THE BLOG
07/02/2014 12:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

Rocking the Cradle of Civilization: Antiquities Theft Funding Terrorists

For two weeks, the world has watched as ISIS viciously advanced across Iraq. Clearly, the U.S. government's priority must be to prevent further attacks. Mission number one is to protect the welfare of the Iraqi people. But there is another victim here. Armed aggressors are looting and destroying ancient sites that are part of our common heritage. Terrorist and criminal networks are instigators of "cultural racketeering," -- the systematic looting of antiquities for profit -- in the cradle of civilization.

These criminal networks are robbing from our past to fund their terrorist activities, intimidate and undermine already struggling countries. This global crisis requires a global solution. The United States is well-positioned to lead this charge. At a time when the administration seeks a new role in the changing landscape of the Middle East, standing up to protect a nation's identity can make an important difference.

When Iraqi intelligence officials seized 160 flash drives outlining the group's financing last week, they revealed that ISIS was systematically looting sites in Iraq and Syria to fundraise in the lucrative antiquities markets. According to the Guardian, over $35 million was raised from the pillage of one site alone -- al Nabuk, west of Damascus. Al Nabuk, over 8000 years old, is a site with some of the earliest evidence of civilization.

The idea that terrorist networks use cultural racketeering to fundraise for their causes is not new, but it has been difficult to prove. A recent report from the University of Glasgow provides groundbreaking evidence of the links between the Khmer Rouge and its looting of key archaeological sites at the height of Cambodia's civil war.

In Egypt, extremist branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have been linked to antiquities theft. Brotherhood extremists led the attack against the Malawi Museum outside of Cairo, with hundreds of artifacts pillaged and those not stolen, burned. Other armed groups have been illegally excavating at sites across Egypt, using heavy machinery to undercover ancient sites, and destroying them in their search for treasure.

There are numerous reports of "archaeological gangs" in Syria who raid historic sites to raise funds for their cause. The Syrian Ministry of Antiquities estimates losses of over $2 billion as a result of this looting. The same process of cultural racketeering is taking place in Pakistan, Mali, and other nations battling Islamic extremists and violent organized criminal syndicates.

Intentional destruction of historic or holy sites is an effective means of cultural intimidation. These attacks against heritage cause irreversible harm to our common history but more important, to the identity of these people. Selling off or destroying our history is a means of eradicating the past and erasing our cultural identity.

The looting of antiquities is a highly profitable business. The legitimate market for antiquities is in the tens of billions of dollars. It is hard to quantify the illicit market, but the FBI cites antiquities crime as one of the top five global crimes, worth several billion dollars annually. Our organization, the Antiquities Coalition, estimates the losses for Egypt alone to looting are over $3 billion since 2011. The United States has the dubious honor of being one of the largest markets for these illicit antiquities.

It is in the interest of the United States as a driver of demand for these historic artifacts to be a part of the solution. And the United States may be the only country with the means to do so. The U.S. can bring together these countries under attack with experts from the security, heritage, and commercial fields to explore solutions and provide support. Also, the State Department can and should proactively work with countries under subject to mass looting to negotiate Cultural Heritage agreements. And it should use its authority as appropriate to direct Customs to stop the importation of antiquities from countries under attack. Just last year, imports from Syria to the United States increased over 1300 percent. There is a direct link with the civil war and the rise in availability of Syrian antiquities. For countries in crisis, there should be an absolute moratorium on the import of antiquities without appropriate documentation to prove their legality.

In addition, the U.S. has been effective in identifying and cutting off funds to terrorists groups. By working with those in the financial and antiquities retail communities, American investigators can shut down the criminal networks that use antiquities to fundraise or launder money.

Right now, with Iraq, the Obama administration has a distinct opportunity and an obligation to lead the effort to intercept the financing of terrorist acts while protecting and restoring heritage sites. This must happen now, while the artifacts of our civilization still exist.

Deborah Lehr is Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition (AC) and a board member of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Katie Paul is Research Director of the AC and a member of the Cultural Heritage Policy Committee of the AIA.

To learn more about the conversation around cultural racketeering, follow the Antiquities Coalition on Facebook and Twitter @CombatLooting

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