Evidence, innuendo, and policy

People such as myself who favour an evidence-based approach to public policy are being criticized for our belief that some reports of Daesh profiting from the antiquities trade are exaggerated and unhelpful. People who should know better accuse us of downgrading the Daesh threat, and when they cannot produce any evidence to contradict us, they resort instead to innuendo. Even if we are right, they say, and the claims being made are indeed exaggerated, the antiquities trade is still funding terrorism. The implication is that by arguing against what we believe are unfounded claims, we are suggesting that the antiquities trade is not funding terrorism, that no action should be taken, and that in consequence we are somehow aligning ourselves with Daesh. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In view of this innuendo, I thought I should make my position crystal clear. Yes, Daesh is profiting from the antiquities trade, it is wrong, and it should be stopped. Equally, other terrorist groups are profiting too. It is equally wrong, and should also be stopped. But the exaggerated reports of Daesh profiting direct policy attention towards Daesh and away from other terrorist groups, leaving them free to profit and continue their campaigns of violence.

Look at the Taliban, for example. Nancy Hatch Dupree first reported in 1998 that the Taliban governor of Badghis Province was exacting a 20 per cent tax on all looted antiquities [1]. In 2009, I pulled together a short account of what was then known about the antiquities trade funding crime and terrorism in Afghanistan [2]. In 2010, Gretchen Peters reported that the Taliban-associated Haqqani Network was extorting money from Afghan antiquities traders resident in the UAE [3]. The Haqqani Network also taxes trade passing through its territory, much in the manner of Daesh, and it would be surprising if it is not taxing the antiquities trade. Yet I have looked in vain for any whisper of a suggestion that action should be taken to prevent the Taliban profiting from the antiquities trade. And that is the problem. Unfounded and probably exaggerated claims of Daesh profiting draw attention away from the more generally pervasive problem of terrorist funding. Daesh is not the first terrorist organization to draw income from the antiquities trade, it is not the only organization to do so, and unless we adopt a more realistic approach to policy formation and implement some appropriate actions, it will not be the last one to do so. To wipe out terrorist funding, we need more reliable evidence and less innuendo.


  1. Dupree, Nancy Hatch, 1998. Museum under seige: the plunder continues, Archaeology on-line, 26 May.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2009. Consensual relations? Academic involvement in the illegal trade in ancient manuscripts. In Simon Mackenzie and Penny Green (eds), Criminology and Archaeology: Studies in Looted Antiquities. Oxford, Hart, at 49-51.
  3. Peters, Gretchen. 2010. Crime and Insurgency in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. West Point, Combating Terrorism Center, at 36-37.