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Antiquities Coalition Chairman Testifies on Capitol Hill

May 12, 2016

On May 12, The Antiquities Coalition was pleased to be invited to testify before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence of the House Committee on Homeland Security. The hearing, titled “Following the Money: Examining Current Terrorist Financing Trends and the Threat to the Homeland”  explored the developing trends in illicit financial activity that may be used to support terrorist plots and operations against the United States. It focused on terrorist financing through criminal activity, charity fraud, and antiquities smuggling. Representative Peter King (R-New York’s 2nd District), Chairman of the Subcommittee, and Ranking Member Brian Higgins (D-New York’s 27th District) led the hearing.

Members attending the hearing also included Rep. John Katko (R-NY), Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), and Rep. William Keating (D-MA).

Testimony was given by the Antiquities Coalition Chair and Founder, Deborah Lehr, as well as by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, and George Mason University’s Dr. Louise Shelley.

“Despite our successes we cannot become complacent…. Recent terror attacks and plotting have demonstrated that terrorist organizations can have global impact at very little cost. While the cost of financing the 9/11 attack was estimated between $400,000-500,000, AQAP’s 2010 cargo bomb plot reported cost only $4,200,”said Representative King in his opening statement. “While ISIS’s ability to hold territory in Iraq and Syria has provided it with access to resources that have allowed to finance its terror campaign internally, the success of coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS oil production has forced the group to seek revenue through other activities including human trafficking, taxing the local population, and robbing antiquities from world renowned cultural and historical sites.”

Part of this adaptation has included an increased reliance on non-traditional sources of terrorist financing, such as illicit antiquities, which was the focus of Lehr’s presentation and many of the follow up questions by the Committee Chair and members.

“Culture has become a weapon of war and a fundraising tool for violent extremist organizations across the Middle East and Northern Africa,” said Lehr.” The problem is widespread across the MENA region. Many of the attacks on heritage are targeted at its economy, which is reliant on cultural tourism. A slowing economy threatens political stability, a point not lost on ISIL.”

Lehr also testified how the U.S. Special Forces raid on the compound of ISIL’s “Chief Financial Officer,” Abu Sayyaf, confirmed that the extremist group has institutionalized the trafficking and destruction of antiquities. ISIL has created its own Ministry of Antiquities and uses the sale of permits to promote looting. Lehr—joined by several committee members—warned that the terrorist organization is making significant profits from this plunder.

Records seized during the Abu Sayyaf raid showed transactions worth $1.25 million in just a three month period—or $5 million annually. While not on the scale of oil revenues, clearly sale of these illicit treasures could fund a significant number of terrorist attacks, especially as there is a virtual limitless supply of sites to plunder in the region. ISIL views these priceless antiquities as nothing more than a commodity to be plucked from the ground for profit.

Rep. Katko was the first to raise questions to the panel regarding illicit antiquities stating, “I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of the antiquities market.” The representative discussed his involvement in a case of looted tablets at Cornell University and the difficulty they faced in pursuing criminal prosecution. Rep. Katko inquired about what more can be done to criminally prosecute these crimes with particular interest in establishing a dedicated prosecutor to these issues at the Department of Justice – one of the recommendations in the #CultureUnderThreat Task Force Report. The Task Force Report also discusses the need for more cultural memorandums of understanding between the State Department and countries facing looting of their heritage. Rep. Keating raised interested regarding what the US can do to have more bilateral cultural agreements with foreign countries.  

So what can be done?  Lehr’s testimony included a number of concrete steps that can be taken by   both individuals and institutions.

In April, the Antiquities Coalition released a task force report #CultureUnderThreat: Recommendations for the U.S. Government, to promote solutions to this growing crisis and serve as an ongoing resource for policy makers.

In addition, the Antiquities Coalition fully supports the recommendations in H.R. 2285, The Prevent Trafficking in Cultural Property Act, for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These organizations are on the front lines of our war against cultural racketeering.

Additional recommendations that the Committee could consider include our calls to:

• Appoint a point person at the National Security Council who can coordinate with relevant agencies—including ICE, CBP, as well as Congress, and specifically this critical committee—on the illicit trade.

• Shift the focus of law enforcement from seizing and repatriating antiquities to dismantling networks through more criminal prosecutions.

• Restrict the antiquitie trade to designated ports, in order to more effectively monitor it, as has been done with the wildlife trade.

• Raise awareness at ports of entry about not importing conflict antiquities through a public relations campaign.

• Support the State Department’s efforts to negotiate cultural memorandums of understanding with countries in crisis.  These agreements provide the legal basis for closing to the US market to illicit antiquities from the signatory country.