ISIS, the splinter group from al-Qaeda now threatening great swaths of the Middle East, has obtained much of its funding by illegally selling off stolen historical artifacts, it was recently discovered. Now in control of Iraq’s ancient city of Mosul, it is poised to do irrevocable damage to important biblical-era sites and artifacts found and preserved there.
Last month, The Guardian newspaper reported that Iraqi intelligence services found over 160 computer flash drives containing detailed financial information for ISIS in a search of the home of a dead ISIS commander. Among other sources, the records showed income from the illicit sale of antiquities.
“Both al-Qaeda and the Taliban looted antiquities for the purpose of funding their operations,” Thomas Livoti, a PhD student at the University of Montana studying the impact of counterinsurgencies on antiquities in the region, told National Geographic. ISIS is likely using the same funding model, particularly as cash flow from other sources dries up.
“The U.S. is freezing bank accounts and cracking down on false charities,” Livoti added, “so ISIS has to go to alternative methods of financing.”
Now that ISIS has overtaken Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, located in the region of biblical Nineveh, archaeologists and historians are concerned for the fate of the antiquities located there. Particularly, they are worried about the Mosul Museum, finally restored and on the verge of reopening after the US invasion of 2003.
“Unfortunately, the fate of this cultural heritage doesn’t look good,” said Aymen Jawad, the executive director of Iraq Heritage, a not-for-profit advocacy group in Britain. “One of the world’s oldest cities in the Middle East is about to turn into another cultural desert that radical groups are so efficient at creating, while the rest of the world sits and watches.”
According to Christopher Dickey, foreign editor of The Daily Beast, Iraqis are waiting for American assistance to protect these ancient sites and artifacts.
“We as Iraqis are incapable of controlling the situation by ourselves,” Abbas Qureishi, director of the “recovery” program for the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Dickey. Besides the museum in question, Mosul is in the middle of 1,791 registered archeological sites, including four capitals of the Assyrian empire.
“The Iraqi army will be obliged to conduct operations next to these archeological sites,” said Qureishi. The jihadists “will destroy them and say the Iraqi army bombed these sites.”
“So we are asking Americans and Europeans—especially Americans—to understand the gravity of the situation,” said Qureishi, and “to put pressure on the governments of their countries to intervene militarily.” He is hoping for US intervention in particular because, unlike Iraq’s military strikes, which would destroy the antiquities along with the enemy, “U. drones have very precise munitions which can hit targets without destroying the [archeological] sites nearby.”
To date, nothing is being done to protect these antiquities.