‘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.