Subscribe to our Newsletter

Update: Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is Charged at International Criminal Court Hearing

March 3, 2016. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, aka Abou Tourab, was the head of the Ansar Dine “Brigade des Moeurs,” the enforcers of morals under Ansar Dine’s interpretation of Islamic law in the captured city of Timbuktu in 2012. Faqi is now charged with a war crime, the destruction of cultural heritage, in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. Ansar Dine united with another extremist group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to destroy nine mausoleums in Timbuktu, as well as the famous Sidi Yahia mosque, which dated to the 15th and 16th centuries.

In September 2015, an ICC arrest warrant was issued under seal for  Ahmad al Faqi al Mahdi. He was arrested by the government of Niger on 26 September 2016. Later he was transferred to the ICC in Belgium, where he has since been held.

At Faqi’s pre-trial hearing on March 1, Chief ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda accused Faqi of “contempt for history” in the destruction of monuments with pick-axes and iron bars as well as bulldozers. “Humanity’s collective consciousness was shocked by the destruction of these sites. Such an attack must not go unpunished,” she said.

Faqi’s attorney, Jean-Louis Gilissen, denied that Faqi ever meant to attack the actual “contents” of the mausoleums, but to destroy what was built on top of them. He said his client wanted to ” make a contribution to what he thought and understood to be the divine message,” and to do what he believed was right.

Human rights groups are not pleased that Faqi is being charged only with the destruction of cultural heritage. They have pointed out that as the chief of Islamic Police, he not only caused women to be punished for failing to adhere to strict rules of veiling and seclusion, but also encouraged Ansar Dine forces to engage in other crimes against civilians, including rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery.

A statement by FIDH (Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme), said: “Destruction of historic and religious sites is a serious affront to humanity, as it impacts our common heritage. However, a focus solely on cultural damage should not overshadow horrific violence against individuals, especially when both types of crimes were perpetrated simultaneously by the same people.”

FIDH, AMDH (Association Malienne des Droits de l’Homme) and 16 other human rights organizations in Mali have filed a complaint on behalf of 33 victims of crimes committed in Timbuktu before the High Court of the Commune 3 of Bamako. The complaint accuses Al Faqi and 14 others of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual and gender-based crimes.
(See earlier reporting on this website: First Ever Prosecution of Cultural Destruction as a War Crime, October 9, 2015)

Image:Map of Timbuktu from 1855,

Neil Brodie Says Disrupting ISIS Trade Will Not Protect Syrian Antiquities & Archaeological Sites

December 3, 2015.  Archaeologist and cultural property specialist Neil Brodie* has issued an article on the European Union National Institutes for Culture, Washington DC website, calling into question the accuracy of US State Department and law enforcement claims that ISIS is supported by antiquities sales. He concludes that, “Disrupting ISIL’s control of the antiquities trade will not offer secure, long-term protection to Syrian archaeological heritage from the threat of looting, nor will it deal a fatal blow to ISIL financing.

Brodie states first that the receipts from the home of Abu Sayyaf, which are the only material evidence of the scope of the ISIS antiquities trade, may not be authentic, drawing attention to their too convenient timing when no other evidence of ISIS antiquities funding has been forthcoming and their unusual usage of easily read European style numerals for the numbers in trade.

However, even if the receipts are authentic and do accurately reflect the extent of the ISIS trade in antiquities, Brodie notes that they show a relatively insignificant value for the trade of about $4 million dollars a year. Brodie says that while it is always possible that people are stockpiling looted antiquities in the hope of some later profit, there is very little evidence of identified Syrian antiquities on the market.

Brodie asks: How important for ISIL is the money derived from taxing the antiquities trade? On October 5th, 2015, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi published on the website Jihadology some ISIL documentation recording its financial ministry’s accounting of Deir az-Zor province for one month within the period covered by the tax receipts. (And notice that these ISIL records do utilize “Arabic” Arabic numerals). The total income for one month was recorded as $8,438,000. The receipts record a monthly tax revenue from antiquities sales of approximately $66,000. Thus the receipts suggest that the antiquities tax accounts for only a small proportion (0.8%) of ISIL’s total income. This figure accords well with the US Department of the Treasury’s seemingly low estimation of the antiquities trade’s financial importance, behind oil, kidnapping and general extortion. Eliminating this income stream would therefore do little to degrade ISIL’s operational capacity.

Brodie also points out that most archeologically-rich areas of Syria are under the control of Assad or the non-ISIS opposition groups. He acknowledges that both Assad’s forces and Syrian opposition forces “have also engaged in and profited from archaeological looting.”

Brodie concludes: The intention of this comparative analysis is not to nit-pick. It is to make a serious point about appropriate policy. There is an opinion within the archaeological community that highlighting the financial importance to ISIL of the antiquities trade will make it an issue of national security and ensure a strong government response. The danger with this line of reasoning is that the response might be an inappropriate one, aimed more at disabling ISIL and less at protecting archaeological heritage. This seems to be exactly what has happened. Disrupting ISIL’s control of the antiquities trade will not offer secure, long-term protection to Syrian archaeological heritage from the threat of looting, nor will it deal a fatal blow to ISIL financing.

*Neil Brodie is Senior Research Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. Brodie is an archaeologist by training, and has held positions at the British School at Athens, the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, where he was Research Director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, and Stanford University’s Archaeology Center.


AAMD Issues Safe Haven Protocols for Art from Countries in Crisis

October 29, 2015. The Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) newly issued Protocols For Safe Havens For Works Of Cultural Significance From Countries In Crisis urge international museum actions to protect artistic heritage at risk of loss and destruction. The AAMD protocols stress security, preservation in museum safe havens, international access, and returning objects only when it is safe to do so. The protocols thereby run counter to current US government policies, which prioritize repatriation, even to hostile regimes in countries currently in a state of war.

The Protocols begin, “Protecting works of cultural significance in danger of damage, destruction or looting as a result of war, terrorism or natural disasters is the responsibility of everyone and especially of institutions whose mission is to protect, conserve and study the artistic heritage of human kind.”

According to the AAMD, member museums can offer technical and professional help to preserve collections in countries where crises threaten the security of cultural heritage, but in situations where in situ assistance is not practical, AAMD museums and other cultural institutions outside the areas of crisis can offer safe havens to works in danger until they can be safely returned. The AAMD notes that objects might require specialized treatment or care that is unavailable nearby. Therefore museums in North America and around the world should offer to preserve and protect threatened cultural property.

The AAMD notes that providing a safe haven removes threatened works from the marketplace (legal or illegal), preserves their physical integrity, and enables essential documentation to record these works for posterity.

The AAMD statement identifies the following as possible depositors of artworks for safe haven: museums and governmental entities inside countries in crisis, US government authorities who have seized works on entry to the US, and private individuals, companies, or organizations who have come into possession of artworks.

The protocols call for action to inventory and document the condition of works prior to movement, if possible; safe transportation, preferably paid by the depositor; storage comparable to that which an AAMD museum applies to works in its own collection, and conservation for works in need of immediate stabilization.

Works should be inventoried, digitally documented, and treated as loaned works typically would be. Museums should publish the documentation on their own websites, on the AAMD Object Registry, and appropriate international websites.

Museums should grant scholarly access to the works as they would for objects in their own collections. With the consent of depositors, museums may exhibit works stored for safe haven and all information about them should be made available to the public, along with educational information on preserving heritage.

Finally, the AAMD notes that return of objects should take place as soon as is practicable and that objects might be returned to the depositor, the then owner, the government of the affected area, or to the government of the United States, among others. The AAMD urges compliance with all applicable law in returning objects and the avoidance of potential ownership disputes.

Image: Photograph by Mariam Hale, Lamassu in Seattle Alley, 2015

Mariam Hale Photo Syria lamassu poster in Seattle

The Truth About Ivory and Terrorism

October 29, 2015.  A NY Times Opinion piece by Tristan McConnell, The Ivory-Funded Terrorism Myth, debunks the supposed links between terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab (the East African Al-Qaeda offshoot) and the international ivory trade. McConnell notes that misdirected efforts based on bad information have had disastrous consequences: the illegal ivory trade continues unabated, and Al-Shabaab’s true sources of revenue continue to flow into its coffers. He notes that flawed analysis that vastly exaggerates the terrorism/ivory connection has become the prevalent media narrative, influencing governments, NGOs, and conservation advocates and hampering efforts to halt the flow of funds to terrorist groups in Africa.

Christian Nellemann, author of a joint United Nations Environmental Program and Interpol report on global environmental crime told McConnell that the supposed Al Shabaab/ivory connection was “total nonsense.”

Marc Bryce, the former coordinator of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea told McConnell, “We saw nothing and we heard nothing about ivory,” during the four years he was in charge.

The direst warnings come from a major research paper funded by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute. In An Illusion of Complicity: Terrorism and the Illegal Ivory Trade in East Africa, authors Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein describe in detail the actual main sources of Al Shabaab’s funding: widespread extortionate taxation and illegal export of charcoal and sugar. Author Maguire states: ‘With attention required on so many fronts, the ivory-terrorism narrative serves as nothing more than a distraction from the international community’s efforts to tackle Al-Shabaab financing.”

The report contains extensive recommendations to address separately what it views as two completely separate criminal issues, among them, going after higher echelon government corruption and linked organized crime to stem the ivory trade, and engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia to halt Al-Shabaab’s trade-based financing through illegal charcoal and sugar.

There appear to be similarities between the media’s  ill-directed focus on the illicit ivory trade as a primary funding mechanism for Al-Shabaab and the patently absurd claims that the illicit antiquities trade is a major funding source for ISIS. Better data could result in a better-directed campaign against looting and cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria.

Image: Solmali Tribune,

Metropolitan Museum Event: Conflict Antiquities, Panel 1

October 28, 2015.  The State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs has released both video and a transcript of the two panel discussions on Conflict Antiquities held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 29, 2015.

Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum, opened the first of two panel discussions, speaking of the destructive power of iconoclasm, both past and present. Dr. Campbell described museums, federal agencies, diplomats, and international organizations as the collective guardians of the past. He urged all to work collectively, and “not be deterred by fear or misinformation from doing what we can to be clear-eyed about the present and prepared for the future.  Right now, information is perhaps the most important resource. Comprehending what is being lost and preserving archival details will allow these objects and monuments to survive within our universal body of knowledge and allow us to reconstruct in the future, where possible.”

A number of speakers on the first panel (complete transcript here) dwelt almost exclusively on looting and the evils of the market, rather than on halting the destructive actions of ISIS on site and the importance of documentation and preservation of artifacts wherever possible.

Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State announced that the Department of State had expanded the Rewards for Justice Program, which will offer up to $5 million in rewards for information leading to the significant disruption of the sale and/or the trade of antiquities by, for, or on behalf of ISIL.

Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational And Cultural Affairs spoke of the importance of “implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2199, which condemns the destruction and looting of cultural heritage and calls on member states to take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other artifacts of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare, scientific, and religious importance.”

Michael Danti of the American Schools Of Oriental Research did mention that, “In our first year, we were largely looking at cultural heritage destruction, which is outside my talk today.” He noted that looting was occurring everywhere, but that looting by ISIL was characterized by “remov[ing] the entire archaeological site from the face of the Earth.” Danti also said that the movement of antiquities paralleled refugee routes. He said the materials seen most frequently in illicit trade are “gold and silver coins and low-denomination copper and bronze coins in large lots…And just random assortments of material.” He also said that ostensibly high value fakes coins, probably from Bulgaria, were used to salt the characteristically low value and minor antiquities coming from Iraq and Syria.

Andrew Keller, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State, Bureau Of Economic And Business Affairs stated that the U.S. government assesses that ISIL has probably earned several million dollars from antiquity trafficking since mid-2014, whereas ISIS has raised a total of over a billion dollars from all revenue sources. Despite the disproportionate estimates of antiquities revenue versus total revenue, based on US government estimates, he strongly emphasized the information gathered in the raid on the home of Abu Salaaf to show that ISIS was committed to exploiting antiquities looting and taxes on looters, claiming that this raid should end claims that ISIS is not profiting from the sale of antiquities. He said, “There’s still some people who resist the idea that ISIL is profiting from the trade in antiquities.  I’m here to tell you that there can no longer be any doubt. “

(It should be noted that this author and others who presumably fall into the “doubters” category have objected to the absurdly inflated numbers for ISIS looting revenue, often said to be in the multi-billion dollar range, that are tossed about by anti-trade activists, not to the claims that looting is taking place in ISIS controlled territory as well as in territory held by non-ISIS insurgents and by the Assad regime. Mr. Keller’s remarks actually appear to support such skepticism.)

Robert Hartung, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State, Bureau Of Diplomatic Security spoke to the effectiveness of prior reward programs offered by the US government and stressed that the Reward for Justice program was not a buyback program for trafficked antiquities.

Mauro Miedico, Chief of Section, Terrorism Prevention Branch, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that his office estimated in 2011 that he proceeds of transnational crime related to art and cultural property amounted to between $3.4 and $6.3 billion yearly, but did not specify the types of art, the regions, or the data supporting these numbers. He did note that, “trafficking in cultural property would be difficult, if not impossible, without corrupted customer officer, border police, with the complicity of the private sector dealers.”

Mr. Meidico was the first speaker to outline a plan for responding to illegal trafficking. He called for “broad criminalization of illegal trade of antiquities in all jurisdictions,…a comprehensive study to assess the extent of the trafficking, trafficking routes, countries involved… do[ing] more to support criminal justice practitioners in using special investigative techniques, conducting financial investigations, as well as with prosecution, adjudication, international cooperation, and confiscation… adoption of emergency border control efforts, including efforts to strengthen the capacity to detect illicitly excavated or stolen cultural property and to stop the export of looted cultural property to finance terrorism.”  He said that UNODC has organized a regional workshop on cross-border cooperation to prevent and suppress the financing of terrorist acts in Egypt for Middle East and North African and plans to hold similar workshops in the region.

Lev Kubiak, Assistant Director, International Operations, Homeland Security Investigations discussed DHS activities such as the Mummy’s Curse investigation (see Masterpiece Theater, April 1, 2015 ) Richard Downing, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice said that his office was anticipating working on potential prosecutions for trading in illicit antiquities and looking forward to partnering with the private sector; he asked that museums and merchants and marketplace participants be aware of the potential for Syrian and Iraqi and Middle Eastern antiquities that may appear on the market and expressed the hope that people who do encounter antiquities from the region report that law enforcement. Maxwell Marker, Section Chief, Criminal Investigative Division, FBI echoed Mr. Downing’s call for cooperation between the private section and government and stressed the need for due diligence by all to avoid purchasing illicit antiquities.

At the close of the first panel, a member of the audience asked about US laws that can be used to prosecute trade in looted antiquities (customs, money-laundering, stolen property statutes); another asked whether people who buy illicit artifacts could be prosecuted as well (yes); another pointed out that there had been long term lawful import and trade in antiquities and that Palmyra reliefs had not only been on the market for a long time but that they were not very desirable and asked how pre-existing collections could be distinguished (best protection is to exercise due diligence and not purchase items with uncertain provenance); another audience member noted that items without provenance were relatively valueless and asked whether antiquities were not, in fact, the smallest income stream to ISIS (Mr. Ryan said they were aiming to cut off all their revenue stream, however small it may be); the last audience member noted that the vast majority of looting in the geographical chart shown by the panelists appeared to be coming from Aleppo Province and from Hasakah, both of which are predominantly controlled by either the Syrian rebels or by the Kurds and asked if that was actually the source of most of the antiquities looting and smuggling, and whether that’s because of their practices or whether it’s simply where the sites are (Mr. Danti said they had better reporting from Aleppo and Hasakah).






Metropolitan Museum Event: Conflict Antiquities, Panel 2

October 28, 2015.  The second panel at the Conflict Antiquities program held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 29, 2015 (See complete transcript and video.) began with a CBS News video introduced by Investigative Producer Jennifer Janisch featuring a “pair of nervous young Syrians” who offered her CBS team a Roman mosaic and glass vessels allegedly from Apamea for sale. Ms. Janisch said she continues to receive offers of antiquities, both real and fake, for sale in Istanbul.

Ms. Janisch was followed by Sharon Cott, Senior Vice President, Secretary, and General Counsel to the Metropolitan Museum, who stated, “It’s humbling to face the question, what can we do to help to protect the world’s ancient civilizations at this particular moment in history?” Ms. Cott then set forth three museum initiatives: (1) acquisition guidelines established by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) which are already in place and which effectively prohibit U.S. art museums from acquiring works of art which may have been recently looted from Syria and Iraq; (2) offering assistance and sharing expertise in identifying and preserving art and antiquities with colleagues in the crisis region and across the world, and (3) the release by AAMD of protocols for safe havens of works of cultural significance from countries in crisis that encourage AAMD members to act as safe havens, to open their doors to temporarily store works in danger of destruction or looting and which can help serve as a model for other museums around the world. (See AAMD Issues Safe Haven Protocols for Art from Countries in Crisis)

Markus Hilgert, Director, Ancient Near East Museum at the Pergamon museum, Berlin State Museums identified the biggest threat to heritage as the illicit traffic in antiquities “despite the horrible pictures we’ve seen from Palmyra and Nimrud.” He noted that, “95% of [the Pergamon museum] archaeological objects come from regular documented archaeological excavations and these objects were transferred to Berlin on the basis of partage.” Dr. Hilgert spoke regarding the new German national research project called ILLICID being developed by academics at the request of law enforcement authorities, that carries out research on criminological methods for an in-depth analysis of illicit traffic in cultural property in Germany. He also hailed the ongoing revision of the German Culture Property Protection Law which will have a mandatory export documentation rule for all source countries for all archaeological objects to be imported to Germany. (Note: Since only a few countries in the world have ever had a permitting system or allow export of antiquities, this proposed law is expected to essentially end import of antiquities into Germany.)

Ute Wartenberg Kagan, director of the American Numismatic Society and former curator of Greek coins in the British Museum said that coins appear to be the most common material depicted in photographs of looted items and that looting of coins in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere is undoubtedly widespread, but that so far, “hard, actual evidence for coins coming from Syria and Iraq to the U.S. is virtually non-existent, or to put it differently, not available to numismatic scholars like myself.” She said her own analysis showed that certain hitherto rare coin types, specifically one type featuring Queen Zenobia and her son, which were minted in Turkey but distributed in Syria in ancient times, appeared in the market at a rate of two or three per year, and in the last two years, seven or eight a year have appeared, and this increase is likely to be linked to the conflict in Syria. Ms. Kagan said the practice of the American Numismatic Society is to buy coins only from known dealers with provenance of ten years or more, to reject gifts of items with limited provenance, and to advise their membership to do the same. The Society also immediately publishes all items online, so that if there is a question of proper ownership, the Society can address it directly. (Note: See an interesting and disturbing American Numismatic Society blog post on the find of an scholarly archaeological treatise in the hands of Turkish ISIS fighters captured by Kurdish troops.)

Sandra L. Cobden, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Christie’s, spoke about the process used by the auction house to vet antiquities before agreeing to market them. Christie’s antiquities department, she said, requires “written documentation that an object has been out of its country of origin by a date certain.  For Iraq, that means 1990.  For Syria, it means 2000.” Christie’s checks the ALR, FBI and Interpol databases, looks into the background of the consignors, and only then does the antiquities department pass the items for prospective sale to the legal department for a provenance review. If an object fails the vetting process for lack of documentation, but has a reasonable history, it may be sent back to the consignor. If Christie’s believes an item has been stolen, it notifies legal authorities, in one case resulting in the arrest of the consignor.

The last speaker was Wolfgang Weber, Head of Global Regulatory Policy, eBay. He stressed eBay’s concerns that only licit items be sold, stating that eBay relied heavily on reporting by other marketplace participants, removing non-compliant listings based on internal filter and rule systems, and community web form reports. He said that consistent application of reporting policies and educational information regarding sales of antiquities published online at eBay had reduced the number of reports of non-compliance from hundreds to only one or two per month, if any. He also noted that eBay cooperates with the U.S. Department of State and Department of Homeland Security regarding potentially looted cultural goods from the Middle East and other areas.

Audience questions included one from Katharyn Hanson with the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center who asked what could be done to get support for Senate Bill S. 1887. Ms. Kagan replied that both educating collectors and enabling collectors to collect legitimately were important, as well as building a climate in which people come together to discuss the issues as opposed to attacking each other nonstop. Sandra Cobden added that Christie’s “often goes to UNESCO conferences and finds it is the only art market participant there… [there should be] forums where our collectors, our market participants and archaeologists, government officials, can be brainstorming about these issues together and coming up with practical next steps and solutions.”