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.