Friday, 2 June 2017

A Short Film on ISIL Looting and What it Means

There is a new video by the Wall Street Journal dealing with a rather tired subject (ISIS is Selling Syria's Antiquities to the West 5/31/2017). The spiel says:
Even as Islamic State is destroying antiquities in Syria, the militant group is also shipping them -- to intermediaries working with buyers in Europe and the U.S. The Wall Street Journal reveal​s​ a pattern of plunder that takes priceless ​relics from the battlegrounds of Syria to art traders in the West.
At first sight this is the by-now routine story regurgitating the same facts and (I would say) to some extent false news to make up some kind of an antiquitist shock-horror story. That was actually the tenor of my first draft of this post - a sort of a 'not-this-again, why-do-we-bother-trying-to-more-closely-examine-the-issues' moan. On second thoughts, however I spotted something else. which encourages me to try to analyse it more carefully from the point of view of how it might have been put together.

The authors of the report  Benoit Faucon and Georgi Kantchev are neither of them specialists in the field of 'arts' let alone the archaeology, This means they are somewhat naive reporters of what people have told them to say - but also not perhaps so astute about what not to say...

Readers of this blog will know I by now have become very sceptical of the relationship between 'official narrative' put out by the US administration/ institutions/ media  and what actually can be determined to be happening in the domain of looting by various militant groups in the Middle East. I therefore reject some of the things said in this video and I do not want to go over again whether or not ISIL are have been looting Dura Europos and Palmyra, 'how much money' they make or whether those Abu Sayyaf documents are real or fake and were legally taken by a US night raid. It's all in this blog to be found (unless you are two Wall Street Time journalists, who quite clearly did not get very far down the page of Google hits when doing their research, so missed it all).

The video's first 58 seconds is an introduction, setting out the skeleton of the story and repeating snippets which are repeated later in the film. One piece of information however is worth drawing attention to, the sources (40-52s): 'based on Islamic state documents (sic - see above) and interviews with traffickers and law enforcement officials, the Wall Street Journal can reveal a pattern of plunder that takes priceless antiquities...' . There is a bit of journalistic hyperbole here (antiquities in their world are always 'priceless'), and they only actually give us the testimony of one alleged trafficker (below) - but nowhere does any law enforcement official appear on camera. Neither is any thanked at the end of the film. Is this a lie, or did the 'official' not want to go on record?  This is significant for what comes later.

Let's skip the bit from 60 seconds in to about 124s, I disagree with a lot that is presented as bald facts (but have a think about the wider significance of what Prof Danti says about 'metal detectors')*, Who are these 'western security officials' (guessing about the revenue ISIL - not the dealers at the other end of the chain - get from sales of looted objects)? But let's pass on.

There is something Danti says (124- 144 s) which is worth highlighting, on the value of artefacts for various organizations, which goes beyond the normally simplistic view that they are sold and the money is used to buy arms [the images shown here is a cache of antiquities recently found in a house in recaptured Mosul]:
an example would be a particular extremist organization needs to get people across a border. They could use antiquities to secure that service (sic) from people... from accomplices working on the other side of the border, in customs and border protection for example. In a conflict zone, they could be used as bribes in that case they could be traded for weapons. 
From 144 seconds for a bit there is a presentation of the Abu Sayyaf documents that the US say they have (which for reasons I explain elsewhere on this blog, I strongly suspect are planted false documents). The documents themselves have been discussed here before, but in my previous discussions I suspect I missed one point. The journalists show (160-167s) a document which they say is a permit (but it is not, its a receipt) issued by the 'Islamic State's antiquities division, headed by Abu-Layth al-Ansari (al-Dayri), as it now seems that the official picture is that Abu Sayyaf was the head of the organization of which a department of antiquities forms a part (but remember I am sceptical about the authenticity of the documents shown).

The next section deals with moving the looted antiquities out of ISIL controlled territory where they are 'sold to middlemen'  ['I would say it is rather the middlemen who are putting together the artefacts still in the source country and smuggling them out]. We are told, traditionally, that they are going to Lebanon and Turkey. Then we are introduced to 'middleman Mohamed Al-Ali a Syrian antiquities dealer who has fled the country' who speaks of 'here near the border' being lots of antiquities for sale. Later in the film we learn he is based in [Gaziantep in] Turkey. In the course of following the stories of antiquities smuggling, we have met many of these individuals purporting to be dealing in smuggled antiquities, most of them are named 'Moham[m]ed' and when you see what they have for sale it is generally a load of crap. Mohamed Al-Ali's stock is not shown in the film. The only thing that might identify him is the regret he shows for the destruction the looting and smuggling does to his country's heritage, which as I recall featured in another story about a 'Mohammed' (Mike Giglio's?), but I suspect that this sentiment might not be restricted to a single individual. How the two WSJ journalists contacted him is not revealed. It seems to me that the speaker's voice has been electronically altered (03:41).

Al Ali tells us (03:38) about a 'network' of antiques dealers 'here' in Turkey and the pool of objects comes from ISIL territory. He says:
'in Turkey there are so many customers but [I] deal with people from Germany, from London, from France, from Switzerland, from USA. There are so many customers coming here' .
What is not stated is whether the 'customers coming here' are individual collectors, or dealers.

Then we learn (03:42) that 'Al Ali says that Islamic State's Abu-Layth ar-Dayri contacted him asking him to find a western buyer for this Roman era golden ring, Al Ali says the ring was sold, but by another middleman, not him'. Phew, eh? That's convenient because the ring shown is a well-known one, it figures in a rather odd forfeiture claim in the form of a civil lawsuit filed by the US government back in December 2016. The ring seems to have surfaced on the market in November 2014. What is interesting is that the film uses other photos of the object than the ones in the public domain earlier. Did the variant photos actually come from Al Ali?

The film then goes on (04:40-06:09) about smuggling of artefacts out of the middle East and into western markets, for example (04:45-05:12) some
'bibles (sic) filmed by Mr Al Ali [...] excavated from a third century church at the Dura Europos archaeological site and then smuggled to Gaziantep in Turkey. Mr Al Ali says a buyer paid ten thousand euros [...] to have it then smuggled from Turkey into Russia, hidden in a car full of vegetables'.
In the film, a card is shown dated 13/08/2016. Russia has no land border with Turkey and the journey (after mid-August 2016) through Georgia (Tbilisi) is about 1000 km (and is Russia a 'western' market?) a long way to take vegetables... anyway, these artefacts have been discussed by Sam Hardy and myself and I am sure they are fakes, so not actually looted from any church in Dura Europos.

Al Ali describes the scale of bribery needed to get antiquities across borders (I assume he means here the Syrian/Turkish one). According to him a single shipment can cost the exporter/importer 5000 dollars in bribes.

After 5:37-5:45 we are told that 'the antiquities tend to follow an established route' from Turkey and Lebanon to Europe and the US 'according to French and Bulgarian officials'.  This is where attempting to reconstruct how this report was compiled gets interesting. Have they been in contact with French officials? The conspiracy theorist might like to put this together with the next section of the film, talking about the 'Freeport system' of laundering objects by 'art dealers'** where they are held for a time before being 'trickled out onto the market' (06:09- 07:28).  Here (06:17) they now mention 'Swiss officials' . But also, again referring to unspecified 'western security officials' (06:57),
artefacts are moved from warehouse to warehouse , often being stored for years on end. The time allows for the items' true history to be blurred and for a new one to be fabricated, French officials say documents are forged using old typewriters. Swiss authorities say they are now clamping down on the freeports, but that some artefacts have been in the system so long that it is almost impossible to trace their true origin.
Which is why no artefacts should in future be being sold without firm and wholly verifiable documentation that it came on the market in known and licit circumstances.  

Here it starts to get really interesting. Prof. Danti seems hesitant when saying his next line (07:29-39): 'we have fairly reliable information on the location where some of this material is being cached, and then it would eventually be shipped on in a year, two, three, ten years from now...' - except (07:54-08:14):
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is investigating a number of US based antiquities dealers who they suspect may be handling looted Syrian and Iraqi according to people familiar with the probes. Swiss and French authorities say they are conducting similar investigations across Europe
 At this point on the soundtrack, the camera glides over photos of two (fake?) Palmyran busts lying on an oriental carpet - one with a tape measure stretched out over it, then a photo of a Hellenistic or Roman stela, a small fragment of (Hittite??) relief, and then one of the variant photos of the gold ring mentioned above. Are these all photos from Al-Ali's camera?

At the end of the film, Danti says we are faced today with an unprecedented cultural heritage crisis, and Al-Ali has the last word - justifying his line of business - he is profiting by feeding the poor:

*and I do not know the reason why he says 'sites like Dura Europos or Tel Salahiya in the region of Dura', they are surely the same site (and what is meant by that 'Byzantine religious paraphernalia'?) As Salhiyah Syria Al-Salihiyah

** note the Orientalist attitude there, when in Turkey, the objects are handled not by dealers but 'middlemen', once they are in Yurope, by 'art dealers'.

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