Thursday, December 3, 2015

Prominent Member of Archaeological Lobby Suggests US State Department Faking Link Between ISIS and the Antiquities Trade

Neil Brodie, a prominent member of the international archaeological lobby, has suggested that the US State Department has used forged documents to establish a link between ISIS and antiquity sales.  According to Brodie,

In September 2015, the US State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of any trade in antiquities (and/or oil) that is benefiting ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Will such a reward be money well spent? What will be the benefit of disrupting the trade in Syria’s and Iraq’s archaeological heritage, and how financially damaging will it be for extremists? Answers to these questions are forthcoming from documents released into the public domain the same day by Andrew Keller, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, at a meeting hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The documents had been seized in May 2015, during a US Special Forces raid on the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of ISIL’s antiquities division. They include a book of 11 receipts purporting to show profits made by ISIL though taxing the antiquities trade.

The authenticity of these receipts has been questioned. They seem to be too convenient, providing as they do for a US and indeed international audience clear, material confirmation of previously unfounded media reporting that ISIL is profiting significantly from taxing the antiquities trade in areas under its control. It is convenient, for example, that the sums of money received are expressed numerically using “European” Arabic numerals so that they are immediately comprehensible to an American or European reader rather than, as would be expected in a handwritten Arabic document, “Arabic” Arabic numerals. Why would ISIL do such a thing for internal accounting purposes? 

Brodie also concedes that given what we know, antiquities must be a minor source for ISIS and that it's more likely that the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army are profiting from antiquities sales:

IThe 11 receipts together show that between December 2014 and March 2015, ISIL collected $265,000 through a 20% tax, suggesting a total monetary value for the taxed antiquities trade of approximately $1.3 million for four months. Multiplying up, that would be $4 million per annum. $4 million in Syria would pay for a lot of antiquities, yet very few have been identified on the destination market. Perhaps, as is sometimes claimed, they are being warehoused in Syria or abroad, but if that is the case, some people are paying out millions of dollars (the money taxed by ISIL) for commodities that can only be stockpiled in warehouses in the hope of a profit in an uncertain commercial future. Regardless, it could be they really are arriving on the destination market, filtering through it and being sold with falsified paperwork and invented provenances. After all, who is really looking?

Would disrupting ISIL’s control of the antiquities trade save archaeological sites from further depredation? The receipts illustrated by Keller in his presentation all relate to Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria, about 18% of the country’s total land area. Deir az-Zor province has been largely under ISIL control since July 2014. According to the US Department of State’s map of Syrian archaeological heritage sites at risk, Deir az-Zor is one of the archaeologically-poorer areas of Syria. The more archaeologically-rich western areas of the country remain under the control of forces loyal to Assad or of the non-jihadi opposition. Media reports, now backed up by Jesse Casana’s careful analysis of satellite imagery recently published in the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology (vol. 78, no. 3, 2015), demonstrate that both of these groups have also engaged in and profited from archaeological looting. It appears to not be as damaging as that conducted by ISIL, but is damaging nevertheless. Geography alone would suggest that material flowing through Lebanon is derived from those sources. Thus both Assad and the non-jihadi opposition are also likely to be profiting from the antiquities trade. Eliminating ISIL from the trade would still leave the most archaeologically-rich areas of Syria vulnerable to looting, and when ISIL is rolled back from Deir az-Zor by its opponents, looting there will most likely be ameliorated but not eliminated.

How important for ISIL is the money derived from taxing the antiquities trade? On October 5th, 2015, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi published on the website Jihadology some ISIL documentation recording its financial ministry’s accounting of Deir az-Zor province for one month within the period covered by the tax receipts. (And notice that these ISIL records do utilize “Arabic” Arabic numerals). The total income for one month was recorded as $8,438,000. The receipts record a monthly tax revenue from antiquities sales of approximately $66,000. Thus the receipts suggest that the antiquities tax accounts for only a small proportion (0.8%) of ISIL’s total income. This figure accords well with the US Department of the Treasury’s seemingly low estimation of the antiquities trade’s financial importance, behind oil, kidnapping and general extortion. Eliminating this income stream would therefore do little to degrade ISIL’s operational capacity.

Nonetheless, Brodie, staying true to his anti-trade bias, remains all for "suppressing demand for antiquities" in order to save archaeological context.  Like many hard-liners, he's loath to consider possibility that the real problem may be that the "State Owns Everything Old" model only associates antiquities with hated Middle Eastern dictators and devalues them so thoroughly that they are smuggled or even destroyed.

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