ISIS is raking in millions of pounds for its war chest by selling looted artefacts and antiquities pillaged from across Syria and Iraq, directly to western collectors, including some British residents. The illegal trade is so lucrative that the Islamists have even started hiring contractors with bulldozers to tear historical sites apart.
According to a senior police officer, before ISIS declared their Islamic State, dealers liaised with middlemen in order to obtain the stolen artworks, including stonework and paintings. Dr Willy Bruggeman, president of the Belgian federal police council and former deputy director of Europol told the Times: “[Isis] are now using their own networks to come into contact with the final buyers. When I was working on these cases at Europol, you could see many levels of transactions in this area — now they want to have a one-to-one relationship with the collectors.”
It’s not hard to see why. Earlier this year, Iraqi intelligence claimed that ISIS had made £23million from selling artefacts gathered from the area around al-Nabek alone. The Syrian city contains a number of early Christian sites.
Aleppo and Homs are also amongst the 1,000 or so historical sites pillaged by the insurgents and other terrorist factions in the region. Experts have also highlight heavy looting in the ancient Greek cities of Apamea and Dura-Europos, both located in modern day Syria.
However, frescos and masonry torn from ancient churches remain the most commonly traded artefacts. So successful are the smuggling routes, thought to be the same ones used to smuggle oil and arms across borders in all directions, that less than one percent of the stolen relics known to have been taken have been recovered. As the trade is carried out well away from licenced operations, western authorities have struggled to place estimates on how many pieces are being smuggled out of the State.
Dr Bruggeman said that it was almost certain that some of the artefacts had made their way to Britain, although none had yet been traced here. Two sets of antiquities believed to have come from sites now under the control of ISIS were recovered from the United States earlier this year, and another case is currently being investigated in Germany.
ISIS is also understood to have enacted a 12.5 percent tax on all antiquities sold by private smugglers in the region, further bolstering their war chest along with proceeds from oil smuggling, ransoms from hostage taking and racketeering. However, money is not the only motive for the trade. “You also see a kind of cultural cleansing that undermines the morale of the communities they invade,” said Dr Bruggeman.