Terror in Europe

How To Buy Antiquities Looted By ISIS From An Italian Mobster

In southern Italy, mob clans have entered into an unlikely alliance with the Islamic terror group, exchanging Kalashnikovs for ancient artifacts pillaged in war. One reporter went undercover looking to make a deal.

Port of Gioia Tauro
Domenico Quirico

NAPLES â€" In the small seaside town of Vietri sul Mare in southern Italy, where the highway from Naples to Reggio Calabria begins, I await my meeting with a member of the Calabrian mafia. Our appointment is at the Lloyd hotel, a "safe place" the man himself suggested.

I'm here undercover, posing as a rich art collector from Turin looking to buy ancient art arriving at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro from the ISIS stronghold of Sirte in Libya. These archeological finds have been looted and sacked from cities and territories conquered by the Islamic State in Libya and the Middle East. The group then sells them to the powerful organized crime networks in southern Italy in exchange for weapons, mainly Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades arriving from Moldova and Ukraine in long-standing supply links with the Russian mob.

The most prominent mediators and sellers in this secretive trade are the "Ndrangheta of Calabria and the Camorra of the Campania region around Naples, the two most active and powerful crime syndicates in Italy. The transport of goods is handled by a fleet of ships and containers owned by Chinese crime networks.

A 60,000-euro severed head

Extremely punctual, the man tells me we cannot stay at the hotel to see the artifacts and negotiate a price. We walk down a narrow side street until we reach a new but seemingly abandoned butcher's workshop. An intense aroma of slaughtered meat overwhelms me as I enter. Large cured hams hang from hooks on the wall.

The man opens the item I've come to "purchase" and places it on the butcher's table, lifting a white cloth to reveal a marble emperor's head severed from a statue. The second-century Roman sculpting is exquisite, even if the statue's decapitation is visible and jarring.

The head is from Leptis Magna, a famous Ancient Roman city in Libya with spectacular ruins, much like the Roman sites of Cyrene and Sabratha elsewhere in the country. All of these towns have been under ISIS control at some point, and all have suffered looting at the hands of jihadists and Western-allied Islamist militias from the city of Misrata alike.

The Libyan archeological site of Sabratha â€" Photo: David Holt

It's now time to make a deal. The man asks for 60,000 euros ($65,900) for the emperor head. He's an able salesman, expertly discussing ancient history and art criticism while pitching me everything from looted Libyan art to other works stolen from Greek necropolises in Italy. As he tells the history behind each object, he's always careful to note that he found each item "two years ago," the legal limit to avoid the most serious legal consequences of abetting the illegal trade in antiquities.

"This head comes from Libya. We trade arms in exchange for statues, vases, urns," he says. "That's how it works. Everything arrives at Gioia Tauro. It used to be here in Naples, but then something changed."

He adds: "We have many problems now because the Mediterranean is full of ships and patrols to find illegal migrants. If you want antiquities from the Middle East you have to go directly to Gioia Tauro, but I advise you against it."

Alliance of convenience

Until recently, American museums and art buyers were the primary customers of the "Ndrangheta"s illicit trade. After the U.S. authorities discovered their link to arms sales to ISIS they cracked down on the business, and now most of the buyers hail from Russia, China, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates. I keep asking him for more expensive and valuable artwork, and he finally shows me photos of a rare find: the sculpted head of a Greek divinity.

"This used to have a bronze or copper crown. It comes from Libya and it's worth a million euros, but I can give it to you for 800,000, plus transport fees," he says. The dealer says there's a flourishing market for these antiquities, and cited a representative of "a famous American actor," but the deal fell through. "Now this will either end up in a museum somewhere or with a private collector in Russia," he says.

I balk on his offer, telling him I'll get back to him in three days with my final decision. Finally we part ways.

The booming trade in looted artwork is proof of an axis between ISIS and the mafia networks of southern Italy, a commercial alliance born of opportunism. Priceless art arrives at the port of Gioia Tauro from ISIS-held territory through Turkey and Libya, and eastern European weapons flow in the opposite direction. As the tide begins to turn against ISIS on the battlefield, the "Caliphate" is starting to look more and more like just another criminal network, much like its unlikely allies in the "Ndrangheta.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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