The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — the Islamic extremist group that swept through Northern Iraq last month — is now considered to be the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world, with $2.2 billion in assets. While bank heists have recently gained the group millions, they have also raked in massive profits from a less conventional source: the billion-dollar black market in ancient artifacts.
While fighters with ISIS have been battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war for years, their ultimate plan is to establish an Islamic state that erases the border of Syria and Iraq, a goal they seem dangerously close to achieving after capturing Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in June. They now control hundreds of square miles of territory stretching from Syria’s Mediterranean Coast to areas south of Baghdad.
As home to some of the world’s oldest cultures, this stretch of land is riddled with rich archaeological sites and countless relics, some dating back 8,000 years. Just days before the terrorist group seized Mosul, Iraqi forces discovered over 100 flash drives packed with data on ISIS that exposed the daunting scale of their theft. According to new information released by the Guardian, trafficking “conflict antiquities,” or artifacts that are looted, smuggled, and sold to illicit dealers, has been the source of tens of millions for ISIS. They even stole $36 million worth of artifacts from one site in Syria alone.
But ISIS militants don’t do the digging themselves. Instead, they sanction illicit excavation by locals and then levy a special Islamic tax, called khums, that takes 20 percent of all profits on treasure for the state. Some local ISIS leaders have ratcheted up this rate to 50 percent when Islamic, rather than pre-Islamic, artifacts are discovered, and the tax can climb even higher when relics contain gold. All large figures are typically destroyed according to strict Islamic provisions against idolatry. According to Dr. Amr Al-Azm, a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, professional excavators and their crews are now working under the direct supervision of ISIS representatives to dig up more artifacts.
The terrorist group benefits from all other steps in the process too, from trafficking the goods to selling them at a sprawling black market in the ISIS stronghold of Tell Abyad, a town of the Syrian Turkish border. Over the past several years, smuggled Iraqi antiquities have traveled as far as France, Switzerland, and even California, where the F.B.I. recently seized a series of ancient Mesopotamian tablets.
While ISIS displays a particularly organized mode of looting, terrorist groups profiting off of stolen artifacts is nothing new. “Both al Qaeda and the Taliban looted antiquities for the purpose of funding their operations,” said Thomas Livoti, a PhD Student at the University of Montana. In the chaos of Syria’s ongoing civil war, it took looters less than a year to completely pillage the ancient city of Apamea, formerly protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Fearing a repeat of this kind of wholesale plundering, the shadow government set up by the Syria’s moderate opposition just finished training a batch of curators and history experts in safeguarding museum collections during times of emergency. Instructors used a famous mosaic museum in Syria’s Idlib province as a case study, pointing out how both ISIS and the regime have repeatedly struggled to gain control of the valuable collection.
While looting by ISIS results in tragic losses to the rich cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, their increasingly systematized method of collecting and documenting profits from the illegal artifact trade is an even more concerning sign that the group’s diverse sources of funding will allow them to continue to grow in wealth and power.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress