Dealing in Terror: Reverberations of ISIS Antiquities Theft

Henry Carson, Aimee Hanstein, Caroline Hilty, ILLICIT FINANCE

September 20th, 2020


While occupying territory in Syria and Iraq, one of ISIS’ major sources of income was the sale of antiques. These looted items were run through ISIS’s elaborate illicit trading market and sold all around the world. Recently, open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests that even though the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not looting the antiquities as much as before, they are still trafficking and exploiting stolen antiquities and art. After further analysis, without community buy-in and awareness, partnerships in the private/public sectors, and law enforcement participation and cooperation, it is clear that antiquities will continue to be a dangerously profitable revenue stream for funding extremism. It can be concluded that these stolen antiquities and art will continue to be exploited for years to come.

Having lost a majority of its territory since 2014, and along with it their most important funding sources, ISIS has begun focusing on the sale of antiquities which they have stolen from museums and historical sites. There are a number of reasons why the antiquities trade is a fruitful venture for the terrorist organization. First, ISIS can use these antiquities sales not only to fund their activities, but also to bring funds to the population under their control. ISIS has also issued licenses to excavate in search for more artifacts, and offers the license holder a share of a found artifact’s value.[1] By offering resources and funding from the stolen antiquities, and by providing employment on excavations, ISIS might garner more support from the local population. Secondly, ISIS uses videos showing the destruction of historical sites as propaganda. Videos captured in 2015 at a Mosul museum showed ISIS fighters destroying “idolatrous” artifacts in an apparent move of cultural and religious warfare. Though ISIS did indeed destroy priceless artifacts as the videos suggest, their looting and sale of artifacts is well-documented, the museum’s director asserts that these videos act as a sleight of hand to obscure that ISIS is in fact looting artifacts.[2] Third, because military countermeasures have succeeded in recapturing a majority of ISIS-held territories since the terrorist organization’s peak in 2014, ISIS has lost access to the major funding sources associated with their territorial control like oil, taxation, and extortion. Because of this, funding sources such as the sale of stolen antiquities have become a more important part of ISIS revenue.[3] Artifacts are mobile, they hold value, and their sale can continue to finance the organization long after control over the sites from which they were looted has been lost.


It is difficult to ascertain specific figures about items and locations that have been plundered by ISIS because much of the looting occurs in conflict areas and are sold on the black market, but locations have included museums, historical sites, and archaeological digs. There were over 4,500 archaeological sites under ISIS control in 2015, some of which were UNESCO Heritage Sites.[4] The viability of illegal antiquities sales as a funding source hinges on the Islamic State’s ability to recognize the significance of artifacts and make judgements about their value, and ISIS has shown this capability by conducting additional excavations of archaeological sites, displaying technical and historical knowledge of what to look for and how to get to it.[5] New excavations benefit the illegal antiquities trade because new, freshly found items do not have the documentation that an item looted from a museum or heritage site would have, and are therefore more difficult to track and will not appear on a registry of stolen items. These new excavations requiring specialized expertise and equipment might put local historical and archaeological experts at risk of being singled out by ISIS for exploitation or recruitment because of their knowledge on these subjects, or might even motivate ISIS to seek the advice of experts abroad. Evidence of new excavations also suggests that ISIS may not just be interested in indiscriminate and opportunistic looting, but rather planned and organized operations guided by some degree of archaeological knowledge and capability.


Once looted, artifacts make their way to the black market where they are either bought knowingly by buyers aware of their origin, or the items’ documentation is fabricated before being sold through legal channels. In 2019, a BBC investigation revealed the existence of Facebook groups in which users advertised antiquities stolen by ISIS and discussed ways to illegally excavate historical sites.[6] Members of these groups also solicited “loot to order” requests asking for specific looted items to be made available in their region. Though these Facebook groups acted as a way for buyers to connect with sellers, actual transactions were made offline to maintain plausible deniability.[7] Stolen antiquities are also sold through black market intermediaries directly to buyers unconcerned with their criminal origin.[8] Aside from direct sales through the black market, however, transnational crime networks have gone to great lengths to obscure ISIS involvement by storing the artifact while provenance records are fabricated and forged.[9] This way, artifacts could potentially be sold through legal channels like auction houses to a buyer unaware of the item’s criminal history. Stolen antiquities from the area are likely to remain in demand in both licit and illicit markets, making this funding source a long-term threat contingent only on ISIS’s continued access to antiquities, access to the black market, and the effectiveness of countermeasures addressing the antiquities trade.[10]


Although the Islamic State has lost a majority of its territory containing archaeological sites, and the threat of antiquities theft at the hands of ISIS has waned along with it, stolen antiquities are still enjoying demand as they continue to circulate through transnational crime networks and the art community.[11] Antiquities with forged provenance records making their way through the art community, not to mention stolen antiquities sold on the black market to knowing buyers, will take considerable effort to recover even if ISIS stopped existing tomorrow. Seventy-five years after the end of World War Two, stolen artifacts and art pieces are still being found where they were hidden, recovered from circulation where they went undetected, or their rightful ownership is being disputed.[12] We can expect law enforcement to be recovering pieces looted by ISIS for years, while other artifacts may remain hidden or missing indefinitely.




An aerial view of a site near Apamea, Syria. From left to right: 9/14/2007 to 11/26/2015[13]


While ISIS was at the pinnacle of its power and occupied significant territory in Iraq and Syria, leaders established the Department of Antiquity to manage the art/antiquities market. Since ISIS controlled about a third of Iraq’s land, it acquired over 4,500 historical sites including archaeological sites and museums.[14] In Syria, looters took artifacts from the country’s most historically significant site, the Apamea.[15] Videos posted by the group depicted militants destroying artifacts under the guise of destroying non-Islamic heritage, but in reality, looters took many artifacts to sell.[16] ISIS distributed its license to looters to regulate the trade resulting in a monopolization over these goods as well as the further exploitation of sites and industry professionals as previously mentioned. Those that used a dig site without a license were punished. Looters could bring pieces to the department to sell, and they were taxed 20-50 percent on the sale price.[17]  ISIS paid or forced local curators and archaeologists to direct them to sites.  When US Special Operations Forces killed Abu Sayyaf, ISIS's finance chief, in a raid in May 2015, they  found hundreds of looted artifacts as well as tax receipts from the sale of artifacts.[18] A problem that comes with an illicit market is that there is a lack of data or information. It is impossible to accurately say how many artifacts ISIS members looted or ISIS’s profit.  Some experts estimate it in the low millions to as high as $100 million annually.[19] This market allowed ISIS to diversify its income. Although ISIS has lost most of its territory, it is highly likely they still have numerous artifacts in their hands. According to experts, looting is the second most profitable source of income and the second most common type of employment for its members, demonstrating how important antiquities are to ISIS’s income.[20] Economic conditions brought on by the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s ocuupation pushed locals to participate in trafficking networks in order to survive. In order to successfully dismantle the economy there has to be other sources of income for the locals. For many, trafficking antiquities is sustaining the local economy.


Once taken away from an evacuations site, pieces were often held onto for years to obscure the fact that they were looted.[21] A popular method to sell art and antiques is using the social media site Facebook.[22] Facebook is the largest social media site and is easily accessible around the world and free to use. Very little personal information is needed to set up a profile and even the information inputted can be fake. This allows for sellers and buyers to traverse through sales anonymously. On Facebook, a user can make groups and share information and conduct sales, both privately and publicly. Facebook is also utilized to research and verify the authenticity of a piece and determine its value. It is also an easy way to recruit and train new looters. In these groups people can also advertise antiques using Facebook Stories. The images posted on Facebook Stories disappear after 24 hours which is harder to track.   Another common feature looters use is Facebook Live where they can mimic an online auction and potential buyers can use the comment to bid on the items or even request specific items. About one-third of the artifacts sold on the site came from conflict zones.[23] The UN Security Council released a report in January 2020 that citied Facebook for being a tool in the trafficking market. Up until June 2020, Facebook did not prohibit the selling of historical artifacts. Facebook just released a policy that prohibits the sale, exchange, or purchase of historical artifacts from its sites. Despite this new policy, Facebook does not proactively enforce it allowing ISIS members to continue to sell more or less undisturbed in private groups. It is difficult for Facebook to monitor the ins and outs of private groups especially when users are using fake names. Even if Facebook deletes a group and its users they can just make new profiles and groups. This unchecked market will likely continue to allow for the sale of antiques unless Facebook changes its algorithms as it is unrealistic for the company to manually monitor every group on its site.


On December 18th, 2014 the United Nations General Assembly during the sixty-ninth session, came up with a resolution adopted by the General Assembly on the International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences. The General Assembly was “alarmed at the growing involvement of organized criminal groups in all forms and aspects of trafficking in cultural property and observed that illicitly trafficked cultural property is increasingly being sold -through all kinds of markets, and that such property is being unlawfully excavated and illicitly trafficked with the facilitation of modern technologies”. [24] The General Assembly welcomed and adopted the International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences and encourages member states to apply the guidelines to the maximum extent possible.


The General Assembly also welcomed initiatives promoted within the UN crime prevention and criminal justice program network and the cooperative network established among the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). UNODC, UNESCO, and INTERPOL, are further exploring the development of specific guidelines for crime prevention and response to trafficking in cultural property.  One of the initiatives mentioned at the General Assembly is the “Protecting Cultural Heritage-An Imperative for Humanity” initiative, the main goal is to follow up on the resolutions and decisions adopted by the General Assembly. This specific project is open to all Member States (of the UN) and international organizations and partners wishing to join forces in support of the protection of cultural heritage from destruction and/or illicit trafficking.[25] International legislation by UN groups (UNODC and UNESCO) and Interpol, helps strengthen guidelines and encourage partnerships between member states and even gives them a practical assistance tool in implementing these laws.


While initiatives that followed the legislation are helpful and help member states and other international organizations who participate, the question remains how many member states and organizations joined and actually followed up on the resolutions of the General Assembly? Interagency transparency is needed within the UN to help combat this. The UN should implement software that countries can use to help in their investigation, track their progress, share results, and ask questions of other states. The UN should also provide training, while the practical assistance tool may help, training them on signs to look out for in their countries, which economic factors to reduce, and how to include their communities. The recognition of illicit cultural property a terror financing threat that has precipitated policy moves from the United States (H.R. 1493 2016) and the European Commission (European Commission 2017).[26] To attack the scourge (destruction of cultural heritage), some 50 States (UN Member States), working with UNESCO, had strengthened their legislation and were sharing data to dismantle trafficking routes, said Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO.[27] UN Council resolution 2199 (2015), which prohibited the trade in cultural property from Iraq and Syria and called upon Member States to cooperate in ending it, was yielding quick results according to UNESCO.[28]


Joint Initiatives outside of the UN include specialized police forces, such as INTERPOL’s Works of Art Unit (they also have a stolen works of art database) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Art Crime Team, who investigates in cooperation with foreign law enforcement officials. UNESCO lists specialized police forces from around the world all focusing on the illicit trafficking of cultural property, countries range from Spain, to Chile, Hungary, and many others.[29] These specialized police forces should participate in outreach and community work in their areas to help bring awareness to this illicit trade and bring community buy-in to help protect these pieces. Law enforcement cooperation between these agencies is important, do these units or agencies partner with each other? Do these units partner with neighboring countries that do not have a special art crimes police unit or team? This cooperation can help with investigations and prevent transnational interactions.


The U.S. State Department in 2015 unveiled a new tactic, an offer of a $5 million reward for any information that it can use to cut off this illicit trade.[30] While that reward is great, is the State Department working with these high-risk countries to help investigate and provide resources those countries need? Groups such as the State Department can further expand on collaborating with host countries to reduce economic factors such as poverty, oppression, lack of human rights, lack of social or economic opportunity, dangers from conflict or instability and similar conditions. Preventing and reducing factors such as political instability, militarism, civil unrest, internal armed conflict and natural disasters can  protect those prone to becoming art traffickers.  These partnerships are needed in order to better investigate these crimes. High-risk areas such as the Middle East, South America, need better partnerships as they may not have the resources to prevent or investigate these types of crimes, especially depending on the types of trafficking methods being used. Initiatives in the private sector include the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Red Lists Database, which is a database of cultural goods most vulnerable to illicit traffic distributed tomuseums to help recognize and publicize stolen antiquities. Community work between these museums, the public, and law enforcement can further help protect sites by providing security and awareness. Community work between museums and law enforcement can also help flag auction houses.


The trade of cultural properties and art is not a topic discussed enough as other illicit economies such as drug trafficking and arms trafficking. Policing the underground market is incredibly difficult, especially in recent years with the increase of cryptocurrency as payments and funds for some of these terrorist groups. While art and antiquities are part of a market that is susceptible to laundering, the emergence of Dark Web markets, grey markets, and technology such as identification-masking software, and untraceable cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have opened new doors to potential vulnerabilities.[31] Even when these groups are using the open market to buy or sell, they are more likely to use cryptocurrency to block identities. The anonymity that is offered by these technologies acts as a roadblock for authorities, while attracting the likes of terrorists and transnational criminals. It is essential that private collectors and institutions only purchase antiquities with a legal provenance to dry up the demand.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) continues to closely monitor the trafficking of stolen antiquities and art. CTG will continue to examine terrorist groups being involved in this illicit trade as a form of funding. It is important to note that the Isalmic State’s reach extends across the global and we can expect items trafficked by them to be in circulation for years and years to come. Community buy-in is an important factor so that objects are treasured and protected even during times of conflict and instability. COVID-19 has been a risk as there is a lack of visitors to these sites and therefore there is a lack of security. Less security makes these sites more vulnerable, CTG also recommends keeping normal security to these sites to lower the risk to these sites and antiquities. It is recommended that museums, art and antiquity collectors/sellers (especially in conflict areas) remain vigilant and keep a close eye on the licit market for potentially stolen items. CTG recommends that intelligence and law enforcement agencies, local, federal, and international, monitor grey and black markets for these stolen pieces. CTG also encourages that museums, collectors/sellers, law enforcement/intelligence agencies, and organizations such as UNESCO and ICOM, further work together to stop the further exploitation of historical art and collections being exploited for terrorist purposes. Awareness campaigns for the general population are key as this may be something the general population is not aware of. It is necessary especially in terms of public assistance that communities are involved further in the fight to end the illicit antiquity trade.





______________________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Antiquities Destruction and Illicit Sales as Sources of ISIS Funding and Propaganda, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Apr. 2017, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep11436.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A7359de49bf71ba23d52f7fcd6d428b20

[2] Destruction or theft?: Islamic State, Iraqi antiquities and organized crime, Global Initiative, March 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/destruction-or-theft-islamic-state-iraqi-antiquities-and-organized-crime/

[3] Antiquities Destruction and Illicit Sales as Sources of ISIS Funding and Propaganda, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Apr. 2017, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep11436.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A7359de49bf71ba23d52f7fcd6d428b20

[4] Financing of the Terrorist Organisation Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Financial Action Task Force, Feb. 2015, http://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/reports/Financing-of-the-terrorist-organisation-ISIL.pdf

[5]  Destruction or theft?: Islamic State, Iraqi antiquities and organized crime, Global Initiative, March 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/destruction-or-theft-islamic-state-iraqi-antiquities-and-organized-crime/

[6] Antiquities looted in Syria and Iraq are sold on Facebook, BBC, May 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47628369

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Men Who Trade ISIS Loot, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-men-who-trade-isis-loot-1502017200

[9] Preventing Cultural Genocide: Countering the Plunder and Sale of Priceless Cultural Antiquities by ISIS, U.S. House of Representatives, Apr. 2016, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg23891/html/CHRG-114hhrg23891.htm

[10] The Exploitation of Cultural Property: Examining Illicit Activity in the Antiquities and Art Trade, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Jun. 2017, https://www.dhs.gov/news/2017/06/23/written-testimony-ice-house-financial-services-subcommittee-terrorism-and-illicit

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nazi-looted art: Restitution process a 'permanent task',  Deutsche Welle, Jan. 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/nazi-looted-art-restitution-process-a-permanent-task/a-52109721

[13] “Apaema, Syria” by Google Earth

[14] Destruction or theft?: Islamic State, Iraqi antiquities and organized crime, Global Initiative, March 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/destruction-or-theft-islamic-state-iraqi-antiquities-and-organized-crime/

[15] ISIS cashing in on selling plundered antiquities to fund terror, CBS News, September 2015, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/isis-relying-on-smuggling-antiquities-to-fund-terror/

[16]  Destruction or theft?: Islamic State, Iraqi antiquities and organized crime, Global Initiative, March 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/destruction-or-theft-islamic-state-iraqi-antiquities-and-organized-crime/ .

[17] Facebook’s Looted-Artifact Problem, The Atlantic, July 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/07/archaeologists-defied-isis-then-they-took-facebook/614674/

[18] Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open Source Data, RAND, 2020, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2700/RR2706/RAND_RR2706.pdf

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21]ISIS the Art Dealer, The Regulatory Review, April 2020, https://www.theregreview.org/2020/04/13/kees-isis-art-dealer/

[22] Facebook’s Looted-Artifact Problem, The Atlantic, July 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/07/archaeologists-defied-isis-then-they-took-facebook/614674/

[23] Ibid.

[24] International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences. United Nations General Assembly. January 2015. https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/69/196

[25] Global initiative launched to counter the destruction and trafficking of cultural property by terrorist and organized crime groups. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. September 2015.https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2015/September/global-initiative-launched-to-counter-the-destruction-and-trafficking-of-cultural-property-by-terrorist-and-organized-crime-groups.html

[26] Ancient Artifacts vs. Digital Artifacts: New Tools for Unmasking the Sale of Illicit Antiquities on the Dark Web. The Antiquities Coalition. March 2018. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/2/12/htm

[27] Security Council Condemns Destruction, Smuggling of Cultural Heritage by Terrorist Groups, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2347. United Nations. March 2017. https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12764.doc.htm

[28] Ibid.

[29] Specialized Police Forces. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. ND.http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/illicit-trafficking-of-cultural-property/partnerships/specialized-police-forces/

[30] ISIS cashing in on selling plundered antiquities to fund terror. CBS News. September 2015. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/isis-relying-on-smuggling-antiquities-to-fund-terror/

[31] Ibid, 27.

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