Isis partly funded by Syrian looted artefacts worth up to $1m – but who is buying them?

Experts say precious relics are arriving in Europe

Heather Saul
Wednesday 18 February 2015 14:35
The Islamic militant group ISIS have recently made a name for themselves brutally beheading Western hostages
The Islamic militant group ISIS have recently made a name for themselves brutally beheading Western hostages

Looted antiquities from Syria worth hundreds of thousands of pounds are providing a major source of funding for Isis, some of which could be ending up in the UK.

A BBC investigation found the precious goods being trafficked across the Syrian border are providing a major source of funding for Isis, just weeks after British MPs warned collectors in the Gulf states are fuelling the multimillion-pound trade.

One Syrian man explained how he would smuggle valuable artefacts from Aleppo to the border, where he would pay a taxi driver to covertly transport the goods into Turkey and Lebanon.

Another ‘middle-man’ identified only as Ahmed said Isis has an active role in controlling the trade of looted artefacts. "They come from the east of Syria, from Raqqa, all the areas controlled by Isis," he explained.

He claimed those wanting to excavate sites must get permission from Isis inspectors, who monitor the finds and take 20 per cent as a tax.

A middle man shows artefacts being offered by a Syrian smuggler (BBC)

Looted pieces include statues of animals, vases, gold coins and glasses – with one artefact reportedly fetching $1.1m (£800,000). Ahmed claimed that item dated back to the year 8500BC.

Lebanese policeman Lt Col Nicholas Saad, who has overseen major raids in Lebanon, said Syrian artefacts usually end up in one place. "Lebanon is a transit station, it's one of the the doors that goes to Europe," he explained. "The real money is made in Europe."

His suggestion was echoed by Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim, the archaeologist in charge of Syria's department of antiquities in Damascus, who added: "We are sure through all the sources a lot of objects go from Syria to Europe, in Switzerland, in Germany, in UK - and Gulf countries like Dubai and Qatar.”

Isis fighters parading in a captured Iraqi army vehicle in Mosul, which the group took in June last year

No-one in the UK has ever been arrested for selling looted Syrian artefacts but Vernon Rapley, the former head of the Metropolitan Police's art and antiquities squad said he was "quite confident that there have been seizures of material like this".

Elijah J. Magnier, Al Rai's chief international correspondent, told The Independent Isis funds itself through a variety of sources, aside from antiquities, oil revenue and kidnap ransoms.

Isis fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province

“Isis imposes taxes on every house, every shop and every car in areas under its control and on merchandise crossing into Iraq government controlled areas," he said.

However, it is clear that Isis is suffering financially, according to Mr Magnier. “I have seen comments made by fighters about a ‘shortage of gasoline’ because the ‘military effort’ requires money, logistics and priority,” he added.

Isis fighters earlier denied claims made by Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations that the group is harvesting and selling organs in orderto generate funds.

“The West is trying to find out where our funding comes from,” one fighter said. “This 'organ selling' would bring in peanuts in comparison what an Isis army needs each day."

Another militant insisted the group did not have time to collect the bodies of its own fighters from the battlefields, let alone collect the bodies of those killed by the group.

“How could we collect bodies of those we kill and transport them to sell their organs?" he asked.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in