|Church in Qusayr, Homs province|
How the self-proclaimed Islamic State militant group approaches each site depends on a range of factors, including the area's land ownership system and the payoff of plundering the site, says Michael Danti, one of the archaeologists leading a U.S. government-funded effort to document the destruction and looting of the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria. At a time when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and other groups are killing, enslaving, and displacing thousands of people across Syria and Iraq, what happens to ancient artifacts may seem like a sideshow. But according to Danti, who is also a professor at Boston University, ISIS's profits from looting are second only to the revenue the group derives from illicit oil sales. So understanding the Islamic State's approach to the fate of ancient artifacts actually could be key to stopping its advance.Danti is the leader of an American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) project that in August received U.S. State Department funding to document cultural heritage threats in Syria (and the project has expanded into Iraq). He is quoted as saying: "What we have from the satellite imagery is that there is industrial-scale looting all over Syria" but he admits that it is often difficult to definitively determine who is responsible for an instance of looting.
Both the Syrian government and rebel groups have taken part, as have locals in both Syria and Iraq whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the conflict. Satellite images and informants on the ground often can't keep up with the pace of looting and of the exchange of territory between various groups.Nonetheless, he is quoted as saying that the scale of the Islamic State's destruction, looting, and profits from antiquities trafficking is "unprecedented". He is supported by Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist at Shawnee State University in Ohio who is also leading efforts to document looting in the region.
At first, the Islamic State simply asked anyone who chose to loot areas it controlled for khums, a tax on the spoils of war paid in Islamic tradition to the government. But by this summer, Al-Azm said, ISIS started taking a more deliberate approach, actively employing contractors to do the excavation. These contractors take some of the profits, and the rest goes to the Islamic State. "It's part of a growing escalation," he said. It's [...] the second-most common form of employment the group offers in the war-torn areas it controls, Danti said, citing local sources whose identities he couldn't reveal because he fears for their safety. "The most recent reports I'm getting is that ISIS is actually engaging itself: They're hiring their own people, they're using a lot of earth-moving equipment - bulldozers, etc," Al-Azm said. "So what I can tell you is they're making enough to make it worth their while".There is a new slant on the story here.
At the same time, ISIS is apparently plundering strategically, Danti said. In this, it has probably learned from al Qaeda's experience in Iraq's Anbar province around 2006, when local Sunni tribal leaders became fed up with al Qaeda's rapaciousness and turned against the group, he said. Islamic State leaders "don't want to be seen as disenfranchising or upsetting powerful Sunni tribal leaders who are frequently the large landowners," and they try to base their division of the spoils on Islamic law.[...] The looting itself usually happens in a matter of days. Much of the digging is probably done by local people who are "just trying to feed their families," Danti said.Another interesting feature is that the journalist discussed with Prof Danti which artefacts are destroyed and which sold.
The group is more likely to destroy Shiite, Yazidi, and Sufi artifacts and sell pre-Islamic ones, but overall, "They're probably selling most of it," he said.I am not sure how one differentiates "Shiite" artefacts from "Sunni" ones, I suspect some misquoting here. Casana and Panahipour (2014) found that there was differential looting, diggers tending to concentrate on more saleable items from Hellenistic and Roman/Late Roman deposits (coin trade?) rather than earlier material. They suggest metal detector use may influence the choice of sites. The article ends with a few words about those in Syria and Iraq who are opposed to the destruction:
ASOR project are trying to make it easier and safer for people within Syria and Iraq to report looting. Andy Vaughan, ASOR's executive director, said the project is developing a web app through which people can file incident reports. But before the app goes live, it needs more work to ensure that it can't be hacked, endangering the people notifying authorities. It's likely that for a long time, obtaining and sharing this information will continue to be a very risky business. "The real heroes of the story are those people on the ground," Al-Azm said.