April 19, 2016 | Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing; Committee on Financial Services

Preventing Cultural Genocide: Countering the Plunder and Sale of Priceless Cultural Antiquities

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Chairman Fitzpatrick, Ranking Member Lynch, members of the Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, thank you for the opportunity to testify.


Before delving into the issue of Islamic State (IS) antiquities trafficking, it is important first to clarify how the trade fits into IS’s overall economic goals. One way to understand these goals is to look at some of the philosophical underpinnings guiding the group’s actions.

One document which many experts  argue may have ideologically influenced IS’s strategy for violence, brutality, and territorial control is an online book called The Management of Savagery.  Posted online in 2004 under the author’s pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji, the book argues that Sunni jihadist groups must enter a period where they wreak immense violence within contested territories in order to facilitate the transition to a caliphate. IS’s tactics today reflect this approach. The final chapter in the book deals with the role of wealth in this transition.

In that chapter, the author argues for jihadist groups to use wealth as a way to “unite the hearts” of target populations. The aim is to win over locals who may be on the fence regarding submitting to jihadist rule. This approach gives context to the antiquities trade in IS territory. Although exactly how much IS earns from looting ancient artifacts is difficult to assess, the group clearly encourages and facilitates the illicit trade within its territory. This appears to be part of IS’s economic strategy; not just for funding the group itself, but for creating ways to bring funds to its subjected population, whose hearts and minds Islamic State is trying win.

Islamic State has been dubbed the world’s richest terror army.  And the illegal antiquities trade is one income stream which gives the group significant strategic advantage against existing counter-terror finance efforts. The trade’s main target 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 testimony explores how 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.


IS, in the midst of the collapse of state authority in Syria and much of Iraq, has made headlines through its destruction of heritage sites. While a casual observer might conclude that IS takes sledgehammers to every non-Islamic artifact, the group is in fact deeply involved in antiquities looting. IS has access to roughly 5,000 archaeological sites and probably has earned several millions of dollars from antiquities trafficking.  Some of the looting appears to be conducted by local populations, who amid the economic devastation of war resort to combing archaeological sites for materials they can sell. Since gaining control of more territory in the region, however, IS has leveraged this black market and become a key facilitator in the looting, taxing, and marketing of antiquities.

The importance of the antiquities trade for IS lies not just in the funding it generates, but in the market’s strategic and operational benefits. The illegal trade of artifacts does not generally risk provoking outside military disruption or a local rebellion. Unlike oil facilities, excavation sites are not likely to be targeted by missile strikes. Moreover, criminal and financial methods such as extortion, kidnapping, taxing, or the outright takeover of private and public establishments embitter locals in ways that antiquities looting typically does not.

Antiquities trafficking is now more important to Islamic State, particularly as some of its other revenue sources have become more difficult to manage. For example, U.S.-led airstrikes have significantly squeezed IS oil profits since 2014.

Although the earnings from antiquities are less robust than those from oil revenue, looting represents a stable, less capital-intensive revenue stream. With plenty of local knowledge and no shortage of civilians to dig for artifacts, the trade is rampant in the region. Even in non-IS-held territory, many unemployed locals excavate and sell antiquities to earn income.