On 19 August an Englishman was arrested when leaving Turkey in possession of 12 ancient coins. He had found the coins while snorkelling on holiday and was stopped by security at Bodrum Airport. On the face of it, the arrest looks to be a completely disproportionate response to a trivial infraction, punishing a naive holidaymaker for an innocent mistake in misappropriating a handful of old coins. But take a step back for a minute, reflect upon the broader context, and the Turkish action looks justifiable, commendable even.
Since 2014, the international community has been concerned about the terrorist group Daesh (Islamic State) profiting from the sale of looted and trafficked antiquities. Much of this material has passed from Syria into Turkey, and then on to Europe. From seizures made inside Turkey, it is known that the bulk comprises ancient coins. Many of these trafficked coins are likely being sold on eBay and other websites by traders based in the United Kingdom (England to be precise). In March 2015, for example, a Daily Mail investigation headlined ‘2000-year-old artefacts looted by ISIS from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria are being sold on EBAY’, with images of Syrian coins selling for between £57 and £90 each (though not actually looted by Daesh). Turkey is under international pressure to choke this Daesh income stream by stopping the trade passing through its territory. In these circumstances, an Englishman secretly moving ancient coins out of the country must be a viable suspect, one to be held pending further investigation. Maybe he is part of a larger trafficking ring operating out of England? Presumably he will be proved innocent, and the coins will be shown not to have originated in Syria, though taking Turkish coins is in itself an offence. But it is important to know that in the fight against terrorism the Turkish border authorities are doing their job, acting with competence and vigilance when the easy option would have been to confiscate the coins and wave the tourist through. In the United Kingdom, we would expect nothing less of our own border force. The man is now in custody in Turkey. Hopefully he will be released sometime soon. After all, it is not in Turkey’s interest to be frightening away innocent tourists. But we must remember, like most other countries of the world, Turkish public services have been hollowed out by austerity-driven budget cuts, and the release process might take longer than we would like.
Assuming he is innocent, and that Turkey has acted correctly in accordance with international expectations, is anybody to blame? There is endless talk in policy circles of reducing demand for ancient coins and other antiquities by raising public awareness of the issues and risks involved in their trade. But no one seems to have raised the arrested man’s awareness. Flight operators and holiday agencies do nothing to alert customers to the dangers of acquiring ancient coins and antiquities. There is nothing to be seen on the pages of in-flight magazines. Indeed, the opposite is sometimes the case. The British government has done nothing to warn holidaymakers. Where are the announcements in newspapers or on prime-time television? Where are the notices at airport departure desks? There has been much tough talk about the need to stop Daesh from profiting from the antiquities trade, but little concrete action. So rather than criticising Turkey for taking a strong stand against antiquities trafficking, we should look closer to home and ask what more can be done to prevent holidaymakers from breaking the law of foreign countries, and why the British government is not acting to stop its citizens from inadvertently committing illegal acts while abroad. English sellers of trafficked ancient coins must also share some of the blame as they have helped create the problem in the first place. Coins are only trafficked because people are there to buy and sell them. But by their actions they have also raised an atmosphere of scepticism and distrust in Turkey, so that a well-meaning tourist might be suspected of being part of something larger and more sinister than is actually the case. Shame on them.
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 . In 2009, I pulled together a short account of what was then known about the antiquities trade funding crime and terrorism in Afghanistan . In 2010, Gretchen Peters reported that the Taliban-associated Haqqani Network was extorting money from Afghan antiquities traders resident in the UAE . 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.
- Dupree, Nancy Hatch, 1998. Museum under seige: the plunder continues, Archaeology on-line, 26 May.
- 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.
- Peters, Gretchen. 2010. Crime and Insurgency in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. West Point, Combating Terrorism Center, at 36-37.
‘What do we really know about Islamic State’s role in illicit antiquities trade?’ asks Christina Ruiz in the Art Newspaper, reporting that ‘Experts at London symposium warn against misinformation and lack of evidence’. About time too. Together with a small number of like-minded colleagues (they know who they are), I have spent the past 18 months trying to argue that same point, though to little avail. As I have written elsewhere, editors want to hear about Daesh making millions of dollars from the trade, they do not want to hear that its financial accounting is difficult to know, or that other combatant groups might be profiting too. It has been hard to secure a hearing for more evidence-based and less sensationalist accounts of the problem.
The inflated claims of the importance of the antiquities trade to Daesh financing seem to have originated in a July 2014 Guardian article, which was widely understood to have reported that Daesh had made $36 million from antiquities trading in one area of Syria. That particular reading of the article has never been confirmed, but it triggered a series of sensationalising claims about the importance of the trade to Daesh. Egged on by some professional experts who should have known better, the media was quick to pick up and run with the story. By February 2015, one headline was reporting somewhat improbably on ‘The ISIS smugglers making up to $1million per item selling ancient antiquities looted from the rubble of Syria’, and in May 2015 it was unreliably reported to the UN that Daesh was earning ‘as much as $100 million annually from antiquities trading’.
But the real news is not misinformation about Daesh’s role in the illicit antiquities trade. That is old if unpopular news. The real news is that – hopefully – a new sense of reality is grabbing hold of news reporting. Perhaps in time it will prompt us to reflect upon what went before, and ask if the sensationalised claims made about Daesh and the antiquities trade played some part in encouraging the violent and declarative destructions of archaeological heritage that followed. Back in late 2013, before most people outside of Iraq had heard of Daesh, or ISIS for that matter, a forward-thinking member of the Iraqi culture ministry warned me of what was happening in western Iraq, and that the situation there was spinning out of control. How right he was. He also spoke of the threat Daesh posed to cultural heritage and believed that loud but ineffective denunciations would only encourage them to commit further acts of plunder and destruction. He counselled cool heads and calm response. ‘Good luck with that’, I might have replied. What we got instead was a cacophony of moral outrage, sometimes verging on hysteria, but very little constructive action.
What can be learned from two recent news reports about looting in Syria?
On 12 January, Business Insider took a look at Daesh. The article was reporting second-hand on how Daesh makes millions of dollars from looting archaeological sites, money which it then uses to fund its ongoing campaign of terror. One day earlier, on 11 January, the Syrian DGAM had reported the presence of ‘terrorists and smuggling rings’ excavating illegally in Quneitra province. The ‘terrorists’ are almost certainly not members of Daesh as the area in question is under the control of non-jihadi opposition forces. One country, two stories. What are we to make of them?
There is the obvious question of bias. Both reports are selective in their coverage. That is not to say though that one or other of them is false. Let us assume they are both true. They simply confirm what Jesse Casana has already demonstrated by careful analysis of satellite imagery. While Daesh is the most aggressive looter of archaeological heritage, it is certainly not the only one. Thus policy initiatives that focus only on Daesh, such as the US Department of State’s offered reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of any trade in antiquities (and/or oil) that is benefiting Daesh, are not likely to offer much in the way of long-term protection to archaeological heritage so long as the conflict continues. As Daesh is forced back, the traumatised communities of the liberated territories and their resurgent militias will continue to seek financial rewards from archaeological sites.