On chasing the looting/terror connection

CNN image of the destruction of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001
CNN image of the destruction of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001

There has been a renewed series of reports in recent weeks connecting the looting of antiquities to terrorism. This recent Guardian article quotes an unnamed intelligence official stating that ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has partially funded its activities through looting antiquities from ancient sites, though it surely gained far more by commandeering oilfields. Also this piece by Heather Pringle for National Geographic does a good job profiling the work of the Trafficking Culture group at the University of Glasgow, but it cannot resist the big headline. The Nat. Geo. piece makes mention of some of the tenuous connections between insurgents, terrorists, and antiquities looters. I’m uncomfortable calling every insurgent a terrorist, and the connections which are made point to antiquities looting as being a very minor, if inconsequential aspect of the activities of these groups. Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine and prosecutor, has also publicly stated that terrorists loot as well though I’m not aware of specifics he can point to.

The root for these connections may be this 2005 Der Spiegel article which again cites an unnamed investigator, this time a member of Germany’s BKA, as claiming that Mohammed Atta may have tried to use looted antiquities to finance the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This report, which contains little concrete information has had a longer shelf-life than it deserves, and has been used by a number of less-rigorous researchers, notably this piece authored by Noah Charney and two others which appears on the FBI website and breathlessly exclaims “[f]undamentalist terrorist groups rely on looted antiquities as a major funding source”. The data simply is not there to make this kind of connection, no matter how many clicks, headlines, or book sales it might generate. And making the connection is unhelpful.

What’s the harm in connecting antiquities looting to the activities of terrorists, ISIS, and other unsavory groups? For one, it diminishes the importance of antiquities looting as an issue. These reporters and some in law enforcement make the claim because many politicians and officials who make decisions about prosecutions and allocation of resources do not make policing antiquities a priority. As many have pointed out, too many law enforcement agencies still treat art theft and looting of sites as a property crime. The efforts to connect antiquities looting to terrorism then is a way to bootstrap this issue on to other crimes which receive more attention. Chasing the looting/terror connection means that some heritage advocates can even attempt to lump collectors and museums into funding terror. This is an unfortunate trend, and one which I think does the heritage community a disservice and lessens the level of intelligent discourse. Imagine a terrorist network is apprehended and we know it received funding by looting sites. If the network is “dismantled” by prosecution or drone strike, the site is still there, still unprotected, and still not a priority.

I suspect many terrorist and insurgent groups probably do engage in antiquities looting to some extent. But they engage in lots of other more lucrative criminal activity too. Just because hijackers may have visited strip clubs, played video games, or taken flying lessons does not make those activities “terrorism”. They are correlations without meaningful connections. Terrorists are the worst kind of criminal, and should be pursued and prosecuted as such. Likewise, archaeological looting is a serious and tragic crime which robs us of our collective cultural heritage. To attempt to make cheap connections between looting and terrorism undermines the cause and seriousness of the theft and looting. There are far more direct links between armed conflict and the looting and destruction of sites, we should perhaps focus our energy there. If we want our politicians and law enforcement agencies to take heritage crime seriously, we need to work harder to make them pay attention with real facts, losses, and data and avoid chasing tenuous links which are dramatic but have little chance of producing sound long-term cultural policy. The links may exist, but those interested in preserving antiquities should dial back linking the looting of sites with terrorism.



11 thoughts on “On chasing the looting/terror connection”

  1. Derek;

    Thank you for this lucid and rational post in the midst of ideological chaos. Everybody can see the toll taken by looters. Unfortunately, the media and institutional rhetoric these days seems not to encourage levels of agreement and cooperation in reducing this problem. Instead, it is an exercise in flexing biceps and pounding chests in an unproductive attitude of self-righteousness. The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has extended a standing offer to engage in serious discussions with archaeological community decision makers with an aim toward establishing manageable parameters in the legitimate trade. The hoped for response has not been forthcoming. In fact, it seems that the anti-collector rhetoric mounts daily. That is a sad fact, because the hope of some in academia that private collecting can be suppressed by vilification is a pipe dream and the current rhetoric further divides two very large groups of society that once enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. National Geographic and other media outlets have recently joined in with a flurry of activist op-eds and “articles” that merely inflame the situation.



  2. Surely the very reason for the uncertainty about who, apart from no-questions asked dealers and collectors, benefits from clandestine parts of this trade is due to the lack of transparency within it.

    As for the previous comment, I am at a loss to understand why Mr Sayles thinks (a) that the problem of the circulation of unprovenanced antiquities concerns coins, and coin collectors, alone and (b) why he is so eager to conduct his ”discussions” just with “archaeologists”.

    In reality, whether dealers like it or not, the foundations for the definition for “parameters for the legitimate trade” were laid down 44 years ago in the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the intent of which was to form common ground for discussion. For nearly half a decade, the commercial sector and collecting community have been continuing to act as though these principles are wholly irrelevant to them and the circulation of illicit artefacts has continued under the umbrella of the self-righteousness of those handling increasing amounts of material of wholly unknown collecting history.

    Their lobbying led to the USA’s current disappointing, anachronistic, selective “implementation” of these principles. Mr Sayles and his organization are today shamefully busy trying to reduce even further the effectiveness of these measures as far as the US antiquities market is concerned.

    What basis for a dialogue and “levels of agreement and cooperation in reducing this problem” he imagines that creates is beyond my ability to understand. What kind of “response” does he expect such activities to elicit?

    The archaeological heritage is not Mr Sayles’ alone to do as he wants with, nor is it yours or mine. As such, we all have a duty to inform public opinion about what we see going wrong, what we feel is damaging, and what needs improving. The ACCG and its officers have since its formation been engaged in a public information programme outlining every single fault they can see (or imagine) in heritage legislation and in archaeology and archaeologists in particular. I imagine he would justify that as ‘free speech’ and deny that he was responsible in any way for ‘inflaming the situation’. He should then accord the same privileges to those he attacks. Let us see whose arguments are the more persuasive: those who argue for continuing a messy status quo which only adds uncertainty about where artefacts are coming onto the market from and where the funds are going (as in the present case), or those who want to see the market making more of an effort to document the licit provenance of the items it handles.

    The dealers that actually achieve that are not those being criticised by either archaeologists or the media.

      1. “I rest my case” Yes, I expect you do.

        You may play the victim and label any substantive issues raised “rhetoric”, but as a result we can all wonder why you think that you and your organization imagine you’d be able to take part in any serious discussions about those transparency issues and how to resolve them.

        Meanwhile, while the trade’s advocates alienate themselves from the ongoing debate, it is left to others without their aid to attempt to penetrate the fog surrounding the international commerce in illicit antiquities and try to see it in some wider context, and try to reach some basic definitions. As is the case with Professor Fincham’s post above.

  3. The best I can do as being an artist and caring about art created from many time periods is to save as much images that is available on line. The destruction and looting going on even to this moment is one of the saddest things I am feeling right now.

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