ISIL Making Millions From Looted Antiquities

03/06/2015 10:15 BST | Updated 31/05/2016 10:59 BST

In recent months, propaganda films showing extremists using sledgehammers and automatic gunfire to destroy remains of ancient civilisations have commanded swathes of media attention.

Nimrud - one of the world's greatest cities in the ninth century BC - is the greatest single cultural loss in modern Iraq. Shamelessly and publicly, cultural relics and historical sites have been bulldozed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Shrines and tombs in areas under their control have been targeted and obliterated as idolatrous symbols which they see as representing pre-Islamic religious beliefs.

When ISIL (also known as Daesh) seized control of Palmyra on May 21st 2015, fears grew that the extremists may destroy the Roman remains but in a surprising video message published on YouTube last Tuesday, ISIL claimed they do not intend to bulldoze the 2000 year old archaeological site. Instead, they plan to "pulverize" unspecified statues that they believe have been historically worshipped by "miscreants."

However, Islamic law says that idols that are no longer worshiped need not be destroyed and none of these statues were being worshiped. UNESCO has described such activities as war crimes.

In addition to sustained attempts to wipe out the history of ethnic groups living under their control, ISIL are profiting from illicit antiquities trafficking. Artefacts, stolen from museums and aforementioned excavation sites, have become a lucrative commodity for the group.

"Next to oil,", says Michael Danti, of the Syrian Heritage Initiative, a US State Department funded organisation, "looting is the best paying sector working for Isis as a civilian in Raqqa,". ISIL have even established a "ministry of antiquities" so they can trade on an industrial scale. The trafficking has so far raised tens of millions of dollars for ISIL, who last week killed over 400 civilians in Palmyra.

While securing the safe house of a dead ISIL commander, Iraqi intelligence officers seized more than 160 computer flash drives containing detailed financial records of the insurgents. Listed among ISIL's key financial transactions were records of illicit antiquity trafficking. In one region of Syria alone, the group reportedly netted up to $36 million from such activities.

The group profit from selling licenses to middlemen and imposing taxes of around 20 percent. Unable to sell the artefacts in Syria, the smallest items with the highest value, for example jewellery, worth between £100,000 and £1 million, are most commonly brought through illegal borders to Lebanon with ease. Lebanon is a transit station for this black market trade between Syria and Europe, Beirut being a main hub. Typically, the antiquities are then sent on to Cyprus and Turkey and then mainland Europe.

London, however, is where the biggest money is to be made. No arrests have yet been made in the UK for looted antiquities but London's Metropolitan Police have been able to seize and repatriate some material as well as Afghani and Iraqi artefacts.

Nevertheless, this activity is nothing new; sites in areas controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have also been looted but the damage is dramatically worse in territory captured by ISIL.

Beirut meanwhile has seen the Lebanese government cracking down on the illegal trade, which includes the exchange of Byzantine glasses, vases and batches of coins selling for 10s of 1000s of dollars. Not only are those involved being charged with looting antiquities but they now face terrorism charges because they are complicit with ISIL.

Many collectors imagine they are saving the artefacts from devastation but these antiquities are disappearing into private collections and thus devoid of their original context as we lose track of the origins of their exact locations.

In February, UNESCO announced the creation of a global coalition against the trafficking of illegal objects, to meet in the coming weeks.

It is difficult to put a statistic on exactly how much has been stolen, although there has been no indication of any European dealers on the open market selling looted antiquities during the current conflict. As part of their Corporate Social Responsibility programme, Christie's have been working with UNESCO, as well as Interpol, US Department of Homeland Security and Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Unit, to prevent the sale of such artefacts.

In a statement on their website, the auction house pledge to play their "part in sending a clear message to those who participate in the illicit trade in cultural property that property looted and trafficked from conflict zones cannot be sold in the open market." The firm, whose annual total surpassed £5 billion last year, says it "wholeheartedly supports UNESCO's campaign to raise awareness of looting in Iraq and Syria."

Furthermore, recent German legislation requires dealers to demonstrate goods are legally attained by demanding an official export license from the country of origin.

Although the deaths of Iraqi and Syrian civilians is the greatest burden to bare, the disastrous consequences of the regime are not unconnected from ISIL's infiltration of the black market.