U.S. Seeks to Prevent Islamic State From Looting, Selling or Destroying Antiquities
Posted on Sep 16, 2016
United States officials are redoubling their efforts to protect ancient works of art. In a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, professors and government representatives including State Department officials gathered to discuss the security of Middle East antiquities. While Islamic State is known to destroy large cultural antiquities to attract media attention (such as the public destruction of the Temple of Bel in Syria), the group also engages in the trafficking of antiquities to fund its operations.
Stopping the problem has been a challenge.
From The New York Times in January:
The sale of heritage objects has sparked renewed interest among U.S. national security officials because the funds from stolen antiquities help fuel Islamic State’s capacity for violence. The artifacts can generate sizable revenues, estimated at $150 million to $200 million per year.
The U.S. Department of State reported in May 2015 that “U.S. Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of ISIL’s oil and gas, and antiquities division” and discovered hundreds of historical artifacts. Documents found in the raid confirmed Islamic State’s large profit from theft.
Stephen Epstein, special adviser to the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, expressed his concerns at the congressional briefing: “Documents captured by the raid showed that Daesh [Islamic State] has elaborate bureaucracy devoted to the administration of the sale of antiquities. … The artifacts looted from Syria and Iraq have not immediately flooded the art market. Some have trickled onto the market, but most—especially the most costly pieces—have been warehoused awaiting a more propitious market environment.”
In addition to focusing on Islamic State’s financial strategy, U.S. officials are concerned with the preservation of cultural items. Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian Institution, spoke at the meeting about the importance of recovering Middle Eastern antiquities, noting that displaced populations will eventually return to territories now controlled by Islamic State. “People need something to return to someday ... ,” she said. “After you save people’s lives, you have to save people’s reason for living.”
—Posted by Clara Romeo
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