ISIS destroying graves in Fallujah, Syria
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
There 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:
The octagonal building is detonated next:
Another square building with a narrow brick dome is shown, followed by twin square structures with domes:
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:
Two additional domed structures are shown with open sides, both seemingly also containing graves. One is demolished with sledgehammers and the other is exploded:
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.”
Third Group – Unknown
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.
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