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The Mafia, Looted Antiquities, and the KGB

October 19, 2016

This week the Italian newspaper La Stampa published a bombshell article in which journalist Domenico Quirico posed as a “rich Torino collector” in order to investigate the trade in looted artifacts smuggled from Libya. Quirico met a man in a butcher shop near Naples who he believed to be connected to the mafia and was shown a bust of a Severan emperor for sale for €60,000 and shown pictures of a much larger statue head being sold for between €1 million and €800,000. Artifacts were said to come from Leptis Magna, Sabratha, and Cyrene and been smuggled through the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. With American art markets under increased scrutiny, they generally go to buyers in Russia, China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

More surprising was the claim that this smuggling was part of a triangle of illicit trade, in which artifacts are smuggled from Libya to Italy while the mafia in return buys weapons from black market arms dealers in Moldova and Ukraine and delivers them to ISIS in Libya.

Parts of this story are implausible. ISIS has never controlled any of the archaeological sites mentioned by Quirico’s source (they control only the town of Sirte and made a brief appearance in Sabratha), and most of the sites have been under guard since 2011. The link to ISIS seems unlikely. But could other rebel groups be trading in an artifacts-for-weapons scheme? Possibly, but other aspects of the story give reason to be skeptical.

Quirico goes even further than his contact, claiming that this trade is actually under the control of the Russian intelligence services, who have maintained links with both Chechen and Uzbek Islamists and former Iraqi Baathists now serving in the ranks of ISIS. He further alleges that during the Cold War the KGB traded weapons to the Palestinian Liberation Organization in return for looted artifacts, which were then kept in a secret museum in Moscow before they were gradually given away as gifts to various important figures.

His source for this is “security consultant” Mario Scaramella, a figure who has gained some notoriety as a purveyor of wild accusations regarding the Russian intelligence services. Repeatedly rejected for employment by the Italian intelligence service, Scaramella turned to chasing excitement by hanging around the edges of dangerous games being played by the world’s spy agencies.

The Russian Connection

From left to right: Vassily Mitrokhin, Paolo Guzzanti, Mario Scaramella, Oleg Gordievsky, Alexander Litvinenko. (all pictures from Wikimedia Commons).

From left to right: Vassily Mitrokhin, Paolo Guzzanti, Mario Scaramella, Oleg Gordievsky, Alexander Litvinenko. (all pictures from Wikimedia Commons).

Our story begins in Moscow in 1972, when the Soviet KGB began the process of relocating its headquarters from the overcrowded Lubyanka in the center of the city to a new building in the suburbs. The job of moving the massive files of the organization’s foreign intelligence directorate fell to one disgruntled archivist named Vassily Mitrokhin, who had been demoted to a career dead end in the archives a decade and a half earlier and there had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet system. For twelve years until his retirement in 1984 he plotted his revenge on the system by making handwritten copies of the files, smuggling them out in his clothes and stashing them in his dacha in the countryside. There they remained until March 1992, when he boarded a train for Latvia, walked into the British Embassy and turned the entire stash over to Her Majesty’s Secret Service.[1]

The existence of the archive became public knowledge following the publication of the 1999 book The Sword and the Shield, leading many former Soviet turncoats in the West to begin sweating profusely. Among many other things, the book revealed that a major source for Soviet espionage in Italy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a university professor code-named UCHITEL who was responsible for passing along information about the Tornado fighter jet as well as other military and aerospace projects.[2]

The identity of UCHITEL has never been determined, but in 2002 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi launched a commission headed by senator Paolo Guzzanti which spent four years attempting to prove that Berlusconi’s predecessor and political rival Romano Prodi was UCHITEL. Prodi had been both a university professor and Minister of Industry during the years UCHITEL was most active. In 1978 Prodi claimed to have learned through a Ouija board where a leftist terrorist organization was holding former prime minister Aldo Moro hostage,  a story he is widely believed to have invented in order to protect a source associated with left-wing militants. But other than these entirely circumstantial items the commission failed to find anything linking Prodi to the KGB.

So Guzzanti turned to Mario Scaramella, then a relatively unknown environmental lawyer, to dig up additional dirt on Prodi. Scaramella first pestered Oleg Gordievsky, another former KGB agent who had spied for Britain during the Cold War, for years seeking information tying Prodi to the KGB, information which Gordievsky insisted did not exist.

Undeterred, Scaramella turned to other sources. In January 2004 he was introduced to former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who had defected from Russia to the UK in 2000. He met both Gordievsky and Litvinenko at a hotel bar in London. There, Litvinenko gave Scaramella what he was looking for. When he was preparing to leave Russia, he said, his superior and mentor Anatoly Trofimov had warned him to be careful, saying “watch out because in Italy there are many ex-KGB agents. Even Prodi is our man.”

A year later Trofimov was dead, shot in his car by an unknown assailant in a Moscow street.

Litvinenko made a dizzying variety of claims about the FSB and Vladimir Putin. His claims that the FSB was behind the 1999 apartment bombings (to provide a casus belli for war in Chechnya), that Russia was a “mafia state,” and that Putin had ordered the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya were given widespread credibility. His claims that Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was a Russian agent, that Russia was behind the 7/7 bombings in London, or that Putin is a secret homosexual were not.

But Scaramella had finally found a source who was going to tell him what he wanted to hear, and he ran with it. Boy, did he run with it. In March 2005 he publicly claimed that “former Soviet officials” had told him that in 1970 a Soviet submarine had planted nuclear warheads in the Bay of Naples, which could be detonated via an antenna hidden on top of Mount Vesuvius. While searching for the antenna he claims he was ambushed by assassins. A police investigation concluded that his bodyguard had staged the entire attempt by riddling an empty car with bullets.

Scaramella's interview of Litvinenko concerning KGB hoarding of looted antiquities. (source)

Scaramella’s interview of Litvinenko concerning KGB hoarding of looted antiquities.

That October, Scaramella says that Litvinenko informed him that the Ukrainian mafia was plotting to kill him and Guzzanti. Scaramella even obtained the registration number of their vehicle, and led the police straight to a van containing four Ukrainians and a pair of rocket-propelled grenades.

A year later, Scaramella contacted Litvinenko again seeking a face to face meeting. On November 1, 2006 the two men met at a sushi restaurant in London where Scaramella warned Litvinenko that he had received information that Russian intelligence was trying to kill both of them as well as Guzzanti due to their work investigating Prodi.

Later that same day Litvinenko met with two former KGB agents at a hotel bar. There he infamously drank a cup of green tea laced with the radioactive element polonium-210. He died of radiation poisoning three weeks later.[3]

A month later, Guzzanti gave a press conference in which he announced that Scaramella had also been poisoned with polonium and that “They also said so far, nobody could ever survive this poison, so it is very unlikely he could.” But the tests proved to be a false alarm, and Scaramella had not in fact been exposed at all. To this day no one knows if his warning to Litvinenko was based on real information or was a coincidence.[4]

But Scaramella’s seemingly too detailed knowledge of Russian assassination plots raised suspicions elsewhere. On his return to Italy he was unceremoniously arrested and charged with framing four innocent men for a crime they didn’t commit (the four Ukrainians who he accused of plotting his assassination) and arms trafficking (for planting two RPGs in their vehicle). He would serve fourteen months under house arrest.

Fast forward to 2016, where Scaramella showed Quirico allegedly unpublished documents from his interviews with Litvinenko in which he describes Russian involvement in antiquities trafficking. These documents are not secret and have already been published online as part of the British government’s inquest into Litvinenko’s murder (the discussion of stolen antiquities is on pages 20 and 68). It turns out that Litvinenko was citing a November 27, 1984 document which had been purloined from the Communist Party archives by former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.

Unlike the claims made by Scaramella and Litvinenko, this document provides evidence that the KGB was involved in the trafficking of stolen antiquities.

The Lebanese Connection

Armored vehicles in the streets of Beirut, 1976. (source)

Armored vehicles in the streets of Beirut, 1976. (source)

By the spring of 1976, fighting between Palestinian and Phalangist groups in Beirut had spiraled into a series of massacres committed by both sides as the Lebanese government collapsed. By late March the Palestinians drove the Phalangists from several high-rise hotels which had been used as strong points and captured West Beirut. This also brought the capital’s financial district under Palestinian control and set the stage for what came next.

On March 21, armed men struck eleven banks in Beirut. At the British Bank of the Middle East (BBME), members of the Marxist-Leninist Palestinian militant group the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) blew open a wall which the building shared with a neighboring church. Their first attempt to blow open the safes resulted in one fighter blowing off his hand with an explosive charge. Two days later, experts blasted open the three-bar armor plated doors to the vaults with precise amounts of explosives. The bank’s four hundred safe-deposit boxes were opened by pouring acid into the locks. The safe’s fail-safe alarm dialed the nearest police station, but no police would be coming in Beirut’s chaos. Fires were deliberately set to burn away any fingerprints.

Guinness once recorded it as the largest bank robbery in history, claiming at least $20 to $50 million worth of money, gold bullion, jewelry and valuables were stolen. Bank officials scoffed at these figures but discouraged further investigation, leading to speculation that much of what was deposited in the bank had not been obtained in a completely legal manner.[5]

The fire-scarred exterior of the British Bank of the Middle East after the robberies in March 1976. (source)

The fire-scarred exterior of the British Bank of the Middle East after the robberies in March 1976. (source)

What became of the loot taken from the safes? “Only a few of the stolen checks have surfaced in the more than seven years since the robbery,” wrote Washington Post journalist Jonathan Randal in 1983. “Despite recurring rumors, none of the valuable jewels or objets d’art from the boxes are known to have come to light in European or American outlets.”[6] The break-in to the safes had obviously been an expert job. In their 1990 book Inside the PLO, Neil Livingstone and David Halevy claimed the safecrackers had been supplied by the Corsican mafia in return for the mob receiving one third of the loot. The entire operation was said to be masterminded by Yasser Arafat’s security chief Ali Hassan Salameh.

A chartered DC-3 flew from Beirut to Corsica with the mafia’s share. The rest was loaded on board various aircraft and flown to Geneva in the custody of Salameh and PLO intelligence chief Abu Iyad.[7]

Salameh was himself a marked man, wanted by the Mossad for his role in planning the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. They would catch up with him in Beirut in 1979 when his car was blown up by a bomb planted in it. Iyad would end up dead too, shot in the head in Tunis in 1991 by a member of the Abu Nidal Organization.

Memo of November 27, 1984 describing arms-for-antiquities scheme between the KGB and the DFLP.

Memo of November 27, 1984 describing arms-for-antiquities scheme between the KGB and the DFLP.

And there the trail goes cold, until November 27, 1984 when the minutes of a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union stated that the committee had endorsed a plan put forward by the KGB and the Ministry of Defense to provide 15 million rubles worth of weapons to the DFLP “in exchange for a collection of art objects of the Ancient World.” The Ministry of Culture was to receive the collection and in consultation with the KGB would “determine the place and special conditions for housing the collection (“golden store”) as well as make arrangements for “its secret expert study and future exhibition.” Furthermore, they were to “confer with the KGB of the USSR about the individual or group displays of the collection.”

The DFLP had longstanding links to the USSR, along with the ideologically similar Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Its leader Nayif Hawatneh was code-named INZHENER in KGB documents. By the early 1980s the group was quite small but remained active in Lebanon and Syria, maintaining links with both the PLO and the Syrian-backed Rejectionist Front.[8]

Russian researcher Yevgenia Albats also included this memo in her 1994 book The State Within A State, adding based on anonymous sources that:

According to experts, this collection of art treasures stolen by PLDF from one of Lebanon’s banks and placed in storage in Moscow is valued at $9 billion, while the value of the weapons transferred to the PLDF was approximately $20 million. The FCD’s [First Chief Directorate, the branch of the KGB responsible for foreign intelligence operations] officers still recall this operation proudly as one of their finest, from the viewpoints of both intelligence and financial gain.[9]

And there the trail goes cold. The KGB archives have been closed to researchers since the mid 1990s. Litvinenko seems to have based most of his claims off the memorandum, but added that the KGB’s stash included items taken from Germany after the Second World War and that an officer once said they could never be shown to the public in case their original owners recognized their stolen objects.[10]

The Trail Goes Cold

The memorandum merely hints at the future creation of a secret museum to display the collection. Albats’ anonymous source is our only real source linking the DFLP’s stash of artifacts to bank robberies in Lebanon. However, none of the accounts of the BBME robbery of 1976 specifically mention archaeological artifacts being stolen, only describing cash, traveler’s checks, gold and jewelry. Randal made brief mention of “art objects” among the loot and mentioned that many merchants had put their most valuable wares in safe-deposit boxes in the banks for safekeeping as violence rose over the previous year.[11] It is entirely possible that the DFLP accumulated artifacts from other sources such as illicit digs or black market trades in Lebanon or Syria, although we have no evidence of this at present.

Did the DFLP and other Palestinian groups loot private collections of archaeological artifacts from Beirut’s banks in March 1976? Were these artifacts deposited in safe-deposit boxes in Swiss bank vaults until the DFLP, presumably low on cash, used them to buy $20 million of weapons in 1984? Albat’s $9 billion value for the collection is assuredly absurdly exaggerated, but did certain officers of the KGB want artistic decorations more than money? Or was it simply a way to get something for what the USSR would have given away for free for strategic reasons anyways?

Furthermore, where are they now? Has the collection dispersed? Or does the FSB still own a valuable secret collection of looted Lebanese archaeological treasures in Moscow? If so, current political considerations and the FSB’s penchant for secrecy make it unlikely that it will be revealed any time soon.

To return to where this story began, there is no reason to believe that Russian intelligence is currently involved in smuggling Libyan antiquities or providing arms to Libyan islamists. But such things have possibly happened in the past, again proving the old adage that broken clocks are sometimes right.


[1] Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 1-15.

[2] Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, 480-481.

[3] Robert Owen, Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko (Report of the UK House of Commons, January 21, 2016), 155-175.

[4] Owen, Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko, 213, 232-233.

[5] Jonathan C. Randal, Going all the Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers, and the War in Lebanon (New York: Random House, 1984), 98-101.

[6] Randal, Going all the Way, 101.

[7] Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy, Inside the PLO: Covert Units, Secret Funds and the War Against Israel and the United States (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1990), 190-194.

[8] Christopher Andrew and Vassili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 253; Yonah Alexander, Palestinian Secular Terrorism (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 45-48.

[9] Yevgenia Albats, The State Within A State: The KGB and its Hold on Russia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 194), 229-230.

[10] “Interviews of Alexander Litvinenko by Mario Scaramella,” Inquest Document INQ019473, p. 20.

[11] Randal, Going all the Way, 99.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

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