ISIS is fueling its terrorism by plundering ancient relics and selling them for millions of dollars. The buyers are mostly Westerners who are funding ISIS's terrorism in exchange for priceless artifacts.

ISIS is famous for destroying ancient artifacts. ISIS militants have wielded sledgehammers, drills, explosives, and tractors to smash artifacts thousands of years old. In one video, a religious spokesman declared:

“These idols and pagans for people in the past centuries were worshipped instead of Allah. When Allah ordered to destroy and remove them, it was an easy matter. We don't care, even if it costs billions of dollars.”

The relics, however, are not worthless to ISIS. Far from it. ISIS makes millions of dollars each year by selling artifacts instead of destroying them. Plundered relics are ISIS's second-largest source of funding, just after oil, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The exact revenue generated by ISIS's plundering is uncertain due to the murky nature of the black market. Estimates range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to over $100 million.

The looting itself is nothing new. Opportunists have raided archaeological sites for millennia. But ISIS has transformed this looting into an organized gold mine.

The caliphate controls thousands of archeological sites, as well as numerous museums. ISIS's antiquities division exploits Iraq's and Syria's rich archeological history as if the nations' cultural heritages were a natural resource. The antiquities division issues excavation licenses and levies a 20 percent tax on looting.

As a source of revenue, the antiquities trade contains significant advantages for the terrorist state. Unlike taxes, kidnapping, and extortion, plundered relics do not risk alienating the locals. Nor are excavation sites typically airstrike targets, according to a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The United Nations and Western governments have tried to crack down on ISIS's smuggling. In 2015, the U.S. State Department posted a $5 million reward for anyone with information that could “significantly disrupt” ISIS's antiquities or oil trade. The U.N. Security Council also banned all trade in looted antiquities coming out of Syria and Iraq.

Such measures, however, have met little success.

Attempts to choke ISIS's antiquities trade face a series of obstacles such as inconsistent laws, private citizens looking to profit, and the ease of smuggling smaller items like coins. Authorities must also combat the experience of smuggling networks, many of which were operating for years before ISIS formed and overcome ISIS's use of social media to bypass the middleman and reach buyers directly.

Valuable relics from the battlefield flow through trade routes, often following the same paths as refugees, reported the New Yorker. Eventually, most of them find their way into the hands of wealthy Westerners — Europeans, Americans, and especially New Yorkers, according to the WSJ.

One piece, dated to 8500 B.C., sold for $1.1 million, reported BBC.

“The main buyers are, ironically, history enthusiasts and art aficionados in the United States and Europe — representatives of the Western societies which IS has pledged to destroy,” Yaya J. Fanusie said in a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“This means that those countries purportedly leading the fight against IS are simultaneously funding the enemy through the antiquities trade.”

View Comments(4 comments)
Bobby(2 likes) The artifacts are basically hostages.  The question is, is it ever alright to pay for the release of a hostage.   
Ivan MacquistenThis article is highly misleading and quotes other articles whose sources it clearly hasn't checked. The only primary source evidence for how much money ISIS has made from looting antiquities in Syria is the documentary evidence seized by US Special Forces during the Abu Sayyaf raid in May 2015. That puts the total raised from May 2014-May 2015 at somewhere under $4m, and that figure also covers the extraction of metals and minerals.The World Customs Organisation's latest report says that no reliable figures exist but that looting revenues come way down the list from illicit drugs and arms sales. It also notes that whatever revenues were being made by ISIS from looting antiquities must be falling because of their lack of access to sites. Regarding the 134% jump in declared antiques imported from Syria in 2013, quoted here: firstly, not all of these came from Syria; they included Syrian artefacts that came from other countries too. Secondly, many of those would have belonged to Syrians fleeing the fighting, just as refugees take their valuables with them. Here we are four years on: how many of these items have been seized as looted or stolen? How many prosecutions have there been on the back of this or on any other investigation in the US? The answer, so far, seems to be zero.In September 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $5m fund to reward anyone helping to interrupt funding for ISIS via oil, antiquities and other sources. How much of that reward money has been claimed or paid out? This question has now been asked numerous times, yet not one single announcement has ever been made.At the Asia Society symposium in New York on September 16 last year, Mark Taplin, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the State Department's Bureau of Educational Culture, was directly asked about how many prosecutions had taken place. He could not cite a single one but said that investigations were "definitely going on... and we'll see how they develop". Since then, silence.The $36m figure mentioned comes from an unnamed source in a Guardian article and refers to all looting in the province, as well as other sources of income, not just the value of antiquities looting. It is utterly unsubstantiated. Likewise, the $100m estimate for the value of looted antiquities benefiting ISIS is entirely guesswork. Other guesses have put the same figure at anywhere between $10m and $7bn. All are utterly spurious and without foundation. The FBI has recently revised its figures for all global art crime – not just that involving antiquities – down from $6bn-$8bn to $4bn-$6bn yet still gives no source for this guesstimate.Interpol, the leading international law enforcement agency, cites the following on its FAQ page under Works of Art Crime section of its website:Is it true that trafficking in cultural property is the third most common form of trafficking, after drug trafficking and arms trafficking?"We do not possess any figures which would enable us to claim that trafficking in cultural property is the third or fourth most common form of trafficking, although this is frequently mentioned at international conferences and in the media.In fact, it is very difficult to gain an exact idea of how many items of cultural property are stolen throughout the world and it is unlikely that there will ever be any accurate statistics. National statistics are often based on the circumstances of the theft (petty theft, theft by breaking and entering or armed robbery), rather than the type of object stolen.An enhanced information exchange could assist INTERPOL in determining the importance as well as the trends and patterns of this type of crime."So much rubbish and hype has been written on the subject of looted antiquities that attention and resources have been diverted from where they are really needed – in protecting archaeological sites on the ground – to attempting to tackle problems that simply don't exist. Of course we need to control borders and watch out for looted material arriving, but if it is doing so in the flood that all these media reports claim, why have there been no proseuctions at all on this front? That includes in the US, UK and mainland Europe. Huge publicity given to the seizure of South East Asian looted material in the US – note the Nancy Wiener and Subash Kapoor cases – indicates that similar seizures and arrests linked to Syrian and Iraqi material would be given equal media coverage... and yet nothing at all.