WASHINGTON -- A new congressional effort to cut off funding for the Islamic State targets an unlikely source: antiquities smuggled out of Syria and into the homes of Western collectors.
A bill set to be introduced in the Senate next week would allow President Barack Obama to impose import restrictions on Syrian antiquities without the request or consent of the Syrian government, as usually required by law. The new legislation would also establish a position at the State Department to coordinate international efforts to prevent international trafficking of cultural property.
“One of the keys to restricting the money flowing to ISIS is to limit their ability to sell antiquities on the black market,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the bill’s backer, using another name for the Islamic State. “ISIS’s pillaging of historical sites is giving them a financial boost and destroying precious cultural heritage.”
The House of Representatives has already passed a partner bill, authored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Importing cultural property from Iraq to the U.S. is already restricted under a previous law.
After illicit oil sales, the excavation and sale of ancient Syrian and Iraqi artifacts is the largest funding stream for the Islamic State, testified Matthew Levitt, the director of the program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, last November.
Levitt, who formerly conducted intelligence analysis at the Treasury Department, predicts that the Islamic State may increase its reliance on antiquities sales as the U.S. and its coalition partners successfully curb oil sales through airstrikes and cooperation with Turkey.
“It’s kind of like squeezing a balloon hard enough not to make it pop -- which means it just expands it in another direction,” Levitt said. “So what we’re concerned about is that ISIL will further develop funding streams it has not been relying on so far. Antiquities is very ripe for that,” he added, using the Obama administration’s preferred name for the Islamic State.
The Senate bill received praise from those tracking the destruction of archaeological artifacts and ancient artwork in Syria during the country’s four-year-long civil war, but some also noted that the problem is not new or limited to the Islamic State.
“Anything that will restrict the movement of cultural property from Syria and Iraq is most welcome,” said France Desmarais, the director of programs and partnerships at the International Council of Museums, noting that the bill would help bring the U.S. into compliance with a February U.N. Security Council resolution requiring member states to take steps to prevent terrorist groups from profiting from the trade of oil, antiquities and hostages.
“There’s this opportunity now to link the fight against terrorism to the protection of cultural heritage at risk. But the Islamic State is not the only group involved,” Desmarais added. “We know in Syria that all groups were involved in the looting and trading of cultural heritage illegally.”
In 2012, years before the Islamic State proclaimed its goal of establishing a caliphate, Syrian smuggler Abu Khaled told Time magazine that members of the Free Syrian Army had developed a team of diggers to excavate Syrian artifacts to sell on the black market for weapons.
Meanwhile, a YouTube video from the same time period, identified by archaeologist Sam Hardy, shows Syrian regime loyalists digging up ancient statues affixed to graves and loading the heads of the statues into the back of a pickup truck.
Unlike Assad regime loyalists and opposition fighters, the Islamic State appears eager to gain possession of antiquities not only for profit, but to inspire fear by publicly advertising its destruction of ancient relics. Last week, the Islamic State released photographs showing their fighters smashing statues in the historic Syrian town of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to 2,000-year-old Roman artifacts.
Levitt was quick to note that while the Islamic State is publicly destroying large artifacts that would be difficult to export from Palmyra, it is still possible that the group is selling smaller objects for profit.