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The Endless War

November 18, 2015

What does winning look like?

A few weeks ago on this site I wrote about cultural conceptions of war and how Western strategy and political discourse concerning military conflict are deeply rooted in specifically Western conceptions of what war is. Wars in the Western tradition begin with declarations, are decided on the battlefield between combatants, and end with peace treaties. More generally, the West conceives of war as an aberration, something outside the norm, a violent interregnum between periods of peace that has a well-defined beginning and an end.

A few days ago 132 people were killed in horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. They day before 43 people were killed by a car bomb in Beirut. Twelve days earlier 224 people were killed when a Russian airline was blown up over the Sinai. Paris. Beirut. Ankara. Cairo. Tunis. Nairobi. Boston. Mumbai. London. Amman. Islamabad. Bali. Mombasa. Riyadh. Casablanca. Madrid. New York. Fourteen years after George W. Bush launched what he called the Global War on Terror, thirteen years after Al-Qaida lost their base in Afghanistan, six years after they were largely driven from Iraq, there seems to be no end in sight.

What is our exit strategy? What is our end goal? Are our policies towards the Middle East a recipe for endless foreign wars? What does winning look like?

Do we still expect a surrender moment?

Do we still expect a surrender moment? (source)

These are all questions nearly everyone in the West has asked over the past twelve years, but I think it is important to recognize that they spring from a particularly Western cultural conception of war. We expect this war to end. In the West victory means the guns falling silent on the Western Front. It means Lee and Grant at Appomattox, V-E Day in Potsdam, MacArthur signing papers on the USS Missouri, General Schwarzkopf meeting Iraqi generals in a tent in the desert. Victory has a time and place when the guns fall silent and the enemy agrees to cease to resist.

And yet now it seems that they never do.

ISIS and Al-Qaida (the differences between them are disagreements over tactics, not ideology) have a very different cultural conception of war.

In a review of the philosophy of Jihadist political theorist Sayyid Qutb as part of his 2001 book Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner [translated and abridged here], Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri argued that Qutb’s great contribution was to show that the fundamental issue at stake was whether legitimate authority is derived from God or from men. The will of God as revealed through the Qur’an and the Sharia was for all the world to become Muslim and live according to God’s will. Qutb’s views were deeply rooted in his conception of monotheism and the essential unity of God. God is perfection and truth, and divine revelation in the Qur’an and Sharia are therefore also perfect and true. God is one, so the Ummah must also be one.

The struggle, therefore, was between the forces of Islam and everything else. According to Zawahiri, the duty of the believer is to continue to violently struggle “until Almighty God inherits the earth and those who live on it.” [p. 13]

Sayyid Qutb in prison in Egypt. He was executed on the orders of Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1966 during a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Sayyid Qutb on trial in Egypt. He was executed on the orders of Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1966 during a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. (source)

What this was to look like in practice is illustrated by the 2005 strategic document “The Seven Phases of the Base” penned by Said al-Adel. He detailed plans to draw the United States into a war in the Middle East in response to a massive terrorist attack, develop the resulting conflict into a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, bring about the collapse of secular Arab governments, declare a caliphate by 2016, and move into a final showdown with the West to establish the Caliphate’s dominance.

The phase strategy proposed by Adel undergirds another book titled The Management of Savagery, written by Muhammad Khalil al-Hakim under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji. By managing savagery Hakim means establishing a government to bring order to the chaos left behind by the collapse of the current nation-states in the Middle East. To bring about their collapse the use of violence and massacres is necessary. Key to the establishment of order is what Hakim calls “the polarization of the Ummah,” that is, “To transform societies into two opposing groups, igniting a violent battle between them whose end is either victory or martyrdom, whose emblem is either glorious war or humiliating peace. One of the two opposing groups is in Paradise and the other is in Hell.” [p. 11-20, 31, 46-47]

Therefore, in Al-Qaida’s formulation (and by extension ISIS as well) all life is a struggle for unity under one God. Violence is a tool used to bring about this unity through pushing people into picking a side, and later by destroying those who are outside the Ummah. Wars do not begin or end, rather, struggle is the normal state of being for true believers, the only ending is the final one, and violence is just a means to achieve this end.

The Challenge for Cultural Heritage Preservation

A major problem facing the preservation of cultural heritage during modern conflicts is that the framework of international law used to support such efforts assumes the Western conception of war.

  • UNESCO, the primary United Nations organization dedicated to protecting cultural heritage, can only work with the governments of its member states.
  • Laws declaring antiquities to be national property and thereby providing legal framework for the repatriation of artifacts assume the existence of states.
  • UNESCO’s own work in Syria has focused on laying the groundwork for postwar recovery. The goal is “restoring social cohesion, stability and sustainable development through the protection and safeguarding of cultural heritage,” which assumes that the war will end in some sort of political settlement which restores a unified Syrian state.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is replete with the language of the Westphalian international system:

Article 4.1: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory as well as within the territory of other High Contracting Parties by refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict.

Article 4.3: “They shall refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party.”

Article 5.1: “Any High Contracting Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory of another High Contracting Party shall as far as possible support the competent national authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property.”

Article 18.1: “Apart from the provisions which shall take effect in time of peace, the present Convention shall apply in the event of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by, one or more of them.”

Article 28: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to take, within the framework of their ordinary criminal jurisdiction, all necessary steps to prosecute and impose penal or disciplinary sanctions upon those persons, of whatever nationality, who commit or order to be committed a breach of the present Convention.”

Irregular armed forces are only mentioned briefly and it is assumed they will be operating on behalf of a government in exile like the Free French in World War II:

Article 5.3: “Any High Contracting Party whose government is considered their legitimate government by members of a resistance movement, shall, if possible, draw their attention to the obligation to comply with those provisions of the Convention dealing with respect for cultural property.”

The conventions do make an awkward attempt to apply the treaty to persons who do not recognize the authority of their national government that signed the convention, by saying they are bound by it anyways as they are citizens of a state that signed the treaty:

Article 19.1: “In the event of an armed conflict not of an international character occurring within the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as, a minimum, the provisions of the present Convention which relate to respect for cultural property.”

The 1999 Second Protocol added to the 1954 Convention continued in the same vein:

Article 9.1: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention, a Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory of another Party shall prohibit and prevent in relation to the occupied territory: a) any illicit export, other removal or transfer of ownership of cultural property; b) any archaeological excavation, save where this is strictly required to safeguard, record or preserve cultural property.”

Article 9.2: “Any archaeological excavation of, alteration to, or change of use of, cultural property in occupied territory shall, unless circumstances do not permit, be carried out in close co-operation with the competent national authorities of the occupied territory.”

Article 15.2: “Each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences under its domestic law the offences set forth in this Article and to make such offences punishable by appropriate penalties.”

Article 16.1: “Each Party shall take the necessary legislative measures to establish its jurisdiction over offences set forth in Article 15 in the following cases: a) when such an offence is committed in the territory of that State; b) when the alleged offender is a national of that State.”

Article 22.1: “This Protocol shall apply in the event of an armed conflict not of an international character, occurring within the territory of one of the Parties.”

Article 22.3: “Nothing in this Protocol shall be invoked for the purpose of affecting the sovereignty of a State or the responsibility of the government, by all legitimate means, to maintain or re-establish law and order in the State or to defend the national unity and territorial integrity of the State.”

Article 22.4: “Nothing in this Protocol shall prejudice the primary jurisdiction of a Party in whose territory an armed conflict not of an international character occurs over the violations set forth in Article 15.”

This past September I attended a conference at Wellesley College on the crisis of destruction in Iraq and Syria. At the conclusion of the conference Dr. Ed Silver spoke of the “frustrated impotence” of each speaker at our inability to do anything about the destruction of antiquities by ISIS.

I submit that some of this frustration may be due to our reliance on old paradigms designed within the context of an international system that is becoming less and less relevant in many parts of the world.

We need to consider new models for cultural heritage preservation that are not predicated on the continuation of the current Westphalian, United Nations-backed international system. We will need to consider unrecognized states, non-hierarchical power structures, open source insurgencies and systematic disruptions. Some of John Robb‘s work on networked resilient communities may be an interesting place to begin.

(Incidentally this is a debate to which scholars of pre-modern societies may have the most to contribute).

The Sykes-Picot imposed international system that has governed the Middle East since World War 1 is fading. Syria and Iraq will never again be the way they were, for twentieth century Arab nationalism is dead and gone. In the long term this sort of systematic instability may envelop the entire international system. Let us consider the future now, that we not be blindsided again.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

Of Rhinos and Temples: Some Ethical Considerations in Heritage Protection

October 20, 2015

Yesterday, the AFP reported that according to Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, UNESCO’s General Conference has agreed to lend its support to the idea of deploying peacekeepers to protect archaeological sites from attacks in war zones.

This does not mean that a U.N. expeditionary force will be rolling into Palmyra next month, merely that UNESCO has endorsed taking the idea to the Security Council.

Franceschini has been pushing this idea since last spring, but it is still unclear exactly what type of force he has in mind. His statement yesterday calling for the U.N. to “immediately define the operational aspects of this international task force” leaves it an open question whether he envisions this force operating on its own or as a part of the mandate of a larger United Nations peacekeeping force.

Nevertheless, the news is sure to reignite a long-smoldering debate over just how far we are willing to go to protect cultural heritage sites from ISIS. Such a proposal justifiably triggers concerns about prioritizing inanimate sites over human refugees and whether ISIS will use the West’s outsized concern for ancient sites as compared to the people who live near them for propagandistic purposes.

Elsewhere in the world, this debate is not hypothetical. On Saturday The Guardian published an article profiling anti-poaching efforts in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Poverty and unemployment next door in Mozambique have caused poaching to skyrocket in recent years. To date this year 544 rhinoceroses have been killed by poachers in Kruger park. Their horns sell for $65,000 per kilogram on the black market in southeast Asia, where they are used to make traditional medicine. Rhinoceroses have been hunted to extinction in most of Africa, and Kruger Park is home to one of the largest remaining populations. Thousands of young men from neighboring towns grab their rifles and sneak across the border hoping for an instant ticket out of poverty.

According to Mozambique’s former president, South African park rangers have killed nearly 500 Mozambican poachers in the past five years, including 82 in the first six months of 2015 alone. A spokesman for the South African National Parks Service called the numbers “highly overinflated” but declined to provide a more accurate figure. The already impoverished families of dead poachers are usually left destitute.

One way of assessing the ethics of this situation would be to simply weigh human lives against those of rhinoceroses. Add the obvious race and class issues (preserving the wildlife of Kruger Park is economically valuable for its ability to attract wealthy European and American tourists), and the deaths of poachers seems like a moral outrage.

Yet when one takes into consideration that these poachers are often members of organized criminal gangs which have usurped the authority of the police in some Mozambican border towns, the situation becomes much more complex. Few people (except the most ardent libertarians) would question the government’s authority to pass laws to protect endangered wildlife or archaeological sites. Few (except the most ardent pacifists and anarchists) would question the government’s right to use deadly force if necessary against armed criminals breaking the law.

A government’s authority is defined and maintained by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. To put it bluntly, states kill. That’s what makes them states.

In this light it is no longer an issue of life for life but of protecting the credibility of the state – a state whose existence, despite its flaws, benefits most South Africans.

But mapping this paradigm onto international conflicts creates a whole new set of problems. A U.N. intervention force would not be deployed by any body elected by the people of Syria and cannot derive legitimacy from governmental authority in the same way as the South African police. Any such force would rely on foreign countries willing to donate troops to the effort. Issues of government legitimacy and the ethics of international law are beyond the scope of this article, but I raise this issue merely to point out that to the people on the ground a foreign military force intervening without support from a domestic political process looks a lot like an invasion. Blue helmets do not automatically confer international legitimacy, especially when they are sent by an organization largely dominated by the United States, Britain and France.

Currently much of the heritage conservation world is celebrating the arrest and indictment of Malian Islamist leader Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi by the International Criminal Court for destroying tombs and medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2012. This is the first time anyone has been brought before the ICC on charges of destroying protected cultural sites. Yet in Africa the ICC, which has never prosecuted a single non-African, is widely denounced as a neo-colonial tool used by European powers to control African governments.

All of this is to say that legal is not the same as moral and ethical, and any attempt to impose protection of ancient sites that does not take into account the local humanitarian situation is likely to be viewed as imperialistic and become counterproductive.

Enforcement-based approaches can work to eliminate transnational crime. The suppression of piracy off the coast of Somalia is a prime recent example where harsh jail sentences, armed ship guards, and sometimes brutal military actions changed the cost/benefit calculus of those contemplating piracy on shore. The risk of getting killed began to outweigh the promise of getting rich.

Such a response may well have been justified in the case of Somali piracy, where pirates routinely tortured and murdered crew members from ships they captured. But as with the rhino poachers in Mozambique, in Syria many people looting archaeological sites do so because they feel they have no other choice. They do it because it can bring some quick cash in a desperate situation, not because they wish to destroy their own history. And it is looting, not ISIS’ staged destructions, which has destroyed the greatest number of archaeological sites in Syria.

Unlike piracy, no human lives are directly at stake in the protection of archaeological sites or endangered rhinoceroses (an exception may be made for the case of industrialized looting used to fund ISIS). Therefore, while both are worthy of protection and legally the use of force is permissible to protect them, it is a moral imperative that any effort aimed at securing them also focus on the root causes that force people to turn to looting and poaching to survive.

Over a year ago, I wrote that “Ultimately, the only way to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage is to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria.” An initiative to protect cultural heritage sites as part of a peacekeeping mission or another larger effort to end the war in Syria should be encouraged. An effort to protect them while ignoring everything else in Syria is wrongheaded and will likely end in failure.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

Enter The Bear

October 2, 2015

Russia’s military build-up in Syria had drawn increased media attention in the past week, as observers and the United States government scrambled to figure out Russia’s intentions in deploying a number of armored units, air-defense systems and combat aircraft to an airbase near Latakia.

This changed on Wednesday morning when a Russian general showed up at the front door of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and demanded that the U.S. cancel all air operations in northern Syria because Russia was about to launch airstrikes against ISIS. Minutes later, the first Russian aircraft began their bombing runs.

The Strategic Situation

Russian SU-30SM in the skies over Idlib.

Russian SU-30SM in the skies over Idlib, October 2, 2015. (source)

Despite the early claims of the Russian government that their military was in Syria to fight ISIS, nearly all Russian airstrikes have targeted various factions of the Free Syrian Army. A map provided by The Guardian shows a heavy concentration of airstrikes targeted a pocket of FSA forces north of the city of Homs. (Note: As of October 2 Russian airstrikes were also reported in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa).

The war in Syria has now reached an awkward position where the U.S. and allied air forces based in Turkey and Jordan are engaged in a strategic bombing campaign against ISIS and providing close air support to the YPG, while their NATO ally the Turkish Air Force is bombing YPG-allied Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) camps in northern Iraq and last July narrowly missed killing several U.S. Special Forces soldiers training YPG troops. The Russians are striking the FSA, which is in part armed and supported by the CIA. On top of all this, Israel has occasionally launched airstrikes against Hezbollah targets inside Syria.

We now have four air forces each targeting a different faction in the war, yet scrupulously attempting to avoid combat with each other for fear of sparking a wider regional war. Israel, already on edge after launching an airstrike last January that mistakenly killed six Iranian officers, has already sent a military delegation to Moscow to work out an agreement to prevent conflict in the air.

Russia’s actions so far seem to bolster Assad’s strategy of forestalling foreign intervention by fighting the FSA first. Throughout the Syrian Civil War Assad has covertly bolstered the rise of ISIS, from releasing jihadists from Syrian prisons to buying ISIS-produced oil to avoiding fighting them on the battlefield. Assad knows that if he can eliminate the FSA and turn the war into Assad vs. ISIS there will be no foreign intervention to remove him. The West and the Sunni world will be forced to accede to Assad continuing to hold power.

The Cultural Heritage Situation

The areas of heavy Assad-FSA fighting around Aleppo, Homs and Daraa have seen the heaviest combat damage to cultural heritage sites. Combat damage and military trenching combined have damaged more ancient sites than any other cause.[1]

Russian intervention carries a risk that further damage will occur. Rumors of an upcoming major military offensive make further damage likely.

So far the Russian Air Force seems to be making limited use of precision-guided weapons and dropping a lot of unguided bombs. The results appear to have been mixed at best, with the first video released to the press showing one bomb narrowly missing a cluster of buildings and two others missing by a much wider margin:

Heavy bombing was reported at the camps of CIA-backed rebel group Suqour al-Jabal, who were based near the ruins of the ancient Byzantine site of Shinshara.

One strike hit the outskirts of Kafr Nabl, a town that has won renown as a symbol of the peaceful protest movement against Assad family rule. The local council there receives U.S. assistance, and the local rebels have been supported under a covert CIA program aimed at bolstering moderate rebels.

The strike hit a training camp for a U.S.-vetted group called Suqour al-Jabal that is adjacent to Roman ruins on the outskirts of the town, according to activists in the area. Raed Fares, a leader of the protest movement in Kafr Nabl, said the explosion was bigger than anything local residents had seen in three years of airstrikes conducted by Syrian warplanes.

“It was like a nuclear bomb,” he said. “It made a fire six kilometers wide.”

Photos taken by Khalil Ashawi of Reuters show a burning truck amid ancient ruins.  Video shot on the scene after the attack seems to show heavy damage to ancient structures:

It should be noted that Shinshara has been damaged already by refugees looking for building material to build shelters, however the rubble surrounding the burned out car appears to be freshly disturbed. Without more images a full damage assessment is not possible.

There has so far been no word from the Russian Ministry of Defense if any measures have been taken to limit the destruction of historical sites within Syria. All videos posted by the Russian MoD do contain a disclaimer that “to prevent engagement of civil population, the targets for the Russian aviation are assigned only outside inhabited areas and only on the basis of confirmed reconnaissance data received from multiple sources.”

The Gamble

Russian aircraft seen in a satellite image of their base near Latakia. (source)

Russian intervention in Syria is a gamble. Russia has deployed a few hundred infantry and surface-to-air missile systems to defend its bases, but they know full well that their small force would be overwhelmed by a determined U.S., Israeli or Turkish aerial attack.

The gamble is that no country will dare risk war with the country that possesses the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons just to save the Free Syrian Army. The U.S. will be forced to abandon its CIA-trained allies, and the war will transform into a showdown between Assad and ISIS. (The YPG, which largely maintains a truce with Assad loyalists in Qamishli and Hasakah, can be expected to align with Assad in this scenario). American desires for a negotiated transition of power will be pushed aside as no one will be willing or able to negotiate with ISIS, and vice versa.

It is hard to think of a worse outcome for Syrian heritage than this, where the only factions left standing are the side that has destroyed the greatest number of historic sites and the side which has turned their destruction into political performance art.

It is even harder to think of a worse outcome for the people of Syria than this, where the only factions left standing are the side that has slaughtered the greatest number of Syrians over the past four years and the side which has turned their slaughter into a holy religious duty.

The other option is that the CIA will continue to supply the FSA without the U.S. directly engaging the Russian Air Force, Russian airpower and Iranian troops will prove as ineffective as Assad’s own air force and army at suppressing the rebels, and the intervention will not majorly change the balance of power. In that case the war will continue to grind on much as before.


[1] Michael Danti, “Ground-Based Observations of Cultural Heritage Incidents in Syria and Iraq,” Near Eastern Archaeology 78, No. 3 (September 2015): 132-141.

New Documents Prove ISIS Heavily Involved in Antiquities Trafficking

September 30, 2015

Ever since ISIS burst on to the international scene a year ago, rumors have been surfacing that the group was deriving a significant amount of revenue from antiquities smuggling. A commonly quoted figure was the the group had made at least $36 million from looted antiquities, which derived from a report by Martin Chulov based on documents captured by the Iraqi Army in early 2014. The figure in fact referred to money made from all types of looting in the al-Nabuk region of Syria, not only the looting of archaeological material.

Chulov was not allowed to keep or copy the documents, which remain in the possession of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. Many others have pulled large dollar figures out of thin air, including a common claim that antiquities looting is ISIS’ second-largest source of funding. The lack of hard evidence for any of these claims has led to skepticism, especially from antiquities dealers, that ISIS is making any significant amount of money from archaeological looting.

That is no longer the case.

Last night a number of officials from the U.S. State Department, Homeland Security, the FBI, the DOJ, and the United Nations convened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to present newly declassified evidence of ISIS’ deep involvement in industrial level antiquities looting.

The story began on May 15. That night, several V-22 Osprey aircraft and Blackhawk helicopters descended upon a multistory building in the Syrian village of al-Amr, southeast of Der ez-Zor, Syria and offloaded a unit from the U.S. Army’s Delta Force.

They were looking for a Tunisian named Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf, who was believed to be either ISIS’ chief financial officer or its “Emir of Oil and Gas.” The operators stormed the building and engaged in a shootout with a dozen or so of Abu Sayyaf’s bodyguards, killing the last few men in hand to hand combat as they tried to hide behind human shields. Abu Sayyaf tried to resist and was killed.

The raid freed an 18-year old Yezidi girl whom Abu Sayyaf had been keeping as a slave. Abu Sayyaf’s wife Nasrin As’ad Ibrahim was captured. Believed to have been a full and knowing participant in her husband’s activities, she was turned over to the Kurdish authorities in Irbil for trial.

The raid also uncovered a stash of antiquities which seemed to confirm that ISIS was deeply involved in the antiquities trade. The discovery was hailed as the first material evidence that ISIS was directly involved in antiquities trafficking. However, many of the artifacts recovered were fake, and much of what was found was not particularly valuable.

Last night, Andrew Keller, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, presented a number of newly declassified documents seized during the raid.

The documents show ISIS has a department known as the “Diwan of Natural Resources,” an administrative division which oversees the extraction of both oil and antiquities.

AbuSayyaf1The Diwan of Natural Resources has a sub-division dedicated to antiquities looting, divided into eastern and western regions. Each region has its own offices dedicated to excavation, exploring and surveying new sites to exploit, research into known sites to know where to dig, and marketing the finds.

On November 21, 2014 Abu Sayyaf was appointed to head Antiquities Division of the Diwan of Natural Resources. He was given the job due to being “very knowledgeable in this field” and because “people in the Levant who work in the field of antiquities are weak of faith and Abu Sayyaf has experience in dealing with them.”

AbuSayyaf2As director of antiquities looting, Abu Sayyaf issued permits to diggers excavating sites in Syria. Excavating without a permit is considered illegal and subject to punishment by a Sharia court.

AbuSayyaf3Statements circulated by ISIS on September 13 of this year further emphasize that only the Antiquities Division can grant permits and those conducting unauthorized excavations will be punished. It can be recalled that last July ISIS publicly smashed several funerary busts from Palmyra which were confiscated from unauthorized excavators. They did the same with several Assyrian sculptures looted from Tell Ajaja in May 2014.

AbuSayyaf5The purpose of the permit system is to ensure that the diggers pay a 20% khums tax, a windfall tax leveled on profits from antiquities digging. A receipt book was recovered from Abu Sayyaf’s compound recording the payment of khums. 

AbuSayyaf4Totaling all the receipts indicates ISIS has made at least $1.25 million from antiquities smuggling.

It should be emphasize that this is a minimum figure, as there may be other receipts which were not recovered, and more revenue was likely collected both before Abu Sayyaf was appointed to head the division and after he was killed.

However, there can no longer be any doubt that ISIS is engaged in highly organized, systematic looting of archaeological sites inside the territory it controls and is deriving revenue from the practice.

The documents captured during this raid appear to have galvanized a number of government agencies into action. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program, typically used to pay large sums of money to informants who turned in men such as Ramzi Youssef and Uday and Qusay Hussein, will now be offering $5 million rewards for anyone who provides information that leads to significant disruption of ISIS efforts to smuggle oil or antiquities.

Lev Kubiak, the Assistant Director of International Operations at Homeland Security Investigations, hopes to set up working groups to gain scholar’s input to help government agents better track artifacts. FBI section chief Maxwell Marker and Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard W. Downing threatened to use a wide variety of laws to prosecute both buyers and sellers of conflict antiquities, including laws against possessing stolen property and providing material support to terrorist organizations. Maxwell further emphasized “please, do not not purchase objects believed to have been looted from Syria and Iraq” and asked people to report solicitations to the authorities.

The theme repeated for most of the panel was demand. Keller’s own slideshow ended with large letters: Demand Drives Trafficking. If ISIS is making money off antiquities someone is buying, and moves are going to be made to tamp down on demand in the West.

The evidence produced last night was damning and shows this is a national security issue as well as a cultural property issue. Purchasing antiquities looted from Syria does not save them from destruction by ISIS. Instead, it both funds their genocidal ambitions and encourages more looting.

Given the current situation, more drastic measures limiting the sale of Middle Eastern artifacts may be required. What is for sure is that no one can now deny the link between archaeological looting and funding ISIS.

Update 10/6/2015: The State Department now has a more complete page discussing the event here.

Archaeology in the Age of Special War

September 22, 2015

“Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen War,” wrote Carl Von Clausewitz in his classic magnum opus On War. Friction, he theorized, was what “distinguishes real war from war on paper.”[1] In a hypothetical total war each side would increase its use of force in response to the other until one side was annihilated. In real life frictions intervene. Limited resources. Limited willpower. Human error. Rational calculations of interests which make negotiations a better option. All of these combine with a hundred other factors to prevent war from reaching its ideal state.

Clausewitz, however, wrote in the West, where a very specific set of customs was coded into the cultural conception of “war.” Wars began with declarations, were decided on the battlefield in a violent and decisive struggle between combatants, and ended with peace treaties. The goal, according to Victor Davis Hanson, was to “focus a concentrated brutality upon the few in order to spare the many.”[2] The savage violence unleashed on battlefields from classical Greece to Gettysburg and Verdun was actually a way to limit the destructiveness of war to one segment of the population.

"War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means." -- "On War," 1.24

“War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” — “On War,” 1.24

Every culture has its own customs to limit the destruction caused by war. Islamic hadith on warfare forbid destroying wells, killing livestock and burning orchards so as to not devastate the areas affected by war. The second Caliph, Abu Bakr, issued orders forbidding killing women, children or Christian monks.[3] The Biblical book of Deuteronomy likewise forbids destroying orchards and requires that enemy cities be given a chance to surrender before they are besieged.[4] During violence following a disputed election in Kenya in December 2007, Time magazine reported on fighting between the Maasai and Kalenjin where each side met at dawn in a field to shoot arrows at each other from a distance. According to one combatant, “Here, we believe in fighting on a battlefield. We don’t go at night to attack. It’s no good.”

But it was the Western method with its focus on channeling war’s destructiveness into massed firepower which proved dominant. It resulted in the creation of more and more powerful weapons with which to win the battlefield struggle, allowing western armies to dominate most non-western ones.[5] As a result, international laws of warfare are based on the Western cultural conception of war. The Third Geneva Convention only affords protections to guerrillas if they maintain a chain of command, wear uniforms, and carry arms openly – that is, if they abandon everything that would make them effective as guerrillas. Collective punishments are prohibited by the Fourth Convention, since war is viewed is fought between combatants and not by the society supporting them.[6]

(It should of course be noted that recognizing the cultural context from which certain beliefs about the proper conduct of war arose does not mean that these beliefs are wrong, baseless, or should be abolished).

But the Western method has run into increasing complications in the past seventy years. In post-colonial conflicts in the latter half of the twentieth century guerrilla war was the chosen tool to counter Western (and Soviet) conventional supremacy. Guerrilla warfare and terrorism sought to avoid the concentration of force and fight asymmetric battles, using the West’s own rules against it while avoiding its strengths. But terrorism and guerrilla warfare rarely work as planned. Terrorist organizations usually turned popular opinion against themselves, and guerrilla war typically resulted in lengthy stalemates that cost hundreds of thousands of lives with few results.

But this does not mean that state-to-state warfare has again proved triumphant. The constant search for a technological edge on the battlefield means that modern military forces are fantastically expensive. The U.S. military spent $67,000 per soldier per year during World War 2, $132,000 in Vietnam, and $1.1 million in Afghanistan. The gear required to outfit a single American infantryman cost $170 for World War 2, $1,100 in Vietnam, and $17,500 in Afghanistan.


Three generations of American fighter aircraft. P-51 Mustang, $660,000 each (in 2015 dollars), 15,586 built. F-15C, $30 million each, 483 built. F-22, $163 million each, 182 built. (source)

Weapons systems are even more expensive and complex and as a result are being produced in fewer numbers. In 1960 the U.S. Air Force fielded 1,735 strategic bombers, now it has 96. Twenty of those are B-2 stealth bombers which cost over $1.1 billion each. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is now the most expensive weapons program in the history of the world, with each plane costing more than five times as much as the F-16s it will replace.

Of course, each new weapon has far greater capabilities than the old ones, but the incredible lethality of modern missiles and other smart weapons means that in war between modern military forces equipment will be destroyed at a prodigious rate. When aircraft, ships and tanks cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more per unit and take years to manufacture, losses cannot be quickly replaced. When countries field fewer systems their forces are depleted faster.

As a result, wars between modern armed forces now end very quickly. It took the American and British armed forces three weeks to capture Baghdad in 2003. In five days in August 2008 the Russian military “largely destroyed Georgia’s war-fighting capability” and forced that country to surrender.

War, therefore, is now an extremely high risk endeavor. A few terrible days may be enough to decide the outcome of a conflict and leave one side at the mercy of the other’s armies.

Read more…

ISIS destroying graves in Fallujah, Syria

August 14, 2015

This summer has been relatively quiet with regards to antiquities and cultural heritage sites being destroyed by ISIS. The news has turned decidedly towards smuggling, including major stores about ISIS destroying Palmyrene funerary sculptures seized from smugglers, a stash of looted antiquities recovered by U.S. special operations forces from the home of ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, and evidence that ISIS is accumulating academic books about archaeology in order to learn where to dig and what to loot.

On the military front the fight has been stalemated for months, with little progress made by either side in Iraqi Kurdistan or along the Euphrates in Iraq. In June the Kurds in Syria scored a decisive victory by capturing Tall Abyad and linking the Kurdish enclave of Kobane with the main Kurdish territory in the west. The fall of Tall Abyad cut a major smuggling route for recruits entering Syria and looted antiquities and oil leaving for foreign markets.

Over the past few days a few photos have been posted by ISIS using the Justpaste website which the group often uses to distribute official propaganda. The photos show ISIS destroying various graves and small shrines.

First Group – Fallujah

Fallujah 1There are several buildings seen being destroyed. The first is a small drab structure which is not seen for the remainder of the document but can be presumed to have been destroyed along with the others.

The destruction of all the sites seems to proceed in the usual manner utilizing liquid explosives in plastic jugs, set off using detonator cord.

None of the buildings are identified in the captions provided by ISIS, rather, each image is simply captioned “the destruction and demolition of shrines that worship apart from Allah.”

The next structure is an octagonal building with a large green dome and large windows. Two graves can be seen inside the structure. In the first shot another explosion can be seen in the background, possibly the destruction of the first square building already mentioned:

Fallujah 5The octagonal building is detonated next:

Fallujah 2Fallujah 9




Another square building with a narrow brick dome is shown, followed by twin square structures with domes:

Fallujah 10Fallujah 11




Another shot shows that all three are adjacent to one another. In addition the three structures appear in the background of the first picture, indicating that all of the structures being destroyed are in the same general area:

Fallujah 16Fallujah 1_highlight




Fallujah 15Fallujah 17




Two additional domed structures are shown with open sides, both seemingly also containing graves. One is demolished with sledgehammers and the other is exploded:

Fallujah 18 Fallujah 21 Fallujah 20 Fallujah 22 Fallujah 23 Fallujah 24












Second Group – Syria

Three pictures out of a montage from Syria show graves being smashed along with other images such as the discovery of smuggled cigarettes hidden inside a spare tire. Only the most ornate gravestones in the graveyard appear to be targeted. They are destroyed using a sledgehammer. The caption states that the men are “removing the manifestation of polytheism.”

Syria1 Syria3

Third Group – Unknown

Unknown1 Unknown2




Two pictures posted without location information. The caption simply states that they are destroying graves, with no indication whose graves they are or why they are being destroyed.

What Does it Mean?

None of these destroyed buildings are identified in the captions provided by ISIS. Their religious background is not mentioned at all, unlike many previous ISIS actions where care is taken to describe shrines as Shia, or Christian, or idols of ancient polytheists.

Lamia al-Gailani Werr has stated that most of the shrines in the above images are Sufi. However, it is not clear from their postings if ISIS knows they are Sufi or if they are simply targeted for being large and visible graves.

Regardless, this is not the type of thing that receives media coverage in the west. While western media gives a lot of coverage to the destruction of Christian and ancient sites, none has been given and none will be given to these graves. This indicates that ISIS is destroying sites even when they are extremely unlikely to garner significant media attention. A quick Google Image search reveals that in the past week these images have cropped up in very few places outside of pro-ISIS twitter accounts.

Their reasons for destroying these sites are given right in the descriptions: honoring the dead with shrines detracts from the worship of one God, it is equivalent to polytheism, and therefore it must be destroyed. By doing so, they set themselves up as heirs to the historical legacy of Muhammad, both in their own minds and in the minds of their followers.

What this means is that ISIS will not stop destroying cultural sites if the media stops reporting when they do. A media blackout of ISIS propaganda will not stop them, because there is already an effective media blackout for many of the sites ISIS has destroyed, and that has not stopped them from destroying them.

In the end the only thing that will stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria is stopping the destruction of Iraq and Syria. What we do or do not do on the internet will likely have little effect – it can only document it.

UPDATE 8/16/2015: Additional photos have been released showing graves being destroyed near Damascus and in the village of as-Salhabiyah to the west of Raqqa. There is no need to post all of the pictures but some representative examples are shown below. No explanation is given for either case other than that the actions are a removal of graves.

as-salhabiyah 2 as-salhabiyah 4 Damascus 2 Damascus 13








In both cases they appear to be targeting the most visible and ornate graves in the cemetery, but in the as-Salhabiyah images (top) they also appear to be smashing unremarkable headstones seemingly at random.

In any case, the release of additional images in the same week seems to indicate a coordinated campaign against grave markers in Iraq and Syria.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015

What We’ve Lost: Mar Behnam Monastery

May 12, 2015

Stuck in between ISIS’ destruction of the Mosul Museum in late February and its destruction of Hatra and Nimrud in early April, the destruction of the Mar Behnam monastery northeast of Nimrud went largely unnoticed. While Der Mar Behnam is certainly not as well known as Nineveh, Hatra, or Nimrud, the tiny burial place of a Syriac saint has its own very interesting history, almost as old as than those cities.


Tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah. (Source)

There are two buildings at the site. The larger is a church, and next to it sits the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah, set into the small hill known as Tell al-Khidr. Yet sacred space is often continuous in the Near East, and excavations of the tiny tell have revealed remains dating back to the Hassuna, Ubaid and Warka periods, along with later Assyrian and Sassanid remains. There is no hard evidence that the site served as a religious sanctuary during these periods, and much more comprehensive excavation is necessary to understand the full history of the site.[1]

Our story picks up in the Sassanid period during the mid fourth century AD. According to legends first written down in the twelfth century, there was a king named Sinharib who ruled over Nineveh (presumably as a Sassanid vassal) and had a son named Behnam and a daughter named Sarah who was afflicted with leprosy.

One day Behnam was riding north of Nineveh on a hunting expedition, accompanied by forty horsemen who were his constant companions. The hunting party sighted a gazelle and gave chase, pursuing it up the side of Maqlub Mountain where the animal darted into a cave and disappeared.

Carving possibly de

Carving possibly depicting Behnam on horseback, from the church of Mar Behnam. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr (Beirut: Syrian Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, n.d.)

Following his quarry into the cave, Behnam instead found an elderly hermit sitting inside. The man was Mar Mattai, who lived on the mountain. He invited Behnam to sit down and the two men had a long conversation wherein Mattai introduced Behnam to Christianity, and also disclosed that through God he had been given miraculous powers of healing. Behnam promised that if Mattai could heal his sister Sarah of her leprosy, he would convert to Christianity. Mattai promised he could if Behnam and Sarah would meet him at another place at a specified time.

When Behnam and Sarah arrived at that place along with Behnam’s forty cavalrymen they found Mattai already waiting for them. The old hermit struck the ground with his staff and water flowed out. He commanded Sarah to wash in the water. When she did so, she was instantly healed. As a result, Behnam, Sarah and the forty cavalrymen were all baptized on the spot.

Their father was not at all pleased, and after repeated entreaties to his children to abandon Christianity failed he ordered that they be put to death. Behnam was warned, and he fled with Sarah and the forty cavalrymen to Qaraqosh before being overtaken. Sanharib ordered them slaughtered, but before his command could be carried out the earth opened up and swallowed Behnam’s party. The date of this event is traditionally set to December 10, 352.

Relief depicting Mart Sarah from inside the church.

Relief depicting Mart Sarah from inside the church. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr (Beirut: Syrian Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, n.d.)

Sanharib nevertheless mourned their loss, and his sorrow was compounded when he became afflicted with leprosy as well. His wife suggested he visit Mar Mattai, since Mattai had managed to cure Sarah. He acceded to her suggestion and was likewise cured, and as a result also converted to Christianity. He had the bodies of his son and daughter exhumed and reburied at the site of what is now Mar Behnam’s monastery, where a tomb was constructed in their honor and they were recognized as saints.[2] Later a Syriac Orthodox monastery was built nearby. The tomb, sunk into the tell, became known as “al-Gibb” or “the Pit.”

This story was not written down until the twelfth century, but its themes are found in other stories that came before, all rooted in the world of court politics in the many tiny buffer states that lay between the great empires of Rome and Persia. The religious conversion of a king was an inescapably dangerous political act, caught as they were between the pagan, and then Christian Rome and aggressively Zoroastrian Sassanids, and this dilemma found its way into the literature. For example, Mar Qardagh, another widely recognized Syriac saint, was described as the son of Zoroastrian Sassanid nobility who was killed on the orders of Shapur I for refusing to renounce Christianity. In the fifth century Armenian historian Moses of Chorene related how the first century Armenian king Sanadroug massacred the descendants of his uncle Abgar, including executing Abgar’s daughter Santoukhd for refusing to renouncing Christianity and exiling Abgar’s wife Helene to Jerusalem. Moses seems to have mixed up some of this story with Josephus’ account of the conversion of Izates and his mother Helene of Adiabene to Judaism in the first century, yet another story navigating the political issues of religious conversion in the halls of power.[3]

Mosul and its Minorities - 0001

Tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah as it appeared in the early 1920s. From Luke, Mosul and its Minorities.

Yet in Mar Behnam’s case the first written versions of the story coincide with the renovation of the tomb and monastery in 1164 to give far more prominence to the Behnam story, which has led some scholars to argue that the monastery came first, and the legend was developed to explain the founding of three Syriac Orthodox monasteries (Mar Behnam, Mar Mattai and Mar Abraham) in a region where the Assyrian Church of the East had been traditionally dominant. A story that dated from before the Islamic conquest was necessary in order to comply with frequent Muslim prohibitions on constructing new churches.[4]

The monastery seen in the early 1920s. The tomb is in the foreground.

The monastery seen in the early 1920s. The tomb is in the foreground. From Luke, Mosul and its Minorities.

At some point the grave and monastery also became associated with the mysterious Qur’anic figure of al-Khidr, the “maker of things green” who was often associated with fertility. Yezidis also revered the site for its connection to Khidr, and the town next to the monastery came to be known as Khidr Elias. Two explanations have been advanced for this: The first is that the monks deliberately cultivated the association with Khidr as a cover story to protect the monastery and tomb from Muslims, and the second is that the association with Khidr represented a form of religious syncretism.

Plan of the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah

Side plan of the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr.

Regardless, the monastery became known as a site to seek miraculous healing. Whether this reputation was the result of the story of Behnam and Sarah, or the origin of that story, can only be determined by excavating the site. Between 1248 and 1261 many more sculptures were added, and the monastery prospered. Many inscriptions were added to the walls in Syriac, Armenian and Arabic dedicating sculptures and doorways.[5]

In 1258 the Mongols under Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad and ended the Abbasid caliphate, but the monastery was unaffected because the vassal ruler of Mosul quickly submitted to Hulagu. In 1295, however, Hulagu’s grandson Baidu Khan marched on Mosul and then attacked Erbil. Mongol raiding parties traveled throughout the Nineveh plains. One party plundered the monastery of Mar Mattai. Another party visited Mar Behnam. According to a Syriac inscription on the walls which described the raid:

One of them came to the Monastery of the Pit, opened its gate and entered. He put his hands on the sacred vessels, the veils and the rest. Nothing remained on the altar except for the Gospel and the reliquary of the Saint—God obscured their eyes![6]


The grave of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah. The Uighur inscription is just above the arch. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr.

Rabban Jacob, the chief of the monastery, went to Baidu Khan to complain about the looting. Surprisingly, Baidu agreed to return all the looted goods, and in return the monastery added an inscription in Uighur above Mar Behnam’s tomb which read “May the happiness and praise of Khidr Elias befall and settle on the Il-khan and the nobles and the noblewomen!”[7]

From 1415 to 1508 the monastery became the seat of the Maphrian of the Syriac Orthodox Church, second in importance only to the Patriarch of Antioch. From 1576 to 1782 the monastery was the seat of the Bishopric of Der Mar Behnam and Bakhdida. In 1782, the seat of the bishopric was moved to Der al-Za’afaran monastery near modern Mardin, Turkey. The monastery of Mar Behnam experienced a period of decline. For a while in the 1790s the site was abandoned and cared for only by the Yezidis who also worshiped there.[8]

In 1839 the Syriac Catholic Church officially took control of the tomb and the monastery from the Syriac Orthodox. According to English clergyman George Percy Badger, who visited the monastery twice in 1844 and 1850:

When we first visited it in 1844, it was only tenanted by a few Kurds, and the whole building was rapidly falling into decay. Since then, however, it has been repaired, and the service is now daily performed in the church by a resident priest.[9]

A few caretakers looked after the site for the next several decades. It was not until 1900 that monastic life was re-established.[10]

Syriac Catholic monks at Mar Behnam in the early 1920s.

Syriac Catholic monks at Mar Behnam in the early 1920s. From Luke, Mosul and its Minorities.

In July 2014 ISIS fighters reached the monastery, where they ordered all of the monks to leave without saving any of the monastery’s relics. The monks walked several miles on foot before making contact with Kurdish troops.

On March 19, 2015 ISIS fighters rigged the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah with explosives and blew it up, completely leveling the structure. The church does not seem to have been targeted. The destruction fits the pattern of destroying shrines such as the Tomb of Jonah where graves are specially revered.








This explosion destroyed the saints’ graves, the associated relief sculpture of Mar Behnam, and one of the Middle East’s few inscriptions in Uighur. Its destruction represents a continued attempt to wipe out the heritage and history of both Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi populations.



[1] J.M. Fiey, Mar Behnam [Touristic and Archaeological Series 2] (Baghdad: Iraqi Ministry of Information, 1970), 4; Suha Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam: The Monastery of St. Behnam” in The Christian Heritage of Iraq (Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2009), 85.

[2] A full list of the medieval manuscripts which preserve this story can be found in Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 81-84; see also the accounts in Harry C. Luke, Mosul and its Minorities (London: Martin Hopkinson & Co., 1925), 118-119; Horatio Southgate, Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian Jacobite Church of Mesopotamia (New York: D. Appleton, 1844), 215-217.

[3] Joel Thomas Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 115, 122-123, 231-232; Moses of Chorene, The History of Armenia 2.27-29 in Syriac Documents Attributed to the First Three Centuries, appendix to Vol. 20 of the Ante-Nicene Christian Library: translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, trans. by B.P. Pratten (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1881), 150-163; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.2.1-5.

[4] Bas Snelders, “Art et Hagiographie: La Construction d’une Communauté à Mar-Behnam,” in L’hagiographie Syriaque (Paris: Geuthner, 2012), 273-274.

[5] Ethel Sara Wolper, “Khidr and the politics of translation in Mosul: Mar Behnam, St. George and the Khidr Ilyas,” in Sacred Precincts: The Religious Architecture of Non-muslim Communities Across the Islamic World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 381-392; Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 86; Fiey, Mar Behnam, 4-5.

While Wolper and Snelders are skeptical that the Behnam story has any historical basis, Rassam on the other hand believes there was an actual martyr’s tomb on the site dating from the mid fourth century which became a popular local place to seek healing, and which grew in importance only after Syriac Orthodox Christians were expelled from Tikrit and fled to northern Iraq. Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 88.

[6] Translated in Amir Harrak and Niu Ruji, “The Uighur Inscription at the Mausoleum of Mar Behnam, Iraq,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 68-69.

[7] Amir Harrak and Niu Ruji, “The Uighur Inscription at the Mausoleum of Mar Behnam, Iraq,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 66-69; Fiey, J.M. Mosul Chrétienne (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1959), 50.

[8] Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 88-89; Fiey, Mar Behnam, 6.

[9] George Percy Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals (London: Joseph Masters, 1852), 95.

[10] Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 89.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.


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