How ISIS Turned Looting Into Big Business

(Photo: Getty, Photo Illustration: Robert A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Jun 02, 2015 at 7:38 AM ET

ISIS’ takeover of the Syrian city of Palmyra, an ancient oasis and UNESCO world heritage site, has archeologists and national security experts holding their breath over the fate of the city’s ancient art and antiquities.

It’s not the first time. ISIS often makes a public show of demolishing ancient ruins and statues, but while destroying idols it sees as sacrilegious may be part of ISIS’s public relations campaign, its true end game when it comes to relics is far more profitable. Since the summer of 2014, ISIS has been tapping into a preexisting international network of looters, smugglers and dealers, and industrializing it. But now the U.S. is gearing up to stop it.

Before ISIS, the looting industry in Syria was run by local gangs. Because of the abundance of ancient archeological sites, antiquities trading was one of the standard gambits of organized criminals in the country.

“Wherever there is a criminal element there is bound to be an archeological deposit near by,” says Amr Al-Azm, a former antiquities official in Syria who is now an anthropology professor at Shawnee University.

The artifacts would change hands between organizations within Syria until they eventually made it to buyers outside the country, who would then store the artifacts in warehouses. Most of those warehouses were in Turkey, but there were also some in Beirut, Geneva and elsewhere—including some freeport zones, which are storage spaces at international airports where items can be held for decades without going through customs, according to interviews with about a half dozen experts in the sale of looted Middle Eastern antiquities.

Then the dealers would wait.

Knowing that the items they had would likely attract authorities’ attention if sold so soon after they were looted, dealers waited for them to cool off, generally holding on to them for close to a decade before putting them on the market in the U.S., Europe, or Tokyo.

Then ISIS took over, and changed the game.

It started with taxation. Looters and buyers were made to pay ISIS 20 percent with every transaction until the item left the region. The tax, or “khums,” is based on a Sharia Law that says one-fifth of all state treasures belong to the state.

By the fall of 2014 ISIS had taken the looting business one step further. It set up an office in Manbij, a town in northern Syria, and militiamen took control of archeological sites, blocking “sustenance looters”—desperate locals scavenging to make a living— from excavating entirely and then calling in their contractors and issuing official licenses.

Instead of digging through archeological sites with shovels, they purchased heavy machinery and tore apart the archeological regions in and around cities like Dura-Europas and Ebla. Before and after satellite images show that after ISIS was done, the areas were left pockmarked, like a piece of Swiss cheese.

Exactly how much money ISIS is making off the antiquities trade is unclear, but it is significant.

The Wall Street Journal reported that looting was the second-largest source of income for ISIS next to oil. The Guardian has reported that flash drives seized from the hideout of a dead ISIS leader show the group collected $36m from looting al-Nabuk alone. This week Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, estimated that ISIS was making $100 million annually from the illicit trade.

In 2012, when Syria’s civil war escalated, there was an uptick in sustenance looting. The next year, before ISIS’ industrialization of the industry, the US International Trade Commission reported that U.S. dealers declared $11 million in legal antiquities from Syria in 2013, up 134 percent from the year before.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., investigators, prosecutors and politicians are preparing for the wave of stolen artifacts likely to start trickling into the market in a few years, and getting ready to track them down.

“They’ll rear their ugly heads almost anywhere,” says Brenton Easter, a Special Agent based in New York City who’s been working cultural property cases with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for close to a decade.

The problem for investigators is that high-end stolen antiquities are usually only offered to people already in the know, and becoming an insider in the stolen art business requires an extensive initiation process. The first exchanges serve as an initiation ritual of sorts. “Some dealers will demand you buy fakes,” says Easter, explaining that selling a fake to an unknowing first-time buyer is a risk-free way for the dealer to determine how comfortable the buyer is purchasing an item with an uncertain provenance.

“They’ll test you to see what you can and can’t get away with.”

Easter says he relies on a cadre of sources to track these items down, including experts, dealers and shippers.

Right now he is learning about new artifacts leaving Syria, and being stored in warehouses in places like Turkey.

To build his cases, he keeps track of all of the items in a database. That way if the items do cross over into the U.S., he can identify them, even if the smuggler creates a false provenance. “It’s something that I’m putting together at my desk,” he explains.

Easter shares the information with his colleagues but is cautious about making the information too accessible, “You don’t want to drive pieces further into the black market.”

Matthew Bogdanos, a New York prosecutor, says he’s been concerned about terrorists profiting from the antiquities trade for years. Bogdanos led the investigation of Iraq’s National Museum in 2003 as a marine and wrote about his experience in a book titled Thieves of Baghdad.

Now he works with Easter on cases. Among other tools, he often uses metadata from photos taken of an artifact—including information about where an item was photographed and when—in building a case that an item has a false provenance. Sometimes, these photos show up online, on websites where dealers trade items; other times he uses warrants to seize suspected smugglers’ computers or emails.

Sometimes the seller will claim the item has been in the U.S. for a number of decades but Bogdanos will use the photo, the metadata for the photo, and the IP address of the computer where the photo of the item was first uploaded as proof that they are lying.

Unfortunately for investigators, smugglers are starting to share pictures of their loot on Skype, and it’s much more difficult to track metadata from live exchanges.

This is especially frustrating for Bogdanos since metadata is especially useful when charging smugglers under federal stolen property laws. Prosecutors need to prove that the defendant knew an item was stolen for the charge to stick.

More frequently, smugglers are charged with violating customs laws, for not properly declaring antique items when they cross into the U.S..

This doesn’t always result in the sentence Easter thinks the smugglers deserve, “The risks are incredibly small here in the United States and the rewards are incredibly high,” he says.

But Bogdanos says he has also found another way to charge smugglers: money laundering. Bogdanos says when smugglers create a false provenance to hide the fact that the item was looted, they are functionally laundering or creating a legitimate front for an illicit industry. “There is very little difference in investigating a drug ring than investigating a antiquities smuggling ring,” he explains. 

In a recent investigation by Homeland Security Investigations in New York, which the agency dubbed “The Mummy’s Curse,” investigators used money laundering charges to seize the defendants’ bank accounts, track down a transnational criminal organization, and recover dozens of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.

Still, the U.S. is lagging behind other western countries, which have stricter laws against antiquities smuggling.

Last February the United Nations passed a resolution banning the trade of Syrian antiquities removed after 2011. But a similar bill, the “Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act,” was only introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March.

Massachusetts Congressman William Keating is trying to pass another bill to boost training and communication among federal agents. Keating says that currently there is a “lack of enforcement among border patrol people and ICE people.”

Although agents from ICE lead specific investigations into stolen antiquities based off tips, goods go through Customs and Border Protection agents when they’re moved into the U.S. Keating is worried that because of a lack of proper training, smuggled items may be slipping through CBP agents’ fingers.

“I found out they weren’t coordinated, I found out they weren’t trained,” he says.

As it stands, ICE agents are trained by employees at the Smithsonian Museum to identify stolen antiquities as they cross the border. The bill would expand training to Customs and Border Protection agents, and expand resources to agents working on cultural property cases.

While Bogdanos says he welcomes additional support, he’s worried that the bill banning the importation of items removed from Syria after 2011 might backfire and make the items more difficult to track down.

“It just makes it go underground even farther,” he says. “It’s like prohibition.”