The Islamic State Obtains Financing From The Illicit International Trade in Looted Antiquities—But How Much?

By Anne-Marie Carstens*

Developments in the Islamic State’s terror tactics have provoked heightened determination by many international actors not only to contain and reverse the militant group’s geographic spread, but also to curtail its sources of financial support.  More than a year ago, news reports announced that Iraqi intelligence officers had seized flash drives confirming one lucrative source used by the Islamic State to finance its terrorist activities:  trafficking in looted antiquities.

The practices by which the Islamic State relies on antiquities trafficking as a profit-making enterprise vary.  In some instances, militants might engage directly in the armed looting of well-known but under-excavated archaeological sites.  Yet reports also state that the Islamic State leadership has instituted a system that requires it to devote far less manpower to the looting of ancient sites.  These reports maintain that the Islamic State has implemented a license-and-tax regime in some regions to cement its authority and legitimacy, granting licenses to looters in exchange for a tax on the proceeds from the finds.  The tax, known as a khums tax, has a basis in Islamic history and traditionally was paid to authorities for profits derived from the ground.

The United Nations Security Council considered the problem so severe that last February, it unanimously adopted Resolution 2199, in which it articulated its concern that the Islamic State and other identified terrorist organizations “are generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites” in Syria and Iraq.  The resolution therefore called on the member states of the United Nations to “take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property” as one means of suppressing the sources of financing for the Islamic State’s terrorist activities.  Satellite imagery and analysis already had confirmed the vast and devastating scale of looting in Syria since the Syrian civil war broke out five years ago.  The images, which were analyzed as parts of projects undertaken by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and by a joint initiative between the American Schools of Oriental Research and the United States Department of State, revealed that the terrain at some of Syria’s most historic and archaeologically rich sites had become pockmarked by looters’ holes.

Important questions nonetheless remain over quantifying how much financing Islamic State or other terrorist organizations derive from the illicit international trade in looted antiquities—and whether current estimates have been determined by extrapolation or conjecture.  At the heart of the debate is the fact that the illicit trade in looted antiquities from Syria and Iraq depends on looted artifacts that are largely unknown in both quantity and quality, and that have been channeled into a black market that is inherently opaque.  Similarly, although the legal restraints imposed on Syrian and Iraqi antiquities trafficking have resulted in the recovery of some looted artifacts, the extent to which these restraints have dampened the trade or the prices paid still remains unknown.  Moreover, some looting has occurred prior to when the Islamic State solidified its strongholds in northern Iraq and in Syria or in areas outside the shifting boundaries of those strongholds, making it unclear how much funding is or has been funneled to the Islamic State itself, as opposed to other groups and actors that have been circulating throughout the conflict zones.

In short, the high prices long paid by collectors for ancient antiquities makes such artifacts a ripe source of income for terrorist organizations in the region.  The value that the Islamic State has derived from trafficking in looted antiquities therefore is almost certainly considerable.  The task remains, however, to establish verifiable figures that signify not only the financial value obtained by the Islamic State to finance its terrorist activities, but also the loss of our collective cultural heritage.

*Visiting Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center