Trafficking out of Syria

The civil war in Syria that started in 2011 is now in its sixth year. During that time, archaeological and other cultural sites including museums have been destructively looted of their saleable contents. It is widely believed that the looted artifacts have been moved illegally out of Syria for sale in Europe and North America. To date, however, there have been few if any verifiable reports of (post-2011) trafficked Syrian objects appearing there.

The scale of the destruction caused by looting and trafficking has been demonstrated by projects such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA). These projects have used satellite imagery to identify looted sites, assign them to likely zones of combatant control, assess the extent and severity of damage caused to individual sites, and establish a tentative timeline. Jesse Casana, for example, has reported that since 2011, 23 per cent of all archaeological sites in Syria have been damaged by looting [1]. The bare statistics do not do full justice to the stark reality of the situation, however, hiding the fact exposed by satellite imagery that some important sites such as the Hellenistic-Roman towns of Apamea and Dura Europas have been largely obliterated by illegal digging. The problem is ongoing. In April 2016, the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project reported looting at the Roman sites of Bosra and Palmyra. Looting has occurred in territories controlled by all combatant factions, though has been more severe in territory controlled by Daesh.

There have been many seizures of trafficked Syrian objects in the neighbouring ‘transit’ countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but nothing comparable in the ‘market’ countries of Western Europe and North America. Suspicions have been voiced that criminal entrepreneurs are warehousing material until such time as the trading environment is more conducive for onwards sale, or are trading it out of sight on the Dark Web. An alternative and simpler explanation is that trafficked material is being sold openly in Europe and North America, but is not being recognized for what it is. Expectations as to what types of object might be looted and trafficked have been conditioned by what is known of material moved out of Syria before 2011. Several examples of large, culturally and monetarily valuable pieces left Syria illegally and were recovered in the 1990s and 2000s. But these objects were moved out of Syria at a time of relative stability, and there is evidence of regime connivance that would have provided the necessary transport and allowed border controls and other legal obstacles to be bypassed [2]. Since 2011, this type of condoned or tolerated trade of large objects will have become increasingly untenable. Media reports from the border area of southern Turkey show instead the trafficking of coins, jewellery and other small objects that can be easily concealed and transported. Similarly, when on 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of Daesh’s administrative section for the supervision of excavation and trade of cultural objects, many of the cultural objects recovered in his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, as well as electronic images of gold coins and jewellery.

Thus it is possible that the pattern of illegal trade post-2011 has shifted from small quantities of large, high-value objects to larger quantities of predominantly smaller, lower-value objects. The illegal excavation of large numbers of small, relatively low-value objects would be more damaging to archaeological sites than the illegal excavation of fewer, larger, high-value objects. This possible change in strategy is in accordance with the evidence of extensive digging that is captured on satellite imagery. Large numbers of small, low-value objects would still in aggregate generate appreciable profits for those involved in trafficking. But although it is reasonably easy to demonstrate the sale in Europe and North America of small objects that might have been found in Syria, it is harder to identify objects that really were without doubt found in Syria, and not in a neighbouring country. Thus it is difficult to confirm this suggested shift in trafficking strategy

Coins from mints of known location offer one possible way forward. In September 2015, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who is executive director of the American Numismatic Society, presented a paper on Syrian coins at a meeting held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. She suggested ‘the strong probability that a significant number of certain types of coins on today’s market likely originated in Syria’. She showed, for example, that the average number of radiate coins of Zenobia and her son Vabalathus struck during the year AD 272 appearing each year on the market after 2011 was nearly double the equivalent figure for the previous three decades.

Jack Nurpetlian has recently made publicly available the text of his February 2013 PhD thesis entitled Coinage in Late Hellenistic and Roman Syria: The Orontes Valley (1st Century – 3rd Century AD). In it he presents a comprehensive catalogue of all Roman provincial coins known to him by the end of June 2012 that were minted in the towns of the Orontes Valley between 64 BC and AD 253, including coins in private and museum collections and present on the market during his period of study. The catalogue provides invaluable baseline data for further study of the market in Syrian coins. Looking, for example, at silver tetradrachms minted in the town of Emesa (modern Homs) during the reigns of emperors Caracalla and Macrinus (AD 198 to AD 218). The catalogue records 112 tetradrachms in collections, with a further 116 on the market. The time span of the market study is not provided, but looks to have run from 2005 to 2012. So, on average, during the seven-year period ending in 2012, 17 new tetradrachms were appearing on the market each year. Since the catalogue was compiled, a further 91 examples have appeared on the market, or on average 23 new tetradrachms per year. This increase is smaller though broadly in line with those presented by Wartenberg Kagan. During the entire period in question (2005 to 2016), the lowest priced tetradrachm sold for $33 and the highest priced for a surprising $3,250, with a mean price of $263. Although the tetradrachms were minted in Emesa, they enjoyed a wide circulation, and there have been documented finds on sites throughout Syria, including 13 at Dura Europos, as well as some in Israel and Palestine. Thus the examples arriving on the market after 2012 could conceivably have come from anywhere in Syria, though a possible origin in Israel and Palestine where the looting and trafficking of ancient coins has also been a problem cannot be excluded.

The coin data do suggest the increasing arrival on the market of small objects moved out of Syria post-2011, and that they are going largely unrecognized – or at least unreported. It adds credence to the idea that other small objects of Syrian origin have been arriving on the market. If that is the case, then the presently established suppositions about the organization of trafficking will be mistaken, and there will be consequences for crime control policy and practical law enforcement. A low-volume trade of large, expensive objects presupposes the participation of a limited number of criminals, perhaps acting in long-term cooperation, and exercising a good degree of control over the organization and operation of trafficking. It would be vulnerable to targeted law enforcement aiming to disrupt trade by apprehending offenders. A higher-volume trade of smaller, cheaper objects would be harder to tackle. It would most likely be dispersed, involving a larger number of people, and more loosely organized. It would be flexible and opportunistic and able to survive the occasional removal of participating criminals. Furthermore, the small amounts of money involved in individual transactions would diminish the apparent seriousness of crimes and reduce the public interest requirement for committing adequate resources to their investigation and prosecution. Thus the case for and effectiveness of targeted law enforcement would both be weakened.

Crime control policy and its practical implementation need to be sensitive to the organization of the illegal trade they are intending to prevent. It is a matter of some urgency that the nature and organization of the post-2011 trade out of Syria should be properly characterized so that appropriate and effective countermeasures can be planned and implemented.


  1. Casana, Jesse, 2015. Satellite imagery-based analysis of archaeological looting in Syria, Near Eastern Archaeology 78(3): 142-52.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2015. Syria and its regional neighbors: A case of cultural property protection policy failure? International Journal of Cultural Property 22: 317-35.


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.

Good luck with that

‘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.

Public policy and the media

On his blog Gates of Nineveh, Christopher Jones has asked critically whether media coverage is encouraging archaeological looting in Syria. He concludes not. He argues convincingly that looting was well entrenched before increased media reporting through 2013 and particularly 2014.

Another question might involve the relationship between media coverage and the implementation of policy initiatives. To look at that question, I have adopted and extended Christopher’s methodology, collecting a dataset of articles from the first 60 pages of search results on Google News for keywords ‘archaeology looting Syria’ through to the end of 2015. The results are shown on the histogram. I have also indicated by means of red markers the dates of major policy actions. The actions are:

UntitledSeptember 2013: ICOM Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

December 2013: EU Council Regulation No 1332/2013.

March 2014: UNESCO/EU Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project.

August 2014: ASOR/US DoS Syria Cultural Heritage Initiative.

February 2015: United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199.

September 2015: ASOR/US DoS Cultural Heritage Initiatives.

It is clear that policy actions have become more frequent as media coverage has increased. To some extent, this must be because media reporting of policy actions increases the overall coverage. But there is also the possibility that policy is responding to media concerns rather than to what is actually happening on the ground. This is worrying because media reporting is known to be unreliable – biased by the commercial and political interests of proprietors, editors and other opinion formers. Fact checking is in short supply and there is a lot of secondhand reporting. Sam Hardy on his blog Conflict Antiquities has also spoken critically of this debilitating ‘churnalism’. If policy is reacting to the unreliable perspective of media reporting instead of to actual facts on the ground, we should not be surprised when it struggles to make any kind of impact. This short study cannot definitively prove that policy is media-driven, but it does suggest the possibility deserves more rigorous consideration.



Prevention is the best protection

Katie Paul has re-emphasized that cultural heritage is most vulnerable to depredation during times of conflict and civil disturbance. It is then that museums, archaeological sites and religious institutions are ransacked for their saleable contents – it is then that they are looted to feed the international demand for ‘cultural objects’. These are the so-called spikes in looting and theft that we are accustomed to reading about. As she observes, they are entirely predictable and they could happen anywhere, though just exactly where is a geopolitical uncertainty. They must be treated as a global problem. What can be done about it? The answer is hardly rocket science. We need to stop people buying and selling illicitly traded material. In other words, we need to reduce demand. And I am not just talking about material illicitly traded by Daesh, not just about material illicitly traded from Syria, not just about material illicitly traded from the MENA region. I am talking about material that has been looted and illicitly traded from anywhere in the world. We need a proactive global solution to a global problem, and we need it now. The best way to protect cultural heritage is to prevent people buying and selling illicit material. Prevention is the best protection.

A tale of two news reports

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.

Market of mass destruction: the policy omnishambles

I have been prompted to start this blog by the omnishambles of international public policy as it struggles but fails to achieve some kind of grip on the illicit trade in cultural objects.

Since 1990, a series of international, proxy and civil wars together with associated episodes of civil disturbance throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have triggered wave after wave of damaging attacks on cultural heritage. Cultural sites have been ruined for motives or pretexts of cultural cleansing and iconoclasm, damaged deliberately or accidentally by the actions of armed forces, or simply overwhelmed by the more peaceful though still destructive processes of urban expansion and agricultural improvement. Through all of this, however, a major cause of damage has been and continues to be the looting of archaeological and cultural sites to feed the illicit trade in cultural objects. Certainly, sitting here in the United Kingdom, it looks to be the most regrettable cause of damage, as it is the most preventable one. The trade exists to feed the collecting mania of destination countries far removed from the MENA region itself, and thus within easier reach of policy countermeasures. Or so it would seem. As the cultural heritage of country after country has fallen victim to looting and illicit trade, however, the international community has looked on despairingly but with little to offer in the way of effective amelioration. The looting and trade continues, seemingly unabated.

The shambolic nature of policy is reflected in the confusing terminology used to describe initiatives aimed at preventing damage. Sometimes it looks as though policy-makers do not have access to a dictionary. In October 2015, for example, the UK government announced a ‘New scheme to protect cultural sites from destruction’. Notice the headline use of the word ‘protect’. Protection was promised against the ‘destructive forces of war and ISIL terrorists’. The scheme in question is the Iraqi Emergency Heritage Management Project. £3 million was granted to the British Museum to ‘create a team of local experts to assess, document and stabilise afflicted sites in Iraq, and help begin the process of reconstruction and preservation of some of the world’s most precious cultural artefacts’. So, despite headlining the need for protection, in reality the project has nothing to do with protection. It is all about documentation and reconstruction, things that are needed when protection has failed. Nothing wrong with that in principle, it is nice to see some money going to support initiatives aimed at restoring damaged cultural sites, but it is hardly protection, so why headline it as such? And furthermore, having discounted the protective agency of documentation and reconstruction, what exactly is being done to protect sites?

And just in case readers in the United States are feeling smug, something similar has been going on there. Between August 2014 and September 2015 the US Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) secured $1.5 million of federal funding for what is now called Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI). The stated aim of ASOR CHI is to implement ‘cultural property protection’ by: (1) documenting damage; (2) promoting global awareness; and (3) planning emergency and post-war responses. Again, the headline is ‘protection’, but the reality is more about documentation and reconstruction. Most of ASOR CHI’s operational effort is directed towards producing weekly reports of damage caused to cultural heritage in Syria and north Iraq. There is a real need for this kind of work, and the reports comprise a singular resource of undoubted value. But again, it is not protection.

ASOR CHI has produced a nice infographic describing its work. At one point, the infographic states that ‘Priceless artifacts have been looted & sold on the black market’. Quite. Probably sold on the not-so-black and nearly-white markets too. It is a pity then that ASOR CHI is not tackling the black market head on, by designing and implementing strategies aimed at reducing the demand for looted objects or interrupting their flow to destination countries. Preventing the illicit trade would be a sure route to protecting cultural sites, and yet it is a route not followed. Perhaps it is time that it was. Prevention offers protection in a way that documentation and reconstruction do not.