How Much Money is ISIS Making from Antiquities Looting?
While the heavy involvement of ISIS and other Syrian factions in antiquities trafficking has been conclusively demonstrated, the relative importance of these efforts to ISIS’ overall funding structure has never been comprehensively analyzed in the public domain. This article will examine all publicly available sources and attempt to estimate the importance of looted antiquities to ISIS’ finances.
(Please note that this is an open source analysis of a topic with few open sources, and as new information becomes available the conclusions presented here could radically change.)
Most media reports about antiquities looting in Syria written prior to the rise of ISIS in early 2014 did not provide any estimated dollar value for the amount of goods leaving the country. The exception was a February 12, 2013 piece by Taylor Luck for the Washington Post which interviewed several rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army who were involved in looting and smuggling artifacts and testified that the average batch of antiquities could fetch $50,000.
The first report to put a firm dollar amount on looting came on June 15, 2014 from Martin Chulov for The Guardian. On June 4, 2014 Iraqi police commandos killed ISIS leader Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi in his hideout and captured a large trove of USB sticks containing spreadsheets with detailed information about ISIS’ internal structure. Chulov interviewed a number of anonymous Iraqi and western intelligence officers about the documents, and according to one intelligence officer:
“They had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone [an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus]. The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old…Before this, the western officials had been asking us where they had gotten some of their money from, $50,000 here, or $20,000 there. It was peanuts. Now they know and we know. They had done this all themselves. There was no state actor at all behind them, which we had long known. They don’t need one.”
This statement was interpreted by many readers and other media sources as saying that ISIS had made $36 million from looting antiquities in the al-Nabuk region. However, the source did not say that all or even most of the $36 million haul came from antiquities rather than from other looted items (cars, consumer goods) or other sources of revenue.
Nevertheless, the “$36 million” figure began to be uncritically repeated in dozens of media reports, with some even extrapolating that figure to all of ISIS-held territory to claim that ISIS was making hundreds of millions of dollars from antiquities smuggling.
The lack of any real data to back up the figures began to attract criticism, especially from the antiquities dealer community who began to suspect that calls to aggressively fight antiquities trafficking in the name of fighting terrorism were actually a Trojan Horse being advanced by academics who wanted to shut down the legal antiquities trade for ideological reasons.
The Abu Sayyaf Raid
On May 15, 2015 a raid by American special forces on an ISIS safe house in a small village outside Deir ez-Zor in Syria killed ISIS leader Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf, freed an 18-year old Yazidi woman, and captured a trove of documents.
Some of the documents captured during the raid were declassified several months later and have already been discussed in detail on this site, illustrating the inner workings of ISIS’ Diwan al-Rikaz or Department of Natural Resources. The documents showed that ISIS had systematized archaeological looting, with departments dedicated to the research, discovery and exploitation of new archaeological sites and a permit system to authorize diggers.
Contra the earlier Guardian report, they showed that ISIS classified antiquities as a natural resource alongside oil and minerals, as something to be extracted from the ground rather than as “ghanim” a.k.a looted items or spoils of war.
Most important, the raid captured a receipt book detailing the khums tax levied on authorized antiquities diggers in ISIS’ Wilayah al-Kheir (largely coterminous with Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governate, with some territory in Iraq). The book contained eight receipts, of which showed that in the period from November 2014 to May 2015 Abu Sayyaf had collected $265,000 in taxes on looted antiquities, which multiplied by the 20% tax rate showed that the value of looted antiquities was around $1.25 million.
However, these receipts were but a snapshot and could not show how much money ISIS had made in total from antiquities, or what percentage of their revenue was derived from antiquities looting.
At the same time, satellite photographs have shown that the most severely looted sites are in ISIS-controlled territory. In Deir ez-Zor governate the site of Mari saw industrial looting efforts begin as soon as ISIS took control of the site. A comparison of satellite photographs taken on August 4, 2011 and March 25, 2014 showed 165 new looter pits, an average of 0.17 new pits per day. After ISIS took control of the area in April 2014, a new photograph taken on November 11, 2014 showed that 1,286 pits were dug during this period, a rate of 5.5 new pits per day.
Overall, sites controlled by ISIS have shown a much higher percentage of heavy looting than in territory controlled by other factions. While the percentage of sites that show signs of looting is comparable to other factions, out of 82 sites controlled by ISIS, 35 (42.7%) had experienced severe or moderate looting, which is fifteen more than sites controlled by all other factions combined. Out of all sites which had experienced severe or moderate looting 63% were in territory controlled by ISIS. (However it should be noted that at least one of these sites, Dura-Europos, had already been severely looted before ISIS took control of the area).
Nevertheless, the evidence from the organizational charts as well as the massive and systematic looting of Mari show that ISIS is clearly devoting significant time and energy to exploiting archaeological sites. They must be expecting significant returns on their investment.
The Deir ez-Zor Papers
On October 5, 2015 Jihadology published a selection of financial reports from Wilayah al-Kheir (Deir ez-Zor governate) covering the period from December 23, 2014 to January 22, 2015. The papers contained a breakdown of all sources of revenue in the province for this period (follow the link for more detailed data):
ISIS Revenue Sources in Wilayah al-Kheir, Dec. 23, 2014-Jan. 22, 2015
|Value:||Percentage of Total:|
|Oil and Gas||$2,335,000||27.7%|
According to this data, oil and gas account for a far lower percentage of ISIS’ income than is popularly supposed. Antiquities are not directly mentioned but since khums is a tax they are likely included under taxes. But the largest source of revenue appears to be “Confiscations.” Fortunately, the documents also contain an itemized list items taken from the local populace during the same time period, including 79 houses, 96 cars, 48 trucks, 200 dunams of land, 2.063 head of livestock, and $496,300 worth of personal property.
In addition to zakat and khums, taxes are levied on a wide variety of things. NPR followed up on al-Tamimi’s documents by interviewing a former resident of Deir ez-Zor province who has since escaped ISIS. He described ISIS taxation as essentially robbery at gunpoint, with ISIS fighters showing up on people’s doorsteps to collect taxes, arbitrarily changing taxpayers’ reported income so as to change their tax bill, stopping random people in the street and demanding taxes, charging fees for electricity and water even though neither was working most of the time, and levying numerous fines for minor offenses such as littering or facial hair violations. Indeed, the entire apparatus of Sharia law enforced by the group at times appears to be a pious fiction covering a shakedown operation. Al-Tamimi has further documented that ISIS charges a fee varying between $1,000 and $2,500 for persons seeking official recognition of their “repentance” for having worked for the Iraqi or Syrian governments, with the documentation needing to be renewed every year for an additional fee of $200.
If one were to take the $1,998,000 figure for tax revenue and multiply it by six months, this gives a total of $11,988,00 in revenue. Dividing the $265,000 in khums tax from the Abu Sayyaf papers which was collected over six months by this figure indicates antiquities represent 2.21% of ISIS’ taxation revenue. It would represent 0.5% of the total monthly revenue of $8,438,000 for the province.
This applies to Deir ez-Zor governate only and is no guarantee that ISIS has not made significant amounts of money from antiquities found elsewhere. Al-Tamimi has located permission slips for antiquities looters in other provinces, but we do not have any data with figures for provincial revenue or for antiquities sales from other provinces. Extrapolating from Deir ez-Zor governate is likely useless as not all provinces will have equal amounts of valuable antiquities or equally profitable tax bases. Furthermore, Deir ez-Zor governate is rich in oil compared to other ISIS-held territory, which means that in other regions antiquities looting may make up a higher percentage of the provincial budget due to lack of other forms of revenue.
The Research of Rick St. Hilaire
On the other hand, cultural property lawyer Rick St. Hilaire has examined the other end of the looting chain by tracking imports of cultural property into the United States. Illegally excavated artifacts generally must make a transition into “legal” status through forged paperwork and false provenience before they can be sold to their final buyers, and therefore the data can be tracked for suspicious patterns.
Even though U.S. imports from Syria have declined from $429.3 million in 2010 to about $12.4 million in 2014, the importation of antiquities has remained steady, to the point where in 2014 “Antiquities over 100 years old,” “Worked Monumental Stone and Mosaic Cubes” and “Collector’s Pieces of Archaeological, Historical or Numismatic Objects” represented $6,633,903 or 54% of all U.S. imports from Syria.
From Iraq, antiquities were the fourth most valuable import in 2014 at $3,378,296, behind various grades of oil and re-imported American goods. Of the total, 98.5% were shipped to the major art dealing hub of New York City.
Looking back to years prior to the rise of ISIS, imports of “Art, Collector’s Pieces and Antiquities” (HTS 97 in the U.S. Customs schedule) from Syria, Iraq and the popular smuggling destinations of Lebanon and Turkey increased rapidly from 2012 to 2013.
U.S. Importation of HTS 97 – Works of Art, Collector’s Pieces and Antiques 
A quick glance at 2014 statistics in the U.S. International Trade Commission database shows that 2013 seems to be somewhat of an aberration and that imports in 2014 decreased from 2013, although still remaining higher than 2011 levels.
St. Hilaire is careful to note that these numbers by themselves are not proof that anything illegal has occurred. There may be other explanations, such as desperate individuals selling off family heirlooms in order to survive. This may work for Syria but not as well for Iraq, where despite the rise of ISIS conditions are generally better in the south and in Kurdistan than they were during the post-2003 insurgency. The 2013 increase also correlates well with the numerous cases where satellite photos show that looter pits increased greatly in 2012 in Syria, as well as the increase in media stories about looting which took place in late 2012 and early 2013.
It is here that we run into the problem of middle men. Analysis of past archaeological looting has shown that the amount of money received by the finder is typically only 2% of the final sale price, with a chain of middlemen taking the rest. However, customs appraisals are based on transaction value, that is, the price which the importer paid for the goods, not the price which the importer intends to resell them for. We have no way of knowing the final sale value of the goods in the above table in order to calculate an original sale price, or associated khums possibly paid to ISIS.
However, even if one assumes that all HTS 97 goods in excess of 2011 levels are illicit antiquities, subtracting the 2011 figures from the 2014 values (the year ISIS took control of most of its territory) leaves $8,249,568. Even if we assume that all of these items originated in ISIS-controlled territory (which they assuredly did not), accounting for middlemen mark-ups plus the 20% of original sale price paid to ISIS as khums would indicate ISIS only made at most a few hundred thousand dollars from these transactions.
This of course does not include data from outside the United States, but it does indicate that if ISIS is making significantly more money from antiquities sales then the final destination markets are likely outside the United States. The early report from the Washington Post cited above mentioned wealthy residents of Amman as the primary buyers of Syrian antiquities smuggled to Jordan. Other rumors finger Gulf royals and international buyers in Dubai, and Chinese and Russian buyers as possible customers. All these destinations are significantly less open and much harder to track than selling items in the United States or United Kingdom.
So, How Much Money?
From reviewing the available open source data, it seems safe to estimate that to date ISIS has made a few million dollars from antiquities sales. This is a significant sum but not a particularly large percentage of the budget of an organization which collects tens of millions of dollars per month in revenue. Reports that antiquities make up ISIS’ second or third largest funding source are almost certainly exaggerated.
It could be argued from the import data and satellite imagery that the majority of profits from looting have been made by groups other than ISIS and were made prior to ISIS’ rise. However this may be premature, as it takes time for artifacts to reach foreign markets and we have no data from 2015. However, it should be noted that the most valuable sites from a looter’s standpoint are often classical sites, and these are primarily concentrated in territory controlled by the Assad regime or the Free Syrian Army.
So we have a conundrum: On one hand, satellite photographs show extensive looting of many sites in ISIS-controlled territory, and organizational documents recovered in the Abu Sayyaf raid show extensive organizational resources being devoted to the exploitation, regulation and taxation of archaeological sites. Clearly looted archaeological artifacts regularly show up in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and are frequently shown by news media.
On the other hand the available numbers from both the Abu Sayyaf receipt book and the U.S. import data, while incomplete, seem to indicate that ISIS is making only a small percentage of its budget from antiquities. So why are they putting so much effort into it?
In addition to the documents from Deir ez-Zor, al-Tamimi has translated a July 2015 public communication from the Mosul Diwan al-Rikaz detailing their current projects. This document proclaims that the department had expanded its operations “to cover all production and manufacturing facilities present in the land of the Caliphate.” The department now operates a bottled water plant, oil refineries, and factories to produce ice, textiles, plastics and motor oil. It also operates a furniture store, oversees and licenses gas stations, and runs a factory which produces $120,000 of cement per day.
The communication states that the purpose of nationalizing nearly all of Mosul’s industry is “to provide employment opportunities for Muslim youth and to support the Islamic State materially.” From NPR’s report it is easy to see why ISIS has taken this step: The Deir ez-Zor papers show that ISIS’ largest monthly expenditure by far is on fighters’ salaries ($2.4 million or 43.6% of the total). The result is that ISIS’ largely foreign fighters, awash in cash but missing the comforts they once enjoyed in the west, spend vast sums of money on scarce western items such as pizza, burgers, chocolate and Axe body spray. NPR’s source stated he saw one fighter pay $50 for a candy bar.
In such an economy jobs are scarce and depend on loyalty. Desperate people turn towards whatever methods they hope will provide them with a means to survive. Every indication is that while ISIS supports the looting of antiquities, they do not send their own men to do it but merely license and tax local diggers.
But unlike oil extraction, antiquities looting is not a steady stream of income. It is a lottery with low barrier of entry but also a low probability of a high payoff. The vast majority of artifacts unearthed at any site are of great archaeological importance but little to no value on the art market. Indeed, a closer look at the Abu Sayyaf receipts showed that one receipt was for $161,000 and another for $40,000, meaning two receipts made up 80% of the total. Two diggers apparently made finds which they seem to have sold for $805,000 and $200,000, respectively. The other six receipts made significantly less. Most people who dug a hole through ancient Mari probably found nothing worth selling at all.
It is easy to see that the economic model seen in the Deir ez-Zor papers is unsustainable. Despite the outsized role confiscations play in ISIS’ finances, there is a limit to how much money ISIS can make by taking things from the local population and redistributing them to its supporters. ISIS needs to diversify its funding base in as many ways as possible, first by exploiting “natural resources” and then by expanding into industrial and retail business. Each source may only provide a small amount of funding, but each one adds up. Antiquities make up only a small percentage of ISIS’ budget, but so does every other source of funds.
So Now What?
Fighting antiquities trafficking is an important part of preserving Syria and Iraq’s cultural heritage for two reasons. First, although antiquities are not one of the top funding sources for ISIS, alongside oil they are one of the few things exported from the group’s territory. There is no way to effectively eliminate ISIS’ taxation and expropriation operations without taking away its territory. Domestic industries have been dispersed into many small units to limit damage from air raids. But oil and antiquities exports can be intercepted and impounded.
Second, the damage done to the history and heritage of Iraq and Syria is incalculable, as untold numbers of artifacts which are archaeologically vital but monetarily worthless have been displaced and discarded by industrial looting efforts. If there were no buyers of looted artifacts there would be no chance of a big payoff, and if there is no chance of winning the lottery there is no incentive to play.
As one final thought, if one were attempting to spur western governments into action and raise awareness about the massive amounts of archaeological destruction in Iraq and Syria and the need for due diligence against conflict antiquities, emphasizing the role of antiquities in funding ISIS may help have the desired effect. But if one were attempting to convince a poor person to not take a shovel to a tell, emphasizing the unlikelihood of a major find coupled with the lost opportunity costs of weeks spent digging might be far more persuasive.
 American Association for the Advancement of Science, Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Current Status of Syria’s Tentative World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery, Part One, by Susan Wolfinbarger, Jonathan Drake, Eric Ashcroft and Katharyn Hanson (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014): 19-21.
 Jesse Casana, “Satellite Imagery-Based Analysis of Archaeological Looting in Syria,” Near Eastern Archaeology 78, No. 3 (September 2015): 151.
 Data from 2014 compiled from U.S. Trade Commission data. Data from 2011-2013 taken from Rick St. Hilaire, “Conflict and the Heritage Trade: Rise in U.S. Imports of Middle East “Antiques” and “Collectors’ Pieces” Raises Questions,” http://culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com/2014/10/conflict-and-heritage-trade-rise-in-us.html
 Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson, Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000), 13-14; Neil Brodie, “Pity the Poor Middlemen,” Culture Without Context 3 (Autumn 1998): 7-9.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.