Trading Treasure for Weapons: ISIS Campaign of Terror Strikes at Culture

Decisive action by the international community to prevent further cultural terrorism and profiteering from antiquities theft will advance the fight against ISIS.
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Secretary of State John Kerry pledged in a New York Times op-ed last week to confront ISIS by assembling a "global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and intelligence tools." An immediate step for the global coalition in fighting these terrifying and brutal extremists is cutting off their sources of funding. ISIS rakes in millions each month from its seizure of profitable oil fields, robbing banks and kidnapping innocent victims, to emerge as one of the best financed terrorist organizations in history. A critical element of instilling terror in its enemies as well as raising funds has been an active campaign by ISIS of cultural racketeering, the theft and sale of heritage material for profit.

As Kerry meets with his international counterparts, protection of cultural heritage should also be on the agenda of his coalition building efforts.

While often quoted since the release of the movie, The Monuments Men, there is still truth in the adage "If you destroy an entire generation of people's culture, it's as if they never existed." Part of ISIS's campaign of terror is to erase those cultures not in line with its extremist views of Islam. On September 2, Amnesty International released a report that says that ISIS is carrying out a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Iraq, with this cultural eradication extending to the destruction of sites and cultural material. As ISIS swarmed through Mosul, Iraq's second largest city where Muslims and Christians have coexisted for centuries, it destroyed over forty-five Christian sites. ISIS was strategic in its targets of destruction -- hitting at sites symbolic of the early years of Christianity, including the Tomb of Jonah, who is famous for surviving being swallowed by the whale. Jonah's story is repeated in the Quran, and, ironically, his tomb was converted to a mosque. But that did not save it from destruction.

It is not just Christian sites under attack. ISIS seeks to obliterate any culture that does not share its extremist views of Islam. Sunni and Sufi shrines have been looted and bulldozed to dust. Sacred Shiite mosques and other revered ancient sites are being destroyed, obliterated by dynamite. It is an obvious form of cultural terrorism as ISIS threatens anyone under its rule to convert, leave or be put to death.

Antiquities theft is another form of cultural terrorism and an important source of revenue for ISIS as well. ISIS netted up to $36 million from looted antiquities in just one area of Syria alone, according to The Guardian. And Syrian experts say that ISIS has a diabolical strategy for diverting stolen antiquities to fund its cause. Areas rich in ancient history -- the "cradle of civilization" -- are under its control. ISIS is driving illicit excavations and promising to share the finds in the form of a 20-50 percent tax on the total value, as described in an op-ed in the New York Times. And it is controlling the safe passage of these antiquities to the borders, often using Turkey as the consolidation point, where they are then shipped off to Europe, the United States and Asia.

Just last year, imports of legally declared Syrian antiquities to the United States rose almost 1300 percent. Illicit shipments are no doubt significantly higher. International leaders who condemn the destruction of these sites as part of the public comments about ISIS will give strength -- and cover -- to the thousands of brave men and women seeking to protect their heritage, often at great risk to their own lives.

Secretary Kerry has a platform for taking action -- both in building this international coalition to fight against ISIS and in his role as Secretary of State. Domestically, he has the authority to direct U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to halt the import of antiquities from Syria and Iraq. The British government has just taken a similar action to block the import of antiquities from Syria. The United States and the United Kingdom have the largest markets for antiquities, so limiting both the access -- as well as requesting extra vigilance from the auction houses and the antiquities retailers -- will have an important impact.

Decisive action by the international community to prevent further cultural terrorism and profiteering from antiquities theft will advance the fight against ISIS. As Secretary Kerry builds his International Coalition, he will no doubt include the "demand" side countries that are receiving looted antiquities as well as many of the "supply" side countries where antiquities looting threatens our shared heritage.

"Airstrikes alone won't defeat this enemy. A much fuller response is demanded from the world," writes the Secretary. "We need to disrupt and degrade ISIS' capabilities." Ending the scourge of ISIS's reign of cultural terrorism would provide that disruption. This is an outcome that the international coalition should vigorously pursue - and accomplish.

Deborah Lehr is the Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. Peter Herdrich is the Vice Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition.

Follow them at @CombatLooting and @DMLehr
Learn more about the Antiquities Coalition

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