Syrian antiquities funding ISIL, smuggled through Turkey en route to Europe
A middle-man in Turkey’s southeast has related the journey of antiquities from Syria that are smuggled through Turkey and constitute an important source of income for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to a BBC news report.
Trade in antiquities is one of ISIL’s main sources of funding, along with oil and kidnapping. For this reason the U.N. Security Council last week banned all trade in artifacts from Syria, accusing jihadist militants of looting cultural heritage to strengthen its ability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks.
After smuggling antiquities, a middle-man, like “Ahmed,” is needed to sell the items. Originally from eastern Syria, he is based in a town in southern Turkey, which he does not want to specify to avoid the police.
As a Turkish-speaker, he is popular with Syrian smugglers, who ask if he can move goods on to local dealers. He shows a blanket next to him filled with artifacts – statues of animals and human figures, glasses, vases and coins. They were dug up in the last few months.
“They come from the east of Syria, from Raqqa and the other areas controlled by ISIL,” he said.
ISIL plays an active part in controlling the trade, he said. Anyone wanting to excavate has to receive permission from ISIL inspectors, who monitor the finds and destroy any human figures, which are seen as idolatrous.
Ahmed said ISIL takes 20 percent as tax, adding that they tax everything.
The main trade is in stone works, statues and gold, and it can be extremely lucrative. “I have seen one piece sold for $1.1 million,” he said. “It was a piece from the year 8,500 B.C.”
He has had to pay a sizeable bond to the smugglers to get this material and he does not want to lose any of it. The final destination is Western Europe, he said.
“Turkish merchants sell it to dealers in Europe. They call them, send pictures ... people from Europe come to check the goods and take them away.”
Ahmed will have to return the looted artifacts to his Syrian contacts, but he will not be returning to his homeland. “If I went back I’d be killed,” he said.
Another dealer, calling himself “Muhammed,” who is originally from Damascus but now plies his trade in the Bekaa valley on the border between Syria and Lebanon, says Lebanon is also a route for smuggling Syrian artifacts.
“There are three friends in Aleppo we deal with, these people move from Aleppo all the way to the border here and pay a taxi driver to sneak it in,” Muhammed said.