WASHINGTON, D.C. — Expert witnesses, while testifying before a House panel about the unprecedented level of looting and destruction of priceless antiques by jihadist groups across the Middle East, identified collectors from Europe and the United States as top buyers of ancient artifacts illegally sold by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS).
On Tuesday, the experts testified before the House Financial Services Committee’s Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing during a hearing titled “Preventing Cultural Genocide: Countering the Plunder and Sale of Priceless Cultural Antiquities by ISIS.”
The Islamic State is committing “cultural genocide” as it plunders and sells ancient artifacts to fund its terrorist activities, the lawmakers learned from the experts.
Looting perpetrated by ISIS is occurring on an “unprecedented scale” and is serving as a significant source of funding for the group, the United Nations has warned.
The United States, which is leading an international military coalition against ISIS, and other Western governments have reportedly been slow in taking action against the ancient artifacts trade linked to ISIS and other Islamic extremist organizations.
As a result, the lack of action has kept the United States as an open market to the import of illegally acquired cultural artifacts.
“Islamic State has been dubbed the world’s richest terror army. And the illegal antiquities trade is one income stream which gives the group significant strategic advantage against existing counter-terror finance efforts,” testified Mr. Yaya Fanusie, director of analysis for the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
“The trade’s main target buyers are, ironically, history enthusiasts and art aficionados in the United States and Europe – representatives of the Western societies which IS [Islamic State] has pledged to destroy,” he added.
The illegal traffic of ancient artifacts is increasingly becoming an essential source of revenue for ISIS as the U.S.-led coalition focuses on disrupting some of its other illegal sources of revenue, namely the sale of oil.
“Antiquities trafficking is now more important to Islamic State, particularly as some of its other revenue sources have become more difficult to manage,” noted the FDD expert. “For example, U.S.-led airstrikes have significantly squeezed IS oil profits since 2014.”
“Although the earnings from antiquities are less robust than those from oil revenue, looting represents a stable, less capital-intensive revenue stream. With plenty of local knowledge and no shortage of civilians to dig for artifacts, the trade is rampant in the region,” said Fanusie. “Even in non-IS-held territory, many unemployed locals excavate and sell antiquities to earn income.”
Despite various estimates, the precise amount for how much revenue ISIS is earning from the illicit trade “is ultimately a known ‘unknown,’” testified Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum, and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University.
Dr. Gerstenblith, who is also the director of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, added:
We can gain some sense of the significant extent of the looting, at least that which is being carried out at the major sites that have been documented through satellite imagery. However, at this point no scholar or researcher has systematically studied the questions of the types of artifacts that are likely coming out of the looters’ pits, the numbers of such artifacts, or the price at which these artifacts are being sold.
While U.S. officials estimated last year that ISIS is generating up to $100 million annually from the illicit business, Russian officials have placed the number at between $150 million to $200 million per year.
“The United States must do its part in curbing the demand for these cultural and artistic pieces by taking another look at customer due diligence and improving coordination with our international partners,” said Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA), chairman of the task force, in a statement. “This is a revenue stream exploited by illicit actors around the world and it cannot continue unabated.”
“While this Administration’s overall strategy remains questionable, both parties can agree that preventing the flow of dollars to fund ISIS and its caliphate must remain a top priority of our government,” added Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC), the task force’s vice-chair.
Congressman Pittenger suggested that targeted sanctions on ancient artifacts could be used to stem the flow of funding to terrorist groups.
“I think sanctions could be imposed on the import … antiquities from Syria should be listed on the sanctions list. OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) has been asked twice that I know of to do that and so far refused to do so,” said Dr. Gerstenblith in response to a question from the vice-chair.
During Tuesday’s hearing, the experts testified about the scope of the problem, lessons to be learned from past wars, and how to combat and prevent the jihadist group’s looting and theft.
“ISIL earns income at several points of intersection with the stream through which artifacts move from their initial looting to their sale and ultimate smuggling out of Syria,” Gerstenblith told lawmakers. “Early reports in the summer of 2014 from Syrians in Syria revealed that ISIL takes a financial cut from the looting of these sites by charging a 20% tax on the looters and takes an additional cut by taxing the smugglers who move the artifacts across the Syrian border.”
Ending ISIS’ illicit antiquities trade is essential to stopping the jihadist group’s reign of terror, according to the experts.
“ISIS is likely the wealthiest radical terrorist organization in contemporary history, with widely diversified sources of income,” testified Amr Al-Azm, associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
“Stopping the highly lucrative illicit trade in antiquities is imperative not only because it is a major source of income for terrorist organizations like ISIS, but also due to the irreparable damage it is causing to Syria’s cultural heritage,” the professor added.
Congress has approved legislation to prohibit the import of practically all ancient art and artifacts from Syria in an effort to discourage the illegal trade by ISIS and other jihadist groups, reported The New York Times. The bill is waiting for President Barack Obama’s signature.