Thursday 15 December 2016

What is going on here?

Good grief: "" (Department of Justice U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Columbia press release).
The U. S. Department of Justice announced today that the United States has filed a civil complaint seeking the forfeiture of multiple antiquities associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Da’esh. [...] The action, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, specifically seeks the forfeiture of four archaeological items that were depicted in photographs found during a raid of a residence of Abu Sayyaf, a senior leader within ISIL, near Deir Ezzor, Syria, in May 2015. The items include a gold ring, two gold coins, and a carved stone. They date to ancient times and are believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The FBI is pursuing recovery of these items.
This is pretty entertaining. Readers of this blog will know that I am highly sceptical about the authenticity of those Abu Sayyaf materials which we saw earlier. This material 'conveniently' fills in some of the gaps pointed out at the time. That rather raises the question why this set of material is being released just now. In addition, we should remember that the whole corpus of Abu Sayyaf material was obtained illegally (by a US team raiding deep within a foreign country from a base in Iraq, killing and abducting residents and taking antiquities and documents away without any authorisation or notification and giving them to Iraq to 'look after'). I do not see how a legal case can be based on material obtained by illegal means and taken from Syrian territory illicitly.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that the following four items are subject to forfeiture by US authorities (it is not explained on what legal basis this becomes a US prerogative). Digital images of these four objects were 'seized from Abu Sayyaf' (well, they walked into his house, blew a hole in his head and snatched his computer and wife) which the US DoJ says is evidence that these objects were 'sold directly by him' (why? Many of us writing about this topic have photos like this in their computer too which come - via journalists in my case - from dealers in the region):

Gold ring with carved gemstone
1) Gold ring with carved gemstone
This ring is believed to be from the Hellenistic/Roman period, dating approximately from 330 BC to 400 AD, and to have come from Deir Ezzor, Syria, which is near where the raid against Abu Sayyaf occurred.
Gold coin featuring Emperor Hadrian Augustus Caesar
2) Gold coin featuring Antoninus Pius
This coin is believed to be Roman, dating to approximately 138-161 A.D., and is sourced to any large, urban Hellenistic or Roman city in Syria, including Apamea, Palmyra, Dura Europos, or Bosra.
Gold coin featuring Antoninus Pius
3) Gold coin featuring Emperor Hadrian Augustus Caesar
This coin is believed to be Roman, dating to approximately 125-128 AD, was probably minted in Rome, and is sourced to any large, urban Hellenistic or Roman city in Syria, including Apamea, Palmyra, Dura Europos, or Bosra.
Carved Neo-Assyrian Stone
4) Carved Neo-Assyrian Stone
This is believed to be the upper portion of a round‐topped stone stela (upright stone slab bearing a relief design) carved with an image of a provincial official, most likely a eunuch, facing left, with his right forearm and hand raised. This item is believed to be from the archaeological site of Tell Ajaja in the Khabur region of northern Syria.
Well, Apamea, Bosra cannot have been looted by ISIL as they are outside that group's territory. Palmyra was in ISIL territory for a while, but in that time, satellite photos show no sign of any exctensive looting. As I have shown here, Dura Europos may not have been primarily looted by ISIL. The DOJ is just making this stuff up, if they cannot say where an object came from, they cannot say who looted it. How would Abu Sayyaf have photos of objects from Apamea and Bosra in his computer?

Anyway, the Feds need to get their story straight. According to the DoS, Abu Sayyaf was collecting taxes from middlemen (they showed what they said were documents of this activity). Now DoJ is implying he was involved in the sales himself. So where are the tax receipts from that? The four objects above are from towards the 'higher' end of the market, while the objects (the DoS say were) found in his office in the raid are mostly low end junk. This fishy in the extreme.

UPDATE 16th Dec 2016
Chasing Aphrodite has a blog post on this which supplies added detail from the court documents which were not released at the time I wrote ('Inside the ISIS Looting Operation: U.S. Lawsuit Reveals Terror Group’s Brutal Bureaucracy of Plunder', posted on December 15, 2016). To be honest I am even less convinced.

Among the 'corroborative evidence intended to impart an air of artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative'  is another [undated] suggested scheme of how the antiquities service (sic - should be Divan al-Rikaz)) would work. Or rather, not work. Also why is Abu Sayyaf involved in discussing how an antiquities service would operate in Al-Raqqa province, rather than his own? If this is an attempt at creating a 'national' institution, where are the regional offices and regional officers? What is this document, what is its context - and what is its relevance? Since it shows a totally unworkable structure is this something created by people trying to make an existing organization more efficient (Abu Sayyaf was not the first appointee to the post)  or a fake document concocted by people who need some official looking documents to support an existing and faltering narrative? It says that what we see is an original with transcriptions added. Does this really look like an original Islamic State document? Why is it undated and unsigned? Whose 'suggestion' is it?

But looky-here...  over to one side. "workshop supervisors, specialised in their fields". What kind of workshops one wonders. Conservation/restoration workshops maybe? But then further down we see them producing a revenue, not consuming it. I think what this is suggesting is workshops for recovery of bullion from unsaleable scrap metal artefacts. This is interesting in light of past criticism of the snatch squad who came back from killing Abu Sayyaf with a lumpy pot which they thought ancient (because primitive in shape) but which was in fact a modern furnace crucible. But this was a year and half before these documents were read. Is this little box on an undated document purporting to be an original ISIL document some two years old not, in fact, an attempt to answer the critics?

There is an interesting item in attachment E2, the Divan is 'authorised to search for the people who sold relics before the State entered their territories and to collect the 20%'- in other words, the established dealers of the existing black market were taken over by ISIL. Anyone using the same networks as before the ISIL takeover is financing the organization.

Then we come across a 'human interest' story:
Thursday’s filing includes new records from the Abu Sayyaf raid that have not previously been released. Among other things, they include a harrowing account from looters who were extorted by ISIS – Abu Sayyaf ordered their child kidnapped when they refused to pay an low-ball price for a cache of gold and relics they had discovered.
That's quite interesting in light of the fact that the whole reason the US raiding party went after Abu Sayyaf was his involvement in the kidnapping of a US citizen, so why was this story withheld back in May 2015? This story has a background, as Chasing Aphrodite notes:

ISIS’ taxation system for looted antiquities has an obvious flaw: the value of the finds are difficult to know before they are sold on the international market.
Which is why a number of people, myself included, doubted this whole story. So 'conveniently' up pops this yarn (also incidentally explaining the appearance of the gold coins in the assemblage of finds seized and sought).  The document is dated 5th April 2015. The seven women from al-Duwayr were 'looking for relics in Al-Salihiyyah archaeological site' (contra Chasing Aphrodite's identification of the name as a place near Damascus, this refers to Dura Europos (Qal'at es-Salihiye))   'two years' previously. That would be April 2013, precisely when ISIL was being formed in the region. So, if that is true, this digging at Dura Europos would have been before ISIL came into existence. It is interesting to note that, according to this document, when they were trying to negotiate a sale (two years ago) dealers from (then rebel-held) Idlib came all the way to their village to talk it over.

I think this suit has been rushed through to make sure that the incoming Trump administration can be persuaded to see the importance of continuing funding on border controls of antiquities. Mr Trump seems very keen on border security.

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