Co-written with Alexander Joffe
In the four and a half years since the Syrian civil war began, the terrorist group known as Islamic State (IS) has become one of the most destabilizing actors in the Middle East. Its growth is funded mainly through revenues from its well-documented seizure of oil fields, but less understood is its trade in looted antiquities – a market fed largely by Western demand. Although the antiquities trade is considerably smaller than other elements of the IS financial portfolio, it offers the group the prospect of high mark-ups, global demand, a low likelihood for military disruption, and a willing pool of civilians who supply labor for the trade.
Assessing IS revenue from antiquities is difficult given the opaque nature of the black market, but official U.S. trade data indicate a 23-percent uptick in antiques arriving from the Levant region since 2010. Islamic State’s antiquities trafficking benefits from a global market, and goes hand-in-hand with its broader aim to purge society of pre- or non-Islamic influence. The group deals in antiquities by exerting state-like dominance, including a bureaucracy to control excavations and smuggling, and uses a variety of techniques to profit from pillaged artifacts. IS leverages the financial self-interest of civilian populations who locate and smuggle antiquities, but this reliance may become a weak point if policy efforts successfully stifle the underground market.
Combatting IS funding through antiquities trafficking will require a multi-pronged approach: leveraging national and international economic tools, creating new data collection and enforcement capabilities, and facilitating cooperation among public and private entities. Success will mean not only depriving a brutal terrorist group of crucial funding, but also preserving the priceless relics of our past.
Islamic State operates over roughly half of the territory of Syria, controls several major cities in Iraq, and unleashes tactics of astonishing brutality on the populations under its control. It has been dubbed the world’s richest terror army. Unlike older internationally funded jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and state proxies like Hezbollah, IS generates enough revenue within the territory it controls to cover a payroll of hundreds of millions of dollars in its fighters’ annual salaries.
Islamic State is comprised of former Iraqi regime elements, foreign fighters, local tribes, and others who have sworn allegiance to the group for ideological reasons or simple fear. In its core regions of Syria and northern and western Iraq, IS has developed coherent, state-like bureaucratic structures. The group now supervises a broad array of everyday activities, including “tax forms for electricity services, licenses for excavations of antiquities, phone subscriptions, fees for sanitation services, agricultural crop plants, unified Friday sermons, vaccination programs, and fixing rent rates for property.” IS helps individuals open businesses while providing “medical, social, policing, and rescue services” as well as enforcing civil, criminal, and strict religious laws.
Captured documentation suggests IS earns several million dollars per day from its diverse financial portfolio – generally balancing its books and even running a surplus. Oil remains the group’s most important commodity, followed by theft, taxation, kidnapping and ransom, and extortion. The role of foreign funders – directly through cash or indirectly through Islamic charities – remains the subject of debate, but one recent estimate suggests that in 2013 and 2014, IS earned some $40 million from Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Qatari donors. IS often uses cash to avoid leaving a trail of transactions while also exploiting the Qatari and Kuwaiti banking systems, which are less rigorous at monitoring transactions than their Saudi counterparts.
One income stream in particular gives the group significant strategic advantages against existing counter-terror finance efforts: illegal antiquities. 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. This poses several challenges to policy makers, as well as opportunities. This report explores the history of antiquity smuggling, details the way IS exploits this trade, and offers suggestions as to how Washington and its partners may stem the flow of this important financial stream to the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization.