National Geographic News
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a Syrian policeman patrolling the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus.

A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient city of Palmyra, which lay at the crossroads of several civilizations. Looting has been a problem at many historical sites.


Heather Pringle

for National Geographic

Published June 26, 2014

Three years ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, was just a small group of extremist Sunni Muslim militants battling to bring down the Syrian government. But in recent weeks, ISIS has emerged as a major insurgency, expanding its Syrian territories and capturing a broad swath of Iraq, including the country's second largest city, Mosul. And this raises an important question: How did ISIS grow so swiftly and raise enough money to buy weapons for its army?

Much evidence suggests that ISIS cashed in on the Syrian oil fields it captured. But two weeks ago, Iraqi intelligence officers discovered new sources of its income, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper. While securing the safe house of a dead ISIS commander, they seized more than 160 computer flash drives containing detailed financial records of the insurgents. Listed among ISIS's key financial transactions were records of illicit antiquity trafficking. In one region of Syria alone, the group reportedly netted up to $36 million from activities that included the smuggling of plundered artifacts.

Such profiteering fits well with a longstanding pattern in the region, says Thomas Livoti, a PhD student at the University of Montana who is studying the impact of counterinsurgencies on archaeological sites.

A Pattern of Looting

"Both al Qaeda and the Taliban looted antiquities for the purpose of funding their operations," he notes, and ISIS—an al Qaeda splinter group—is likely using the same funding model, particularly as cash flow from other sources dries up. "The U.S. is freezing bank accounts and cracking down on false charities," Livoti adds, "so ISIS has to go to alternative methods of financing."

Plundering the Past

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, looters have pillaged many of its important archaeological sites for marketable artifacts. For example, Google Earth images of the ancient city of Apamea—founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals and nominated in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage site—clearly reveal the massive destruction that followed the onset of the war. In less than nine months, from July 20, 2011, to April 4, 2012, the once pristine area was riddled with looters' holes.

By late 2013, more than 90 percent of Syria's cultural sites lay in regions of fighting and civil unrest, leaving them more open to plunder. So grave was the situation that the International Council of Museums published an Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, putting border guards and law enforcement agencies on alert for a wide range of smuggled artifacts—from bronze swords to delicate glass bottles.

Apamea as seen on Google Earth July 19, 2011.
The ancient city of Apamea, in Syria—founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals and nominated in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage site—as seen on Google Earth on July 19, 2011.
Apamea as seen on Google Earth April 3, 2012.
Less than a year later, the same area at Apamea—seen here on Google Earth April 3, 2012—is covered with looting holes and clearly shows the massive destruction of the war. ISIS is believed to be using the proceeds from such plunder to help finance their insurgency.

Today Iraqi intelligence officers are analyzing the ISIS flash drives to determine just what role the Sunni extremists are playing in Syria's illicit antiquity trade. But Sam Hardy, an archaeologist at University College London, who studies the trade in illicit antiquities, notes that insurgents and paramilitaries generally enter the trade in at least one of three ways: by running a trafficking network, facilitating smuggling through offering a service, or levying a tax on traffickers who move looted artifacts through their territory.

Hardy suspects that ISIS commanders are likely imposing a levy on smugglers. ISIS "looks like they want to function as a state, so in that sense they would at least have to be doing taxation," Hardy says. But that may not be the end of it. "The talk is that they are also running the oil management and smuggling operations," Hardy adds.

Clearly, collectors of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities need to exercise caution before making any purchases in the days to come. Some unscrupulous dealers are highly adept at laundering looted artifacts. Moreover, recent research shows that there can be little distance and few links between looters, traffickers, and collectors.

Prospective buyers should be asking themselves one key question, says Hardy: "What are the chances that my money is going to buy bullets?"

Mike Minot
Mike Minot

This is really sad!

Perhaps it may be correct to say that when a people stop caring about human lives they certainly can't be expected to care about much else!

Another sad point is that the history they are getting rid of is at least in part their own!

Abdelhamid Cherragui
Abdelhamid Cherragui

I can understand if ISIS are looting ancient artifacts. In fact, they're stealing a COUNTRY, the artifacts are just a bonus. These blood thirsty criminals have no regard at all to anything human, they are murderers, thieves, and  psychopaths. Looting is nothing compared to the horrors they do to civilians.

The real question is who is buying these artifacts?

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

The hatred in the world is so sad and tragic. The, "Innocent" suffer so badly due to the actions of extremist and fanatics regardless of which side of the fence they sit. For such a relatively few, who cannot see beyond hatred, many of which don't really know what or why they hate, to impact the lives of so many, "innocent" is beyond abhorrent. 

This is a perfect example of the ultimate hypocrisy of ISIS, to steal, loot and sell Art and Artifacts, those things which belong to everyone, (in a sense), and represent the better traits of man, and corrupt these things into a means of funding their hatred and crime against humanity, is indeed a perfect commentary to what groups such as, ISIS represents.

The VERY sad fact is, with the politics of the world today, it is understandable, most, like myself, do not agree with actions such as this article speaks to, and certainly find the brutality of these groups unimaginable and unforgivable, but again it is understandable.

BOTH sides of the table need to rethink the whole horrible situation if there is to be any hope of this coming to an end.

TAKE PITY ON ALL OF OUR CHILDREN! The world could be such a better place, FOR ALL, if we, humanity, just change our minds.


Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Mike Minot  Mike, You are so right, simply put, sad.

It's crazy, these type of groups will take their OWN CHILDREN, strap explosives to them, send them into a place where the innocent reside and blow themselves up, promising their children that they will go on to a better life.

There is no way to reason with this type of mentality, so what is left is confrontation, which just keeps perpetuating the conflict.

There doesn't seem to be any way out.

Mike, You are so right, simply put, sad and may I add tragic for all. The way it is looking, the misery has just begun. 

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Abdelhamid Cherragui  The short answer to the ? you pose; The people who buy these artifacts are ones who capitalize on the suffering of others without any regard to anyone but themselves. People who are ultimately self-centered, self- righteous, with no moral center and little self worth. Those who judge life by the possessions one has, as opposed to the deeds one does. The lowest of the low.

Also, this again represents the hypocrisy of it all, I'm sure that ISIS sells some of these things to those that they otherwise would consider their enemy, those who are materialistic above all else, which is diametrically opposed to that which ISIS claims to represent. Then again that is the way all these fanatical groups work, there is no integrity here what so ever. They corrupt ideas and beliefs to fit their purposes at any given time. They do not live by the principles that they themselves claim to represent.

So the answer to your question, Dregs.


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