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ISIS October News Roundup

October 8, 2014

The past two months have seen a decrease in the number of reports of sites being destroyed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Sadly, this is likely partially due to ISIS running out of famous sites to destroy. However, the predominant reason is more likely the increased pressure which ISIS finds itself under due to airstrikes launched by the United States and allied countries.

ISIS’ advance on Irbil was halted by American air power and their once-rapid advance has stalled into a fairly static front line in the north. The siege of Sinjar was lifted within days and Kurdish forces recaptured the Mosul dam in mid-August. Otherwise, the front lines have stabilized into a stalemate that will likely persist for some time.

But ISIS’ main strength is their mobility, and in the past few weeks their forces have overrun several Iraqi Army bases in Anbar province and approached Baghdad. In Syria, ISIS has concentrated their attacks on the Kurdish YPG-held enclave of Kobane. Over the past week ISIS forces (including tanks) have steadily shrunk the perimeter around the town until the last few days when fighting reached the streets. Most of the civilian population has fled into Turkey but fears of an impending massacre are well justified as ISIS has already beheaded and massacred Kurdish prisoners. The news coming out of Kobane appears desperate, with reports that at least one YPG fighter blew herself up with her own grenade to avoid capture. Airstrikes have increased around the town in the past 48 hours, bringing at least a brief respite for the defenders.

Nevertheless, US officials have admitted that despite American efforts Kobane will probably fall to ISIS and they have assessed that the town has no strategic significance. Kobane is an isolated enclave a hundred miles from the main YPG-controlled territory in eastern Syria. But while ISIS and the United States have the luxury of focusing entirely on strategic control points the YPG was formed to protect the Kurdish population and must defend every Kurdish area, no matter how militarily indefensible.

Destruction in Tikrit – The Shrine of the Forty

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Shrine of the Forty in Tikrit prior to its destruction (source).

On or around September 24, multiple reports indicate that ISIS destroyed several structures in Tikrit. One was the Shrine of the Forty, an ancient monument marking the graves of forty soldiers from the army of Caliph Omar who died during the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia in 638 AD.

The shrine can be seen on Google Earth at this link. The shrine appears to have alternated between periods of disrepair and restoration. It was quite old and during the medieval period served as an Islamic university.

Photos of the destroyed building were taken anonymously and given to Al-Arabiya. They show that most of the structure was leveled except one of its five domes. Oddly, two of the photos show what appears to be the tail cone of a Russian-made FAB-500 M62 500kg bomb. Such bombs can be carried by Su-25 ground attack aircraft flown by the Iraqi Air Force.

FAB 500

Russian FAB-500 M62 bomb (source).

bomb Tikrit

Bomb tail cone from Tikrit (source).

In August, Iraqi Su-25s bombed the al-Mufti Mosque in Mosul due to its use as a recruiting center by ISIS. Did something similar happen in Tikrit? This seems unlikely. Witnesses informed Almada Press that ISIS fighters entered the shrine and destroyed it with explosive charges. The site’s status as a shrine, not just a mosque, means its deliberate destruction would be consistent with numerous other shrines destroyed by ISIS.

Destruction of the Shrine of the Forty, Tikrit (source).

Destruction of the Shrine of the Forty, Tikrit (source).

Finally, the pattern of destruction in the photographs obtained by Al-Arabiya show a comprehensive leveling of the building in a manner consistent with a controlled demolition using explosives placed throughout the structure. An aerial attack on such a spread-out structure, on the other hand, would result in a few impact points and craters, distributing the damage in a more uneven fashion.

The most likely explanation could be that ISIS captured a few FAB-500 bombs at Camp Speicher airbase just outside Tikrit and used them as demolition charges to blow up the shrine. Alternately, there could have been an air raid in the vicinity of the shrine before or after its demolition, but not responsible for the complete destruction of the shrine.

Destruction in Tikrit – The Green Church

The Green Church, also known as the Church of Mar Ahudama was once an important Christian cathedral in Tikrit, first established at around 700 AD. It was destroyed in 1089 on the orders of the governor of Tikrit. Its ruins have persisted to this day. The church was the scene of a massacre of Assyrian Christians during the Mongol invasion of 1258. It was excavated and partially restored during the late 1990s.

The following is a short piece on the church filmed for an Iraqi TV station:

There are no photographs of the destruction, but several news reports indicate that the structure was destroyed at around the same time as the Shrine of the Forty. The extent of the destruction is unknown at this time.

Looting and Foreign Sales

Rick St. Hilaire has written a blog post showcasing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures for the importation of art and cultural artifacts from the Middle East. The importation of artifacts from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey has spiked through the roof from 2012-2013, leading to reasonable suspicion that many of these artifacts have been looted from Iraq, Egypt or Syria and smuggled overseas with fraudulent documentation.

On the other hand, as Paul Barford and Sam Hardy have repeatedly pointed out, no one has any idea what the actual dollar value of antiquities sales is, or how much money ISIS is making from the trade. Every dollar figure given was probably pulled out of thin air, because there is no way to get reliable data about the international black market antiquities trade. The closest we have is a report in The Guardian based on Iraqi intelligence sources who had seen computer files captured by the Iraqi Army in an ISIS safe house in June, but the report did not give any specific dollar figure obtained from archaeological looting.

The Guardian report did say that before the fall of Mosul ISIS had $875 million in cash and assets. Reports that ISIS stole a half billion dollars from banks in Mosul turned out to be overblown. In fact, the largest source of funding for ISIS appears to be black market oil sales, providing somewhere between $300,000 and $3 million dollars per day. Much of the rest comes from extortion rackets, robbery, trade monopolies, kidnapping for ransom and taxes and tolls levied on locals.

With that said, ISIS doesn’t have its own diggers, rather, it takes a 20% cut of proceeds from looted antiquities as khums, an ancient Islamic custom to tax one-fifth of the proceeds from finds of buried treasure from pre-Islamic times. This is doubtless one form of the extortion rackets and taxes which provide numerous sources of funding to ISIS.

In short, where there is a ton of smoke there is probably some fire. Antiquities trafficking may not be ISIS’ most important source of funding, and it is probably one that the group could survive without. But it’s a contributing factor. The first waves of American airstrikes on Syria targeted oil facilities in a bid to financially cripple ISIS. If ISIS is less able to sell oil, it will have to rely on other sources of funding. However, those sources of funding will be much harder to shut down. One cannot destroy an extortion racket with air power, for unlike oil production it has no center of gravity that can be destroyed. The same is true for antiquities smuggling – it can only be cut off at the other end of the chain, at the destination markets.

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