Leaked records hint at how much ISIS makes on antiquities

Image of some of the objects seized in the May raid, returned to the Baghdad national museum in July, Vivian Salama/AP
Some of the objects seized in the May raid in Syria, returned to the Baghdad national museum in July, Vivian Salama/AP

On Monday, on the blog Jihadology, we got some fresh insight into how ISIS makes its money. They have a short-term financial strategy that relies primarily on seizures and confiscations they classify as taxes. Relatively little comes even from oil revenues, and an even smaller amount comes from the sale of antiquities. The information comes from terrorism researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who has secured leaked documents from the IS’ financial ministry for a portion of Eastern Syria.

As he pointed out, without firm numbers, estimating just how much revenue ISIS can scrape together from its territories has been a guessing game. Estimates are based on potential revenue from sales of oil and gas; antiquities; taxation; and other streams of revenue. But now we have some firmer figures.

Zelin analyzes the data and concludes based on these documents:

[O]ne should dismiss accounts that portray IS’ predecessors as being suddenly enriched from eastern Syrian oilfields and antiquities beginning in late 2012, based on hearsay about alleged computer flash sticks revealing IS finances and off-base regarding the dynamics of control of eastern Syrian oil over the course of the Syrian civil war (pace the Guardian report, IS’ predecessor ISIS did not exist in late 2012, let alone ‘commandeer’ eastern Syrian oilfields).

The sale of antiquities under the authority of the antiquities subdivision of the Diwan al-Rikaz is not explicitly mentioned in the accounts here, but it is most likely included within taxation as part of the IS bureaucratic structure. Documents captured from the Abu Sayyaf raid by U.S. forces appear to show a 20% tax to be paid on antiquities sold in Deir az-Zor province. Two of the individual transactions presented from December 2014 illustrate tax payments of more than $10,000, while the third constitutes a little over $1000.

That Abu Sayyaf raid occurred last May, and U.S. Special Operatiosn Forces conducted an attack on Sayyaf’s compound. At last week’s “Conflict Antiquities” symposium held at the Metropolitan Museum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Keller revealed that the American commandoes found an array of portable antiquities. This included: sculpture fragments, jewelry, gold objects, coins, and receipts for taxes collected on antiquities, which amounted to $265,000 tax revenue on what ISIS estimated was $1.3 million in antiquities.

So ISIS has imposed a tax on the sale of antiquities, but because nearly half of the IS’ revenue in these documents are coming from seizures and confiscations, Zack Beauchamp argues:

It’s not a shocking revelation that ISIS is bad at being a state, but this matters for the group’s ability to maintain control. ISIS, then, can’t keep up this funding model forever.

Perhaps some hopeful news coming from Syria then. But it may mean that as these confiscations net less and less, revenue from oil, and sadly antiquities, may be ramped up to compensate.

  1. “Where ISIS Spends Its Money,” Vox.com, accessed October 7, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/10/7/9466633/isis-financial-records.
  2. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Financial Accounts for Deir Az-Zor Province,” JIHADOLOGY, accessed October 7, 2015, http://jihadology.net/2015/10/05/the-archivist-unseen-islamic-state-financial-accounts-for-deir-az-zor-province/.
  3. Christopher Dickey, “ISIS Raid Netted Stolen Treasure Trove of Ancient Artifacts,” The Daily Beast, 09.30.15, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/30/isis-raid-netted-stolen-treasure-trove-of-ancient-artifacts.html.

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