Tens of thousands of looted antiques from war-torn countries have ended up in the West, funding armed groups’ violent activities, a report says
European antiquities dealers have enabled war crimes by buying tens of thousands of looted artefacts from the Middle East and helping dreaded terror groups such as Daesh finance their terror activities, a new report has said.
The Docket, an initiative of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, said on Wednesday that the destruction and plunder of cultural heritage in war-affected Middle Eastern countries is on a scale not seen since World War II.
“Particularly in the last decade, looting and trading antiquities coming from this region has taken industrial scale,” Anya Neistat, legal director of the initiative said.
“Armed groups take control over the areas engaged directly in the looting or supervise it and then take them out of the countries to be eventually sold in Europe, in the United States and all over the world.”
For Daesh, plundering and selling off antiquities has become one of Daesh's main funding sources ever since it took over large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. The group reportedly established a division specifically responsible for looting antiquities that would eventually end up in Europe.
The ancient city of Palmyra in Syria faced one of the worst Daesh onslaughts. The artefacts stolen from the city were sold for as much as $60,000 per piece, a smuggler who worked with Daesh told NBC News in 2016. The smuggler said the artefacts looted by Daesh were purchased by his German, French and American clients.
The Docket says armed groups also use the funds generated from the antiquities trade to purchase weapons, recruit and compensate members, and support their violent operations”.
“Not a victimless crime”
The report came out of an extensive investigation by The Docket. From sifting through open-sources and conducting field research in 2020 to tracking smuggling of the antiquities stolen from Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen into Europe and the US, the investigators contacted officials in France, Belgium Switzerland, Germany and the US, pushing them to prosecute those involved in this illicit trade.
In Europe, war criminals are increasingly being brought to justice while some Middle Eastern countries try to bring looted artefacts back home in light of their reconstruction efforts.
Deadly terrorist attacks over the past decade around the world “raised awareness over how armed groups and terrorist organizations are funded, including through the looting of antiquities,” the report said.
“These atrocities indicate that the illicit trade in looted antiquities is not a victimless crime,” the group said, adding that the prosecution of culprits would disrupt the looted artefact trade and ultimately save people’s lives.
The group says the looting of the antiquities particularly negatively impacted the minority groups as their sites have been targeted by the terrorist group the most alongside the religious sites.
Analysis of satellite images and digital mapping techniques were used to spot the sites that have been excavated in the region.