Wednesday, 11 February 2015

ISIL Looting in Wall Street Journal

Three journalists, Joe Parkinson, Ayla Albayrak and Duncan Mavin have written a piece for the Wall Street Journal about antiquities sales 'bankrolling Terror' but half of it became an adventure story referring to a recent George Clooney film ('Culture Brigade: Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror', WSJ Feb 10th 2015). The article also contains a number of interesting pieces of information about the elusive antiquities market.  There are the buy now familiar tropes from this kind of journalism, particularly coming from the US, "antiquities smuggling by Islamic State..." (OK to be fair, adding "aggravating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions")... "looting, often with bulldozers...", it "is now the militant group’s second-largest source of finance after oil, Western intelligence officials say" (actually no they don't, the oil bit is rather doubtful now too). The article has a number of pieces of information about the elusive antiquities trade, mostly seen from the Turkish side of the border...

In the markets in southern Turkish cities like Gaziantep, Roman vases robbed from graves are being sold by the boxload. “We’ve seen a lot of artifacts turning up here… […] coins and statuettes,” said Harun Unvar, who runs an antiques store in Gaziantep’s old bazaar, as he rejected a Turkish man’s efforts to sell a marble bird’s-head figurine for around $220. “Refugees try to sell small items, but the big stuff is stolen and sold privately for big money.” Market traders say small items such as figurines and carved cylinder seals sell for prices varying from a few dollars to up to several thousand. Buyers range from locals picking up small pieces in Turkish and Lebanese markets to investors and collectors in the West, China and the Persian Gulf, according to antiquities specialists and U.S. officials. […] The total volume of illicit trade is impossible to accurately assess but is thought to have mushroomed to more than $100 million a year, according to U.S. officials. A key driver of the dramatic expansion in looting is the rise of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Academics and government officials say the vast majority of the illicit trade is run by the group  [...]  Factions of Islamist fighters immediately take control of trafficking when gaining territory, one smuggler said. “They understand how lucrative this stuff is so they exploit it with sophisticated networks,” said the smuggler from the Turkish border city of Hatay, who identified himself as Ugur. In the city of Manbij, which has become an artifact-trading hub, Islamic State established an office to handle looted antiquities and a market for equipment used in digging, including metal detectors and other remote sensing equipment usually used only by professional archaeologists, said Amr Al Azm, an expert in Syrian antiquities at Shawnee State. Stolen antiquities are usually sold to Islamic State approved dealers, with payments in U.S. dollars. “Once the sales are completed these approved dealers are then given safe passage through ISIS territory,” Mr. Al Azm said.

Some of these antiquities are being detected and seized as they surface on local markets.
Security forces in Lebanon and Jordan have stepped up raids on smuggling rings. In Turkey, special police anti-smuggling units conducted dozens of raids in Turkey’s southern cities since last summer, confiscating thousands of artifacts, including Roman sculptures that are now locked in vaults in the museums of Gaziantep, Urfa, Hatay and Mardin. Officials say they plan to return the items when the war ends.

Not all of the artefacts are passing through traditional channels. Willy Bruggeman, a former deputy director of Europol who is now president of the Belgian federal police council is cited as a source. He says that:
Islamic State is using its vast network and social-media savvy to bypass conventional middlemen and reach buyers directly. The looters store the booty in a secret location then circulate the photos directly to buyers in hard copy or via text message or the WhatsApp messaging service, law-enforcement officials say. The Wall Street Journal reviewed cellphone photos of a Bronze Age votive bust, possibly 5,000 years old, looted from Islamic State-controlled territory, being touted for sale to private clients and potentially sold for around $30,000. 
By these means the looters and middlemen avoid selling at least some of the artefacts on the open market, making them less easy to track. Finding methods to choke the trade in illicit artefacts is difficult without the co-operation of the antiquities market. U.S. and European governments are considering new anti-smuggling legislation. More effective will be the efforts of European and U.S. spy and counter-terrorism agencies to investigate the supply chain that moves the artifacts from the war zone to the market, as long as they are followed up by following the chains of supply to source and arrests and effective punishment of all involved. It is time to get tough on the no-questions-asked market.

The WSJ original article was followed a day later by a second developing one of the themes:  Duncan Mavin , 'Calculating the Revenue From Antiquities to Islamic State', Wall Street Journal Feb. 11, 2015. He comes back to the statement "western intelligence officials say looting is now Islamic State’s second-largest source of finance after oil" ("experts say trade in stolen antiquities plays a central role financing the militant group"), but admits it is very hard to calculate the exact sums involved. Patty Gerstenblith is quoted as saying that the scale of the looting is large and she mentions reports of the khums tax.
Satellite images don’t show how much the looters are finding, or what type or quality of artifacts they turn up. The value at which antiquities are sold on the open market beyond the region held by Islamic State is also of limited use, because pieces that have changed hands many times will almost certainly increase in value along the way. [...] “The issue is that the market is likely at different levels—high-end collectors going through black-market channels, low-level buys and pieces that will likely be laundered through various collections over time to be sold as legitimate pieces with larger values,” said Mark Vlasic, a Georgetown University law professor who has advised Congress on the link between terror financing and stolen antiquities.Estimates of the value to Islamic State “are just that,” said Mr. Vlasic. “There is no transparency.”
The bottom line, though is this: 
“I don’t think we need to know the dollar value or the ranking of this income stream to know that we are all losing our cultural heritage and knowledge of our history through the looting,” Ms. Gerstenblith said.
 So, what are we going to do about it?

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