You may have heard from one of the many sources covering events in Syria that the head of antiquities in Palmyra – a UNESCO World Heritage city east of Homs – was recently beheaded by the Islamic State. An elderly scholar, Khaled Asaad was kidnapped and killed at a time when Syrian government forces are assaulting IS-controlled parts of the city.
A solid portfolio of evidence describing the black market antiquities trade IS takes part in has been building this year, mapping out the terrorist organizations strategies for profiteering off the goods by trafficking them outside the conflict zone. The antiquities end up in the West.
The media is often focused on the most grotesque aspects of the crime. The looting, the beheading, and the propaganda value the Islamic State’s actions hold. What is less covered is the business of antiquities trafficking. For every dozen article on the latest heinous crime involving the destruction of a historic site, there are far fewer on the business model underpinning the trades profitability.
Explaining the success of black market antiquities trafficking can not occur by only exposing the supplier (in this case, IS). More exposure of the demand for these goods is necessary. It is already well-known that IS is an evil organization that does horrifying things for their own viability. What we need more coverage of is those who choose to do business with this group; the middlemen transporting antiquities and the wealthy buyers purchasing the goods for their own private collections. This will often mean going after Westerners.
Besides exposing the involved players aiding and abetting the organization that is at the root of the problem, policy’s oriented towards the systematic surveillance of traffickers and their buyers should go forward. Dismantling these networks is as important to diminishing the trade as the weakening of IS through military airstrikes and bolstering ground forces against them. Building state capacity is crucial for the task. The integration of national intelligence organizations with international agencies designed to halt these cultural crimes (Interpol and the U.N.), as well as involving NGO’s who can share their own expertise, would put pressure on operations.
Not enough money, manpower, or international cooperation has been allocated for the dismantlement of the networks keeping the Islamic State’s finances solvent.