ISIS Looted Antiquities Funding Terrorism: The Global Community’s Slow Response and What More can be Done

ISIS Looted Antiquities Funding Terrorism: The Global Community’s Slow Response and What More can be Done
Amy Albanese
Vol. 37 Associate Editor
Vol. 38 Managing Online Content Editor

For over a year, there have been reports in the international press of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities being sold by ISIS as a source of revenue.[1] The reports detail how ISIS is profiting through the sale of Syria’s antiquities on the international art market, some even going so far as to call it a major source of funding.[2] The most recent set of complete trade statistics shows that, in fact, the importation of Syrian antiquities into the United States has remained similar to the pre-2012 sanctions.[3] This is a stark contrast from all other Syrian goods, which have sharply declined from $429.3 million worth of declared goods, to just $12.4 million in declared goods.[4] Yet, in 2014, the importation of “Antiquities over 100 years old,” “Worked Monumental Stone and Mosaic Cubes” and “Collector’s Pieces of Archaeological, Historical or Numismatic Objects” represented $6,633,903, or 54%, of all U.S. imports from Syria.[5]

There is disagreement as to the extent to which ISIS profits from the sale of antiquities. One of the highest estimates comes from the former Indian ambassador to Syria, who stated that ISIS derives anywhere between thirty and fifty percent of its over billion dollar revenue from antiquity trafficking.[6] Other experts have called into question whether ISIS is profiting from the sale of antiquities at all.[7] Yet, satellite photos show extensive looting of ISIS controlled territories in Syria and Iraq, and these objects are clearly being removed to somewhere.[8]

The sale, purchase or trade of looted antiquities has long been illegal under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.[9] While this convention has been successful in tamping down on the illicit trade of antiquities among legitimate state actors, as well as museums and other collecting institutions, the act does little to reach the kind of underground trading that ISIS is performing with private collectors.  International art dealers may even be playing the long game, keeping caches of Syrian antiquities in storage, since Syrian cultural objects, at the moment, are under more scrutiny at border crossings, as well as art auctions. This means that Syrian antiquities will continue to appear on the art market for many years to come. Therefore, the question remains, what is being done to stop not only the Syrian antiquities currently being put on the market, but those that will continue to filter their way through the international art market in the years to come?

Response has been slow. The current laws in place in the target countries of ISIS for the sale of antiquities are inconsistent and for the most part do little to address the specific issue of cultural property crossing the borders.

In the United Kingdom, there have been renewed calls to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict,[10] which strives to protect all forms of cultural property during wartime. The United Kingdom is far behind much of the world on this measure, as the only major nation not to have signed the convention in the over 60 years since its creation.[11] However, calls have been made for the ratification of the Convention since the escalation of violence in Syria beginning in 2013,[12] with no substantive movement taken to achieve this step. In 2014, the United Kingdom did enact some trade restrictions on Syrian antiquities coming into the country.[13] In December of 2013, the European Union also applied restrictions to Syrian cultural property entering the European Union.[14] Finally, in February of 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2199 that condemns the destruction of cultural heritage and adopts legally binding measures to counter illicit trafficking of antiquities and cultural objects from Syria and Iraq.[15]

The United States appears to lag the farthest behind of any of the major countries. A proposed bill has been in Congress since July, which would directly address cultural property entering the country. In June, the House passed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which would prevent objects stolen or looted since the beginning of the conflict in Syria from entering the United States borders.[16] However, this bill has only just left the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as of January 28, 2016.[17]

While the passage of this UNESCO resolution, as well as individual countries resolutions, are certainly evidence of the international community’s opinion of the destruction and sale of cultural property by ISIS, there is seemingly little to show for these responses, as reports continue to surface of looted antiquities in Western countries. Part of the problem with all of these measures is that Syrian antiquities, particularly smaller pieces, are not distinctly Syrian. The pieces can be described as Iraqi or from other parts of the Middle East, thereby bypassing any of the current restrictions. What is likely needed at this point in time is a complete moratorium on any Middle Eastern antiquities being moved across borders. While this is an extreme measure, a full stop of antiquities crossing the border would be one way to cut off a source of funding to ISIS. As long as there is an opening for purchasers of these antiquities, illicit cultural property will continue to come across borders, and private collectors around the world will continue to fund ISIS.


[1] Rajendra Abhyankar, Syrian “Blood Antiquities” Proliferate Urgent Need for an International Agreement, Huffington Post (Nov. 3, 2014, 12:18 PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rajendra-abhyankar/syrian-blood-antiquities-_b_6095248.html.

[2] Ana Swanson, How the Islamic State makes its money, Wash. Post (Nov. 18, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/18/how-isis-makes-its-money/

[3] Rick St. Hilaire, “Antiques” from Syria: U.S. Cultural Property Import Stats Raise Suspicion, Cultural Heritage Lawyer (Dec. 19, 2015), http://culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com/2015/12/antiques-from-syria-us-cultural.html.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See Abhyankar, supra note 1.

[7] Justine Drennan, The Black-Market Battleground, Foreign Policy (Oct. 17, 2014),  http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/10/17/the-black-market-battleground/ (quoting a German team of investigative reporters who believe that the link between ISIS and the sale of antiquities is tenuous at best).

[8] Steven Meyer and Nicholas Kulish, ‘Broken System; Allows ISIS to Profit from Looted Antiquities, N.Y.Times (Jan. 9 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/world/europe/iraq-syria-antiquities-islamic-state.html some of the most famous sites in Syria show the telltale pockmarks of looters holes, including the site of Mari and Dura-Europas.)

[9] UNESCO Res. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (Nov. 14, 1970), http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

[10] UK’s New Emergency Heritage Management Project, Institute of Art and Law Blog (Nov. 18, 2015), http://www.ial.uk.com/news/tag/isis/

[11] UK to adopt Hague Convention to protect artefacts in war zones, BBC News (June 21, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-33213911

[12] Id.

[13] Export Control (Syria Sanctions)(Amendment) 2014, SI 2013/2012 (Eng.), http://www.legislation.gov.uk/en/uksi/2014/1896/note/made.

[14] Council Decision 2013/760 O.J. (L 335), http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2013:335:0050:0051:EN:PDF.

[15] S.C. Res. 2199 (Feb. 12 2015), http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2199%282015%29.

[16] H.R. 1493 114th Cong. (2015-2016), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1493?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22Protect+and+Preserve+International+Cultural+Property+Act%22%5D%7D.

[17] Bill to Halt ISIS Antiquities advances to the Senate, U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield (Jan. 28, 2016), http://uscbs.org/news/.