Thinking on Policies

Project image: 

by Neil Brodie

In September 2015, the US State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of any trade in antiquities (and/or oil) that is benefiting ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Will such a reward be money well spent? What will be the benefit of disrupting the trade in Syria’s and Iraq’s archaeological heritage, and how financially damaging will it be for extremists? Answers to these questions are forthcoming from documents released into the public domain the same day by Andrew Keller, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, at a meeting hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The documents had been seized in May 2015, during a US Special Forces raid on the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of ISIL’s antiquities division. 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? But leaving doubts as to the authenticity of the receipts aside, and accepting them as genuine, what do they tell us about the potential impact of the rewards offer on archaeological heritage protection and financing of extremism?

The 11 receipts together show that between December 2014 and March 2015, ISIL collected $265,000 through a 20% tax, suggesting a total monetary value for the taxed antiquities trade of approximately $1.3 million for four months. Multiplying up, that would be $4 million per annum. $4 million in Syria would pay for a lot of antiquities, yet very few have been identified on the destination market. Perhaps, as is sometimes claimed, they are being warehoused in Syria or abroad, but if that is the case, some people are paying out millions of dollars (the money taxed by ISIL) for commodities that can only be stockpiled in warehouses in the hope of a profit in an uncertain commercial future. Regardless, it could be they really are arriving on the destination market, filtering through it and being sold with falsified paperwork and invented provenances. After all, who is really looking?

Would disrupting ISIL’s control of the antiquities trade save archaeological sites from further depredation? The receipts illustrated by Keller in his presentation all relate to Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria, about 18% of the country’s total land area. Deir az-Zor province has been largely under ISIL control since July 2014. According to the US Department of State’s map of Syrian archaeological heritage sites at risk, Deir az-Zor is one of the archaeologically-poorer areas of Syria. The more archaeologically-rich western areas of the country remain under the control of forces loyal to Assad or of the non-jihadi opposition. Media reports, now backed up by Jesse Casana’s careful analysis of satellite imagery recently published in the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology (vol. 78, no. 3, 2015), demonstrate that both of these groups have also engaged in and profited from archaeological looting. It appears to not be as damaging as that conducted by ISIL, but is damaging nevertheless. Geography alone would suggest that material flowing through Lebanon is derived from those sources. Thus both Assad and the non-jihadi opposition are also likely to be profiting from the antiquities trade. Eliminating ISIL from the trade would still leave the most archaeologically-rich areas of Syria vulnerable to looting, and when ISIL is rolled back from Deir az-Zor by its opponents, looting there will most likely be ameliorated but not eliminated.

How important for ISIL is the money derived from taxing the antiquities trade? On October 5th, 2015, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi published on the website Jihadology some ISIL documentation recording its financial ministry’s accounting of Deir az-Zor province for one month within the period covered by the tax receipts. (And notice that these ISIL records do utilize “Arabic” Arabic numerals). The total income for one month was recorded as $8,438,000. The receipts record a monthly tax revenue from antiquities sales of approximately $66,000. Thus the receipts suggest that the antiquities tax accounts for only a small proportion (0.8%) of ISIL’s total income. This figure accords well with the US Department of the Treasury’s seemingly low estimation of the antiquities trade’s financial importance, behind oil, kidnapping and general extortion. Eliminating this income stream would therefore do little to degrade ISIL’s operational capacity.

The intention of this comparative analysis is not to nit-pick. It is to make a serious point about appropriate policy. There is an opinion within the archaeological community that highlighting the financial importance to ISIL of the antiquities trade will make it an issue of national security and ensure a strong government response. The danger with this line of reasoning is that the response might be an inappropriate one, aimed more at disabling ISIL and less at protecting archaeological heritage. This seems to be exactly what has happened. Disrupting ISIL’s control of the antiquities trade will not offer secure, long-term protection to Syrian archaeological heritage from the threat of looting, nor will it deal a fatal blow to ISIL financing.
At the end of his talk at the Metropolitan, Keller had this to say: “Given that they control thousands of archaeological sites, limiting the supply of antiquities to the marketplace will be difficult. We must focus and work together to eliminate the demand”. He was absolutely right. Archaeological looting in Syria and other countries of the world and the profits made by ISIL and other militia groups from the antiquities trade will only be disrupted by serious and sustained measures aimed at preventing the sale of antiquities on the destination market. But the implementation and maintenance of effective strategies of demand reduction will require time and effort, which is another way of saying that they will cost money. $5 million might just about do it.


Neil Brodie is Senior Research Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. Brodie is an archaeologist by training, and has held positions at the British School at Athens, the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, where he was Research Director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, and Stanford University’s Archaeology Center. He was co-author (with Jennifer Doole and Peter Watson) of the report Stealing History, commissioned by the Museums Association and ICOM-UK to advise upon the illicit trade in cultural material. He also co-edited Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade (with Morag Kersel, Christina Luke and Kathryn Walker Tubb, 2006), Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology (with Kathryn Walker Tubb, 2002), and Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage (with Jennifer Doole and Colin Renfrew, 2001). He continues to work on archaeological projects in the United Kingdom, Greece and Jordan.