As ISIS continues its rampage of cultural destruction across the Middle East, it is becoming increasingly important that the United States ramp up efforts to disrupt the terrorist organization’s illegal trade of antiquities, according to a new report by the National Center for Policy Analysis.
David Grantham, author of the report and a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, asserts that failing to devote enough attention and enforcement to the sale of illegal antiquities is keeping the market strong.
According to the report, ISIS’ plunder has netted the terrorist group an estimated $36 million to $360 million since 2013. The value of declared antiquities imported from Syria to the United States jumped by 134 percent in 2013, to $11 million. The total value of undeclared pieces is estimated to be much higher.
To give a picture of how these earnings fund terrorist operations, Grantham explained that the 9/11 Commission Report estimated that the September 11th attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000, meaning “even the lowest estimated earnings ($36 million) would give ISIS the funds necessary to execute at least 72 attacks on par with September 11th.”
“As ISIS profits from peddling irreplaceable cultural artifacts, an entire region’s history is being sold off to underwrite terrorism,” says Grantham.“Unlike most of ISIS’ illicit operations, the sale of artifacts has a direct connection to unsuspecting consumers in the United States. The direct link between ISIS funding and the American antiquities market gives the US government the opportunity to exploit and obliterate that funding conduit.”
Earlier this year, Homeland Security Today reported that the FBI issued a flyer alerting US art collectors and dealers that artifacts plundered by ISIS had entered the marketplace. The flyer asked US art and antiquities market leaders to spread the word that preventing illegally obtained artifacts from reaching the market may help prevent the financing of Islamist militants through the sale of plundered artifacts.
Shortly thereafter, the Department of State launched the “Reward for Justice” program, which offers $5 million for information that leads to a disruption in the ISIS antiquities trade.
“But warning and reward systems cannot be the extent of it,” the report cautioned. “The reactive nature of this policy, especially during wartime, seems strange since the illicit antiquities business has been a hallmark of militant governments and terrorist organizations for years.”
There is a reason the illegal antiquities market gets limited attention. Not only is it difficult to determine the origin of any given item, it is nearly impossible to say whether someone knowingly purchased an antiquity from an ISIS network.
However, Grantham believes the US can work toward a solution.
Over the summer, the US House of Representatives passed a bill, The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, to address the illegal antiquities trade. However, Grantham argues that the broad language of the bill will be insufficient to effectively address the trafficking of antiquities from Iraq and Syria.
Grantham recommended several improvements to the bill. First, Congress could tighten the language to explicitly address the ISIS antiquities operation. Second, the legislation could also include an evaluation program for businesses and individual consumers.
The report also included the recommendation that the FBI consider reallocating manpower to its Art Crime Program, which could then develop education programs on the risks of funding ISIS through the purchase of illicit antiquities. Until 2004, the FBI did not have a dedicated art and antiquities team.
“The illegal antiquities trade is often treated as a criminal operation – not a national security concern,” says Grantham. “This mindset needs to change. Government indifference and customer ignorance here can be as dangerous as premeditated support for terrorism.”