Mark Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, was the head of operations of the joint World Bank-U.N. Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. He is also counselor to the Antiquities Coalition.
As President Obama moves ahead with his plan to confront the so-called Islamic State, all options, as they say, should be on the table. Thus, while “kinetic force” is a likely focus, the terrorism financing must not be overlooked. By targeting one of the group’s funding sources, policy-makers can also help to preserve the history of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. What’s needed is an immediate, multifaceted initiative to curb the sale of “blood antiquities.”
The Islamic State is reported to be the world’s richest terrorist organization, and it has been made rich, in part, by looting Iraq and Syria. The group’s advance has been fueled by the sale of stolen artifacts that are vital to defining the Syrian and Iraqi cultures, which pre-date Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Indeed, the ongoing pillaging of this legacy is a blow to our collective humanity.
As reported by the Guardian, the Islamic State has made millions from its plunder — including $36 million alone from the looting of al-Nabuk in Syria. With antiquities that are as much as 8,000 years old at its disposal, the group needs no state sponsor; it is financing its carnage with the wealth of past civilizations.
According to professor Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University in Ohio, who recently returned from the region, the Islamic State is not only looting these antiquities itself, but also has essentially licensed the plunder of others — providing permission to locals and organized gangs to loot artifacts, so long as the Islamic State receives a 20 percent to 50 percent “tithe” on the proceeds. This has transformed what may have started as a localized effort into an international business.
“There is no doubt that looting and illicit trade in antiquities is highly lucrative, enough for ISIS” — one acronym for the Islamic State — “to be deeply engaged and implicated in it,” Al-Azm said. “Stopping this illicit trade in antiquities, therefore, must be an imperative, not only because it is a major source of income for terrorist organizations like ISIS, but also because it is causing irreparable damage to Syria’s cultural heritage.”
Just as “blood diamonds” helped fund slaughters in Africa, “blood antiquities” are helping to finance terrorism in the Middle East.
Fortunately, such lootings have not gone unnoticed. During a June meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) expressed interest in legislation to limit the sale of stolen antiquities from conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq. In Britain, Member of Parliament Mark Pritchard has raised the importance of broadening the discussion to auction houses that sell antiquities.
Considering that blood antiquities sometimes find their way into Western markets — as demonstrated by the recent return of looted items from New York auction houses to Cambodia — it makes sense to consider industry action to stem terrorist financing. Indeed, such an approach may be critical, as the link between looter and collector may be closer than many suspect. As researchers Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis said in a recent study of stolen Cambodian artifacts: “The data begin to answer many of the pressing but unresolved questions . . . of this particular criminal market, such as whether organized crime is involved in antiquities looting and trafficking (yes) . . . and how many stages there are between looting at source and the placing of objects for public sale in internationally respected venues (surprisingly few).”
To be sure, governments and international organizations have taken important first steps to curb the sale of looted artifacts. Last year, the publication of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk was announced, while UNESCO recently held consultations on an emergency action plan to safeguard Iraq’s cultural heritage. More recently, the Antiquities Coalition has been helping to curb looting from Egypt, while the State Department provided funding to document and help preserve cultural heritage sites in Syria.
But those involved in the antiquities trade itself are likely the best placed to ensure that blood antiquities never enter the marketplace in the first place. A global stakeholder engagement group should be formed, perhaps in Davos, Switzerland, to ensure that all responsible parties in the antiquities market “value chain” — governments, auction houses, museums, dealers, insurers, freeports and collectors — agree to a common sourcing and sales standard, to guarantee that any antiquities from active and recent conflict zones have been properly sourced before they can be sold, transferred, insured, stored or displayed.
To carry this out, the world can learn from past examples of combating illicit markets, including the successful Kimberley Process, which was established to clamp down on blood diamonds. Working together, we can once again save lives while helping to preserve our common heritage.