Sub-Saharan Africa West Asia, North Africa and Afghanistan 

Heritage Destruction: An Overlooked Conflict Contributor

by Luke Hally

The looting of antiquities is a frequently overlooked aspect when considering the variables of conflict causation and continuation. The private market of antiquities is often allowed to operate with less stringent scrutiny than petroleum or rare earth minerals. This lack of scrutiny is present in the most prestigious auction houses, such as Christie’s, as recent as June 2020, with two Igbo statues looted during the Biafran war in Nigeria. It acts as a proxy front for both militant and regime officials to evade sanctions and raise funds to continue war aims.

Looted antiquities are becoming pertinent in ongoing conflicts, particularly in the WANA region. Successive examples and cases of the stolen artefacts’ sale directly contribute to militant groups’ funding. One such example can be found in the contemporary conflict of the Yemen civil war, where militant groups such as the Houthis and al-Qaeda have plundered artefacts from Yemen’s ancient capital Zabid. This plundering allows war effort financing in a campaign against Saudi backed Yemeni government forces. The funding channels are often directly correlated with private buyers overseas. The culture minister of Yemen, Marwan Dammaj, published a 290-page report in March 2019, documenting 1,631 looted Yemeni artefacts. This report reflects the organised plundering of antiquities by militants and campaign financing through their sale. In the contemporary Syrian civil conflict, this type of activity is also present. One such estimate, discussed in a 2016 congressional hearing by the US Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing, revealed that ISIS funding from the sale of looted antiquities in Syria and Iraq is estimated to be in the range of $100 million. This figure, however, is the conservative estimate, as it does not factor in the most recent five years of ISIS activity and focuses explicitly on the regions of Iraq and Syria. The terror group’s territory expands to Libya, the Sahel, Afghanistan and the Philippines, all areas that have seen countless examples of antiquity looting while under their control. The financing derived from the destruction and sale of looted artefacts amounts to the second largest funding source for the treasury of ISIS.

The targeting of heritage sites serves as a tripartite function within conflict assessment. The first aspect is the funding derived from the sale of the plundered artefacts. The second is the destruction of the site as an assault on opposing factions’ cultural identity. The third is a propagandist reinforcement of the groups’ image through its destruction. The case of ISIS activity in the WANA region, with the destruction of Palmyra, reflects this tripartite nature. The sale from the looted artefacts supplies the treasury of the terror group allowing furtherance of violence. The destruction of the site then assaults the cultural resonance of the Syrian national identity. As it is the capital of the Palmyrene empire, which seceded from and fought the Roman empire, it plays an integral aspect in Syrian national pride, an identity opposed to the ideology of ISIS. Finally, it reinforces the ideology of ISIS themselves, acting as a propaganda element that supports their views on the destruction of what they consider idolatry. There are secondary factors to the core tripartite function of the act of heritage site targeting. These include destruction concealing looting evidence and evidence of what remains survive after the initial destruction. The next pivotal factor in this act is reflected in the propaganda of site destruction, which increases the exposure of the group to a global audience, who become aware of this act through media reporting. This then will inevitably contribute to an influx of members joining the terror group and increase the sale prices of the antiquities they are destroying through media attention.

The coordination and sophistication of the plundering of antiquities that fund armed groups can be witnessed when taking ISIS as a case study. Intel recovered from United States Delta Force raids on senior leaders such as Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, revealed that there were key competencies overseen by senior officials, specifically managing antiquities. Al-Tunisi, while operating under his nom de geurre Abu Sayyaf, acted as an appointed leader of the Antiquities Division in the Al-Sham Wiliayahs. Documents retrieved in a raid on May 15th 2015, reflect a sophisticated unit structure dedicated to the looting, destruction and sale of antiquities in ISIS-held territory. They show an active control of this trade in order to maximise fund procurement. Not only does this reveal a system of organised looting, yet it reflects more pressing concerns through the data collected in the raid, such as systematic looting of artefacts delineated on a province by province basis. This shows that each territory under their control possesses a similar rigorous complexity of organised looting within them.

This sophisticated network of profiting from this type of activity has resulted in examples of looted antiquities appearing at prominent auction houses in London. These include antiquities from heritage sites such as Palmyra, which suffered immense destruction while under the control of ISIS. Ominously referred to as ‘blood antiquities’, these objects have appeared in antique dealers throughout London, with minimal documentation or scrupulous investigatory efforts to distinguish looted from unlooted artefacts. The severity of this channel of funding access is further elevated in terms of its profit accruing potential, not only sold in physical auction houses but also online.

Online sales are becoming ever more challenging to curtail due to the range of access at the disposal of the individuals complicit in the transaction. The 1970 UNESCO convention, which bans the sale of looted antiquities, proves to be an archaic form of policy protection against these new channels of sale. Even with the recent 2017 UN Security Council resolution 2347, which threatened sanctions against countries that allow terrorist groups to profit from Syrian and Iraqi artefacts, the policy protection remains ineffective at curtailing this activity. At the bare minimum, import and export documentation, proof of sale, and documented transactional history should be a constant requirement. Further measures should be taken to blanket ban the sale and purchase of antiquities derived from a region gripped by war. Online examples of Palmyrene artefacts can still be found at London based auction houses, such as a Palmyrene bronze tessera, selling for €403.58, and sold only with a certificate of authenticity as an identifiable piece of documentation.

By Jerzy Strzelecki (

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