The Tomb Raiders of Mesopotamia: Fighting ISIL, terrorism financing and saving our cultural heritage

03/24/2015 05:01 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Looted from Iraq, the ancient carving of Assyrian King Sargon II was to fetch $1-2 million dollars on the black market. Instead, thanks to the good work of the U.S. Departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security, the treasure - and about 64 other looted antiquities - were returned last week to the people of Iraq. The repatriation was a small ray of hope, in contrast to the archeological crisis that now faces culturally-rich conflict zones in the Middle East.

Ironically, the same week that Hollywood honored our modern artistic achievements in film at the Oscars, pieces of our collective cultural heritage from the "cradle of civilization" - in ancient Mesopotamia - were destroyed and defaced by Da'esh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) at the Mosul Museum. The propaganda video purported to show antiquities that had been preserved, cared for and studied for over millennia - bringing together people of all ethnicities and religious backgrounds - destroyed in just minutes. One of ISIL's newest attacks on the civilized world, however, took longer. That's because they looted and destroyed a city.

According to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, ISIL "assaulted the city of Nimrud archaeological site." Thought by some to be the site of the Tower of Babel, a local tribal source told Reuters that ISIL members "came to the Nimrud archaeological city and looted the valuables in it and then proceeded to level the site to the ground."

Declaring the "deliberate destruction of cultural heritage" a "war crime," UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova observed that "nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in [Iraq]" and protested the "systematic destruction of humanity's ancient heritage."

Such protests had been issued earlier by Thomas Campbell, speaking on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in response to ISIL's depraved brutality in Mosul: "This mindless attack on great art, on history, and on human understanding, constitutes a tragic assault not only on the Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding."

Indeed, it was Campbell's Met that hosted Secretary John Kerry and UNESCO's Bokova last year - on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly - to raise awareness regarding ISIL's looting and obliteration of our cultural heritage in the cradle of civilization. Secretary Kerry noted that ISIL "is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations." Through this systematic destruction of history extremists "want to rob future generations of any connection to this past."

Like at the Mosul Museum, it seems that ISIL may have used the smoke-screen of destruction in Nimrud as cover to loot antiquities, in order to help finance their reign of terror. That's because ISIL is not only destroying history, but also profiting from it.

A recent Wall Street Journal report noted that looting is ISIL's second largest source of financing (after oil). And in 2013, the U.S. International Trade Commission showed that declared antiquities from Syria increased 134% to $11 million. However, the value of undeclared artifacts is estimated to be more than $100 million a year. According to the FBI, antiquities crime is one of the top five global crimes, and the Antiquities Coalition estimates that Egypt's losses to looting, alone, are over $3 billion since 2011.

Reports suggest that ISIL's looting efforts are now a full-scale criminal enterprise. According to The Times, ISIL uses its "own networks to come into contact with the final buyers...they want to have a one-to-one relationship with the collectors."

ISIL is known to enlist contractors to bulldoze and tear large sites apart. And according to Professor Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University, ISIL is not only looting these antiquities itself, but also has essentially licensed the plunder to others - so long as ISIL receives a 20-50 percent "tithe" on the proceeds. This has transformed from what may have started as a localized effort into a full-scale transnational business.

The deepening correlation between antiquities looting and terrorist financing is raising political awareness on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the U.S. Congress, Representatives Eliot Engel (D-NY), Chris Smith (R-NJ), Ed Royce (R-CA) and William Keating (D-MA), introduced HR 1493, last week, to protect and preserve international cultural property. According to Engel, the legislation is an attempt to "strengthen our ability to stop history's looters from profiting off their crimes." Meanwhile, British Members of Parliament, such as Mark Pritchard and Robert Jenrick, are pushing the issue in the UK, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, even volunteered to personally fight against ISIL's "demolition of the past."

Indeed, the looting of antiquities has been so dramatic, that the matter has reached the highest levels of the international community.

Just weeks ago, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2199. Noting that ISIL is engaging in the "looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items from . . . Iraq and Syria, which is being used to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks," the Resolution calls on states to take "appropriate steps" to prevent the trade in cultural property from Iraq and Syria.

Considering the magnitude of this issue, it seems fitting that "appropriate steps" should be taken to ensure that the blood antiquities of today do not reach any part of the antiquities market value chain, tomorrow.

The UN Security Council has provided a mandate for the international community to work together. Newly charted by the Swiss government as an international institution for public-private partnerships, the World Economic Forum could serve as a medium to improve cooperation between governments, law enforcement, collectors, foundations, and the antiquities-related industry, engaging all actors in a multi-stakeholder collaborative effort to improve standards and safeguards, to help protect against looted antiquities from such culturally-rich countries as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya. All responsible actors in the antiquities market should agree to a common sourcing, due diligence and sales standard, thus limiting the plunder and sale of blood antiquities.

By working together, we can limit the financing going to ISIL, thereby helping save lives and preserve our common cultural heritage. These efforts can help places like Iraq and Syria, in any future national re-conciliation and peace building efforts.

This call to action was highlighted by Ambassador Lukman Faily at last week's joint U.S.-Iraq return ceremony: "we are committed to defeating ... terror, rebuilding our country and preserving its cultural heritage. The return of our looted archaeological items is a national project and we call upon all countries to help us in preserving this heritage which is not only valuable for Iraq, but for all mankind." Indeed, there is much we can all do - and should do - for all of mankind.

Mark Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, served as the first head of operations of the joint World Bank-U.N. Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. A former UN prosecution attorney and White House Fellow/special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he now leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group and serves as counselor to the Antiquities Coalition. Dr. Helga Turku, who previously served with the International Organization for Migration and for USAID-funded justice sector programs, works at Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky Wotkyns LLP.