Social Control is emerging as ISIS (Daesh) motive for erasing Cultural Heritage in Syria

Social Control is emerging as ISIS (Da’ish) motive for erasing Cultural Heritage in Syria

 

Franklin Lamb

Damascus

It is widely recognized that the damage done to our cultural heritage in Syria and to the heritage of those who will follow us, cannot be calculated. Untold quantities of archaeologically vital artifacts have been looted, sold, displaced and discarded through industry-like efforts.

Citizens of Syria who are increasingly resisting the “IS Caliphate” and risking their own and their families lives to flee ISIS controlled areas in Syria are increasingly willing to discuss their experiences and to offer instructive insights. Among these patriots are regular citizens as well as the stellar nationalist employees of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) who this observer has interviewed extensively over the past nearly three years as they elucidate why ISIS destroys and loots our irreplaceable antiquities. This observer’s research has been augmented by other eyewitnesses, some who are themselves former jihadists or their victims, to ISIS looting and its distribution of franchises to sell off our shared cultural heritage give witness.

Heretofore, three varying but cogent explanations for ISIS’ rabid destruction of our shared cultural heritage have been commonplace

The first identified the well documented Islamic State iconoclastic antipathy towards their and our pre-Islamic past. The second is that the jihadists are generally considered to be profiting hugely from selling our looted antiquities.

Thirdly there has been some evidence-but not compelling in this observers judgment, that jihadists are destroying our cultural heritage in Syria as ‘publicity stunts’ to get attention on social media, with some motivated by profit and offering to sell Syrian artifacts via Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. Meanwhile, according to a US Congressional staffer this week, leftover artifacts are currently being sold by IS to locals at public auctions including but not limited to Raqqa, Mari, Dura-Europos and Deir al Zor.

With respect to the first and second explanations, it is well documented that ISIS has ransacked thousands of artifacts from dozens of World Heritage and archaeological sites in Syria and that the profits from flogging cheap our cultural heritage helps IS meet its monthly budgets, more than 50% of which goes to pay salaries and multiple relatively generous benefits to its fighters and their families.

Yet research by this observer on this subject concludes that ISIS looting income, contrary to many claims including a recent one by CBS News that reported that ISIS generated “hundreds of millions of dollars” from antiquities transactions, although that figure–which rivals the annual haul of antiquities sold legally throughout the entire world, has not been backed up by probative, material data.

One expert, Randall A. Hixenbaugh, Director of New York based Hixenbaugh Ancient Art, told a Manhattan conference recently, “We’re looking at objects that are worth hundreds of dollars here. When we say that these antiquities are worth millions of dollars, where is the evidence of this? I think that prompts people to pick up shovels in eastern Syria. Are we not adding to the problem right now, by hyperbolic assessments of value?”

On May 15, 2015 a raid by American Special Forces on an ISIS safe house in a small village outside Deir ez-Zor killed ISIS leader Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf who was in charge of overseeing the excavation of our cultural heritage. The raid also freed an 18-year old Yazidi slave woman, and captured a trove of documents that revealed far lower amounts from marketing cultural heritage artifacts than earlier estimated. The raid also uncovered many USB’s containing documents verifying that our cultural heritage artifacts are for ISIS just a natural resource to be extracted from the ground rather than as “ghanim” a.k.a looted items or spoils of war.

Selling plundered antiquities is frankly not strategic funding for IS compared to oil, banks, taxes and stolen goods. Far from the initial claims that ISIS was making tens of millions or more from stolen antiquities, the true figures are likely far lower. Some antiquities can indeed be sold to the final buyer in Europe, the United States or Asia for large amounts. But most of the material coming out of the ground in ISIS areas on a daily basis, such as pottery, glassware, coins, and architectural fragments are worth, at most, several hundred dollars at the final point of sale.

The total annual income of ISIS from antiquities is currently calculated by this observer and others who are more expert, at only a few million dollars; compared to, say, oil revenue, which for 2014 was estimated to be between $100 million and $263 million.

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