Human Misery Isn’t the Islamic State’s Only Business: Flourishing Trade in Looted Artefacts

Baghdad Fighting Continues

An investigation into the finances of the Islamic State has shown one of its largest sources of funding is now a tax placed on artefacts stolen from museums in captured territory, which are then smuggled out of the country and then sold to unscrupulous European collectors.

The money which European art collectors pay for these ancient works of art goes directly to the pockets of international criminal gangs and the coffers of the nascent Islamic State, yet this apparently doesn’t put off the potential buyers buying millions of dollars worth of stolen items. The items, which can include anything from ancient earrings to fetishes and busts of ancient gods are smuggled out of Islamic State territory to Turkey or the Lebanon, and hence to Europe, by taxi.

egypt-museum-looted AFP

Looted museums are a persistent problem in war zones and have been a particular feature of recent conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East. Shown are broken display cabinets after looting in Egypt. / AFP

Ironically the illegal trade, which has seen the priceless collections of museums in Iraq and Syria, which are often called the cradle of civilisation, saved from destruction by the iconoclasts of the Islamic State. Under the hard-line interpretation of Islamic law practised there, all depictions of gods or any worship of fetishes is idolatry and therefore illegal – a crime punishable by death. The smugglers sneak human figurines past the ISIS authorities and pay a hefty twenty percent cut of profits on the sales of the rest.

The BBC, which has been leading the investigation, has reported the comments of one smuggler they met, “Mohammed”, who said: “There’s three friends in Aleppo we deal with, these people move from Aleppo all the way to the border here and pay a taxi driver to sneak it in… We tried our best to get the items which had most value, earrings, rings, small statues, stone heads”. He told the BBC some items looted could sell for as much as $1 million.

“[The Islamic State] are the main people doing it. They are the ones in control of this business, they stole from the museums especially in Aleppo… I know for a fact these militants had connections overseas and they talked ahead of time and they shipped overseas using their connections abroad.”

“I have seen one piece sold for $1.1m,” he says. “It was a piece from the year 8500BC”. He says the best pieces are sold to collectors in Western Europe.

A senior police officer who spoke of the trade said refugees, who flock in their thousands from war zones and are welcomed with open arms by European nations are used to smuggle items: “The refugees come in big numbers and the gangs put things between the belongings of the refugees”.