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The Deadly War of Ideas

July 5, 2016

Just before 2:20 in morning of April 23, 1999 a B-2A Spirit bomber slipped undetected through the night air at 40,000 feet towards downtown Belgrade.

A B-2A refuels from a tanker on its way back to the United States after a bombing mission over Serbia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ken Bergmann)

A B-2A refuels from a tanker on its way back to the United States after a bombing mission over Serbia, April 1999. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ken Bergmann)

The plane had taken off from Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri more than fourteen hours earlier and crossed the Atlantic while refueling multiple times in midair. As a stealth aircraft the B-2A was one of the few aircraft trusted to fly above the heavily defended Serb capital. From its high perch over the center of the city the bomber dropped a single 2,000-pound GBU-31 GPS-guided bomb. The intended target had been programmed into the bomb before it was dropped.

Below, the staff of the government-operated Radio Television of Serbia were hard a work at their studio headquarters preparing for the next morning’s broadcast. The bomb slammed into the production room, shearing off one side of the building and collapsing several floors. It was a precision strike. A historic church located mere meters away from the studio sustained only a few broken windows. Inside the studio sixteen staff members were killed and sixteen more injured.[1]

That morning the world awoke to find that the war of ideas in the Balkans had now merged with the shooting war.

RTS was only knocked off the airwaves for a couple of hours before broadcasting resumed from a secret location. In terms of civilian casualties it was the single deadliest strike on Belgrade of the 78-day war. In a press conference given by NATO to defend the attack, Colonel Konrad Freytag of the German Air Force argued that the building “housed a large multi-purpose communications satellite antenna dish” and that it was being used as part of the Serb military communications network. Yet the same time NATO spokesman Jamie Shea promised “there will be no sanctuary for those aspects of the regime which are spreading hatred and creating this political environment for repression.”

The gutted RTS studio in Belgrade. (source)

The gutted RTS studio in Belgrade. (source)

The United States had first proposed targeting Slobodon Milosevic’s propaganda arm on April 12, but the French had vetoed the strike due to concerns that bombing civilian targets would only strengthen Milosevic’s political position. But as the war dragged on with little visible progress NATO began to expand its targets to include more and more civilian infrastructure. Strategic bombers flying from bases in the United States were never integrated into the NATO command structure, allowing USAF commanders to bypass French objections and attack whatever targets they desired. A few nights before the RTS bombing another plane had bombed the headquarters of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia. On that same night two electrical power stations in Belgrade were bombed. Later targets would include businesses owned by Milosevic associates such as cigarette factories and fertilizer plants.[2]

RTS had long played a sordid role in supporting Milosevic’s brutal policies in the former Yugoslavia, broadcasting false reports of massacres and even claiming that Bosnian Muslims besieged in Sarajevo were feeding Serb children to hungry lions at the zoo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued the day after the RTS bombing that state-controlled media “is the apparatus that keeps him [Milosevic] in power and we are entirely justified as NATO allies in damaging and taking on those targets.”[3]

Amnesty International’s Balkans expert labeled the attack a war crime and “a deliberate attack on a civilian object.” A report issued by Human Rights Watch concluded that “Even if one could justify legal attacks on civilian radio and television, there does not appear to be any justification for attacking urban studios, as opposed to transmitters.” Stopping propaganda which supported the Serb war effort did not offer “the ‘concrete and direct’ military advantage necessary to make them a legitimate military target.” The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia declined to prosecute, having determined that the station was a legitimate target if it was attacked for its dual purpose for relaying military communications but that if the station was attacked solely because it was broadcasting propaganda this might constitute a war crime.[4]

Yet both reports added another caveat, allowing that a studio might be considered a legitimate target if it broadcast nothing but incitements to genocide. Both reports cited the role of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in promoting the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a situation where targeting a radio station could be justified solely based on the content which was being broadcast.

But who decides when that line has been transgressed?

Fast forward to 2010.

Read more…

Is Cultural Heritage Protection Another Form of Nation-Building? A Review of “The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency” by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones

June 21, 2016

M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones, The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 262 pp.

The past fifteen years have seen an explosion in the academic study of insurgencies, producing a voluminous amount of publications whose consensus has been distilled into the United States Army Field Manual 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies as well as the British Army Field Manual Vol. 1, Part 10: Countering Insurgency. Military officers such as David Petraeus, David Kilcullen, and H.R. McMaster became academic and media stars. The United States military deployed dozens of anthropologists to Afghanistan and moved counterinsurgency to the forefront of military doctrine as it reconfigured its forces to fight insurgencies.

BookCoverThis thoughtful albeit sometimes polemical work by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones seeks to deconstruct some of the unacknowledged assumptions supporting contemporary counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. They begin by questioning whether “insurgency” is even a useful category for analysis. Many definitions of insurgency focus on an asymmetrical relationship between the combatants, but the authors point out that all wars involve unequal combatants and that trying to match one’s own strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses is basic military strategy. Others define an insurgency as an attempt to challenge a government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which would mean that all governments are constantly in a state of counterinsurgency whenever they enforce their own laws.

Imprecise definitions lead to very different conflicts being lumped together under the category of “insurgency,” grouping campaigns such as the French war in Indochina which were essentially made up of set piece battles between standing armies alongside more diffuse conflicts in Malaya or Northern Ireland as well as international terrorist campaigns like that waged by Al-Qaida. (p. 3-33)

According to Smith and Jones, by downplaying the essential differences between various conflicts COIN theorists seek to describe a general theory of insurgency and then develop a set of best practices which can then be applied to defeat any insurgency, anywhere. The problem is that wars are products of very specific circumstances, and one-size-fits-all theories tend to miss vital details. The authors spend an entire chapter debunking supposed “British expertise” in counterinsurgency, arguing that British victories in Malaya, Palestine, Kenya, South Africa, Northern Ireland and elsewhere were achieved through the common colonial method of finding a local faction opposed to the insurgents, giving them a lot of guns, and letting them do the dirty work. (p. 35-44, 86-87, 123-148)

While the authors’ own presuppositions lead them to contend that “skepticism should be practiced towards all grand social science theorizing in general,” (p. 184-185) their most trenchant observations concern the nature of COIN itself. COIN, they argue, pretends to be an apolitical set of “best practices” for defeating an enemy but is actually a deeply ideological enterprise rooted in American Cold War era modernization theory.

Originating in the age of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations’ “best and brightest,” Cold War modernizers “assumed that a rationalist, technocratic state could solve all social and economic ills.” All societies moved from superstition to reformation to enlightenment. Pluralist democracy in its mid-twentieth century American form could be universalized. Modernization meant industrialization, rationalization, secularization, bureaucratization, and a quest for efficiency which saw non-Western traditional social systems as obstacles to be overcome. (p. 57-92)

This infamous PowerPoint slide illustrated the impenetrable and incomprehensible complexity of contemporary counterinsurgency theory.

This infamous PowerPoint slide became a symbol of the impenetrable and incomprehensible complexity of contemporary counterinsurgency theory when it surfaced in 2009.

The underlying assumption was that modernity has civilizing, democratizing and secularizing effects which can be brought about through economic and technological modernization. Democratic peace theory, “Golden Arches” peace theory, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and most The World is Flat-style globalization theory all spring from this line of thinking. So, according to the authors, does COIN. The goal of COIN is to create and strengthen a legitimate government which effectively provides services and security to its people, thereby cutting off support for the insurgency. To this end the United States Army spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan on infrastructure projects, schools and economic development. “Buried within Western counterinsurgency thinking,” the authors have asserted elsewhere, “was an ideology that successful nation building would conduce to a liberal democratic end of history.”

The problem is that COIN is preaching the virtues of modernization to people who have already considered and rejected it. Militant Islamist ideology developed as a result of contacts between the Islamic world and modernity since the nineteenth century. Its major thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb spent significant time living and studying the West. Its followers have already taken a long look at what the modern West has to offer and decided that they want none of it. And because COIN unconsciously reflects ethnocentric Western value judgements which rank economic and material concerns above spiritual and religious ones, it is doomed to fail. (p. 57-103)

Is Heritage Preservation an Exercise in Nation Building?

While Smith and Jones limit their criticism to COIN theory, it is worth considering how closely the assumptions made by the cultural heritage enterprise align with the assumptions underlying contemporary COIN theory. Is current dialogue about antiquities preservation, replete with calls for greater education and normative claims about the value of cultural heritage, rooted in the same sort of assumptions about modernity and the end of history?

For example, UNESCO director Irina Bokova stated in June 2013 that “protecting the heritage of the world’s cultures concerns us all” because “cultural heritage can serve as a powerful tool to reinforce mutual understanding, social cohesion and ultimately, world peace.” In December 2014 she said there was “no purely military solution” to the war in Syria but that “to fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defense against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”

Or consider the remarks made in September 2013 by Anne C. Richard of the U.S. State Department on the importance of Syria’s cultural heritage for nation-building:

When we help protect heritage sites or preserve cultural objects throughout the world, we also support a nation’s efforts to restore its national identity. Citizens of all ethnicities, faiths, backgrounds, and economic stations can feel the pride and sense of national unity that comes with that.

We are also supporting the potential rebirth of an economy which, at one time, accounted for 12 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year. In fact, 11 percent of the workforce was employed as conservation professionals, teachers, tour guides, museum curators, hotel owners and employees, travel agents, bus and coach drivers, and shopkeepers.

It is not new to point out the colonialist origins of the field of ancient Near East scholarship (Bahrani 1998); the use of the ancient past as a tool for building the modern state (Baram 1991; Hamilakis 2007); how the concept of “universal heritage” actually empowers the state at the expense of local interests (de Cesari 2010; Meskell 2005); nor is it new to promote the use of cultural heritage as a tool for economic development (Hassan, de Trafford & Youssef 2008).

What may be overlooked, however, is that some of these ideas of universal heritage may be rooted in the same assumptions as counterinsurgency theory. Strengthening national capabilities to ensure a desired outcome for the protection of cultural heritage. Using heritage as a tool for economic modernization, which in turn is hoped to bring about social and political modernization. An assumption that all normal people value heritage in the same way that Westerners do and thereby heritage should be preserved by establishing national museums and government ministries as duplicates of those in the West. An assumption that all cultures will develop in this general direction. These assumptions may not all be faulty, but they should be examined.

One of the largest unexamined assumptions relates to the nature of ISIS itself. Jobs and education alone are not the solution to the ideology of an organization which counts in its ranks tens of thousands of people who left life in the west to join the Islamic State. ISIS is not made up of undeveloped primitives, it is made up of people who took a long look at modernity and decided they preferred a modern mythological version of a seventh-century caliphate.

All of this is meant as a caution, not a prohibition. A reminder that whenever we hear another UN official talking about the self-evident need to protect “the universal heritage we all share” or promoting pictures of government officials all over the world holding #Unite4Heritage signs, it may serve us well to be cautious about assuming that these values are quite as universal as the international organizational class claims, or that other people will prioritize them as highly as educated people in the West.

Special thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a review copy of this book.

Further Reading:

Bahrani, Zainab. “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and World Past.” 159-174 in Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Baram, Amatzia. Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968-1989. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

De Cesari, Chiara. “World Heritage and Mosaic Universalism: A View from Palestine.” Journal of Social Archaeology 10, No. 3 (2010): 299-324.

Hamilakis, Yannis. The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hassan, Fekri, Aloisia de Trafford and Mohsen Youssef, eds. Cultural Heritage and Development in the Arab World. Alexandria, Egypt: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008.

Meskell, Lynn. “Sites of Violence: Terrorism, Tourism and Heritage in the Archaeological Present.” 123-146 in Embedding Ethics. Oxford: Berg, 2005.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

ISIS destroys Temple of Nabu at Nimrud, Nergal Gate at Nineveh

June 8, 2016

Yesterday, ISIS sources released two videos showcasing the destruction of archaeological sites at Nineveh and Nimrud. There is significant overlap between the videos, but put together they show the destruction of several items not noted in yesterday’s post about the destruction of the gates of Nineveh and the Southwest Palace.

The Nergal Gate

Some of the footage shows a bulldozer destroying the Mashki Gate in Nineveh. This was already depicted in a photo essay released by ISIS and the video footage is nearly identical.

However, a brief scene shows a bulldozer backing down the ramp from the Nergal Gate, turning, and disgorging a section of a lamassu sculpture into a waiting dump truck:


Another shot shows a bulldozer making a hole through the rear of the gate and toppling what remains of the lamassu on the right with its shovel. The lamassu on the left appears to have already been destroyed:


Readers may recall that ISIS fighters chiseled the face off of the right lamassu last February. This suggests that ISIS has gone back to re-destroy artifacts that it already destroyed once, in order to get footage for new videos.

The lamassus at the Nergal Gate were originally installed during Sennacherib’s massive expansion of Nineveh between 704 and 690 BC. They were originally uncovered by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 but reburied. In 1941 heavy rains exposed them again, and the reconstruction of the Nergal Gate was built in part to protect the statues.[1] These were some of the few lamassu which remained in the location where they were originally discovered.

The reconstructed gate itself appears to have sustained some damage to the rear wall but is still standing.

The Nergal Gate as seen in 2006. (Photo by Diane Siebrandt/U.S. State Department)

The Nergal Gate as seen in 2006. (Photo by Diane Siebrandt/U.S. State Department)

The Temple of Nabu at Nimrud

Additional footage shows several exterior shots of the Fish Gate of the Ezida Temple of Nabu at Nimrud. As with the gates at Nineveh, the gate and the walls are modern reconstructions. The statues at the entrance were once mermen, but their heads were broken off in antiquity, leading to the structure being called the “Fish Gate.”[2]







Video taken from several angles shows explosives being detonated behind and under the arch. The double dust cloud is caused by gasses and debris venting through the arch.

NabuTempleExplosion1 NabuTempleExplosion3NabuTemple_2NabuTemple_3

As can be seen in after shots, the arch collapsed but the majority of the structure is still standing. This is confirmed by satellite photographs which show the damage was done sometime prior to June 3, 2016.


The mermen sculptures appear to have suffered heavy damage. Fragments of one can be seen in a shot of the rubble pile:


In a move surely calculated to provoke a media reaction, the video concluded with an ISIS member stating that the group intends to go to Egypt and blow up the pyramids and the sphinx.

The worship of Nabu originated in Borsippa in southern Mesopotamia and later spread north. The Ezida Temple of Nabu at Nimrud was built by Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 BC) as one of nine temples he founded at Nimrud. Excavations in the 19th century by Hormuzd Rassam and in the 20th century by Max Mallowan discovered several colossal statues (now preserved in the Iraq Museum) and a large number of shrines and dedicatory inscriptions as well as a collection of cuneiform texts related to the operation of the temple.[3]


[1] J.P.G. Finch, “The Winged Bulls at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh,” Iraq 10, No. 1 (Spring 1948): 9-18.

[2] Joan Oates and David Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2001), 111-112.

[3] Oates and Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed, 111-123.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

The Cleansing of Mosul

June 6, 2016

As the focus has shifted to Palmyra, relatively little media attention has been paid over the past several months to ISIS’ continued destruction of cultural sites in and around Mosul. Nevertheless, ISIS’ campaign to eliminate anything it perceives as being opposed to its ideology has continued. Over the past few months, many structures previously left untouched have been destroyed.

The Southwest Palace of Sennacherib

Situated atop the ancient tell of Kuyunjik, the Southwest Palace was one of the first buildings of Nineveh to be excavated by Austen Henry Layard in 1847. The palace contained the famous Lachish siege reliefs now preserved in the British Museum.

Over a hundred reliefs were left in situ and the palace was preserved as a museum. Some of the reliefs were broken or looted in the 1990s.

Left: Image taken by Digital Globe/ASOR on May 2, 2016 showing the Southwest Palace missing its roof but with reliefs still in place. Right: Image taken by Digital Globe/ASOR on May 9, 2016 showing the reliefs are gone and most internal walls have been destroyed.

Left: Image taken by Digital Globe/ASOR on May 2, 2016 showing the Southwest Palace missing its roof but with reliefs still in place. Right: Image taken by Digital Globe/ASOR on May 9, 2016 showing the reliefs are gone and most internal walls have been destroyed.

The palace had not been touched by ISIS until sometime between April 1 and May 2, when the metal roof protecting the remains from the elements was removed. After this, the walls separating various rooms were torn down, the pillars which supported the roof were removed. Satellite photos show vehicle tracks, indicating material was hauled out by the truckload. In the most recent images few reliefs can be seen and it appears they were either taken away or destroyed.

The Southwest Palace was one of two preserved Assyrian royal palaces formerly open to visitors, along with the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud. The Northwest Palace was destroyed by ISIS in April 2015.

Map showing Kuyunjik's location within Nineveh and the Southwest Palace at Kuyunjik. (Wikimedia/UNC)

Map showing Kuyunjik’s location within Nineveh and the Southwest Palace within Kuyunjik. (Wikimedia/UNC)

The City Gates of Nineveh

Nineveh from the reign of Sennacherib onwards featured fifteen major gates in the city wall. Each one was a monumental building in its own right, often featuring decorative reliefs and large lamassu statues.

The gates have been the target of numerous excavations. Several of them have been reconstructed in modern times along with sections of the city walls.

ISIS already destroyed the lamassus standing inside the Nergal Gate in February 2015, at the same time as they destroyed the artifacts in the Mosul Museum.

On April 10, ISIS destroyed the reconstructed Mashki Gate and its associated walls with bulldozers and later released propaganda photos online captioned simply “The demolition of idolatrous archaeology in the city of Mosul.” Satellite photos obtained by ASOR showed the gate has been completely razed and no trace of it remains.

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On April 14 they also destroyed the Adad Gate. Its destruction was revealed through satellite photographs obtained by ASOR as well as photographs on the ground obtained through clandestine measures.

Top: Satellite photo obtained by ASOR on April 1, 2016 showing the Adad Gate and reconstructed city wall intact. Bottom: Photo dated May 2, 2016 showing the Adad Gate and city wall have been completely razed and the land cleared.

Top: Satellite photo obtained by ASOR on April 1, 2016 showing the Adad Gate and reconstructed city wall intact. Bottom: Photo dated May 2, 2016 showing the Adad Gate and city wall have been completely razed and the land cleared.

As the gates and the walls are modern reconstructions, it is not immediately clear how much damage was done to ancient remains by these actions.

Map showing the locations of the Adad and Mashki gates within Nineveh.

Map showing the locations of the Adad and Mashki gates within Nineveh. (Wikimedia/Wikimedia/Wikimedia)

Tunneling in Ancient Nineveh

Satellite photograph obtained by ASOR showing evidence of tunneling in Nineveh. (source)

Satellite photograph obtained by ASOR showing evidence of tunneling in Nineveh. (source)

In addition, ASOR has identified several locations in the ancient city where tunnels are being dug into the side of the tell. This technique has also been used at the tells of Qara Tepe and Khidr Alyas near Tal Afar. The tunneling is not visible from satellite photos and can only be identified by the growing backfill piles.

Archaeological looting is typically conducted by digging numerous pits on the surface in order to overturn as much soil as possible. Digging from the side minimizes the amount of soil being turned over, which would seem to reduce the chances of finding a valuable artifact. While there may be other motives to dig this way such as concealment, there would seem to be little reason to conceal digging if ISIS has authorized it. This raises the possibility that the digging may be being conducted for other purposes such as the construction of military bunkers.

The Latin Church

The Clock Church towers over Mosul's Al-Sa'a neighborhood in this 1932 photo (Library of Congress)

The Clock Church towers over Mosul’s Al-Sa’a neighborhood in this 1932 photo (Library of Congress)

The Iraqi news outlet Al-Baghdadia was first to report on April 25 that the historic clock tower of the Latin Church in Mosul had been destroyed. The story was quickly picked up by the Telegraph and spread from there to other news outlets.

The tower was built in 1873 by the Dominican monks who also built the Latin Church. Its construction was financed by the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.

As of yet there is no hard evidence as to the status of the tower. No photos have surfaced to confirm its destruction. Further clouding the issue, the destruction of the tower was first reported this past September and was said to have taken place in February 2015.

The clock tower has been the target of attacks before. On November 1, 2006 a bomb exploded outside the entrance to the Latin Church. No one was killed in the attack, but the violence caused the monks to flee the city for Arbil. On April 9, 2008 the tower was damaged by a car bomb which targeted a passing police patrol. Two people were killed in that attack and ten were wounded.

Mosul War Cemetery

Plan of the Mosul War Cemetery. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

Plan of the Mosul War Cemetery. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

Satellite photographs taken in August 2015 surfaced this past March. They showed that ISIS has completely demolished the British and Commonwealth war cemetery in Mosul.

The cemetery contains the remains of 191 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in World War 1 and 145 who died in World War 2. Fourteen civilians are also buried there, including British consuls who died in Mosul. By nationality, 75 of the servicemen buried there are British, two are Australians and one Canadian. The rest of the total from both World Wars came from British India, many of whom were Muslims. Reports indicate at least 29 Polish soldiers may also be buried there.

The Mosul War Cemetery was reported to be in very poor condition prior to the beginning of the war in 2003, as is the case with most Commonwealth war cemeteries in Iraq. In 1998 the Polish Embassy reported that all of the tombstones had been smashed to rubble. However, photos taken in 2014 showed that two memorial obelisks were still standing at that time.

Left: Satellite photograph dated November 2013 of the Mosul War Cemetery. Right: Photo dated August 2015 showing destruction of the cemetery and adjoining cemeteries.

Left: Satellite photograph dated November 2013 of the Mosul War Cemetery. Right: Photo dated August 2015 showing destruction of the cemetery as well as adjoining cemeteries. (source)

The satellite photographs showed that ISIS leveled both obelisks as well as the Cross of Sacrifice. The walled cemetery to the upper left of the photograph was also destroyed, however it was not part of the Mosul War Cemetery.

Given the indiscriminate nature of this destruction it appears it was carried out as part of ISIS’ general campaign against graves which began in the fall of 2015.

Dair Mar Elia Monastery

Dair Mar Elia as seen in 2005. (Wikimedia)

Dair Mar Elia as seen in 2005. (Wikimedia)

Situated just south of Mosul, the Monastery of St. Elijah (Dair Mar Elia) is one of the oldest monasteries in Iraq. Founded between 582 and 590 AD, the Chaldean Catholic monastery remained active until 1743, when the Persian king Nader Shah massacred 150 monks for refusing to convert to Islam. The monastery was not restored and fell into ruin.

In January 2016 the Associated Press obtained photographs showing that the monastery had been razed sometime between August 27 and September 28, 2014. Its destruction had not previously been reported, nor had it been publicized by ISIS in any way.

Top: Satellite photo dated March 31, 2011 showing Dair Mar Elia. Bottom: Satellite photo dated September 28, 2014 showing the monastery had been razed to the ground. (AP/Digital Globe)

Top: Satellite photo dated March 31, 2011 showing Dair Mar Elia. Bottom: Satellite photo dated September 28, 2014 showing the monastery had been razed to the ground. (AP/Digital Globe)


The lack of publicity accompanying the destruction of many of the monuments discussed in this post cannot be ignored. First, it undercuts arguments that ISIS destroys sites solely to generate publicity in the media. Second, it raises the possibility that many other sites have been destroyed without being reported.

Finally, what it does suggest is that ISIS’s campaign of cultural cleansing in Mosul, so clearly designed to remove signs of any ideology opposed to ISIS, has continually expanded in scope from destroying Islamic sites, to ancient images, to replicas of ancient structures.

It could be argued that the drive for absolute ideological purity will always lead to a “scope creep” as it creates a thought process which is always searching for the next violation of the rules, and must continually find something to eliminate in order to keep functioning. Alternately, a more prosaic explanation could simply lie in the allocation of resources, priorities and scheduling. Regardless, while the news concerning cultural destruction in Mosul was quiet for many months, it can now be said that this was a deceptive quiet, and we can likely expect more news of destroyed cultural sites in the future.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

Palmyra Propaganda

April 7, 2016

The recapture of Palmyra from ISIS is undoubtedly a major battlefield victory for the Assad regime. For the first time in six months Syrian regime forces have recaptured significant territory from rebels. Prior to Russian intervention in September Assad’s forces were teetering on the brink of collapse, worn down by years of heavy casualties and equipment losses. Now Assad’s front lines are secure, the opposition has been further divided, and Russia has begun to draw down its military commitment.

Pre-2010 500 Pound Syrian banknote showing Zenobia and the ruins of Palmyra.

Pre-2010 500 Pound Syrian banknote showing Zenobia and the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra.

Bashar Assad is now seeking to spin his battlefield victory into an even greater propaganda victory. Palmyra and its famous ruler Zenobia have long held special significance to the Assad regime as symbols of Arab nationalism and  resistance to the West.[1] The recapture of Palmyra allows him to counter allegations that he entered into a tacit nonaggression pact with ISIS in order to defeat the Western-backed Free Syrian Army first. It also him to sell his fight to stay in power as a war by the forces of civilization against the barbarians who threaten it.

The first step in the media offensive was to bring a parade of foreign journalists into Palmyra to photograph destroyed ancient ruins and shattered statues in the Palmyra Museum. These photographs allowed an assessment of the damage done to archaeological remains, but as more and more news stories were filed a definite pattern emerged. Story after story focused solely on the ancient ruins. Photo spreads showed only photographs of the damaged and undamaged archaeological remains rather than the rubble of the modern town. Articles quoted only Syrian antiquities officials or western scholars and never quoted anyone currently living in the modern town of Tadmor.

Rubble in the town of Tadmor adjacent to ancient Palmyra. Photo by Maher al-Mounes (source)

Rubble in the town of Tadmor adjacent to ancient Palmyra. Photo by Maher al-Mounes (source)

A few photos surfaced of areas of the town adjacent to the ruins. The commonly circulated explanation was that ISIS had seeded both the modern town and the ruins with mines. No one asked why the ruins were de-mined first.

Is the way this story has been covered an example of western priorities which grant the remains of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic past a higher status than its present inhabitants? Or can journalists only photograph and write about what they are allowed to see?

The next step came when Russia’s Hermitage Museum offered to aid the restoration of Palmyra. Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky declared that “restoring Palmyra is the responsibility of all of us.” Iran quickly followed suit. Syrian antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim called for “archaeologists and experts everywhere to come work with us because this site is part of the heritage of all humanity.” The Syrian regime liberated Palmyra and now seeks to present itself as a defender of global civilization. One group of reporters who visited Palmyra were even told by a Syrian officer that “The Syrian army is defending Rome and London in as much as it is defending Damascus.”

A third step came on March 31 when Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin delivered a letter to the Security Council alleging that “The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$ 150-200 million per year.” No evidence was cited to support this figure, which he appears to have made up, and it can be safely said that the figure is absurdly high. My own open source analysis concluded ISIS has made a few million dollars at most from the sale of looted antiquities and antiquities make up a relatively small source of funds for the group. I have seen nothing in the past three months that contradicts this assessment.

(The letter also included a number of allegations that Turkey is a major transshipment point for looted artifacts, which is already well known, and claims that Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi is currently administering ISIS’ antiquities division, which would be rather difficult for him to do since he has been dead for almost a year).

This was followed by an announcement on April 1 by the state news agency SANA that government troops had uncovered a mass grave containing 42 bodies, including three children.

Rubble of a Doctors Without Borders hospital hit by an airstrike in Ma'aarat al-Numan, Idlib Province. (source)

Rubble of a Doctors Without Borders hospital hit by an airstrike in Ma’aarat al-Numan, Idlib Province. (source)

These attempts to shape the media narrative are notable not so much for what they include as for what they leave out. There is little discussion of the destruction wrought by indiscriminate aerial bombing of the town of Tadmor. Russian airstrikes frequently hit hospitals in rebel-held areas. ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative Weekly Reports are full of information about cultural heritage sites damaged by Russian and Syrian airstrikes.

Before the war, Palmyra was infamous among Syrian Islamists not for the pagan temples but for the notorious Tadmor Military Prison, into which regime opponents frequently disappeared. The prison was the scene of an infamous massacre on June 27, 1980 when, following an assassination attempt against Hafez Assad, soldiers under the command of his brother Rifaat entered the prison and slaughtered over a thousand inmates. After they captured Palmyra in May 2015, before touching any temples or tombs ISIS made a show of destroying Tadmor Prison. No photographs of that pile of rubble have been splashed across the front pages of major western newspapers.

Photos smuggled out from inside Assad’s prisons show that nothing has changed since 1980.

Damage done to the Camp of Diocletian at Palmyra by Syrian government forces during the construction of fighting positions between 2012-2015. (From "Palmyra: Heritage Adrift" p. 38)

Damage done to the Camp of Diocletian at Palmyra by Syrian government forces during the construction of fighting positions between 2012-2015. (From “Palmyra: Heritage Adrift” p. 38)

During the occupation of Palmyra by government forces from 2012-2015 the archaeological site was damaged by government forces using bulldozers to construct military positions among the ruins. Tower tombs were frequently looted.

Data gathered by the Syrian Network for Human Rights showed that Assad’s forces killed seven times as many people as ISIS during the first seven months of 2015.

I could go on.

The point is not to engage in reductionist debate about which side is committing worse human rights abuses. The point is to show how recent events are being manipulated by the Assad regime in order to capitalize on the opportunity to gain positive press coverage (not counting Russian and Iranian media) for the first time in five years.

People want to see threatened antiquities saved. Those who save them are hailed as heroes. Western minds and their  media have a deep need to find a good guy and a bad guy in every conflict story.

Archaeology has once again been turned into a weapon, one tool of the ideological battlefield alongside many other types of weapons.


[1] Robbert A.F.L. Woltering, “Zenobia or al-Zabbāʾ: The Modern Arab Literary Reception of the Palmyran Protagonist,” Middle East Literatures 17, No. 1 (2014): 25-42; Christian Sahner, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 2014), 133-135.

Assessing the Damage at Palmyra

March 31, 2016

On March 27 Syrian troops loyal to the Assad regime, with the help of Russian air power and special operations forces, recaptured the ancient ruins of Palmyra and the modern town of Tadmor. The town had been captured by ISIS in May of 2015 and in August several well publicized photos were released showing the temples of Bel and Baalshamin being destroyed. That same month ISIS beheaded Khaled al-As’ad, the site’s retired chief archaeologist and hung his body from a lamp post. During the ensuing months more reports came in regarding the destruction of other ancient structures in Palmyra, some of which were confirmed by satellite photography.

Palmyra is the second major archaeological site to be recaptured from ISIS (the first was the early Islamic site of Samarra last year). It is the first site to be retaken which has suffered sustained destruction at the hands of ISIS, giving us an opportunity to examine the damage.

The recapture of ancient Palmyra is a potent propaganda victory for Bashar Assad, whose regime heavily promoted the site in the past as symbolic of Syria’s alleged stance against western imperialism and irredentist goals of ruling “Greater Syria.” The government has brought in a steady stream of journalists to photograph the ruins, leading to a large number of photographs becoming available which will be analyzed below.

ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative has already published two reports on the damage done to the site:

Palmyra: Heritage Adrift (February 2012-June 2015)
Special Report: Update on the Situation in Palmyra (May 2015-September 2015)

UNESCO has also published a report on damage to the site from looting and military operations prior to October 2014.

Update 4/5/2016: ASOR has released a report analyzing the new footage from Palmyra. The report offers the following:

These findings add to a growing list of damage to Palmyra. Over the course of the war the Palmyra Museum, eight mosques, and Islamic cemetery, a church, two Shia shrines, the Baalshamin Temple, the Temple to Bel, the Triumphal Arch, Qalaat Shirkuh, Funerary Temple S103, and twelve Tower Tombs have all been damaged or destroyed. Undoubtedly more damage will be uncovered as preservation experts assess the site in the future.

The Ancient Site

Russian TV channel Russia 24 has obtained footage from a UAV flying over the ruins of Palmyra:

Analysis of the footage by ASOR showed that many major structures such as the theater, tetrapylon, agora and temple of Nabu are still standing. Despite being hit by airstrikes several times, the medieval fortress of Qalaat Shirkuh on the hill overlooking Palmyra seems to have only sustained light damage.

Further analysis of satellite photographs by ASOR shows that a funerary temple situated near the tower tombs was demolished. This was not previously reported.

Journalist Maher al-Mounes from the AFP gained access to the ruins on March 27. He posted the following short video of the Triumphal Arch, which was reported to have been destroyed last September but had never been confirmed:

Al-Mounes’s photographs were also hosted on the website of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). These images show that the arch was destroyed by dropping its middle span, leaving the columns along the sides still standing.

Arch of Triumph

Arch of Triumph of Palmyra, originally built by Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) and reconstructed in the 1930s.[1] (source)


Triumphal Arch as it appeared March 27, 2016. Columns belonging to the Temple of Nabu can be seen on the left. Photo by Maher Al-Mounes/AFP/DGAM.

Al-Mounes’ photos appear to show that the theater and the colonnaded streets are largely undamaged. Reports that ISIS tied prisoners to columns and blew them up remain unconfirmed and will require a thorough on-site or satellite survey of all the remaining standing columns.

Al-Mounes’ photos also show the Temple of Bel, which was blown up by ISIS in September 2015. The doorway has survived, as was previously seen in satellite photographs.

Temple of Bel in Palmyra in 2005. (source)

Temple of Bel in Palmyra in 2005. (source)

Temple of Bel

Temple of Bel as it appeared March 27, 2016. Photo by Maher Al-Mounes/AFP/DGAM.

Footage from the Russia 24 drone shows the Temple of Nabu seemingly undamaged. The Temple of Nabu can also be seen in the above picture of the triumphal arch, behind the four columns standing to the left of the photo.

Still footage from Russia 24 showing Temple of Nabu on the right.

Still footage from Russia 24 showing Temple of Nabu on the right.

The Temple of Nabu was likely left alone due to its low state of preservation compared to the temples of Bel and Baalshamin. Ironically the temple of Bel was preserved so well because it was converted into a mosque in 1132 or 1133.[2]

There is currently no reliable information about the status of the Temple of Allat, built within the Camp of Diocletian. A picture hosted by Russia Today claimed to show that the area known as the Camp of Diocletian had been razed, but a careful examination of surrounding landmarks in the photo with maps and Google Earth imagery shows that the picture cannot show the Camp of Diocletian and must have been taken from a point along the north wall.

Update 4/5/2016: According to satellite imagery included in the latest ASOR special report, the Temple of Allat and Diocletian’s Camp have survived without visible damage.

Diocletian's camp and the Temple of Allat as it appeared March 28, 2016. (source)

RT claims this photo shows the Temple of Allat, but compare the tower tomb in the background to relevant Google Earth imagery . (source)


The temple of Baalshamin is not seen in any of the new footage, but was previously confirmed to have been destroyed through satellite imagery.

There is of yet no information on the status of the Temple of Belhammon.

Read more…

Heritage as a Platform: New Frontiers in Cultural Preservation

March 4, 2016

A few weeks ago on this site I reviewed John Robb’s book Brave New War, discussing the potential of reconfiguring heritage preservation from a top-down, hierarchical model into a participatory, two-way, resilient and distributed platform. In many places around the world these kinds of projects are already being created, using technologies such as high-tech scanners, photogrammetry, 3D printing and immersive virtual reality to ensure that heritage is never lost.


3D printed model of King Uthal of Hatra. Morehshin Allahyari, “Material Speculation: ISIS,” Image courtesy of the artist, 2016.

From December 9, 2015 to February 5, 2016, John Jay College of Criminal Justice hosted an exhibit titled The Missing: Rebuilding the Past curated by professors Erin Thompson and Thalia Vrachopoulos. Among the projects on display was Nimrud Rising, an effort by the company Learning Sites and its president Donald Sanders to reconstruct the Northwest Palace of Nimrud which was destroyed by ISIS this past April. A 3D rendered video can be seen here, and the project also features an immersive 3D experience where visitors can strap on a virtual reality headset and then walk around the palace.

At the symposium associated with the exhibit, Sanders noted the technology could be expanded to create 3D models of archaeological sites as they currently exist, not just reconstructions as they were, thereby preserving a virtual copy that while it can never replicate the original can nevertheless preserve some aspect of what it was like to be there.

Iranian-born new media artist Morehshin Allahyari has made further attempts at reconstruction by building 3D models of artifacts from the Mosul Museum and then 3D printing them in resin as part of a series titled “Material Speculation.” The models are on a much smaller scale – Allahyari said she would not make any 1:1 scale replicas unless they would stand exactly where the originals once stood in the Mosul Museum – but each model contains a removable USB drive which is loaded with images and publications about the original artifact.

Allahyari has recently begun releasing her work on the website Rhizome, allowing others to download limitless copies of her digital models and print them worldwide, thereby ensuring that ISIS will never be able to remove the memory of these artifacts from the earth. The project, therefore, is not only a form of documentation but a form of artistic resistance to ISIS’ attempted erasure of Middle Eastern cultures.

Small 10cm copy of Morehshin Allahyari's King Uthal model which I had printed at Columbia University Science and Engineering Library.

Small 10cm copy of Morehshin Allahyari’s King Uthal model which I had printed at Columbia University Science and Engineering Library.

Outside of this conference other projects have also made use of 3D rendering to reconstruct artifacts from the Mosul Museum, most notably by a group called Project Mosul. While Allahyari built her models from scratch using modeling software with images serving only as a guide, Project Mosul uses photogrammetry technology to transform still photographs into three-dimensional models.

Outside the conference other efforts have been made to use 3D rendering to reconstruct the artifacts from the Mosul Museum, most notably by a group called Project Mosul. While Allahyari built her models from scratch using modeling software with images serving only as a guide, Project Mosul uses photogrammetry technology to transform still photographs into three-dimensional models. Photos are taken from old publications or submitted by users, but since the Mosul Museum saw very few visitors in recent years there is a dearth of photographs and as a result many of their models have a lower resolution. They have produced a large number of digital models but none which have yet been 3D printed in physical form, nevertheless their website serves as a virtual preservation of many objects which now exist only in digital form.

In Shanghai, NYU-Shanghai undergraduate Lewei Huang created an interactive virtual reality model of his rapidly gentrifying childhood neighborhood, preserving the unique early twentieth century mixture of Chinese and Western architecture even as bulldozers begin to make way for urban development.

At Oxford, the Ancient Lives Project has been crowdsourcing a massive effort to transcribe an estimated 495,000 papyrus fragments excavated at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt and kept at Oxford’s Sackler Library since 1898 which have never been published. Volunteers with at least a basic knowledge of the Greek alphabet work transcribing the documents, which are then checked by a computer against known Greek texts. Among the project’s recent discoveries are a report from a doctor on a slave girl who drowned swimming in a canal, a fragment of Euripides’ lost play Andromeda and a fragment of a second century B.C. Greek drama based on the book of Exodus.

The interface for Oxford University's Ancient Lives project crowdsourcing the transcription of papyri.

The interface for Oxford University’s Ancient Lives Project crowdsourcing the transcription of papyri.

The Egypt Exploration Society has made similar crowdsourcing efforts to digitize their massive card catalogs which documented the society’s early excavations. Princeton University Libraries has made an even more ambitious project to document rare Arabic texts from Yemen, where an active manuscript culture among the Zaydi Muslims continues to the present day even in the face of war and religious persecution and an estimated 50,000 medieval and early modern manuscripts are held in private libraries. The Princeton project distributed high-resolution cameras to local workers, who scanned as many books as they can and sent the files out of the country to be hosted on Princeton’s library servers while avoiding removing the books themselves from their cultural context. With war raging in Yemen and frequent airstrikes targeting Yemeni cities, these archives are more endangered than ever.

Most ambitious is a project proposed by Charles Henry of the Council on Library and Information Resources to create a Digital Library of the Middle East to aggregate as much information as possible into a massive database which can preserve the heritage of the region.

All of these projects harness the power of the Internet to either enable broad participation in heritage preservation or leverage the distributed nature of the Internet to preserve thousands of copies of endangered or lost artifacts and make them accessible to the world. In the process, many of them may give their participants a sense of involvement and ownership in preserving the world’s history which they may never have felt before.

But this also raises some interesting philosophical issues. All digital data is in reality just a long string of 0s and 1s which a computer interprets to create a representation of whatever image, object, or sound was recorded. No digital copy can ever truly replicate the original. It can only represent it.

3D printed model of relief of the Hatrene goddess Marten. Morehshin Allahyari, “Material Speculation: ISIS,” Image courtesy of the artist, 2016.

On the other hand, while modern representations can never connect us directly to the past in the same way as an authentic ancient object, it is important to remember that preservation is not a single event but a continuous process. Many of the classical sculptures which populate the world’s museums are Roman marble copies of long lost Greek bronzes which were made hundreds of years earlier. Likewise, we do not have the original texts of any ancient author, rather, we have versions which were copied over and over throughout the centuries. Age and preservation means both are now considered nearly as valuable as the originals.

In recent decades, replicas have been made of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Lascaux cave paintings when it became apparent that the hundreds of thousands of visitors who filed through them each year were causing irreversible damage to the artwork.

Yet despite the popularity of these exhibits, cognitive studies have shown that people find replica or duplicate artworks to be fundamentally different from the original, especially if the replica was produced by a different artist than the original.

Everything rots eventually. Statues rust, ink fades, paper rots and pottery breaks. Digital media decays over time, or is recorded on formats which cannot be read by modern computers. The job of the preservationist never ends. Time and decay cannot be reversed, all the preservationist can do is slow down the rate of entropy.

But even if the original will inevitably decay, the information contained therein – the shapes, sounds, colors, textures and letters – can and has been preserved through continually creating new physical objects to carry that information. A close replica of a statue, a new edition of a written text, a digital representation of either of the above – all further the goal of ensuring this information is not lost. A replica is not the same as the original, but every original will eventually decay and then all that will remain are our continually created representations.

It is of course a terrible thought to imagine a world where there are no longer originals of ancient works of art but only digital representations. The impermanence of digital files, which unlike manuscripts and statues can be erased in a fraction of a second, is another difficulty worth considering. (Not to mention the potential for catastrophic loss of cultural materials through hacking, computer viruses or even an EMP blast). But its strength lies in its ability to replicate millions of copies of an artifact around the world in no time at all. It is possible that some day, like the sculptures of Praxiteles, that may be all we have left.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

The Situation: A Post for the Grand Challenges for Archaeology Blogging Carnival

January 31, 2016

This post is written especially for Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s January blogging carnival at Doug’s Archaeology Blog, seeking responses to the question “What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology?” You can read the rest of the responses here. For regular readers I hope this post will serve as a useful summary of the various topics discussed on this blog in the past year. For new readers I hope it will serve as a good starting point for reading about the issues discussed on this blog.

Wherever scholars of the ancient Near East gather these days the topic of conversation invariably turns to The Situation. The Situation hangs like a spectre casting a pall over our entire field. The Situation both steels our resolve while giving our work an urgent sense of purpose, and makes us despair as to whether any of it will survive.

The Situation has been slow-burning for a long while. The Iran-Iraq War limited archaeological missions from 1980-1988. The last American archaeological teams left Iraq in 1990. They have only returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in the past few years. War was followed by sanctions and poverty in the 1990s and regime change in the 2000s which led to disastrous looting of museums and archaeological sites. A brief glimmer of hope asserted itself after 2011, only to be dashed as ISIS swept to power in Iraq and Syria and began the destruction of cultural heritage on a scale not seen in the region in centuries.

Looting. The antiquities trade. Root causes of poverty and lack of security. Intentional destruction of heritage for propagandistic purposes. Failed and hollow states. War seemingly without end.

The Situation is a crisis decades in the making. It will not be solved overnight, or next year, or even in ten years. But we in the field of the archaeology of the Near East must grapple with it, for the long term viability of our field is at stake. If we are to avoid becoming a dead field with a closed corpus of data, we must wrestle with the following issues:

1) Failed and Hollow States

A failed state is a state whose government no longer controls most of its territory. Syria, Libya and Yemen are failed states. Iraq has been on the brink of becoming one. A hollow state is a state where the government maintains all the trappings of a state – government offices, a standing army and police force, elections – even as the government loses day to day control over what happens in large swaths of its territory. Egypt has moved towards this from time to time since 2011, and Afghanistan is already there.

Failed or hollow states no longer effectively enforce laws against looting. Failed or hollow states produce desperate people who do what they have to do in order to survive. Failed or hollow states no longer provide secure environments for archaeological research. Archaeologists have even become targets themselves.

Failing states allow for the rise of superempowered groups bonded by a shared cause and rooted in primary loyalties to culture and family which run deeper than the state. As people lose trust in the state and its institutions these groups multiply and adapt as they seek to undermine the state. New tactics, such as funding an insurgency from antiquities sales, or destroying archaeological sites as a strategy of warfare, are sure to be adopted by more groups than ISIS.

2) We are Unprepared to Respond

We are unprepared to respond to any of this, because our entire apparatus of cultural heritage research and preservation depends on the power of the state. As a result, our response has been to double down on state power. We want heavily armed guards at every site and museum, looters jailed, imports banned, computer databases created, dealers investigated and some even daydream about sending UN peacekeepers to secure archaeological sites. Our codes of ethics are rooted in repatriation, international agreements and countries of origin.

These strategies still work where states maintain their power. But when the state is gone the result is a disaster, and there is little that state power can do to restore the situation. As state power declines in many parts of the world, we will need to conceptualize new methods of heritage preservation for the 21st century.

3) Archaeology Will Become a Tool of Many Nationalisms

Over much of the Middle East, one nationalism has been replaced by many nationalisms. The ideological basis of the old post-colonial Arab states is gone. Over the past five years the idea that the Arabic-speaking world was one unified cultural entity stretching from Morocco to the Indian Ocean has been shattered into pieces as one country after another has torn itself apart.

As it did so, the peoples of the Middle Ease fell back on identities which pre-date their modern states. Arab nationalism in Syrian and Iraqi strains has been replaced by nationalism in Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Armenian, Druze, Turkmen, Syriac, Kurdish and Assyrian flavors. Each identity involves reaching back to the past for something to hold on to in times of turmoil. Each nationalism involves utilizing history.

Nearly a year and a half ago I wrote on this blog that “Archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead.”

The support offered for archaeology by twentieth-century Arab nationalist governments in many places is no more as new funding priorities are set. In others archaeology will continue albeit in the service of new nationalisms, creating new challenges in professional ethics and increasing the likelihood that archaeologists’ work will be used as a weapon for someone’s cause.

What’s Next?

The challenges set forth here seem deeply distressing and often feel insurmountable. Responding and adapting to them is a challenge with which the new generation of students of the ancient Near East must grapple over the coming decades. Some answers may be found in building resilient platforms for heritage protection. Other answers may be found in critically examining our own presuppositions about the nature of cultural heritage and its preservation. New paradigms for ethics must seriously engage with people’s right to their own heritage and avoid the easy pitfall of declaring an overriding neo-colonial western interest in preserving ancient artifacts.

All is not lost, and technology and new methods of organization may enable heritage preservation in ways not possible before. But in order to find the answers we must first ask the right questions.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

Book Review: “Brave New War” by John Robb

January 20, 2016

This post is first in a new series for this blog which will review recent books from the fields of international security studies in order to examine what relevance their ideas may have for the future of cultural heritage preservation in the Middle East.

John Robb, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. 208 pp.

Brave New War is a book whose prescience and influence has only grown as the Arab Spring has come and gone, leading it to be called “a classic” and “a rather brilliant synthesis” and frequently appear on military reading lists. And all for a slim book written by a first-time author, published by an academic press with only five pages of endnotes, whose foreword, written by longtime Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, warns that the book’s analysis “is in many ways darker than even the conventionally pessimistic view.”

BraveNewWarJohn Robb began his career as an Air Force officer flying in special operations units before beginning a new career as a tech entrepreneur, where he helped to invent the RSS feed. His work, both in this book and on his blog Global Guerrillas, is in many ways the result of years of military and business experience.

The limited endnotes should not be taken as a mark against the book’s scholarly value but as indicative of the revolutionary nature of its analysis. Robb’s basic thesis is that nuclear weapons and wide economic integration have combined to bring an end to the era of state-versus-state conflict. The risks are too great, and the only state-versus-state wars are wars of choice where risk can be tightly controlled. Wars of the future will be fought at the sub-national level by what Robb terms “Superempowered Groups.” These are groups of people bonded by a shared cause who can leverage modern technology in such a way that they can fight states and win.

Advances in technology mean that the number of people needed in order to wage war continues to decrease, while advances in communications make it easier than ever for like-minded people to find others who share their cause. As a result, states are losing control of their borders, their economies, their finances and their populations. Robb goes so far as to suggest that the end result of these processes will be the creation of a “superempowered individual” who has “the ability to declare war on the world and win.” (p. 7-8, 17)

Superempowered groups have several advantages over states. Membership is defined by acceptance into the group rather than citizenship. They do not need to control territory and often have a non-hierarchical organizational structure, enabling them to make decisions quickly and free from bureaucracy. A superempowered group could be a terrorist organization, or a hacker cell, or a drug cartel – in each case their goal is to undermine the state. Failed states with no effective government or hollow states where government remains in power but does not control large swaths of territory allow these organizations to operate freely (p. 18-21, 80-93).

How can a small albeit superempowered group fight a state and win? Through a tactic Robb calls “Systems Disruption.” The goal of the tactic is to identify nodes in an economic, technological or other system whose destruction will cause that system to collapse. Such attacks are cheap to carry out but can cause massive economic damage. For instance, in the summer of 2004 insurgents in southern Iraq blew up a section of oil pipeline with a $2000 bomb and shut down all oil exports from southern Iraq for several days. The damage cost Iraq $500 million in export revenue, a return on investment of 250,000 times the cost of the attack (p. 95-100).

The most obvious nodes are usually well protected: Robb discusses the failed Al-Qaida attack on the oil processing facilities at Abaqiq, Saudi Arabia in February 2006 as an example of the difficulty of such attacks (p. 100-101). But modern systems are interdependent and susceptible to cascading failures. The oil pumping station in Basra, Iraq was well protected, so insurgents attacked fuel shipments to a nearby power plant instead. With no fuel the power plant shut down, cutting electricity to the pumping station and causing it to shut down as well (p. 103).

Superempowered groups are able to identify these weak points because there are dozens or even hundreds of them all trying to solve the same problems. Whereas “classical” insurgencies such as the Viet Cong or the FLN in Algeria maintained hierarchical organizations, in Iraq the United States fought at least seventy different armed factions with no unified command structure (p. 111-116). The result is what Robb terms “Open Source Warfare,” a metaphorical “bazaar of violence” were groups are constantly innovating and learning from each other. Eventually a sort of adaptive emergent intelligence rises from the system, where all the uncoordinated groups which make up an insurgency are collectively finding new targets to attack and new ways to protect themselves. As the state fails the cycle continues. New groups are formed as more and more people lose trust in the state and fall back on primary loyalties (p. 80-89, 116-127).

Attacks on Cultural Heritage as Systems Disruption in an Open Source War

Recent attacks on cultural heritage in the Middle East can be understood as a form of systems disruption. First, many cultural heritage sites are tourist magnets and are therefore economic nodes. Attacking them discourages other tourists and damages the economy, undermining the state’s revenue and its ability to protect its citizens’ lives and livelihoods. The recent attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia, the Karnak Temple in Egypt, and last week’s suicide bombing at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul were clearly carried out with this objective in mind.


Maps showing ethnic cleansing in Baghdad neighborhoods in the aftermath of the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra. Mixed neighborhoods (yellow) have almost disappeared, replaced by Sunni-majority neighborhoods (red) and Shia-majority (green). Christian-majority neighborhoods (blue) remained the same. Maps by Dr. Michael Izady. (source)

But in addition to being economic nodes, cultural heritage sites serve as nodes in an ideological economy. Robb describes Al-Qaida’s bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006 as “a form of social system disruption” (p. 61-62). Not one person was killed or injured in the explosion, but the destruction of one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam announced that Iraq’s Sunni insurgency was not fighting only to drive the Americans from Iraq but to subjugate its Shia population. The result was a surge of revenge attacks followed by campaigns of ethnic cleansing which turned the Iraqi insurgency into a full blown ethnic conflict which continues to the present day.

Worse, in an open source war effective tactics go ‘viral’ and are soon adopted by militant groups around the world. The Taliban were the first to use the destruction of cultural heritage as a public display of militant Islamist piety when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. A few years later the Taliban sought to replicate their feat by attacking Buddhist sites in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Their successful display of power and zeal was replicated in Iraq in 2006 and again in Mali in 2012 when the group Ansar Dine began destroying Islamic heritage sites at Timbuktu. ISIS then elevated it to a level never before seen in the region.

Each group seeks to improve on the idea, and prove they are more dedicated and uncompromising than the others by destroying more spectacular targets (the al-Askari Mosque, the ruins of Nimrud, the temples of Palmyra) or by rooting out ever more obscure sites to prove how dedicated they are at eradicating undesirable elements. The tactic has proven eminently successful so far and we can expect many more groups to replicate the tactic and innovate new ways to use the destruction of cultural heritage in war.

Cultural Heritage as a Resilient Community?

Robb is pessimistic about the state’s ability to defeat an open source insurgency. The adaptive nature of the insurgency means some group will eventually find a way to counter the state’s tactics and the others will follow their example. “You can’t kill their leaders, because they don’t need them,” he argues. “You can’t reliably prevent future attacks, because they’re small scale, dispersed, and unpredictable. You can’t outmaneuver or outsmart them, because their innovative organization system makes that nearly impossible. Welcome to the open-source war.” (p. 110).

Centralizing the state’s security apparatus through mass surveillance, data collection and the application of force is unlikely to be effective because a police state is structurally incapable of matching the open source insurgency’s speed and innovation in decision-making. (Pre-emptively invading other countries and reconstructing their societies into states friendlier to the west is even less likely to work, and for many of the same reasons)  (p. 156-164).

To date, the global response to the cultural heritage crisis has been that of the police state. Meetings are held in which international agreements between states are re-iterated. International law related to cultural heritage presumes the nation-state at every step. Codes of ethics revolve around countries of origin. We want states to post heavily armed guards and every site and museum, impose stiff penalties for looters, ban imports from at-risk countries, create computer databases of artifacts, deploy law enforcement to apply close scrutiny to buyers, and daydream about deploying United Nations troops to secure archaeological sites.

And some of these responses are at present perfectly reasonable, because in the contemporary world when the state fails heritage preservation is a disaster. Museums are emptied, their contents hidden or plundered. Archaeological sites are looted. Most people may not support either of these things happening to their historic sites, but they are powerless to stop them from happening.

Announcing that he is “ready to call it quits on the highly centralized and overly prescriptive proposals by governing bodies,” in the long term Robb argues that future security will be best secured through what he calls “Resilient Communities,” decentralized systems which are designed to limit the damage done by systems disruption.

Robb is not advocating backwoods survivalism. Rather, he suggests turning the systems which undergird modern society into platforms. Systems are hierarchical, platforms are flat. Everyone is free to interact with a platform as both a consumer and a provider. A platform is open, so users can innovate freely.

Robb uses the electrical grid as an example of a hierarchical system that could be turned into a resilient platform. The first step would be allowing users to also contribute power through plug-in solar panels or other methods, and setting pricing through a transparent system so that users were billed based on how much power they used versus how much they contributed. Power companies would become facilitators of exchange rather than mass-producers. The result would be a power grid far less susceptible to disruptions such as the 2003 Northeast blackout (and one that would likely be more environmentally friendly to boot). (p. 164-175).

What would a resilient community platform for cultural heritage preservation look like? Such a platform would avoid centralizing too many artifacts in one place but would have to be done in such a way that individuals not only retain the ability to access to all the artifacts but would also be able to contribute to the platform in some meaningful way. Contributing would also serve to increase a sense of ownership over cultural heritage within the community.

On the other hand, local control of artifacts means fewer resources available for conservation and study as well as even thornier ethical issues. Can the locals decide to destroy their cultural heritage? How is this heritage presented and how does one navigate layer upon layer of overlapping interests? More local control will almost certainly mean artifacts will sometimes be presented in ways that conflict with how the current powers controlling cultural heritage would want them to be.

This review is not meant to set forth a prescription for heritage preservation in the twenty-first century, but to begin to think about ways to approach the challenges that are being raised and how our current systems of heritage preservation can be adapted to this new world. How will archaeology in the future cope with failed or hollow states? Ignoring the issue is sadly no longer an option.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

How Much Money is ISIS Making from Antiquities Looting?

January 12, 2016

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.)

Early Reports

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.


Chart released by the U.S. State Department showing the internal structure of the antiquities division of ISIS’ Diwan al-Rikaz in Deir ez-Zor governate.

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.[1]

Satellite photograph showing industrialized looting at Mari, November 11, 2014. Digital Globe/U.S. Department of State (source)

Satellite photograph showing heavy looting at Dura-Europos, April 2, 2014. The city is possibly the most heavily looted site in Syria, however all the pits in this picture were dug prior to ISIS taking control of the area. Digital Globe/U.S. Department of State (source).

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).[2]

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.

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