Destruction of Art and Antiquities: Acts of Terrorist Influence (by Angi English)

Sunday, April 10th, 2016

A cultural cleansing by the slaughter of art, antiquities and architecture in the Middle East is as powerful a representative act as the grinding slaughter of human beings in genocide.

From humankind’s early beginning, graphic depictions of daily life such as paintings on cave walls tell stories of daily struggles. People have always sought to create representative images of ritual and meaning through art and architecture, and thoughtful humankind has sought to preserve them.

In the 1970’s, when I was studying for my BA in Fine Art, I grew to appreciate art and architecture as statements about culture, religion and social interactions. Working my way through school, I spent several summers working near Asheville, North Carolina. I made frequent trips to the Biltmore House and Gardens and learned that during World War II, it housed many of the wonderful pieces of art of Europe. The Nazi’s were plundering it and selling it on the black market or destroying it. In 2014, the movie Monuments Men tells the story of an elite group of soldiers whose sole purpose from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was to find and save pieces of art and other culturally important items before the Nazi’s could destroy it. Fast-forward to today and the world is witnessing another cultural artistic cleansing.

The Spoils of War, Identity Destruction and Funding of Terrorism

The theft, trafficking and destruction of cultural heritage sites, art and antiquities is a tradition as old as the cultures they represent. The recent attacks by terrorist groups, mainly ISIS seek to eliminate any memory of human endeavors and achievements; in short the collective cultural and social identity of a nation. According to the New York Times, as early as September of 2014, reports of looting of museums began to surface. There have been many efforts by archivists to preserve the remains of ancient sites. The terrorists not only seek to eliminate symbols of social identity, culture and meaning, but spoils from looting are used to fund terrorist activities.   And since ISIS has a limited human bandwidth in its military forces, it crowdsources its looting tasks to the locals who receive a percentage of the monetary value of the treasure.

According to Rachel Shabai in a Guardian report, “some media reports suggest this income stream is the second-largest source of revenue after oil sales, but in reality it’s impossible to tell.” And Foreign Affairs magazine reports that ISIS is also taxing black market antiquities at 20–50 percent, depending on the region and type of antiquity.

Counterterrorism Nexus

Reports denote that from a counterterrorism standpoint, stopping this illicit trade is imperative not only because it is a source of income for terrorist organizations, but also because it jeopardizes the possibility of post-conflict stabilization and reconciliation. In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. Syrians live in ancient cities and neighborhoods, pray in historic mosques and churches and shop in centuries-old bazaars. If and when the fighting stops, this heritage will be critical in helping the people of Syria reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines. Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, said “the destruction threatens to erase the diversity that has characterized what is now Syria for millenniums, for example, the art and architecture of Palmyra, is a symbol of the complexity and wealth of the Syrian identity and history,”

The International Collective Response

Current efforts to stem the tide of black market antiquities are being conducted. Just as ISIS has outsourced its looting activities through local networks, social networking and crowdsourcing by those who seek to preserve art and antiquities is currently underway.

In January of 2015, I joined an online group called TerraWatchers. TerraWatchers uses web-based, crowdsourced satellite imaging monitoring to identify sites for potential looting. For example, one of the latest projects is looking at the Fertile Crescent, a dense spot of ancient sites.   TerraWatchers uses satellite imagery to view known archaeological sites and record things like looting, air defense sites, military trenches, dug-in military hardware, bomb damage, and other impacts.

Crowdsourcing is also being used by Sarah Parcak, the winner of the 2016 TED Prize, who has created an online platform to allow millions of people on the Internet to analyze satellite imagery for clues to archaeological sites. She explained the portal will “game-ify” archaeological research through crowdsourcing, in hopes of protecting the world’s cultural heritage.

The Department of State, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement are also involved. A one-page flyer issued by the FBI asks US art and antiquities market leaders to spread the word that preventing illegally obtained artifacts from reaching the market may help prevent the financing of Islamist militants through the sale of plundered artifacts. The Department of State is posting “Red Lists” to their website where collectors and dealers can view objects that have been looted from cultural sites, stolen from museums and churches and illicitly trafficked. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a program called the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program with the goal of returning a nation’s looted cultural heritage or stolen artwork. In addition, in February 2015, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted for Resolution 2199, which obligates member states, to take steps to prevent terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria from receiving donations and from benefiting from trade in oil, antiquities and hostages.

The ability of the world’s vast cooperative and networked systems working together constitute a powerful counterterrorism strategy and one that nations should pursue on various counterterrorism endeavors.

(Photograph by Christophe Charon)

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