The "Islamic State" and the illegal Sale of Antiquities

December 4th, 2014 - As some of you may have noted, a team of 12 reporters here at DIE ZEIT (in co-operation with German public TV programme "Report München") have conducted an in-depth-investigation into the finances of the "Islamic State", covering everything from extortion to taxes to oil smuggling to the kidnapping business. You can find an English version of our article here.

However, you will not find a section on the sale of illegal antiquities there. Why is that -- given that this sort of criminal activity is allegedly a major source of income for the IS? In June, for example, the "Guardian" quoted an Iraqi official saying that "they (the IS, YM) had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone (an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus). The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old," (…).

The reason we didn't cover this aspect in our article but rather published a separate piece in this week's edition (not available online yet)  is simple: We could not find any evidence that the IS is directly involved in the sale of illegal antiquities.

We in no way doubt that antiquities are being stolen and sold in Iraq as well as in Syria. But according to what we were able to find out through our sources in the region, the IS does in fact allow criminals to dig out and steal such antiquities in exchange for a fee -- but is not necessarily involved directly in selling.

Furthermore, we have found no evidence whatsoever of antiquities on the black or grey market whose origin can beyond doubt be traced back to areas that the IS is holding or has been holding. Again: This doesn't mean that private collectors don't buy this sort of thing through illicit networks in a way that wouldn't leave traces. But we can't prove this happened -- and we can't prove that the IS was involved, indirectly or directly. This is important, because the illegal sale of antiquities is nothing that the IS invented. It has been practiced in Iraq as well as Syria for many years by criminal gangs who engage in forging as well. The fact that about a third of the antiquities confiscated by the Syrian customs authority in recent months were fake speaks to that.

Given that we didn't find any evidence we had to assume that the IS is probably not making that much money off of antiquities after all. It the very least, that's a distinct possibility. They may be making some money through the above-mentioned fees, but we assume that it is not exactly dozens of millions they are generating that way.

We have come across anecdotal evidence that IS doesn't mind other people taking antiquities away -- at least those antiquities that they don't think needs to be destroyed straight away (which definitely is a grave problem). Some sources told us, e.g., that in IS territory caterpillars have been used to "dig" up antiquities. But again: We weren't able to prove a direct link.

Perhaps we will know more in a few years when some of the stolen antiquities may, after all, appear on the grey or black market. In any case, we - for the time being - remain sceptical that the sale of antiquities is in any way a major means of income for the IS. At least not if compared to the amounts of many they make off of oil sales, extortion and Western hostages.

Before I conclude, I want to make clear that this research on antiquities wasn't conducted by myself alone. Major research was conducted by my colleagues Fritz Zimmermann and Tobias Timm at DIE ZEIT, freelance crisis reporter Alexander Bühler and Ahmet Senyurt at "report München".


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