Too big to sell?

Source: AP Photo/Militant video

Islamic State's War on Art Turns a Profit

Erin Thompson is an assistant professor of art crime at John Jay University.
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The city of Hatra in Iraq, a once-wealthy metropolis that withstood sieges by Roman emperors, was finally conquered this month -- by the Islamic State. To celebrate, the jihadists released an elaborate video. It begins with an aerial shot of the historic site (Hatra fell to ruin in the third century), with an overlay of graphics highlighting some of its buildings in red and labeling them “idols and statues.” The video then shows fighters attacking the site’s ancient sculptures with sledgehammers, pickaxes and even, for those works out of reach, sprays of bullets from an AK-47. The black flag of the Islamic State is superimposed over the corner of most frames, terrorism’s malevolent trademark.

The terrorist group has posted other videos and flooded its social media outlets with images of its destruction of parts of the ancient site of Nimrud and of sculpture in the Mosul Museum. (Its troops have  been fighting for control of Palmyra in Syria as well.) Video voiceovers explain that “Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues” in order to root out shirk, or idolatry. "It is easy for us to obey” Muhammad’s orders, one video boasts, “even if this costs billions of dollars.” Most reporting in the Western press on this wave of destruction has taken the Islamic State at its own word. But this is a mistake. Far from simply wanting to destroy “idolatrous,” pre-Islamic art, the groups' actions are motivated by complex and systematic goals.

One aim is profit -- despite their spokesman’s claims about ignoring the “billions of dollars” such antiquities could be worth. The videos show the destruction only of large, unwieldy and easily identifiable works. These antiquities would be difficult to transport out of Syria and Iraq and would not find willing buyers, since they could be recognized and seized as stolen property.

(Hatra isn't listed by UNESCO as a site in danger.)

But what about all of the smaller, portable and lesser-known antiquities the Mosul Museum also contained? Abdulamir al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist with the State University of New York at Stony Brook, told the New York Times that "Mosul residents had seen Islamic State fighters removing artifacts in order to sell them." From Mosul, the works would have merged into the stream of antiquities flowing out of jihadist-controlled areas, looted from museums or stolen from archeological sites. 

There has long been a looting problem in the region, which holds thousands of archeological sites. There has been an uptick in Iraq since 2003, when the fall of Saddam Hussein left authorities with other problems than policing antiquities. As for Syria, archeologists analyzing satellite photographs found evidence of looting as soon as conflict erupted there in 2012. This is no surprise -- with their normal means of making a living disrupted, many locals turned to digging in order to feed their families. But the Islamic State has accelerated the process of destruction, bringing in expert crews and heavy machinery that can dig up an entire ancient settlement in a matter of days.

Looted works are smuggled across the Iraq border into Turkey and other surrounding states, and end up in the hands of unscrupulous dealers and collectors in Europe and the Persian Gulf, who shop by photograph or over videochat. Authorities in Lebanon and Turkey have already seized hundreds of antiquities looted from Syria, but many more are making their way to market undetected. Experts have spotted pieces fresh from the ground for sale for tens of thousands of dollars in London galleries.

Some antiquities are smuggled and sold directly by the Islamic State, with profits going into their central coffers. But the group has also figured out how to profit from the trade without doing any of the work of stealing.Impoverished Syrian and Iraqi civilians have pockmarked archeological sites with pits in search of antiquities. The Islamic State keeps watch over their work and collects a 20 percent “tax” on the value of whatever these diggers find. According to the Syrian Heritage Initiative of the American Schools of Oriental Research at Boston University, the so-called caliphate sometimes grants its fighters the right to collect this tax as part of their salary. In turn, the fighters give a portion of the money they collect to their central command. 

The Islamic State, of course, hides its participation in the sales of antiquities, which contradicts its proclaimed understanding of the Prophet’s orders to destroy all idols.  Dabiq, its online English-language magazine, brags about the Western press coverage of the destruction at Ninevah, since it “served to enrage the non-Muslims, a deed that in itself is beloved to Allah.”

Although the group has led the media to focus on its destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities, it has also been obliterating Islamic heritage, with even more devastating effects. Shiite, Sufi, Christian and Yezidi mosques, churches, shrines and holy sites have been bulldozed or blown up with plastic containers filled with liquid explosives, wired together to produce a dramatic controlled demolition. Conquered communities who see the Islamic State flag hoisted over their places of worship know that they have only a few days before the terrorists move in for the kill. Some flee, clearing the way for the terrorists' rule. Others likely pay substantial protection money so their most revered relics are saved -- at least until they run out of funds.

The destruction of these works is not a footnote to a brutal war. The Islamic State's treatment of art is a crucial piece of its recruitment and financing strategies. These actions also violate the international law of war. Syria and Iraq are both parties to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The convention, which applies to internal armed conflict, forbids combatants from carrying out “any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property.” As member states, Syria and Iraq are obliged to criminally prosecute all violations after the Islamic State is eventually defeated. It's also possible for the UN to prosecute the destruction as a crime against humanity, possibly in conjunction with the International Criminal Court, if Iraq or Syria submits the cases to the court’s jurisdiction.

Alternatively, a special tribunal could be established. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia prosecuted several defendants for ordering the destruction of cultural property during conflicts in the Balkans, recognizing that the deliberate obliteration of a prosecuted group’s heritage is a crucial part of genocide. 

Such prosecutions and investigations would be complex and costly. The West would need to provide financial and logistical support to ensure that they have teeth. It may seem difficult to understand why, once the immediate threat of the Islamic State fighters is overcome, we should spend time and money prosecuting them for the destruction of art instead of focusing on their horrific crimes of murder and abuse against civilians. But there are good reasons Islamic State should be punished for its atrocities against both humans and human culture.

By spreading the word that the international community will not tolerate the theft and destruction of cultural heritage, we can put the Islamic State on warning that it cannot continue one of its easiest and least risky of means of funding and propagandizing with impunity. The Islamic State relies on continuous recruitment of new jihadists, and we must tell them that every action they take in support of jihad, even aiding in its sales of stolen art, will be punished.

And while we can never recover the lives of the victims of the Islamic State's murderous attacks, a global investigation into this looted art can result in the seizure of these artifacts from their buyers. Repatriated, these objects can be powerful reminders that the region was once inhabited by peacefully coexisting religious and cultural groups. Hatra, for instance, had temples to Greek, Mesopotamian, Canaanite and pre-Islamic Arabian gods and goddesses.

“Once the current violence ends, if we don’t have this cultural heritage and the symbolic value of it, how are we going to unite ourselves across religions and religious sects?" asks As Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian archeologist. "The country’s past is going to be key to reestablish this national identity and reconnect with the symbols it provides.” The victims in this holy war deserve all the aid they can get, including help to recover what the Islamic State has robbed from their cultural riches.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Erin L Thompson at ethompson@jjay.cuny.edu

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net