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Demand still high for ISIL’s stolen antiquities from Palmyra, elsewhere

April 1, 2016

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Demand still high for ISIL’s stolen antiquities from Palmyra, elsewhere

 Jim Michaels, USA TODAY6:49 a.m. EDT April 1, 2016

Archaeologists said many of the ancient ruins of Palmyra, Syria, can be restored after Syrian forces took back the city from ISIS.Video provided by Newsy Newslook

The historical city of Palmyra with the Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle, also known as Palmyra Castle, in the background, on March 31, 2016.(Photo: STR, European Pressphoto Agency)

WASHINGTON — The recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra by Syrian forces takes away a key revenue source of looted antiquities for the Islamic State, but global demand for the stolen valuables persists despite international efforts to stop the sales.

The Islamic State has earned millions of dollars from the sale of antiquities looted from throughout Syria and Iraq by establishing an elaborate system to smuggle and sell the goods on the open market.

“This is carefully managed,” said Amr Al-Azm, an associate professor at Shawnee State University and former official in the Syrian government’s antiquities department. “It’s a resource they exploit it as they need to.”

Palmyra was recaptured last weekend by Russian-backed Syrian forces, nearly a year after the Islamic State, also called ISIL or ISIS, seized the city and destroyed some of its most iconic Roman-era structures and looted other artifacts it could sell.

Countless antiquities are already on the market, which has proved difficult to curb. Criminal cases are hard to prosecute without evidence that a dealer or broker knew an item had been pilfered.

“It’s a huge weak link,” said Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, a group that pushes for action to crack down on antiquities smuggling.

Determining the origin of some common items, such as Roman coins, is a challenge. Unique items often are kept off the market until there is less scrutiny. The Internet has made it easy to market items to a global audience.

The State Department has made efforts to warn dealers and auction houses about the looted pieces, but unscrupulous dealers might look the other way about their origin.

“With antiquities, it’s very much a gray market,” Davis said.

For its part, the Islamic State recognizes the financial windfall in looted antiquities. It established an antiquities division, according to intelligence gathered in a U.S. raid in Syria last year that killed a top leader of the militant group.

“ISIL does not just passively tax the sale of antiquities by others,” Andrew Keller, a top State Department official, said in a speech last year. “It actively controls the trade to ensure maximum profit.”

Intelligence gathered from the raid showed that the Islamic State issued licenses for people to loot, collected a tax on sales and prevented unauthorized people from stealing from archaeological sites.

Dealers and brokers are becoming more aware of the illicit trade, which should help reduce the demand for the items. The FBI last year warned art dealers that anyone purchasing looted items from Syria or Iraq could be prosecuted under laws against financing terrorism.

“This is not a victimless crime,” Davis said.

Despite the Islamic State’s looting and rampage, the ancient part of Palmyra, aUNESCO world heritage site, appears to have remained intact. Last year, the militant group’s initial destruction of the city included the Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumphand Baalshamin Temple.

“There is still quite a lot left,” Al-Azm said. “It could have been a lot of worse.”

Syrian and Russian officials are just beginning to assess the damage. On Thursday, Russian engineers arrived in Syria to help clear mines and improvised explosives from the city.

UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about efforts to preserve the ancient city now that it is in Syrian government hands.

There has been limited new damage. Statues and other items that had not been removed from the main museum before the militants seized the city were defaced, said Michael Danti, academic director of the Cultural Heritage Initiatives at the American School of Oriental Research.

His organization, which is working with the State Department to document damage to archaeological sites in the region, examined recent satellite images that also showed new damage to the Valley of the Tombs, the Western Necropolis and Southeast Necropolis.

“They tend to destroy the most significant parts of a site,” Danti said. “They choose targets that have multiple meanings for different audiences.”

Over the past year, the Islamic State has flooded the market with items looted not only from Palmyra, but also from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and other areas the terror group controls in Iraq and Syria.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Danti said. Among the items on the market are funerary statues, illuminated manuscripts and Roman coins.

At its peak last year the Islamic State controlled about 5,000 archaeological sites, according to the State Department. Since then the Islamic State has lost 40% of the ground it controlled in Iraq and less in Syria, according to the Pentagon.

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