Archaeologists in Secret Underground War with ISIS

Joe Parkinson, Ayla Albayrak and Duncan Mavin, 17 February 2015, Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal and The Australian, where the title reads “The Secret War against Islamic State waged by Academics

IN a hotel basement on the Turkish side of this combat-scarred frontier, a group of unlikely ­warriors is training to fight on a ­little-known front of Syria’s civil war: the battle for the country’s cultural heritage. The recruits aren’t grizzled fighters, but greying academics, more at home on an archaeological dig than a battlefield. For months, they have journeyed across war-torn regions of Syria, braving shelling, smugglers and the jihadists of Islamic State.

Their mission: to save ancient artefacts and imperilled archaeo­logical sites from profiteers, as well as desperate civilians and funda­mentalists who have plundered Syria’s rich artistic heritage to fund their war effort.

Ruins in Palmyra in the Syrian desert

Art historians and intelligence officials say antiquities smuggling by Islamic State has exploded in recent months, exacerbating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions. Looting, often with bulldozers, is now the militant group’s second-largest source of finance after oil, say Western intelligence officials. “What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into an organised transnational business that is helping fund terror,” said Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University who is advising the US State Department on how to tackle the problem. “It’s the gravest cultural emergency I’ve seen.”

In sessions at this secret ­location, the loose-knit band of ­academics is being trained on how to fight back. They are instructed on how to get to key sites and docu­ment both what is there and what is missing.

Another skill: how to hide ­precious objects that may be at risk of looting and record the GPS locations so they can be retrieved at a later date. The group also uses disguises: posing as antiques dealers to photograph looted artefacts.

They are led by a portly, ­middle-aged archaeologist trained at ­Damascus University. He likens his group to World War II’s “monu­ments men”, the small group of academics who helped to save ­Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazis and became the subject of a 2014 film starring ­George Clooney. “It’s dangerous work. We have to get in and out of a site very quickly,” he said, speaking in a dimly-lit basement used for the training. “The looting has become systematic, and we can’t keep up.”

The war in Syria has taken an epic toll, with more than 200,000 people killed since the uprising began in 2011. Alongside the human cost, the cultural damage has mounted Ancient cities such as Homs and Aleppo have been reduced to rubble. Roman, Greek, Babylon­ian and Assyrian sites have been destroyed by fighting and looting, and five of the six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been badly damaged.

Some of the country’s grandest museums have been plundered or are at risk, including the Mosaic Museum in Idlib province, filled with Roman-era works. In the markets in southern Turkish cities such as Gaziantep, Roman vases robbed from graves are being sold by the box-load.

“We’ve seen a lot of artefacts turning up here … Ottoman-era coffee pots and older coins and statuettes,” said Harun Unvar, who runs an antiques store in ­Gaziantep’s old bazaar, as he rejected a Turkish man’s efforts to sell a ­marble bird’s-head figurine for around $US280 ($360). “Refugees try to sell small items, but the big stuff is stolen and sold privately for big money.”

Market traders say small items such as figurines and carved cylinder seals sell for prices varying from a few dollars to several thousand. Buyers range from locals picking up small pieces in Turkish and Lebanese markets to investors and collectors in the West, China and the Persian Gulf, say antiquities specialists.

In the US alone, government data shows the value of declared antiques imported from Syria jumped 134 per cent in 2013 to $US11 million. US officials estimate the value of undeclared ­pieces is far higher. The total volume of illicit trade is impossible to accurately assess, but it is thought to have mushroomed to more than $US100m a year, the say.

A key driver of the big expansion in looting is the rise of Islamic State. Academics and government officials say most of the illicit trade is run by the group — whose worldview sanctions destroying artefacts considered idolatrous. In addition to selling oil, the group makes money from hostage ransoms and racketeering.

In neighbouring Iraq, Islamic State is also looting and destroying ancient sites on an alarming scale, according to satellite ­imagery, archaeologists and government officials. In recent days, the militants des­troyed a large portion of the ancient city wall at Nineveh in Iraq, which dates back 2700 years and was once the capital of the ­Assyrian Empire.

Syrian government forces stand next to the blown-up gate of Aleppo’s historical citadel, also known as Crac Des Chevaliers

In Syria, satellite imagery updated recently by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Washington-based non-government group, showed how the jihadists are methodically deconstructing and looting historical buildings in their headquarters of Raqqa, a UNESCO World Heritage site with ancient shrines that Islamic State regards as sacrilegious.

In the Islamic State-controlled territory around the Mesopota­mian city of Mari, a long-time trade hub founded in 300BC, more than 1300 excavation pits have been dug in recent months, according to satellite imagery and archaeologists. Researchers from Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, say much of the tomb raiding is being done by civilians encouraged by Islamic State leaders, who levy a 20 per cent tax on sales.

Last year, an Iraqi intelligence official claimed Islamic State had made as much as $US36m from looting a single area around Al-Nabek, a Syrian city that contains early Christian sites known for their icons and wall mosaics.

Willy Bruggeman, a former deputy director of Europol who is now president of the Belgian Federal Police Council, said Islamic State was using its vast network and social-media savvy to bypass conventional middlemen and reach buyers direct. The looters store the booty in a secret location then circulate the photos to buyers in hard copy or via text message or the WhatsApp messaging service, officials say.

The Journal reviewed mobile phone photos of a Bronze Age­­ vot­ive bust, possibly 5000 years old, looted from Islamic State territory, being touted for sale to private clients and potentially sold for about $US30,000. The limestone statues, depicting in detail clothing and jewellery of the time, were put in tombs to ­accompany the dead to the afterlife.

Factions of Islamist fighters immediately took control of trafficking when gaining territory, one smuggler said. “They understand how lucrative this stuff is so they exploit it with sophisticated networks,” said the smuggler from the Turkish border city of Hatay, who identified himself as Ugur.

In the city of Manbij, which has become an artefact-trading hub, Islamic State had established an office to handle looted antiquities and a market for equipment used in digging, including the metal ­detectors and remote-sensing equipment used by professional archaeologists, said Amr al-Azm, an expert in Syrian antiquities at Shawnee State.

Stolen antiquities are usually sold to Islamic State-approved dealers, with payments in US dollars. “Once the sales are comple­ted, these approved dealers are then given safe passage through ISIS territory,” Mr Azm said. The quantity of items being looted was a bigger concern than a few high-value pieces, because the act of digging up the artefacts destroyed their archaeological context, he added.

Less than 1 per cent of pieces stolen by militants from churches and ancient towns across Iraq and Syria had been recovered, Mr Bruggeman said.

Islamic State isn’t the only group involved in the plunder. Grainy video published by a Syrian opposition media network on YouTube shows soldiers fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s regime at Palmyra with delicate grave ­reliefs loaded on to a truck.

And senior Free Syrian Army fighters, the secular opposition that has received aid from the US, have long conceded to Western media that looting antiquities is an important source of funding.

Governments are wrestling with how to choke the trade. US and European governments are mulling over new anti-smuggling legislation, and European and US spy agencies are investigating the ­supply chain that moves the artefacts from the war zone to market, say Western counter-terrorism and diplomatic officials.

The UN Security Council circulated a resolution this month to ban all trade in antiquities from Syria, concerned Islamic State and other groups were generating funds from the trafficking. The council banned trade in artefacts from Iraq a decade ago. “The expanding link between antiquities looting and terrorist ­financing is raising political awareness,” said Mark Vlasic, a Georgetown University law professor who advises US congress on terrorism financing. “Governments should now work to ensure they are limiting this funding link to terrorism.”

Security forces in Lebanon and Jordan have stepped up raids on smuggling rings. In Turkey, special police anti-smuggling units have conducted dozens of raids in the country’s southern cities since last year, confiscating thousands of artefacts ­including Roman sculptures now locked in vaults in the museums of Gaziantep, Urfa, Hatay and Mardin. Officials say they will return the items when the war ends.

Syria’s monuments men are seeking to halt the plunder at its source. Formed in 2012 by the Damascus University-trained archaeologist and a Syrian archaeologist colleague, the group started inform­ally cataloguing damage to sites in battle-scarred Idlib and Aleppo provinces. They enlisted Syrian colleagues and friends from universities, museums and government directorates, and ­European and US specialists later joined as advisers.

“Many of us knew each other before the war because we worked in the same field,” said one of the archaeologists. “We started this because we believe so strongly it’s the right thing to do.”

The group was now a 200-strong network stretching across rebel-held Syria, he said. But, unlike World War II’s monuments men, the Syrian specialists had few resources and were seldom supported by armed units. Aided by smugglers and fixers, they travel unarmed through rebel-controlled territory, navigating a maze of armed groups ­including Islamic State; Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qa’ida branch; the US-backed opposition; and the Syrian regime.

“The regime knows us and is looking for us” because of work done to expose looting by Syrian government loyalists, said the ­Damascus-trained archaeologist. “Other groups could kill us if they knew what we were doing, so we move in the shadows.”

To travel safely, the academics rely on friends, informers and sympathetic rebel commanders.

Telephone communication is patchy as most of the networks in opposition-controlled regions have been cut by the regime. In December, two archaeologists were almost killed during ­regime airstrikes as they snapped photos of damage at Serjilla and al-Bara, two preserved Byzantine-era towns known as “Dead Cities”. The ferocity of the strikes at the turn of the year made the work conditions so dangerous that the archaeologists were unable to catalogue any sites for two weeks.

The archaeologists sketch out damage assessments and shoot images with a camera or phone. Sometimes they take photos or ­record video surreptitiously on their phones by pretending to take a call while discreetly circling a damaged area. In some cases, they wrap and bury objects at risk of being looted and record the GPS location.

Earlier this year, archaeologists in Aleppo spent 12 hours ­talking to Western specialists on Skype to correctly preserve and move 600 medieval manuscripts and astro­logical instruments at the Aleppo Mosque’s library at risk from ­regime airstrikes.

“We work as quick as possible. Sometimes there’s a sniper close by, often on hilltops or in tall buildings,” the Damascus archaeologist said. He said senior members of the group had begun to pose as ­antiques dealers to snare infor­mation on looted items.

The disguised archaeologists contact looters and photograph artefacts, before emailing pictures to academics in Europe who pass information on to the relevant law-enforcement agencies. Hundreds of looted artefacts have been photographed, including a 1500-year-old mosaic of a bearded biblical figure in a green-and-blue striped tunic ripped from a wall of an Idlib church.

In November, 30 senior members of the group were invited to travel to Turkey for training and technology after attracting the ­attention of NGOs and foreign governments. Only eight could make the trip because fighting with Islamic State blocked their route.

The three-day training session in a secret location close to the Syria-Turkish border was run by Heritage for Peace, a Barcelona-based NGO that views heritage preservation as a way to bring warring parties to the negotiating table. Leading the instruction was Rene Teijgeler, a Dutch archaeologist and former lieutenant col­onel in the Dutch army who ran heritage-preservation operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his partner, Isber Sabrine, a Syrian-born archaeologist who is based in Barcelona.

“We are neutral. We adhere to the Red Cross code of conduct and we are very careful about who we operate with,” said Mr Teijgeler, pulling on a cigarette in a hotel cafe. “We vet them carefully. You don’t want wild cowboys doing crazy things,” he said.

The training, partly funded by the Dutch government, focuses on how to uniformly catalogue damage at ancient sites such as the Roman amphitheatre at Palmyra or the crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers. Trainees were given laptops and cameras with powerful zooms to help improve their work. “These guys have to be skilled and quick because of the danger, but they have to be correct, which is hard when the bullets are flying round your ears,” Mr Teijgeler said.

Just getting to the training camp was a challenge. At the ­border, the group was trapped ­between shellfire from warring Syrian factions and the rotating searchlights of Turkey’s border guards. Dressed in suits, they sheltered face down in a muddy ditch for six hours before it was safe to be smuggled across the frontier into Turkey.

A priority for archaeologists on the ground is to educate rebel groups to be more sympathetic to cultural heritage, including meetings with emirs of some Islamist groups. “We are trying to get a fatwa from sharia judges to stop the looting. We are making progress,” said the co-founder of the monuments men group. “We don’t talk to ISIS … They have a different approach.”

The Damascus-trained archa­eo­logist said lack of resources and the dangerous nature of their work had limited what they could achieve on the ground. “This isn’t just about history. It’s about our future,” he said. “Saving our heritage is the only thing that can help us rebuild an inclusive Syria after the war.”

The Wall Street Journal

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