Author:Williams, Paul R.
Position:The Art of International Law

For decades, parties to conflicts have used the cover of war to destroy and loot cultural property and antiquities for financial gain and symbolic victory. The "blood antiquities " excavated in conflict areas and sold mostly in western markets fuel not only continued conflict, but also (as in cases such as Syria and Iraq) terrorism that can reach around the world. The culture of impunity for both buyers and sellers of antiquities allows the blood-antiquities trade to thrive.

A robust international legal framework does exist to ensure accountability for the destruction of cultural heritage. Because looting is a major cause of destruction, it should be included in this framework. The successful prosecution of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of deliberately attacking historical and cultural monuments bodes well for an end to impunity. Yet, this paper argues that international and domestic systems of regulation and certification are also needed to establish criminal liability and eliminate the willful ignorance of buyers.


On August 22, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi pled guilty at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of deliberately attacking historical and cultural monuments--the first ever prosecution for the destruction of cultural heritage in front of the ICC. (1) In the summer of 2012, Al Mahdi led a task force of Ansar Dine jihadists to destroy historic tombs in Timbuktu, Mali, which had attracted African and Middle Eastern Muslim pilgrims for centuries. (2) The Muslim extremists occupied Timbuktu for nearly a year before French forces finally ousted them. (3) The case against Al Mahdi provides some hope that more perpetrators will be brought to justice for destroying cultural property and antiquities, including the members of ISIS who have left a trail of ruin across Iraq and Syria. ISIS, however, not only destroys cultural sites, but also loots them and exploits the antiquities trade to raise substantial funds to sponsor its operations. (4) The lack of accountability for looting and purchasing illegal antiquities allows terrorism and conflict to flourish in the Middle East.


    Just as "blood diamonds" helped to fund devastating conflict in Western, Central, and Southern Africa, "blood antiquities" are financing terrorism and conflict in the Middle East. (5) Although ISIS claims to destroy some sites purely out of religious zeal, attempting to erase all signs of what they call idolatry, (6) ISIS and the Syrian regime have both been accused of looting cultural heritage sites like Palmyra for profit. (7) Although the precise profits that ISIS generates from looting are difficult to calculate, estimates range from $200 million to $8 billion. (8) The Wall Street Journal emphasized the importance of this income stream when it reported that looted antiquities are ISIS's second-largest source of financing after oil. (9)

    Syrians on the ground report that ISIS issues licenses to loot in exchange for a 20-50 percent tax on the proceeds. (10) Indeed, a U.S.-led raid on the compound of ISIS's oil-smuggling and antiquities-trade commander provided evidence of this practice. (11) The commander possessed an assortment of artifacts and receipts showing a 20-percent tax on precious materials, including antiquities and minerals collected from civilians. (12)

    Evidence suggests that thieves are storing many looted antiquities in warehouses for a cooling-off period, after which they will be more difficult to trace. (13) In March 2015, a police raid in Bulgaria uncovered a stash of items thought to be from the Sumerian city of Lagash, in Southern Iraq. (14)

    According to experts, traffickers and middlemen use a vast network of smuggling channels, many through Lebanon or Turkey, to move the antiquities from their country of origin to international markets. (15) Once antiquities leave their country of origin, it is often difficult to prove that they were looted from a conflict area rather than transferred through legitimate channels. (16) Smugglers' frequent use of forged documents exacerbates the problem further. (17) According to news reports, the lack of concrete evidence of illegal excavation often compels authorities to avoid pursuing criminal charges against smugglers in return for reclaiming the stolen objects, thereby allowing the perpetrators to escape liability. (18)

    Reports indicate that many looted antiquities end up with buyers in Western markets and the Gulf. (19) According to Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art in Rome, lawmakers have not paid enough attention to preventing buyers in wealthy markets from purchasing looted antiquities. (20)

    Today, front-page news often features ISIS and the Middle East, but antiquities trafficking is hardly novel, having funded terrorism for decades. For example, in 1999, one of the hijackers from the 9/11 attacks sold ceramics in Germany, which were stolen from Afghanistan, allegedly with the intent of purchasing an airplane. (21) In addition, during the Cambodian Civil War in 1970, the Vietnam People's Army and the Khmer Republic instituted industrial looting. (22) Similarly, after the Russian Civil War and the famine-induced peasant uprisings in 1922, the Soviet regime looted property from the Russian Orthodox Church, Armenian Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and Anglican Church of Moscow, as well as Jewish synagogues. (23) That year, thousands of stolen antiquities were sold to foreign collectors, which raised billions of dollars, primarily for arms purchases from Germany. (24)

    While terrorists gain financially from looting, the people who view these artifacts as part of their cultural heritage experience an emotional and financial cost from the theft. Ancient sites and monuments often represent not only symbols of national unity and pride, (25) but also important religious or cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is a valuable part of individual and group identity, (26) which is one reason why terrorists choose to target it. (27) Destruction of cultural sites can lead to anger, division, and retaliation that fuel further conflict. (28) In addition, countries often gain...

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