US antiquities black market helps fund ISIS, experts say
December 10, 2015
Taken from Syria and Iraq, some items are believed to stay within the Middle East, others travel to east Asia and Europe, and some treasures have also shown up in the U.S. • Without an expert eye, the goods often pass right through security checks.
The multimillion-dollar antiquities black market in the United States is helping fund the terrorist group Islamic State, experts said on Wednesday, noting that whatever the group doesn’t destroy in Syria and Iraq, it sells for a hefty profit.
Consequently, some people may not realize that they could be inadvertently helping the Sunni radical Islamist organization.
“They’re benefitting not only from the sale but also from the trade itself,” said Deborah Lehr, chair and co-founder of Washington-based Antiquities Coalition, which is formed by a group of worldwide experts fighting the illegal trade of antiquities by terrorist groups like ISIS.
Satellite photos show that ISIS has destroyed historical sites and taken away cultural relics in Syria and Iraq.
“You see one day pristine sands, and three months later, it looks like Swiss cheese,” Lehr said, referring to the damaged cultural relics.
According to Lehr, ISIS members often prey on struggling locals, offering them cash to do the digging.
“Local people are doing a lot of this for very understandable reasons, it’s a very difficult economic time,” she said.
Taken from Syria and Iraq, some items are believed to stay within the Middle East, others travel to east Asia and Europe, and some treasures have also shown up in the United States.
Without an expert eye, the goods often pass right through security checks, Lehr said.
“Your average customs official will know if he sees a kilo of cocaine, that it’s automatically illegal. But if they’re seeing an ancient pot, they don’t know in some cases whether it’s a tourist trinket or it’s a 3,000-year-old urn,” said Lehr.
Museums also play a big role in this fight. The Smithsonian Institution houses antiquities from a region in Syria currently being desecrated by ISIS.
“Nobody is coming to you with a black mask and saying ‘Hey, we stole this,'” said Richard Kurin, a staff member at the Smithsonian Institution.
Museums use their expertise to spot suspicious items and the institutions also help train customs officers to recognize them.
Another tool is the red list — a database maintained in part by the international council of museums. It warns of items around the world that are most at risk of being looted.
The U.S.-based online marketplace eBay says it hasn’t seen any direct evidence of looted items from Iraq and Syria showing up on its site, but has warned potential buyers to beware.
“There are some collectors on the market who have actually said outright that a way to protect this material is to buy it. Of course, that’s a fallacy, it just means the price provides more incentive for ISIS to loot more and sell more and make more money,” said Kurin.
A looting of treasures from a precious past also prompts fears of what it may bring to the future.
“These kinds of cultural cleansing that we’ve seen going on by ISIS is really a precursor in many instances to ethnic cleansing,” said Lehr.
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