Thursday, 1 October 2015

ISIL Antiquities Trade "Smoking Gun"?


I have hinted earlier that I am less than convinced of the authenticity of the documents which the US authorities assert were among those seized in their illegal raid on Abu Sayyaf's house and "prove'' the approved story that ISIL are making lots of money from sale of looted antiquities. Only a selection of documents have been presented to the public, and the same photos are depicted in several places, a convenient place to look at them all with a commentary and the background for those not following the story is Christopher Jones' Gates of Nineveh blog.

Here, I want to concentrate on the 'smoking gun' receipts which aroused my suspicions. We are shown three of them, consecutively numbered 101-103, dated 6th, 11th and 15th December 2014 - six months before Abu Sayyef's killing. All three were issued personally by Abu Sayyaf al-'Iraqi as 'Head of Antiquities Diwan of natural Resources', a  position to which other documents in the collection say he was appointed before (recte Jones who says 'on') November 21, 2014. [There is an excavation permit in the collection issued by him dated 16th October 2014]. He was given the job due to being “very knowledgeable in this field” and because “people in the Levant who work in the field of antiquities are weak of faith and Abu Sayyaf has experience in dealing with them”. He certainly was not "knowledgeable" enough to spot the fakes in (what I persist in seeing as) his own private cache of antiquities also seized by the Americans from his house.

Note that there is no hint in earlier reports that, even though they knew enough about the guy to know where to find him and plan (no doubt meticulously) a mission to capture him, that they thought/knew he was involved in antiquities. The story was then that he was involved in illicit oil and was wanted in connection with a US hostage issue. The finding of antiquities in Abu Sayyef''s compound seems to have come as a surprise, the people collecting the 'evidence' on the ground do not seem to have been prepared for this beforehand, and thus collected up all sorts of extraneous material (such as that crucible and the Nefertiti).

The first question I have is where these documents are now. Are they in Iraq together with the antiquities seized in the illegal US raid in Syria?  Were the translations supplied by the Iraqis and if so were they verified against the originals by US scholars? Or are the documents themselves in the US? On what legal basis?

How many documents like this were found? Where were they in relation to the antiquities, fake antiquities and the crucible seized? In what way were they ordered /stored in Abu Sayyaf's house? As with a archaeological finds, documenting context of discovery is important in interpreting this evidence - indeed establishing that it really was in the place where it is said to have come from. Why were the several specific documents presented selected for showing and what has not been shown yet?

Why have all the names been redacted out? When the US authorities are announcing a five million dollar reward for information which will allow them to disrupt the illegal antiquities market, why do they hide the evidence of who they say is involved in it? To whom was the letter reminding of Abu Sayyaf's appointment sent? Are the three consecutive receipts we are shown issued to the same "brother" or three different ones? The latter in particular is important evidence of the scope and scale of the circulation of antiquities.

What the receipts are for is "1/5th of the value of the antiquities sold in Al Khayr governorate". The Al Khayr governorate (wilayah) is more or less the renamed Deir ez-Zor governorate (33,060 km2).  The city itself remains in Syrian government hands (these documents were issued at the time of the Deir ez-Zor offensive) and a few months after the massacre of members of the Shaitat tribe in the region. The "receipts" were allegedly found in Abu Sayyef's house, which was in Al Amr  just to the SE of Deir Ez-Zor in this wilayah. 

But is the wording not rather strange? Imagine a tax receipt to me:
I the undersigned head of taxation of the Republic of Poland received from Paul Barford the sum of xxx PLN [being] 18% of earnings in the Institute of Archaeology [signed by recipient and submitter]
What's missing? Quite clearly is missing the information linking that document with any means of calculating how much I earned (for example a tax return) and for what period this tax is paid. 

This text looks almost as if written to order to prove an assertion that ISIL is selling antiquities to get the taxes and not as a working document intended to protect the 'brother' dealing in antiquities that he's not paid the state its dues on them all (here continuity of receipts stretching over a stated period of time is needed).

Why would the receipt be telling me that income tax in Poland (for my pay bracket) is 18%? I know that and do not need that information on a receipt confirming I've paid that sum to the Treasury.

But this weird phrasing of an alleged administrative document has the appearance of being specifically written to confirm the story (originating from just one US hearsay source)  of the khums tax which ISIL are alleged to be taking on all antiquity sales.

Why also would I be paying taxes directly to the national head of taxation, rather than in my local tax office? This is especially odd in that the documents presented by the US authorities indicate that under the head of antiquities are two regional offices, for eastern and western governorates. Why are these not the offices to which the three tax-paying 'brothers' would go? 

The next question concerns the phrase "the value of the antiquities sold in Al-Khayr province". Which 'brothers' are selling antiquities for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the middle of ISIL land and to whom? Were the antiquities sold in Al Khayr governorate to other local dealers/middlemen, or are we talking here about sales to foreign dealers/middlemen coming into ISIL-land to do business? Who established the value of those sales (and where is this documented) and on what basis?

One possibility cannot be checked until we know the names blacked-out. Are the three recipients of the receipt over ten days, not individual dealers, but the same man?  If so, that would suggest that the person passing the money to Abu Sayyef was the head of the provincial antiquities office who'd collected the payments locally from individual operators and passed them higher up the hierarchy. If that was the case, note the turnover every three or four days. But we cannot check that until an unredacted version of the 'evidence' is released.

In the meanwhile, let's look at the values (1 Syrian Pound today reportedly equals 0.0053 US Dollar/ 1 USD = 188.7818 SYP):
101: 6th Dec 2014: one fifth of the total sum sold is 2,960,000 SYP (= $15679)
102: 11th Dec 2014: one fifth of total sales is  2,152,000 (= $ 11399)
103: 15th Dec 2014: one fifth of total sales is 191,560 SYP (= $ 1015)
So in a space of ten days, ISIL raised the equivalent of 28,093 USD in tax from the sale of antiquities in one governorate, and that is one fifth of the total value of sales. The value of the sales therefore declared in just those ten days by whoever it is declaring them totalled something like 140,465 USD. Here it is a problem that we do not know how long a period these tax dues are supposed to have accumulated. (I do not see how Christopher Jones comes to the conclusion on the basis of these three receipts "Totaling all the receipts indicates ISIS has made at least $1.25 million from antiquities smuggling").

"We have proof"
But are these documents not "too convenient" to accept without question? Where are the originals, what proof is there that they are authentic material and not some mystification?  There are problems with the documents as presented, their form is strange as administrative documents, but fits perfectly the bill as something that can be used as "proof" of something US authorities have been claiming for a long time but unable to come up with evidence of.  Remember WMD in 2003, they "had documentation" then too, and on that basis took the rest of us to War in the Middle East which, as everyone can see, is why we are now in the mess we are. 

All very odd. This material deserves more than a "gottcha" slide show at a conference produced like a conjuror pulling a rabbit from a hat. It needs presentation in a proper and full report. Are the US authorities who want to use this information capable of doing that? We will see.

UPDATE 2nd December 2015
I was gratified to see that Neil Brodie Senior Research Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow is also highly sceptical of these documents (n.d., 'Thinking on Policies', EUNIC - European Union National Institutes for Culture online):
They include a book of 11 receipts purporting to show profits made by ISIL though taxing the antiquities trade. The authenticity of these receipts has been questioned. They seem to be too convenient, providing as they do for a US and indeed international audience clear, material confirmation of previously unfounded media reporting that ISIL is profiting significantly from taxing the antiquities trade in areas under its control. It is convenient, for example, that the sums of money received are expressed numerically using “European” Arabic numerals so that they are immediately comprehensible to an American or European reader rather than, as would be expected in a handwritten Arabic document, “Arabic” Arabic numerals. Why would ISIL do such a thing for internal accounting purposes?
Why, indeed?

1 comment:

Christopher Jones said...

The figure of $1.25 million came from Andrew Keller in his presentation. He didn't put every receipt from the book in his powerpoint slideshow, just a few sample pages. According to the State Department and the Met, video of the event should be available within the next few days.

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