ISIS Profits from Illegal Sale of Antiquities as Oil Revenues DeclineDecember 16, 2014 in Iraq, ISIS, Syria
The looting and illegal sale of antiquities has become a new profit centre for ISIS. In early December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that the looting of cultural property and antiquities, particularly in Iraq and Syria, has become a matter of international security. Ban told a UNESCO-hosted conference on threats to cultural heritage and diversity, “The protection of cultural heritage is a security imperative.”
Gangs of looters have taken advantage of the upheaval in Iraq and Syria, and have hired people, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, to carry out illegal excavations in search of historic or religions artefacts. The newly found pieces are then immediately to middlemen or antiquities smugglers. This instant profit has become a significant source of funding for ISIS, which uses the revenues for the purchase of weapons and other items. Analysts speculate that the trafficking of such antiquities is increasing as the fighting between ISIS and coalition forces continues. US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting.”
Since their rapid expansion over the summer, the primary source of income for ISIS has been oil. The group controls as many as eight oil fields in Syria; in October, it was estimated that ISIS was gaining between one and two million dollars a day in black market oil revenue, making it the most well funded and richest terrorist organisation in history. The US-led coalition strikes have conducted targeted strikes on ISIS-controlled energy infrastructure, including refineries and distribution centres, in an attempt to dwindle this source of funding. Recent reports from Washington suggest these efforts have been successful. Further, the strikes have reportedly scared would-be smugglers who would transport black market oil through the region. Transport of black market oil is also being halted by ground forces which have increased the monitoring of oil smuggling routes into Turkey and Kurdistan. The combined efforts have reportedly cut sharply into ISIS revenues.
Apart from oil, ISIS has profited from other avenues, including kidnap for ransom, extortion, donations, and imposing heavy taxes in the regions which they control. However the looting and immediate sale of black market antiquities has become an increasingly lucrative source of revenue. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, said, “There can be no purely military solution to this crisis. To fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defence against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.” UNESCO is promoting broad measures to stem the tide of loss and destruction, including the establishment of “protected cultural zones” which would be monitored by local and central governments, as well as international parties. Other measures include an international ban on the illicit trafficking or sale of antiquities from Syria, and the creation of a global registry of antiquities that are being placed on the market. The latter would force buyers to prove the item’s legitimacy and send “a strong message that artefacts with questionable origins will be subject to severe scrutiny and ethical conduct investigation.” The registry would drive down the value of ill-gotten antiquities.
A recent report revealed the annual income and its sources for ISIS as well as other terrorist groups. ISIS earns approximately $2 billion US from oil, tolls and taxes making it the richest terrorist group in the world. At a distant second, the Afghan Taliban profits from donations and drug sales to the tune of $400 million annually. Al-Shabaab revenues total $100 million from the sale of charcoal and the imposition of taxes; Boko Haram has raised approximately $10 million, predominantly from kidnap for ransom.
Meanwhile, a recent report also suggested that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Sahel terrorist groups are working with Colombian drug cartels to transport drugs across North Africa and into Europe. Leaders of AQIM have reportedly met several times with representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). “Narco-jihadists” transport cargo by road through a triangle that includes Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania. Statistics indicate that AQIM has received sums amounting to 15% of the total sold by smugglers. Who pay the terrorist groups to provide secure passage of their drug convoys, before the contraband is transported to Europe through organised crime networks. In June 2013, an Algerian security report warned of the growing ties between terrorist groups and drugs smuggling gangs, as authorities revealed a relation between drug smugglers and terror financing cells.