ISIS and The Missing Treasures: Channel 4 Dispatches

Monday 18th April, 8pm, Channel 4

As the war against ISIS intensifies and Syrian troops retake Palmyra, here in the UK the battle to stop the terrorist group cashing in on looted antiquities is being waged on the streets of the capital and beyond.

Dispatches investigates how easy it is for terrorists to exploit this trade and identifies two objects, one in London and one on Ebay, of suspicious origin. A lintel believed to have been illegally removed from Syria and a Quran incorrectly identified as being from Iran rather than Syria or Iraq.

Investigative journalist Simon Cox has been tracking the antiquities business in this country for Dispatches for the last eight months. Together with a team of “monuments men and women” – a group of leading archaeologists - Cox has gone undercover to investigate this lucrative business and test the rules designed to regulate it.

He finds a world of dubious provenance and questionable deals in the heart of London and on the Internet. He also looks at what Isis is doing to the world heritage sites in territory it holds. How much can the two be linked? Cox examines how much of what is looted might be being sold in the UK and whether the authorities are doing enough to stop it.

London is the second biggest antiquities market in the world and probably the biggest for Islamic art. The entire antiquities trade in the UK is worth more than £20 million per year.

ISIS and antiquities:

ISIS, the terrorist group waging a Jihad on the West, an organised, well-funded and well-equipped group, are bringing in huge sums of cash by sell ancient artefacts. UNESCO have stated that these antiquities sales are happening on an 'industrial scale' and world leaders have argued that putting a stop to the looting would be instrumental in defeating ISIS.

The US State Department have stated, “Ancient treasure in Iraq and Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting and no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gunsights than ISIL”

May 2015, US Special Forces stormed the Syrian hideout of ISIS Commander Abu Sayyaf, during the raid they discovered his private treasure trove of looted items. Amongst the items was official paperwork revealing that ISIS had created an Antiquities Division, including specialised looters permits.

The ISIS Looters permit states that Brothers of the Islamic State, in possession of the permit, have permission to 'supervise and excavate antiquities', this is essentially a license to plunder.

Syrian Lintel:

Professor Augusta McMahon of Cambridge University and Dr Alessio Palmisano of University College London are experts in Eastern antiquities and are going undercover to investigate looted items appearing in London. They've found something suspect, possibly from Syria on sale, a six foot piece of carved stone, a lintel.

Elias Assad, a shop owner, is keen to sell the lintel. Assad claims that he doesn't own the lintel, and the man who does is keen to sell it fast, despite originally being advertised at £50,000 the owner is now willing to sell for £25-30,000. When asked for relevant documentation to prove its source he is unable to find it.

The owner of the lintel, Fares Dalloul, arrives at the shop 40 minutes later, he promises that the paperwork is in order and mentions that the lintel is mentioned in a reference book.

Dick Ellis, Former head of the Metropolitan Art and Antiquities Squad. 'This would suggest that this is actually a catalogued piece, this is from a known site… clearly if it should be in a site which is no doubt protected under that country's cultural property laws, then it is not free to be bought and sold on the open market.'

While there aren't strict rules governing the trade there are voluntary guidelines that most dealers sign up to. The most important is that dealers should be able to prove the history of an item, its provenance. It is to prevent the sale of stolen or looted items.

Professor McMahon traces the history of the stone lintel, following the hints given by Fares the seller. A book written by Gottlieb Schumacher in 1886 shows a drawing of a lintel, and there is enough detail of the imagery to be able to match it up. It has been documented in the 1880s up to the 1930s are being present on the site as an architectural element in an existing standing building. The Lintel originated from Nawa, a town in Southern Syria that has been in the midst of fierce fighting since November 2014.

Discovering the exact date of when it left Syria will tell us whether it has been stolen, because the country banned any antiquities leaving after 1963.

The paperwork provided by the owner includes a shipping note for three items and storage invoices and show items transported in 2007, but there is nothing in the information that confirms that this is the lintel, it could be shipping for anything. Dalloul, the owner, reveals he is not keen on paperwork, he won't accept a cheque as he would have to pay 20% VAT.

Prof McMahon finds a museum record that gives a description of the lintel, from 1988, which proves, without a doubt, that it was present in Syria at the site Nawa in 1988, well after the 1963 antiquities law. 'There is no question that this object in the photograph and the object that is in London are exactly the same thing.'

While there is no evidence to prove that the lintel is connected to ISIS we know that it has definitely been looted.

Elias Assad said he 'had no idea about the lintels' history' he was not selling it and was 'merely and perhaps naively' storing it as a favour to Mr Daloull. A spokesman added, "That he does not, and never has, dealt with antiquities from Syria… and ensures that his pieces are genuine with appropriate provenance.'

Dispatches informed the police who seized the lintel. Dispatches understands it is now on the Interpol database. The Syrians are requesting its return.

A rare Quran manuscript:

Acting on a tip-off from the US, Dispatches discovers a rare Safavid manuscript from Iran on Ebay. The site, which has approximately 500 artefacts for sale, London Oriental is clearly well established.

Ebay has terms and conditions to stop stolen or looted items being sold on its site. Our experts' interest is piqued by a crude tear in one of the pages, evident in the online photographs.

Andras Riedlemayer, a world expert in Islamic Manuscripts based at Harvard University Library says, "the tearing off of the owners seal is a clear indication that someone is trying to conceal the fact that this manuscript was stolen. The tear is bright and white and clear so I think it stands to reason that it was probably removed quite recently." He also had doubts that the manuscript was from Iran.

Manuscripts in Arabic writing decorated with gold colouring like this one are listed in the Emergency Red List, a catalogue compiled by museums around the world to help spot possible looted items. There is no evidence that this Quran is linked to ISIS, but there are concerns about its history.

Dispatches meet the owner of London Oriental in Copenhagen, alongside expert Yasmine Faghihi from the Islamic Manuscript Association. On examination of the Manuscript she decrees that it is Ottoman, 19th/20th Century, which means it is more likely to originate from Syria or Iraq.

Shiblee Binbourg and his acquaintance Basil Adlinor repeatedly describe the Quran as Safavid and from Iran.

After the meeting Dispatches informed the seller, UNESCO and the Metropolitan Police of our findings. Within 24 hours of our meeting the Quaran was no longer for sale on London Oriental. Soon after the company site was removed from the internet entirely.

Shiblee Binbourg told us that he will be 'more careful' about who he buys from in future, and that he had seen similar items with similar markings for sale 'in famous auction houses'.

Mr Adilnor said he was simply in the 'wrong time and the wrong place', he hadn't had the opportunity to see the merchandise before the meeting and was just there to 'translate the Arabic texts.'

UK Border Control:

UK ports are one of the main entry points for traded treasures, and it is the job of Border Force to impound any suspect items. But according to the man who used to police the market, they haven’t seized any antiquities in the last five years.

Dick Ellis, 'These pieces are moving through customs, they're moving through our ports all the time. And yet not a single item is seized in this country. At a time when you’re reading constantly that these sorts of objects when they’re looted in Syria, when they're looted in Iraq, are helping to fund terrorism, why on earth aren't we doing more to stop them coming on to the market?'

Last September Border Force officers in Felixstowe inspected a container that arrived from Syria. The attached documentation stated it was full of personal and household items, but Dispatches has learnt that it also may have contained ancient antiquities destined for a dealer in London. The shipment was released and no arrests were made.

UK Border Force said they'd consulted an expert and there was nothing to suggest that the items had been removed illegally from Syria. Dispatches has learned that Police also investigated the containers, and the experts they consulted included Mark Altaweel, Head of Syrian Department at University College London, who thought the shipment categorically needed further investigation.

Mark Altaweel, 'I took a look at a number of pictures from that shipment and there were a couple of objects that seemed quite ancient. I think those kind of objects should have been seized, at least held by the border officials. Because if there are ancient objects coming in, likely from Syria, I think there is suspicion at that point.’

When Border Force was asked if they had seized any antiquities in the last five years it said it did not publish such data. In regards to the shipment they said, 'Suspect items are detained and will be seized when evidence and advice from museum experts indicate they have been illegally removed from their country of origin.'

One of the founders of the industry's trade body, The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, James Ede, believes that his organisation is doing all it can, 'I'm not saying that nothing is coming out of Syria, I am saying it’s not on an industrial scale and that is not something that is funding ISIS.

The US Government and our experts think otherwise and believe more drastic measures are needed.

Dick Ellis, 'They really need to be doing something, particularly in London where you've got the second largest antiquities market in the world and the largest Islamic market in the world. And we've got a three man team policing it, it's not enough'


Production Company: Blakeway Productions

Reporter: Simon Cox

Producer/ Director: Marc Sigsworth

Executive Producer: Karen Edwards


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