Inigo Gilmore goes undercover to investigate how the Islamic State group makes millions from smuggling ancient artefacts on the black market.
In southern Turkey’s smuggling heartland the looting and export of ancient treasures from neighbouring Syria is big business. Shrouded by intense fear and distrust, you will hear whispers about the possibilities of incredible riches to be made from artefacts available for sale.
Although the so-called Islamic State group has successfully given the impression, through their propaganda videos, that they abhor art and cultural icons, they don’t mind making huge profits from these ancient treasures.
In the towns hugging the border between Syria and Turkey a constant stream of smugglers emerge from the areas controlled by Islamic State, bringing artefacts plundered both from Syria and Iraq. Other militias too are involved in plying this massive trade in ancient artefacts: anything from Roman mosaics, to coins, statues and jewellery.
But Islamic State is prolific and organised, with the main flow of artefacts coming from the land they control. As Syria and Iraq are stripped of its cultural heritage only a few brave experts and activists dare to try to monitor these clandestine activities in an attempt to somehow stop the ongoing tide of destruction. They risk their lives to tell the world what is going on and to unmask the venal duplicity of IS.
To underline how treacherous the borderlands between Turkey and Syria now are, just recently, several miles inside Turkey in the town of Urfa, IS murdered a leading activist from Raqqa, beheading him and his friend. It was a message to anybody who dares to try to expose them.
In a nearby Turkish border town I met one of the new antiquities activists who dare to monitor how IS do their plundering. Even here, inside a room in an upmarket hotel in southern Turkey, he was nervous. He spoke on condition of anonymity but he wants the world to know what’s happening. He explained that IS have effectively set up their own ministry for antiquities – not to preserve them but to plunder them.
“Whenever ISIS take over any place that has antiquities they usually know just what to do,” he said. “They always open an office and they run it with a “Director of Antiquities and Museums. The antiquities office represents the Antiquities Authority of the Islamic State.
He went on: “It (Islamic State) controls all the archaeological sites…. And it plays a significant role in facilitating the excavation of antiquities. It also plays a key role in the process of smuggling and selling them. They record and supervise the excavation sites. They sort out permits and licences…”
We obtained two of these permits, issued by IS, which show how they allow people to dig for artefacts – for a price. The permits highlight how the pillaging is systematically organised and sanctioned.
Other images provided to Channel 4 News by the activists show the industrial scale of IS operations in parts of Syria they control.
Permit holders are offered diggers, drills, metal detectors and dynamite for hire. One picture shows a massive trench dug at an excavation site near the IS capital Raqqa. Those pillaging the sites have to pay taxes to IS.
Some people say that artefacts matter less than people’s lives but the activists I spoke to were risking their lives to record how their cultural identity is being obliterated and sold. By so doing they seek to expose the hypocrisy of IS whose bureaucrats appear to know the price of just about everything but the value of nothing.
Follow Inigo Gilmore on Twitter: @inigogilmore