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These activists want buyers and dealers of stolen relics to face criminal charges

A still from a video by The Clooney Foundation for Justice showing the Ain Dara archeological site storage and warehouse in the northern Aleppo Governorate, in Syria. The facility was later looted by various armed groups and bulldozed at some point between 2019 and 2020.
The Clooney Foundation for Justice
A still from a video by The Clooney Foundation for Justice showing the Ain Dara archeological site storage and warehouse in the northern Aleppo Governorate, in Syria. The facility was later looted by various armed groups and bulldozed at some point between 2019 and 2020.

It's common knowledge that armed non-state groups in the Middle East bankroll themselves with oil and ransom money. But a close third in the pipeline that fuels warlords and terrorists globally? The plunder and sale of antiquities.

If activists have their way, the buyers and dealers of those stolen cultural relics will face criminal repercussions.

The Docket, a project of The Clooney Foundation for Justice, has been conducting an international investigation into the smuggling of antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa, looking at the network that supplies pillaged artifacts to Western collectors and dealers. It is sharing its findings with law enforcement agencies in the hopes that doing so will lead to the criminal prosecution of those whose purchase these artifacts, which, it says, makes them accomplices to war crimes and financiers of terrorism.

As of now, there are a few recent examples of high-profile individuals, such as Jean-Luc Martinez, a former director of the Louvre, being charged with allegedly purchasing looted antiquities. But such cases are few and far between.

"We do feel that these investigations ... will not be successful unless there is very significant public attention to the issue, unless conflict antiquities start being seen just as tainted as blood diamonds, or ivory trade, or other forms of trafficking," said Anya Neistat, The Docket's legal director, sharing some of the project's findings with reporters in D.C. on Wednesday.

Here's why: Looted antiquities from countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have been sold online for years. Their sales fund armed groups in those countries, bankrolling their weapons and recruitment efforts. Those recruits then carry out atrocities such as the rape and genocide of the Yazidis, a religious minority in the Middle East.

The looting is still happening, even if ISIS' presence in Syria has waned. Neistat said that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which currently in control of Syria's Idlib region, continues to dig in the area. Besides, many of the items looted between 2012 and 2016 are just hitting the market now.

ISIS-issued looting licenses

So formalized was the looting that ISIS had a system for licensing and taxing looters, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of history and archeology at Ohio's Shawnee State University.

"Eventually, ISIS was involved in every stage of the looting and trafficking process," he said, including "bringing in their own crews, using heavy machinery to dig up entire mountains ... when you invest that kind of money into doing this kind of work, you are making a return on your investment. So we know that this was profitable."

Looters digging at a site in Syria in 2014.
/ The Clooney Foundation for Justice
/
The Clooney Foundation for Justice
Looters digging at a site in Syria in 2014.

In 2020, Interpol noted that 19,000 stolen artifacts were recovered in two international operations cracking down on art trafficking. But there's no way of knowing really how large this market is — owing, in part, to fake paperwork — and how much money is actually earned from the sale of these antiquities.

"I could see a group of artifacts that were looted and we can show them to experts and make a guesstimate of how much they were worth. But we've never had the whole picture," said Al-Azm, who is also the co-director of the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research project.

But what is clear is that Western collectors are buying without fear of much reprisal, despite the already present provisions in international law that prohibit pillaging and include it as a war crime. Pillaging is also a criminal offense in most European jurisdictions and the United States.

But the system is such that between online sales, the use of Hawala (an informal system of transferring funds) and the presence of freeports (places to store shipments that are essentially jurisdictional black holes) in places like Geneva or Dubai, buyers and dealers can operate without much, if any, legal scrutiny.

Antonia David, legal program manager for The Docket, said that dealers and galleries financing terrorist groups by their purchases ought to also be held accountable.

David underlined what The Docket advocates as a universal standard in these cases: "You don't necessarily have to prove that the accomplice shared the same intent as the direct perpetrator." In other words, for the galleries and dealers, it's not necessary for them to know that they were paying for the antiquities in order to fund an armed group. Just that they paid.

Cracking down on buyers

Sam Andrew Hardy, the head of illicit trade research at the Heritage Management Organization, said that there are already ways to punish people who deal in art looted during the Holocaust.

"So why not do it for antiquities looted during other devastating massacres or occupation?" he asked.

When a dealer or a collector is caught having purchased looted property, they often face little more than a slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine, and are required to return the item in question.

"When they're asked to return the objects, they're often kept anonymous, to save them their blushes, or do it publicly and are praised for their ethical behavior," said Hardy, who is also closely following items that have been dug up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started in February and are going across borders to Belarus and Russia.

Looted items offered to The Docket team while doing field work in Lebanon in 2020.
/ The Clooney Foundation for Justice
/
The Clooney Foundation for Justice
Looted items offered to The Docket team while doing field work in Lebanon in 2020.

Neistat shares that frustration. She told reporters that even after being caught, often multiple times, dealers often see an uptick in business, because "the only thing the market cared about is that the items are authentic ... and there's no better proof of that than the items being sent back."

When asked if collectors or dealers aren't treated as high-priority criminals because of their often moneyed connections and influential positions, she replied, "Absolutely."

"Some of the cases just dissolve ... There's not even a formal statement that the case was dismissed," said Neistat. "And in many of these cases, we are talking about people who are very well connected."

The Docket hopes its investigations will result in prosecutions and dismantle the market — a goal Al-Azm says is more urgent than most people understand.

"Let me help move it to the top of your list," he said. "The next time someone hijacks a plane and flies into a building, it could be funded by some rich white dude buying mosaics."

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