Just what is Isil looting in Syria?
Isil militants released a video showing the destruction of the ancient Temple of Baal-Shamin in Palmyra
Isil’s murder of a leading archaeologist and its destruction of an ancient temple in Palmyra, Syria, has renewed concerns over the terrorist group’s role in the illegal trade of antiquities in the region. Today, the FBI released a flyer alerting art collectors and dealers about Near Eastern antiquities looted by Isil that could be entering the marketplace.

“We now have credible reports that US persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq recently,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the head of the FBI’s Art Theft Program. In May, a raid in Syria against Isil's now dead finance chief Abu Sayyaf uncovered a major cache of archaeological objects and fragments, which “represents significant primary evidence of looting at archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, theft from regional museums, and the stockpiling of these spoils for likely sale on the international market,” says the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Although the group regularly releases video footage of their destructive acts, the true extent of the damage and what they may be smuggling from ancient sites is difficult to trace. Looting is encouraged by Isil, which issues licenses to dig for antiquities “in the name of God the merciful… on the condition it brings no harm to Muslims”, says Amr Al Azm, associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio, who showed a photograph of a license during a presentation hosted by the International Foundation for Art Research (Ifar) earlier this month.

“Every Syrian lives on an archaeological site, next to one or a stone’s throw away from one,” he said, and for many in the war-torn region the possibility of finding treasure is too tempting to refuse. Most objects are not especially valuable, however. As with all heritage sites, the bulk of the buried objects are domestic items such as pots, rather than priceless treasures.

Previous reports by respected outlets including Bloomberg have put the value of the cultural looting by Isil at around $300m, and Iraq’s United Nations ambassador said the group earns $100m each year from such activity. But the value of the entire international antiquities market is only between $150m to $200m, says Vincent Geerling, the head of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art.

The international trade is not trading the looted objects, dealers add. Most of the items find their way into the back rooms of shops in Turkey or Lebanon and very few have surfaced in Europe or the US, Geerling says. “It’s been more than a year now and everybody is waiting, but it hasn’t happened.”

Even the most valuable objects are unlikely to make their way West for some time, says Brenton Easter, a senior special agent with the US Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Speaking at the Ifar panel, he said that the agency has only recently started coming across items looted during the Arab Spring of 2010, suggesting that it takes years.

One exception is the coin trade, says Michael Danti, a Boston University professor who co-directs the ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative, a joint venture between the US State Department and the American Schools of Oriental Research dedicated to documenting incidents of looting.

Coins—Classical, Mesopotamian or otherwise—are easily found by metal detector, and often have inherent value because of their metal. Moreover, they are not easily traceable given their multiple nature, Danti says. Some, he says, have even made their way for sale onto Western websites.

“You have to be very careful when you’re buying,” says Magness-Gardiner in the FBI's new release. “We don’t want to say don’t buy anything at all. There’s a lot of legitimate material circulating in the marketplace. What we’re trying to say is, don’t allow these pieces that could potentially support terrorism to be part of the trade.”

Cultural objects may not bring in as much as Isil’s more profitable sources of income such as selling oil, extortion, bank robbery and ransoms. Nonetheless, the group’s power to leverage the best price for even the most meagre object is not to be underestimated, Danti says: “They’re guys with guns.