November 20, 2015 | Press Release

New Report Outlines Ways to Combat Islamic State’s Antiquities Trafficking

FDD Press Release

Washington, DC – As the nation’s largest professional organization of archaeologists on the Middle East holds its annual meeting this week in Atlanta, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has released a new report analyzing the strategic role of antiquities trafficking in funding the terrorist group known as Islamic State (IS). The report, “Monumental Fight: Combatting Islamic State’s Antiquities Trafficking,” provides the most comprehensive look to date at IS’s involvement in the illicit trade.

The report is co-authored by former CIA intelligence analyst Yaya J. Fanusie, now director of analysis at FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance (CSIF), and Alex Joffe, an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. The report explains how antiquities looting evolved in the region, analyzes how it fits within IS’s overall system of territorial control and governance, and identifies strategies to stem the illegal trade.

Fanusie and Joffe explain that although antiquities trafficking may not provide IS as much money as other revenue streams like oil smuggling, “the importance of the antiquities trade for IS lies … in the market’s strategic and operational benefits.” Excavation sites are unlikely to be targeted by coalition military strikes. Moreover, they note, looting antiquities does not alienate the local population like IS’s other common practices of extortion and theft. To capitalize on this strategic resource, IS completely dominates the antiquities trade in the areas under its control, forcing civilians to be licensed by IS before they can dig for artifacts, and takes 20 percent or more of the revenue from any items sold to smugglers, the report finds.

The authors note that IS also leverages its plundering for its global propaganda. The group video records choreographed destruction of pre-Islamic heritage sites in Iraq and Syria to portray itself as a defender of religious purity. The authors point out the irony of IS’s antiquities trade; the group makes money through end-buyers who mainly come from the U.S. and Europe–representatives of the very societies IS has pledged to destroy.

The authors explain that although the precise smuggling routes, middlemen, and buyers are difficult to uncover because of the market’s opacity, a review of official trade data shows an uptick in antiques exiting the Levant since the Syrian civil war began. They argue it is likely that much of this increase comes from looted items masqueraded as legally owned artifacts.

The report provides six recommendations to combat IS’s profiting from antiquities trafficking and to make it more difficult for cultural-property crime to fund future conflicts:

  •  Imposing terrorism sanctions on artifact smugglers and buyers
  • Making antiquities looting an intelligence and law-enforcement priority
  • Incorporating cultural-property crime awareness into intelligence community and U.S. Special Forces training
  • Elevating antiquities trafficking as a focus in global anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing monitoring
  • Improving coordination of public-private partnerships
  • Expanding registries of art and antiquities

Juan Zarate, chairman of CSIF and former deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, commented on the timeliness of the report: “As we have witnessed Islamic State expand its reach, threats, and ambitions beyond the Middle East and North Africa, this report provides a roadmap to help address the serious terror finance threats and trade posed by antiquities trafficking. This trafficking enriches terrorists, accelerates the desecration of humanity’s cultural heritage, and represents a manifestation of the extremists' ideological assault on the world. The authors provide thoughtful, concrete actions governments and key stakeholders can take to help disrupt this dangerous and tragic trade that now must be met with urgency.”  

The report is part of CSIF’s continuing effort to highlight the nexus between illicit finance and national security. The authors intend for the report to help policymakers as well as members of the art and historian community implement actions that will halt antiquities trafficking as a source of funding for Islamic State and other criminal and terrorist groups.

Download the full report here.  

About the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)3 policy institute focusing on foreign policy and national security. Founded in 2001, FDD combines policy research, democracy and counterterrorism education, strategic communications and investigative journalism in support of its mission to promote pluralism, defend democratic values and fight the ideologies that drive terrorism. Visit our website at and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

About FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance (CSIF):

FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance is a project designed to illuminate the critical intersection between illicit finance and national security. The Center relies on regional and sanctions expertise within FDD, including a core cadre of financial, economic, and area experts and analysts, to promote a greater understanding of illicit financing and economic threats. The Center also designs creative and effective strategies, doctrines, and uses of financial and economic power to attack and protect against priority threats and vulnerabilities. More information on CSIF is available at