Sunday 5 April 2020

"ISIL Looting": Can we Stick to Facts, Abandon Myths and not Create Propaganda?

Tess Davis is interviewed by John Beck for the blog of the ESRI software firm (Antiquities Trafficking: Maps Take Aim at Looters and Buyers. ESRI Blog March 31, 2020) which is ostensibly about "mapping the trail of stolen antiquities"in order to "restore cultural relics to their origins" (sic). I find this whole text pretty problematic, and reflecting a rather simplistic narrative. Michael Press has already said what he thinks (read it here). I have the same issues, but want to add a few more reflections on what we see in this article:
Conflicts around the world are often funded by the sale of drugs, guns, diamonds, ivory—and antiquities. Often these cultural relics stolen from home countries are purchased unwittingly on the open market, in auction houses, galleries and even online commerce sites.
The word "unwittingly"is out of place here. Buyers do what they do deliberately, claiming "oh, I didn't know!" only when caught (Hobby Lobby, looking at You!). What's that "even" there for? I'd say the correct qualifier is "especially".
In Iraq and neighboring Syria, recent looting took on an industrial scale at the height of ISIS control in the region. At the same time ISIS was making international headlines by destroying important cultural, historic, and religious sites, looters sanctioned by ISIS were selling artifacts to fund operations.
Not true, the looting in Iraq got really industrial at the time of US-led 1990+ sanctions and then in the immediate aftermath of the 2003+ US-led invasion of a sovereign country. In Syria, the looting began (sometimes under US-supported militant groups) well before ISIL took over the region. Sam Hardy, Michael Press and myself (and others) have collated the facts and set them out in writing in a number of easily accessible places. Yet still (and its mainly the Americans) are totally ignoring what those facts are. Repeatedly.
The US Army intervened sending its Special Forces on raids that netted not only antiquities but documentation revealing a permit system that allowed thieves to loot if ISIS received a cut of the proceeds. Receipts from transactions over a three-month period at just one site totaled $1.25 million.
What? The raid of the Abu Sayyed compound (ostensibly) had a different agenda. We only know about that one raid that brought antiquities and documentation out of Syria (were there more?). I have proposed that the way they are phrased strongly suggests that those documents are fakes and those antiquities were (or include) a 'plant'. No hard evidence has ever been presented to show that I was wrong. I still say that this was a scam, intended to bolster precisely the same story that this article promotes.

And that is it, the whole story of those permits was not prompted by the 'revelation' of those documents, it was first promoted on the basis of hearsay information by Dr Al Azm (guess where? In exile in the US) about a year (?) before the raid, the documentation allegedly taken (illegally) in that raid was used to confirm that this hearsay story was true. Interestingly, since ISIL was driven out of Iraq and Syria by this time in March last year (and despite one - one - cache of objects being found in Mosul), there have been no other copies of such documents being shown by Syrian or Iraqi sources. That is despite the fact that all the people involved in the digging would - allegedly - have had one. Where are they?
“ISIS is not the first to traffic in art and antiquities,” Davis said. “The Nazis were infamous art thieves, and the terrorist groups Al Qaeda and the Taliban have sought to fund themselves with ancient art. We also have news that insurgent groups in the civil war in Yemen are looting. This amounts to the largest cultural crisis since World War II.”
So many problems in that... Disappointing. AC might at least like to produce the proof of the comment on Yemen, I'd like to see that backed up. I'm not even going to discuss the Nazis. More important - but equally disappointing:
Satellite imagery of Dura Europos, Syria, an important archaeological site, shows the scale and extent of ISIS-led looting.
Bollocks. It does not. That's been documented on this blog, and Sam Hardy in particular also covered it. Why do we bother writing stuff down if people rush to judgement without even trying to check the facts? It's JUST A MOUSE-CLICK AWAY!!!  The article is manipulative.
The image above from April 2009 shows little impact compared to the image below from April 2015 that shows pockmarked evidence of digging throughout the site. GIS users compare images to reveal change, including pinpointing areas of theft or destruction. This satellite imagery was provided courtesy of Esri partner Maxar Technologies(© 2020). 
Well, crikey. Yes, ISIL were in control of Dura from September 2014. But perhaps those unnamed GIS-users might do some fact checking. No need to ask any "partners". Google Earth can also show it. The satellite coverage of the site in the time slice 3rd March 2014 is unfortunately very fuzzy and grey, but even so you can see that there is a huge amount of pitting  right across the walled area of the ancient town compared to the previous time-slice (4th August 2011, three years earlier when there is little). The pitting can be seen more clearly in the GE time-slice 2nd April 2014. In fact if you compare the two taken about a month apart, there does not seem to be a lot of difference, there are some fresh pits in the cemetery area - to the west of the 'church' site, but in the town, although I've not looked exhaustively, there does not seem to have been a lot of fresh digging going on between the two shots. Having said that, there are (ten) cars and trucks parked all over the city, which it seems fair to suggest might be those of looters. But all this was six months before ISIL . The Esri-chosen picture is fuzzier but as far as I can see features no trucks on the site in April 2015. So, once again the claim is bollocks. The satellite evidence indicates that looting not only had begun well before ISIL took over the area, but seems to have effectively ended before they got there.  No need for any GISing, or Antiquities Coalition story-telling.
“The looting and trafficking in ISIS-occupied territory was so immense, it could be seen from space,” Davis said. “Thousands of holes can be seen in satellite imagery [from Maxar Technologies], where looters have been pillaging.” 
and Google Earth. But you can see my Mum's greenhouse and fishpond and my Dad's rotivator in the garden on Google Earth too. So you can see my Dad from space too, does that make him 'immense' too?

But again, you don't need satellites to check out looting, a drone flyover is enough... to show that although ISIL had Palmyra in their hands for a longish time on two occasions, when they abandoned the place a second time, there was very little trace of any looting activity in the walled area, certainly nothing like the pattern seen at Dura (or Apamea). Yet Palmyra is the picture at the head of this fairy-tale text...
“We hope that educating the art-buying public will help combat the demand,” Davis said [...] . Lately, it has seen a growing impact from the videos and checklists it uses to educate brokers and buyers in the global art market. .
Not if you try to bullshit them, you will not.

Come on Antiquities Coalition, check the facts, abandon the myths and just tell it like it is. What's the use of trying to fool the public and potential commercial partners when you'll be called out? Or do you think you won't be?

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