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The AC Digs Into: Countering Looting Of Antiquities From Syria And Iraq Project

March 6, 2018

The Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TracCCC) at George Mason University received the State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism Grant for Research and Training on Illicit Markets for Iraqi and Syrian Art and Antiquities. To launch their new Countering Looting of Antiquities from Syria and Iraq (CLASI) project, TraCCC has assembled a diverse team of experts united in the goal of understanding the illicit trade of antiquities and offering practical solutions to law enforcement. We are here with Dr. Louise Shelley, Founder and Director of TraCCC to learn more about this project.


Dr. Shelley, first of all, congratulations on receiving this grant. This must be a very exciting time for you and your team. How did you first get interested in the connection between antiquities trafficking and terrorist financing?

I have been interested in this problem for over a decade. When I was still at American University over a decade ago, I had an Iraqi Fulbright graduate student write on this for his master’s degree. He is now a member of our team. Then I wrote on this as a problem in my 2014 book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism. There I wrote on seeing recently smuggled high-end antiquities from Afghanistan for sale at the Maastrict Art Fair with the dirt still on them.

That addressed my engagement with the smuggling issue, but you should ask how long I have been interested in archaeology from the region. As a teenager, I used to subscribe to the youth archaeology lecture series at the Metropolitan Museum. I wanted to be an archaeologist but I was allergic to dust and mold, therefore this did not seem to be a good career trajectory for me. Through a series of circumstances, I became a specialist on Soviet crime when it was very hard to do research in the closed society. It also was not the most relevant intellectual problem. I would joke that it was as obscure as Mesopotamian archaeology when Saddam ruled Iraq and the country was also not very accessible to researchers.

In the late 1980s, I was chair of my Department of Justice, Law and Society and invented a new course entitled Western Legal Tradition that became a core course in the university curriculum. I received a grant from the American Bar Association to prepare myself and other teachers on the topic and we invited Dr. Ira Spar, now one of the advisors to our project, to teach us about Hammurabi’s Code and ancient legal traditions.

Now, ironically both Russian crime is an amazingly relevant problem to our current political environment and the smuggling of Mesopotamian antiquities has significant political consequences. This teaches us that one should pursue what is meaningful to ourselves and the need may come for specialization in what was once perceived to be an obscure and not very relevant discipline. When we had our first event at TraCCC on antiquities smuggling, we had to move the room for the talk as 115 people came. They were people who came to the event with very different interests but many shared a common passion for the topic.

Could you talk a little bit about what you have planned with your new initiative?

The CLASI project’s goals are to:

1.  Analyze the illicit trade in looted cultural property from Iraq and Syria with a particular emphasis on links to terrorist finance;

2. Develop information aimed at enabling law enforcement to investigate, interdict, and designate organizations and individuals involved in the trafficking; and

3. Use this information to develop training materials for law enforcement in partner nations.

At the present time, we are at the analysis stage using our multi-disciplinary and multi-lingual team to help us do the study. We are also supported by a group of data analyst specialists who have significant experience in the Middle East.

What do you think is the most important step in fighting the illicit trade?

Governments who fight the illicit trade tend to work in a stove piped fashion and concentrate on specific criminal acts. But the criminal and terrorist networks involved in this trade are generalists. They are in it for the money and often involved in many different sectors. One of our researchers earlier in his career, found antiquities traveling along with WMD (weapons of mass destruction) materials in his home country. So it is important to look beyond the looters and traders on the ground, and focus on the high-level facilitators and traffickers and the corruption that makes it all possible.

If policymakers could do one thing to address the current crisis, what would it be? What short term and long term changes need to take place?

The instability, lawlessness, and massive human suffering in the Middle East will provide fertile soil for antiquities looting for a long time to come. We are clearly not going to find a silver bullet there. Conflicts are increasingly being funded by illicit trade.  The recognition of this problem is a needed first step in addressing it. The UN Security Council in December 2014 recognized the link between smuggling of artifacts and terrorist financing in Resolution 2195, giving a strong incentive for the international community to act against this problem.

We also need to look at the demand side. We need to track the supply chain from beginning to end and then look for the best places to disrupt it. And some of those places may be in western countries among the facilitators who organize the final sales of the object. There also needs to be disincentives for buyers. Furthermore, we need online marketplaces like eBay to be more vigilant in monitoring the products they are selling in their online platforms.

We have been very impressed by the number of museum and scholarly experts who have approached us and asked to work pro-bono on our team. As we often say that it “takes a network to fight a network” and this is the case in antiquities looting as well.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in working in this growing field?

As we do our research, we are finding that new technologies that analyze big data, scrape the Internet, explore the Dark Net and track social media are providing important insights and giving us new research directions. Network analysis is also critical. So I would encourage all students who are interested in working in this area to learn to use these tools effectively.