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Countering IS’s Theft and Destruction of Mesopotamia

By Mark V. Vlasic and Helga Turku

Described by UNESCO as “one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world,” the archeological city of Palmyra is a celebrated World Heritage Site in Syria. Although the site has survived numerous empires and wars over thousands of years, the city now faces extinction.

In May, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also referred to as ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, and Daesh) captured the city, having previously vandalized and demolished numerous historical sites along the way, including the Tomb of Jonah, the archeological city of Nimrud, and the Mosul Museum. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State has planted landmines around the ruins of Palmyra. Policy-makers and government leaders are now left to determine what they can do to combat these tomb raiders of Mesopotamia, who increasingly rely on looting to finance their reign of terror in Syria and Iraq.

There have been successes in combating the looting of antiquities. Plundered 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 U.S. departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security, the treasure — and about 64 other looted antiquities — were recently returned to the people of Iraq. The repatriation of these antiquities offered a small ray of hope in the midst of the archeological crisis in culturally rich conflict zones in the Middle East now face.

Unfortunately, IS is not only profiting from the sales of looted antiquities, but also using their destruction for propaganda purposes. The same week that Hollywood honored modern artistic achievements in film at the Oscars, pieces of our collective cultural heritage from the "cradle of civilization" — ancient Mesopotamia — were destroyed and defaced by the Islamic State. A propaganda video showed antiquities from the Mosul Museum, which had been preserved and cared for over millennia, destroyed in minutes. Again in July, the Islamic State released images of statues being destroyed and a civilian was beaten for purportedly "unlicensed" smuggling of these artifacts.

Declaring the "deliberate destruction of cultural heritage" a "war crime," UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova observed "nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in [Iraq]" and protested the "systematic destruction of humanity's ancient heritage.” Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), also responded strongly to the Islamic State's depraved brutality in Mosul, stating that "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.”

The Islamic State has actively and persistently acted to destroy Iraq’s and Syria’s proud past. One of its most brazen attacks on history took place in the city of Nimrud, the archaeological site thought by some to be the site of the biblical Tower of Babel. A local tribal source told Reuters that members of the Islamic State "came to the Nimrud archaeological city and looted the valuables in it and then proceeded to level the site to the ground.” Just as they had at the Mosul Museum, the Islamic State used the smoke-screen of destruction in Nimrud to cover their looting of antiquities. Sadly, they are poised to repeat such desecrations in Palmyra as well.

A recent Wall Street Journal report noted that looting is the Islamic State’s second largest source of financing after oil. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the value of declared antiquities in Syria increased to $11 million in 2013, while the value of undeclared artifacts is estimated to be more than $100 million a year. The Antiquities Coalition—which helped host a conference that brought together ten Arab states in Cairo to protest such looting and destruction—estimates the magnitude of Egypt's loss to looting alone has been over $3 billion since 2011.

Reports suggest that the Islamic State’s looting practices have developed into a full-scale criminal enterprise. According to International Business Times, the group uses its "own networks to come into contact with the final buyers… they want to have a one-to-one relationship with the collectors.” Professor Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University suggests that IS is not only looting these antiquities but has also licensed the plundering of historical sights to others with the condition of receiving 20-50 percent "tithe" on the proceeds. The group is also known to enlist contractors to bulldoze and tear large sites apart. The Islamic State has thus transformed what might have been a small scale local criminal endeavor into a full scale transnational business, further financing death and destruction.

The deepening correlation between antiquities looting and terrorist financing is gaining political awareness on both sides of the Atlantic. In both 2014, Congressmen Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) introduced the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act. They reintroduced the bill this year with additional co-sponsors Congressman Ed Royce (R-Calif., Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee) and Congressman William Keating (D-Mass.).

Rep. Smith noted that this bill “is part of the ongoing struggle to preserve history, cultural heritage, artifacts and sites…as well as to block extremists such as ISIL from any financial gain due to the sale of blood antiquities.” Having passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in June, the bill is now looking ahead to the U.S. Senate for additional progress. Meanwhile, British Members of Parliament, including Mark Pritchard and Robert Jenrick, are pushing the issue in the U.K. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, even volunteered to personally fight against the terrorist group's "demolition of the past."

The graveness of the issue has alarmed even the highest levels of the international community. Earlier this year, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2199 against the destruction of historical and cultural heritage. Noting that the looting of cultural heritage is "being used to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks," the resolution calls on member states to take "appropriate steps" to prevent the illegal trade of cultural property from Iraq and Syria.

It is imperative that strong actions are taken against the trafficking of blood antiquities. Newly charted by the Swiss government as an international institution for public-private partnerships, the World Economic Forum can serve as a platform for global and multidisciplinary cooperation between governments, law enforcement, art collectors, and relevant industries. All actors should make a concerted effort to reinforce standards to safeguard cultural sites in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya. Likewise, 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 of the Islamic State, thereby helping save lives and preserve our common cultural heritage. As a lasting legacy to the cultural diversity and significance of Palmyra, such efforts may also allow for future national re-conciliation and peace-building projects so that the ruins of the past may yet pave the way for a peaceful future.

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Mark V. Vlasic is a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and had served as the first head of operations of the joint World Bank-U.N. Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative.

Dr. Helga Turku is a consultant for USAID-funded rule of law projects in Haiti and Cote d’Ivoire. 

[Photo courtesy of the Islamic State]

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