ISIS Plunders, Jihad And The Illicit Antiquities Market

Amid the mayhem of civil war, huge money is to be made from stealing and selling archeological treasures from Iraq and Syria. ISIS ambitions are fueling an already huge black market.

Ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra are among Syria's many priceless treasures.
Ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra are among Syria's many priceless treasures.
Martine Robert

PARISAntiquities are being pillaged at an "alarming" rate in Iraq and Syria, a part of the world where Western civilization effectively began, as the terrorist group ISIS turns to cultural trafficking as yet another way to finance its violent ambitions.

The situation has prompted UNESCO, the United Nations' culture agency, to make a new urgent proposal to fight this profitable branch of international crime, as evidence has emerged of ISIS selling stolen items through highly developed international networks.

The problem has intensified since ISIS took over the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nineveh province last June. That gave it access to 2,000 of the 12,000 registered archeological sites in Iraq, which the Islamist group has not hesitated to damage, destroy or pillage, indifferent to their cultural or religious worth.

"These terrorists also destroy many holy places and pick up scattered pieces," says Béatrice André-Salvini, head of the Paris Louvre's eastern antiquities department. "They stop at nothing."

Following their strictly narrow interpretations of religion, ISIS operatives won't tolerate any type of veneration of the dead, shrines, mosques or churches, and may well have burned thousands of precious documents and manuscripts. In Syria, especially in northwestern provinces, there has been an exponential rise in clandestine digging and stripping from monuments. While about 30 museums have preemptively hidden away their artefacts, many works of art have nonetheless disappeared.

"Wars have always been periods of decimation for national patrimony," says Jean-Francois Charnier, scientific director for the Agence France-Muséums and head of the Louvre project in Abu Dhabi. "You're dealing with local gangs linked to warlords, passing these goods onto fairly unscrupulous buyers, to Turkish, Syrian, Jordanian, Iranian, Iraqi or Lebanese traders, or go-betweens acting as links with Europe or the United States."

Museums like the Louvre or the British Museum began to be offered antiquities of unknown provenance from the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. "They would tell us, "I picked this item up on a site," or, "It was in our family." We would refuse, and after awhile nothing more arrived," says the Louvre's André-Salvini. "Now, everything is moving around under the table."

In 2003, during the second Gulf war, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) drafted a red list of major antiquities stolen in Iraq. "The idea was to draw attention to what was on the market," says France Desmarais, head of programs and partnerships at ICOM.

According to Edouard Planche, an anti-trafficking specialist at UNESCO, traffickers are interested in antiquities of all types and sizes. Elaborate chain-like procedures have been developed to "shift" these items. Pieces are first kept locally before being taken to art markets in neighboring countries.

"The stages are multiplied to hide their tracks," André-Salvini says. "During ransacking in 2003, major works that were very difficult to sell were buried on farms outside Baghdad and began to emerge much later, bit by bit."

Huge sums

Planche confirms that the time it takes for these artefacts to reach the market will often be measured in years. "Stuff coming out of Syria and Iraq often goes through Turkey, despite checks there, before going to the London, Swiss, French and American markets."

Just how much has been ransacked is difficult to say. Illegal trading in antiquities is one of the biggest markets in the world, alongside drugs and arms. "The sums involved are considerable, perhaps ranging from six to 15 billion euros a year," Planche says. "So while ancient Syrian and Iraqi coins are not worth more than 100 to 200 euros apiece, multiply this by thousands and sell them on Internet auction sites, and you see the scale."

A cuneiform tablet can fetch 5,000 to 10,000 euros, statuettes, hundreds of thousands of euros and little seals between 50,000 and 100,000 euros. Some pieces are priceless, says André-Salvini, but the majority of items fetch "between a few hundred euros and 200,000 euros."

In 2007, when American troops were still a presence in Mosul. Photo: U.S. Army

Meanwhile, she says, the potential for profits has fueled the rise of "workshops making fake ancient figurines and items that are easily moved like stamps and seals with figurative scenes from the Sumerian period. As there are real items among them, the fakes become covers for authentic pieces."

France Desmarais has no doubt that this trade is financing ISIS activities, through pillaging that is either "opportunist, commissioned or authorized." Planche says terrorist groups may even hire professional archaeologists "who tell them where to look. They then issue excavation permits and tax the transfer." It's not easy to track such pieces, he says, when they come from sites that have not been excavated or listed.

Who buys the stolen art? Not the big museums, says André-Salvini, as they are committed to keeping their collections "clean." The new museums sprouting up by the Persian Gulf? "That would assure a diplomatic incident with neighboring states," she adds, observing that the Louvre in Abu Dhabi follows the same norms as the Louvre itself.

France Desmarais says "private collectors buy them, the Gulf and Bangkok being crucial hubs in this trade, and there are new players in Russia, China, Japan and the Gulf joining the Europeans and the Americans." She notes that "little auction houses, antique dealers and underground Internet sites" are the typical sellers of illegal artefacts, while the major auction houses keep their distance just as the established museums do.

Christophe Kunicki, an antiquities expert, says he has not seen anything at public auctions because "the actors are being very careful," and sales catalogues can be viewed online. Anne-Marie Kevorkian, an Islamic arts dealer, also says she has seen no suspicious objects in France, while citing Switzerland or the United Kingdom as more likely places for such dealings.

Despite the collaboration of many states in principle, and treaties and UN resolutions meant to fight trafficking in antiquities, relatively few resources are currently devoted to what is a fast-moving and global trade. Certain countries such as Russia and China are not entirely cooperative, while traffickers are able to elude tightened checks in certain countries by finding other transit routes. One example cited is the trajectory of cuneiform tablets stolen from Baghdad in 2003 and found in Peru more than six years later.

While certain states await the return of political stability, there have been initiatives to temporarily safeguard their treasures, like the Afghan Museum-in-Exile in Switzerland.

Beyond the financial implications, there is also the damage that such thefts inflict on memory and history itself, which ISIS welcomes. "For the sake of knowledge, it is a disaster," says Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre director. "The objects stolen from sites that have yet to be registered are removed from their scientific context."

His colleague, Béatrice André-Salvini, adds, "some of the excavations in Iraq are done by bulldozers, which means certain information is lost forever."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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