Blood antiques: The stolen artefacts that helped build the $2 billion ISIS empire

How the militant group steals and smuggles ancient antiquities to build its massive military war chest.

Peter Iantorno June 23, 2015

When ISIS fighters laid siege to the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra last month, apart from the horrendous death toll thought to be in excess of 400 people, a major fear was that the militants would destroy the ancient ruins, which have stood on the site for centuries. 

As well as the human atrocities it is so infamous for, ISIS has developed a reputation for destroying anything in its path that it deemed to be polytheistic - promoting the worship of multiple gods - and has released videos of its men seemingly doing exactly that: smashing ancient statues in the Mosul Museum, Iraq.

However, in the days following the capture of Palmyra, another video was released, this time of the ancient Silk Road city almost completely abandoned but, crucially, with the ruins remaining intact. 

Is this a sign that ISIS has relaxed its hard-line stance on what it considers to be false idols? Well, no. The key, it seems, to the militants deciding against destroying certain items is their value on the black market.

Somewhere along the way, ISIS bigwigs caught on that the old statues they were smashing to pieces on their path of destruction are actually worth a hell of a lot of money – but only if they can find the right buyers. 

Extortion, taxation and a massive profit from seized oil fields in Syria are said to bring in anything up to $3 million per day, bulging the ISIS coffers to in excess of $2 billion.

Take the Mosul Museum destruction, for example. While it seemed at first glance that ISIS had no regard for what it called “worthless idols”, it turns out that these particular artifacts were indeed worthless – they were plaster copies, according to an interview the head of Iraq’s national antiquities department, Fawzye al-Mahdi, gave to the BBC.

Make no mistake though, as soon as ISIS comes across something real that is small enough for it to transport and sell, any talk of “worthless idols” goes out of the window. According to a report by The Guardian, the group profited $36 million from the smuggling and sale of looted items, including 8,000-year-old relics, from al-Nabuk, a mountainous area west of Damascus.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. With ISIS territory growing rapidly out of its current stronghold on the border of Syria and Iraq, the militants are operating in one of the world’s richest archaeological areas – a veritable gold mine of historically important artifacts, ripe to be plundered.

But while the so-called Islamic State’s methods of getting its hands on the precious artifacts are pretty clear, what is less obvious is exactly how it manages to sell them. After all, who in their right mind would buy a looted ancient statue from the most wanted militant organisation in the world?

Well, unfortunately for those trying to cut off this source of illicit income, the operation is a sophisticated one. Using already well-established networks of smugglers through Turkey and Lebanon, the group transports its ill-gotten gains all over the world. The smugglers do the dirty work and take all the risk of being caught.

Most of the loot ends up in private collections, with buyers either unaware of the source or simply willing to look the other way if it means they can get their hands on a bargain.

Of course, stolen antiques aren’t ISIS’s only source of income – far from it. Extortion, taxation and a massive profit from seized oil fields in Syria are said to bring in anything up to $3 million per day, bulging the ISIS coffers to in excess of $2 billion. 

While cutting off the antique revenue stream will ultimately prove to be a drop in the ocean for the richest militant group in the world, refusing to buy antiques without a clear provenance remains perhaps the only way that normal people can take a stance against ISIS’ destruction of the ancient world.