The Republican-led House of Representatives sent a bill authored by a Democrat to President Obama’s desk that would limit the ability of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) to destroy cultural sites and profit from the selling of priceless antiques.
According to The Hill, “The measure, which cleared easily by voice vote, would restrict U.S. imports on archaeological material from Syria since the start of its civil war. The U.S. already has a similar prohibition for Iraq.”
“However, the bill allows exemptions for temporarily moving specific cultural objects to the U.S. for protection,” adds the report.
Last week, expert witnesses told the House Financial Services Committee’s Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing that ISIS was committing “cultural genocide” by illegally selling stolen antiques to collectors from Europe and the United States and reaping millions in profits.
U.S. officials estimated last year that ISIS is generating up to $100 million annually from the illicit business. Meanwhile, Russian officials have placed the number at between $150 million to $200 million per year.
The witnesses accused ISIS and other jihadist groups in the Middle East of engaging in an unprecedented level of looting and destruction of priceless artifacts.
ISIS is plundering and selling ancient artifacts to fund its terrorist activities, the experts told lawmakers.
“Proponents said the legislation [sent to Obama’s desk on Tuesday] would limit the ability of ISIS to destroy cultural sites as a means of cultural cleansing and sell artifacts on the black market to reap millions in profits,” notes The Hill.
“It’s actually heartbreaking. These fanatics literally want to wipe away history,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking-member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and author of the bill.
The United Nations has warned that ISIS is targeting historical sites in war zones, such as the prophet Jonah’s tomb in Mosul and the Christian Assyrian capital of Nimrud, on an “unprecedented scale.”
“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), last week.
“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 bill sent to President Obama’s desk was first approved by the House last June. However, it was re-approved on Tuesday with changes made by the Senate.
“The original measure would have required the State Department to create a position for coordinating government efforts to protect cultural property,” reports The Hill. “But the amended version merely states a sense of Congress that the president establish a committee to coordinate agencies’ efforts.”
America, which is leading an international military coalition against ISIS, and other Western governments have been accused of being slow in taking action against the illicit trade of ancient artifacts linked to ISIS and other Islamic extremist organizations.
The lack of action has reportedly kept the United States as an open market to the import of illegally acquired cultural antiques.
Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC), vice-chair of the House task force that held the hearing last week, 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. [The Treasury Department’s] OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) has been asked twice that I know of to do that and so far refused to do so,” testified Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum, and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University, in response to a question from the vice-chair.
“The U.S. has made similar efforts to counter cultural destruction in the past. During World War II, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration created a commission advising the military on protecting cultural property stolen by the Nazis,” notes The Hill. “The work of that commission, known as the ‘Monuments Men,’ became the subject of a recent George Clooney film.”