Looted Antiquities: Financing War Crimes and Terrorism

The destruction and plunder of cultural heritage in the Middle East is being committed on a scale not seen since World War II.  Such pillage robs communities of their history and undermines prospects for post-conflict economic recovery. Funds generated from the antiquities trade are also used by armed groups to purchase weapons, recruit and compensate members, and support their violent operations.  Indeed, for ISIS, looted antiquities have reportedly become one of its main sources of revenue.

Yet the global illegal trade in antiquities is a crime that usually goes undetected, unreported, uninvestigated, and unprosecuted. By collecting evidence to trigger cases against those complicit in pillaging cultural heritage, The Docket strives to cut off conflict antiquities as a source of conflict financing. We support or trigger prosecutions against antiquities dealers who are complicit in war crimes and represent the interests of victims of these crimes.

In 2020, The Docket launched a multi-country investigation tracking the smuggling of antiquities from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen into European markets and the United States. Through extensive open-source and field research we have prepared investigative files on key individuals and entities involved in the antiquities trade in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States and have established relations with the relevant law enforcement authorities to trigger the prosecutions of these individual as accomplices to war crimes and financing of terrorism.

The Human Cost of Antiquities Looting

The antiquities dealers trading with ISIS and other armed groups WILL be prosecuted for their involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and terrorism. Such prosecutions would disrupt the looted antiquities trade, and ultimately save people’s lives.

Anya Neistat - The Docket Director

Looting antiquities has made ISIS tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Along with oil trafficking and kidnappings, they became one of ISIS’s key sources of financing. Thousands of cultural artifacts from all over the Middle East and North Africa have been looted, smuggled, and sold to fund armed groups and bank roll war in the region.

These profits have been used to purchase weapons, recruit new members, and commit atrocities against local communities and terrorist attacks abroad.

What Are We Doing?

 

The Docket seeks to put an end to this major source of funding of conflicts in MENA and to dismantle networks participating in the illicit trade in looted antiquities. The Docket is investigating individuals and corporate actors involved in this trade and works with law enforcement authorities across the world to bring the antiquities dealers involved in the illicit trade of artifacts to justice through criminal prosecutions for complicity in war crimes and financing of terrorism.

Courts across European jurisdictions are increasingly opening investigations and prosecuting war criminals. Some of these proceedings have already resulted in the convictions of former ISIS fighters or military authorities involved in atrocity crimes.

Deadly terrorist attacks over the past decade around the world have also triggered public interest and raised awareness over how armed groups and terrorist organizations are funded, including through the looting of antiquities. These atrocities indicate that the illicit trade in looted antiquities is not a victimless crime.

Impact on Women

 

CFJ co-president Amal Clooney is counsel to a number of female survivors of sexual violence from the Yazidi community in Northern Iraq who were targeted by ISIS. In one case, she represented a woman who was the main witness at the first genocide trial worldwide. Testifying over seven days before a German court, this illiterate Yazidi woman provided the key evidence that sealed the genocide conviction against the defendant, Taha A.-J who had enslaved and abused the woman and her 5-year-old daughter, who died after he had chained her outdoors and left her hanging in the scorching sun. Taha A.-J. was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment.

One of the key aims of this project is to bring to account European antiquities dealers who enabled the commission of war crimes by armed groups, including ISIS. Notoriously, ISIS committed horrendous abuses against women from Yezidi and other communities. Throughout this project, we focus on both female survivors and witnesses of the crimes, but equally collaborate closely with female experts and activists—forensic archeologists, cultural heritage advocates, lawyers, and human rights defenders—who are critical for our litigation and advocacy efforts.

Impact on Minority Groups

 

Destruction and looting of armed groups took place in places containing large amounts of cultural or religious artifacts, such as museums, UNESCO World Heritage sites, archeological sites, and archeological storage warehouses. Armed groups have particularly targeted religious sites associated with Yazidi, Christian, and Muslim communities. Examples include:

  • The Jobar Synagogue reportedly looted by the Syrian armed forces that entered Jobar in 2012 and by opposition groups including the Harun Al-Rashid Brigade in 2013
  • The George Church looted by Jabhat al-Nusra
  • Assyrian Christians in Hasakah Governorate in northern Syria were ordered to remove crosses from their churches by Daesh fighters.

The massive scale of destruction and pillaging of cultural property in the region has been well documented through satellite imagery analysis and digital mapping technology.

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