadists are methodically deconstructing and looting historical buildings in their headquarters of Raqqa, a Unesco World Heritage site with ancient shrines that Islamic State regards as sacrilegious.

In Islamic State-controlled territory around the Mesopotamian city of Mari, a longtime trade hub founded in 300 B.C., more than 1,300 excavation pits have been dug in the past few months, according to satellite imagery and archaeologists. Researchers from Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, say much of the tomb raiding is being done by civilians encouraged by Islamic State leaders, who levy a 20% tax on any sales.

Last year, an Iraqi intelligence official claimed Islamic State had made as much as $36 million from looting a single area around al-Nabek, a Syrian city that contains several early Christian sites known for their icons and wall mosaics.

Willy Bruggeman, a former deputy director of Europol who is now president of the Belgian federal police council, said Islamic State is using its vast network and social-media savvy to bypass conventional middlemen and reach buyers directly. The looters store the booty in a secret location then circulate the photos directly to buyers in hard copy or via text message or the WhatsApp messaging service, law-enforcement officials say.

The Wall Street Journal reviewed cellphone photos of a Bronze Age votive bust, possibly 5,000 years old, looted from Islamic State-controlled territory, being touted for sale to private clients and potentially sold for around $30,000. The limestone statues, depicting in detail the clothing and jewelry of the time, were placed in tombs to accompany the dead to the afterlife.

Factions of Islamist fighters immediately take control of trafficking when gaining territory, one smuggler said. “They understand how lucrative this stuff is so they exploit it with sophisticated networks,” said the smuggler from the Turkish border city of Hatay, who identified himself as Ugur.

In the city of Manbij, which has become an artifact-trading hub, Islamic State established an office to handle looted antiquities and a market for equipment used in digging, including metal detectors and other remote sensing equipment usually used only by professional archaeologists, said Amr Al Azm, an expert in Syrian antiquities at Shawnee State.

Stolen antiquities are usually sold to Islamic State approved dealers, with payments in U.S. dollars. “Once the sales are completed these approved dealers are then given safe passage through ISIS territory,” Mr. Al Azm said.

The quantity of items being looted is a bigger concern than a few high-value pieces, because the act of digging up the artifacts destroys their archaeological context, he said.

Less than 1% of the pieces stolen by the militants from churches and ancient towns across Iraq and Syria has been recovered, Mr. Bruggeman said.

Islamic State isn’t the only group involved in the plunder. Grainy video published by a Syrian opposition media network on YouTube shows soldiers fighting for President Bashar al-Assad ’s regime at Palmyra with delicate grave reliefs loaded onto a truck.

And senior Free Syrian Army fighters, the secular opposition that has received aid from the U.S., have long conceded to Western media that looting antiquities is an important source of funding.

Governments are wrestling with how to choke the trade. U.S. and European governments are mulling new antismuggling legislation, and European and U.S. spy agencies are investigating the supply chain that moves the artifacts from the war zone to market, according to Western counterterrorism and diplomatic officials.

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council circulated a resolution to ban all trade in antiquities from Syria, expressing concern that Islamic State and other groups are generating funds from the trafficking. The council banned trade in artifacts from Iraq a decade ago.

“The expanding link between antiquities looting and terrorist financing is raising political awareness. Governments should now work to ensure they are limiting this funding link to terrorism,” said Mark Vlasic, a Georgetown University law professor who advises Congress on terrorism financing.

Security forces in Lebanon and Jordan have stepped up raids on smuggling rings. In Turkey, special police antismuggling units conducted dozens of raids in Turkey’s southern cities since last summer, confiscating thousands of artifacts, including Roman sculptures that are now locked in vaults in the museums of Gaziantep, Urfa, Hatay and Mardin. Officials say they plan to return the items when the war ends.

Syria’s monuments men, a group of academics, archaeologists and volunteers, are seeking to halt the plunder at its source.

Formed in 2012 by the Damascus University-trained archaeologist and another Syrian archaeologist colleague, the group started informally cataloging damage to sites in battle-scarred Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The founders enlisted Syrian colleagues and friends from universities, museums and government directorates, and later, European and American specialists joined as advisers.

“Many of us knew each other before the war because we worked in the same field,” said the second archaeologist, in an interview. “We started this because we believe so strongly it’s the right thing to do.”

The group is now a 200-strong network stretching across rebel-held Syria, the archaeologists said. But unlike World War II’s monuments men, the Syrian specialists have few resources and are seldom supported by armed units. Aided by smugglers and fixers, they travel unarmed through rebel-controlled territory, navigating a maze of armed groups including Islamic State; Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al Qaeda branch; the U.S.-backed opposition; and the Syrian regime.

“The regime knows us and is looking for us,” because of work done to expose looting by Syrian government loyalists, said the Damascus-trained archaeologist. “Other groups could kill us if they knew what we were doing, so we move in the shadows.”

To travel safely, the academics rely on friends, informers and sympathetic rebel commanders. Telephone communication is patchy because most networks in opposition-controlled regions have been cut by the regime. In December two of the archaeologists were almost killed by regime airstrikes as they snapped photos of damage at Serjilla and al-Bara, two preserved Byzantine-era towns known as “Dead Cities.” The ferocity of the strikes at the turn of the year made the work conditions so dangerous that the archaeologists were unable to catalog any sites for two weeks.

The archaeologists sketch out damage assessments and shoot images with a camera or cellphone. Sometimes they take photos or record video surreptitiously on their phones by pretending to take a call while discreetly circling a damaged area. In some cases they wrap and bury objects at risk of being looted and record the GPS location. Earlier this year, archaeologists in Aleppo spent 12 hours talking to Western specialists on Skype to correctly preserve and move 600 medieval manuscripts and astrological instruments at the Aleppo Mosque’s library at risk from regime airstrikes.

“We work as quick as possible. Sometimes there’s a sniper close by, often on hilltops or in tall buildings,” the Damascus archaeologist said.

He said that senior members of the group have begun posing as antiques dealers to snare information on looted items. The disguised archaeologists contact looters and photograph artifacts, before emailing pictures to academics in Europe who pass information onto law enforcement agencies. Hundreds of looted artifacts have been photographed, including a 1,500-year-old mosaic of a bearded biblical figure in a green-and-blue striped tunic ripped from a wall of an Idlib church.

In November, 30 senior members of the group were invited to travel to Turkey for training and technology after attracting the attention of NGOs and foreign governments. Only eight could make the trip because fighting with Islamic State blocked their route. The three-day training session in a secret location close to the Syria-Turkish border was run by Heritage for Peace, or HfP, a Barcelona-based NGO that sees heritage preservation as a way to bring warring parties to the negotiating table.

Leading the instruction was Rene Teijgeler, a Dutch archaeologist and former lieutenant colonel in the Dutch army, who ran heritage preservation operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his partner, Isber Sabrine, a Syrian-born archaeologist based in Barcelona.

“We are neutral. We adhere to the Red Cross code of conduct and we are very careful about who we operate with,” said Mr. Teijgeler, pulling on a cigarette in a hotel cafe. “We vet them carefully. You don’t want wild cowboys doing crazy things,” he said.

The training, partly funded by the Dutch government, focused on how to uniformly catalog damage at ancient sites like the Roman amphitheater at Palmyra or the crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers. Trainees were given laptops and cameras with powerful zooms to help improve their work.

“These guys have to be skilled and quick because of the danger, but they have to be correct, which is hard when the bullets are flying round your ears,” Mr. Teijgeler said.

Just getting to the training camp was a challenge. At the border, the group was trapped between shellfire from warring Syrian factions and the rotating searchlights of Turkey’s border guards. Dressed in suits, they sheltered face down in a muddy ditch for six hours before it was safe to be smuggled across the frontier into Turkey.

A priority for archaeologists on the ground is to educate rebel groups to be more sympathetic to cultural heritage, including meetings with emirs of some Islamist groups.

“We are trying to get a Fatwa [religious ruling] from Shariah judges to stop the looting. We are making progress,” said the second founder of the monuments men group. “We don’t talk to ISIS….They have a different approach.”

The Damascus-trained archaeologist said lack of resources and the dangerous nature of their work has limited what they can achieve on the ground.

“This isn’t just about history. It’s about our future,” he said. “Saving our heritage is the only thing that can help us rebuild an inclusive Syria after the war.”

—Benoît Faucon contributed to this article.

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  1. exploratorraw said,

    02.12.15 at 7:21 pm

    Syria and the looting of antiquities by ISIS: Many photos have appeared in recent months showing the extent of… http://t.co/qFD5HZXulf

  2. Inomla said,

    02.15.15 at 10:17 am

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Syria and the looting of antiquities by ISIS – Modern day Monument Men http://t.co/m1I1uGLmpf

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