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Tomb Raiders and Terrorist Financing: Cutting Off ISIS’ Traffic in “Blood Antiquities” NOLA Conference

October 27, 2015

By: Tess Davis

As evidence continues to mount that violent extremist organizations are funding themselves through cultural racketeering, the Antiquities Coalition partnered with the Federal Bar Association (FBA) to inform lawyers, judges, and members of the public about this growing threat to our national security — and the world’s cultural heritage.

Al Azm and Bogdanos at NOLA FBA
Dr. Amr Al Azm (left) and Assistant District Attorney of Manhattan, Matthew Bogdanos (right).

Tomb Raiders and Terrorist Financing: Cutting Off ISIS’ Traffic in “Blood Antiquities” was held last week at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in partnership with the FBA’s New Orleans Chapter, which is the nation’s largest with over 1,200 members. A distinguished panel — including archaeologist Dr. Amr Al-Azm, lawyer (and Antiquities Coalition Executive Director) Tess Davis, and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos — exposed the illicit trade, tracing the path of looted masterpieces from the war zones of Mesopotamia to the very heights of the global market. They also explored how United States and international law is seeking to cut off this critical means of terrorist financing, including recent action by the U.S. Congress and United Nations Security Council.

With the rise of ISIS, the world rightfully asked how a militant faction too extreme for Al-Qaeda had transformed itself into the “richest terror group ever”. ISIS now boasts an annual budget worth $2 billion and a war chest of $250 million, which if true far surpasses the Taliban’s, and even that of some states. However, the public reacted with surprise to reports in June 2014 that ISIS jihadists had earned “millions” by looting the region’s archaeological sites, and then selling its ancient treasures to the highest bidder.

It shouldn’t have. Archaeologists, criminologists, law enforcement agents, and military officials — including the speakers at Tomb Raiders and Terrorist Financing — have long warned that the illicit antiquities trade is funding crime and conflict around the world. However, under ISIS’ black flag, this looting and trafficking has become not just a side enterprise, but a massive illegal industry. Just last month, the Federal government confirmed this connection beyond doubt, releasing a trove of newly declassified documents that detail ISIS’ extensive involvement, including the creation of an entire administrative department that oversees the removal antiquities (as well as oil) to fund the “state.” Recognizing that this cultural racketeering is now a “key source of revenue” for ISIS, it is also now offering a $5 million reward for “information leading to the significant disruptions of the sale and/or trade of oil and antiquities by, for, on behalf of, or to benefit” ISIS.”  

Tomb Raiders and Terrorist Financing presented the very latest on what we know about ISIS’ role in antiquities trafficking, as well as its intentional and targeted attacks on cultural, historic, and religious sites, most recently the fabled “Arch of Triumph” at Palmyra. Dr. Amr Al-Azm, who is working closely with the so-called Syrian “Monuments Men,” provided a firsthand account of these heroes’ crucial work to document ISIS’ looting and destruction of heritage, and to save whatever they can from the conflict. Before leaving Syria, Al-Azm was a Professor at the University of Damascus from 1998 to 2006, as well as Director of Science and Conservation Laboratories at the Department of Antiquities and Museums from 1999-2004. He is currently an Associate Professor of Middle East History at Shawnee State University and active member of the Syrian opposition.

Matthew Bogdanos — now an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan — first raised the alarm in 2005 that terrorist organizations (at the time Al Qaeda) were arming their cause through cultural racketeering. Then a colonel in the Marine reserves with five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bogdanos led the recovery team into the Iraqi National Museum after its looting during the early days of the 2003 U.S. Iraq invasion, the story of which is told in his book Thieves of Baghdad with William Patrick. Based on this experience, as well as his work in the DA’s office, Bogdanos explored the challenges of investigating and prosecuting antiquities cases, while also stressing the importance of pursuing them nonetheless.

The panel was organized by Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, who also spoke on how U.S. and international law is responding to the crisis, through U.S. Senate Bill 1887, U.N. Security Resolution 2199, and proposed action in the International Criminal Court. Her perspective was impacted by her own work in post-conflict Indochina, including helping the Royal Government of Cambodia to recover a series of masterpieces looted during their bloody civil war with the Khmer Rouge, service for which she was knighted earlier this year. Davis emphasized that even if the conflict ends tomorrow, Iraq and Syria will still be facing decades of recovery, but that the story of Cambodia provides hope that such recovery is indeed possible.

This is the fourth annual seminar that Davis has conducted with New Orleans FBA President Chris Alfieri, himself a noted art lawyer and preservationist. Past events have covered such varied subjects as protecting cultural heritage from natural disasters, the illicit trade in Cambodian antiquities, and the theft and destruction of art in the Pacific Theater of World War II. However, Tomb Raiders and Terrorist Financing had special relevant to the city’s legal, law enforcement, and military community: As one of the world’s greatest ports, New Orleans serves as the gateway into the United States for much of the country’s trade, both legal and illegal. This includes art and antiquities, but unfortunately, these have not yet been on the regional government’s radar. Hopefully that has now changed.

In closing, throughout the event, a common theme was that international law and institutions are not adequately equipped to respond to the threat ISIS poses to cultural heritage and global security. Innovative but also practical solutions are urgently needed. Following ministerial conferences in Cairo and New York earlier this year, the Antiquities Coalition is now working with its partners the Asia Society, Middle East Institute, and UNESCO to develop concrete recommendations for countering the illicit antiquities trade. For more on this work, click here, and stay tuned to this blog for future updates.
Read Coverage from the New Orleans Times-Picayune Here