Tackling Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities and its Ties to Terrorist Financing

4 minutes read time
Gold coin on display.
A coin dating back to the Umayyad era is displayed at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq.

Tackling Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities and its Ties to Terrorist Financing

As part of the Department of State’s efforts to cut off terrorists’ access to funds, the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT) launched an initiative last year to analyze the linkages between terrorist financing and the illegal trafficking of looted cultural property in Iraq and Syria. The project also focused on identifying the gaps in the ability of the United States and our foreign partners to detect and interdict the networks and individuals involved in this illicit trade.  

The destruction and looting of Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage are well documented. Experts agree that terrorist groups intend to obtain artifacts and other material culture to profit from an existing market for ancient Near Eastern art and antiquities, especially ancient coins. But in spite of much attention and national and international efforts to address the illicit looting and sales of cultural heritage, the details of this illicit trade – the smuggling routes used to transport looted antiquities, including who is moving artifacts to market and which networks support this broader criminal-terrorist enterprise – are murky at best.  

Long-standing issues such as lack of clear provenience for art and antiquities being sold to a complicated market that includes private collectors and museums have been further complicated by terrorists’ illicit looting and trafficking. Terrorists and smugglers have taken advantage of some of the same technologies and methodologies used by other criminal networks. Among these are readily available encrypted online platforms, as well as the dark web where users, including terrorists and other criminals, can mask their identities and conduct a variety of transactions. Terrorists misuse technologies for malevolent purposes and we continue to engage with the private sector and other partners to find ways to address these national security and public safety challenges. 

Shifting conflict zones in Iraq and Syria have allowed these actors to operate with relative impunity, free to plunder thousands of years of artifacts to fund their crimes. Without more information about how these networks operate – particularly since looted cultural property is already in smuggler and terrorist hands – meaningful action by the United States and our foreign partners to prevent further funding of terrorism will remain a challenge.

The CT Bureau turned to George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center (GMU TraCCC) to help gather missing pieces of the puzzle. The project addresses key issues laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2199, which acknowledges that ISIS, al-Nusrah Front, and other individuals and groups associated with terrorists are generating income from the looting and smuggling of cultural artifacts in Iraq and Syria. Tragically, this income has supported recruitment efforts and strengthened al-Qa’ida’s ability to organize and carry out attacks. In an age of low-cost, low-infrastructure plotting, every cent that authorities can prevent from reaching terrorist hands matters.

This month, GMU TraCCC completed an initial study full of useful insights into the illicit trade of looted cultural property. The study also makes targeted recommendations for improving training foreign law enforcement partners in key areas so they can develop a better understanding of how smuggling networks operate, improve officials’ ability to conduct and cooperate on international investigations. These recommendations put a renewed focus on training frontline personnel to recognize and identify unique aspects of the illicit artifact trade to prevent terror financing with our interagency partners.

Based on these findings, the Department of State and GMU TraCCC are working with the Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training to design and deliver a new training program that will empower our foreign partners to confront this issue. The curriculum will help foreign partners and law enforcement to better identify some of the telltale signs of illicit antiquities smuggling.  Bolstered with this information and improved awareness, they can take targeted action to clamp down on an important source of terrorism revenue.

As terrorists continue to evolve their tactics and techniques, we expect them to continue to seek new ways to fund their operations. We must make sure that the illicit trafficking of antiquities is not an activity to which they can easily return. The Department of State is committed to working with our foreign and domestic partners to develop new tools and methods to deny these groups funding and resources.

About the Author: Sam Pineda serves as Director of Programs in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism

Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.