ISIS’ destruction of antiquities in Mosul and Nimrud hides sinister money-making schemes
The Islamic State group’s wanton destruction of treasured historical sites, priceless antiquities and works of art at places like Mosul and Nimrud is heartbreaking to most and worrisome to those who believe the extremist network may be earning a place among history’s most destructive conquerors.
The group first swept from Syria across Iraq last summer, seizing massive swaths of territory, including the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest and a veritable treasure trove of archaeological relics. The extremists’ leaders have subsequently asserted that the group must destroy all false idols within the lands it now controls.
These casualties have reportedly included the purported Tomb of Jonah and the Shrine of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, with parts dating back to the 8th century B.C. Most recently, the Islamic State fighters have been video filmed while destroying priceless artifacts at the Mosul Museum. Last week it “bulldozed” the archeological site of Assyrian culture dating back to 900 B.C. at Nimrud. An unconfirmed report on Monday indicated the Islamic State group may also have destroyed an 8th century mosque at Sit Nafis near Mosul.
The Islamic State group leaders may truly believe that these items pose a religious affront to their beliefs, or perhaps they want to reshape history for those who will suffer under their control.
Others, however, believe they’re just trying to make money more efficiently.
“They’ve been very consistent in doing two things: They destroy antiquities for effect, and they likely use the smokescreen of destruction to cover themselves while they move more transportable items for profit,” says Mark Vlasic, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, who has been following the group’s use of so-called “blood antiquities.” “It is, after all, a criminal organization.”
Vlasic is among those who believe the highly publicized destruction served as a mere sleight of hand to allow the Islamic State group to capitalize upon the valuable loot it couldn’t easily move. Those larger items are then sacrificed for the sake of a propaganda “win.”
The exiled Governor of Mosul, Atheel Nujaifi, confirmed to Kurdish news service Rudaw that seven prominent items from the museum’s collection are now missing. He also indicated that some of the pieces the terrorists appeared to destroy may actually have been copies.
It’s unclear how much revenue the Islamic State group generates through its various criminal enterprises. Most assessments place oil revenues at the top of its money-making schemes, followed by its lucrative and high-profile business of extortion and kidnapping.
Looting and other forms of theft, including selling antiquities on the black market, generally comes in third, though those estimates may also include activities such as looting banks of cash in the areas it controls.
David Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department, estimated late last year that these practices account for tens of millions of dollars in revenues per month.
The U.S. and its partners have employed diplomacy and imposed sanctions to try to stem these sources of income. But that can’t happen quickly enough to stop the immediate damage.
“It’s heartbreaking to see some of the earliest evidence of human civilization being wantonly destroyed,” says Corine Wegener, a cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian Institution.
These extremists’ propensity for vandalism and plunder follow a consistent pattern of other historical conquerors. The Taliban in 2001 dynamited the 6th-Century Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, saying they were idols and must be destroyed. The Nazis infamously seized valuables from Jews, Poles and other ethnic groups they sought to exterminate and actively persecuted artists whose portrayals they didn’t believe aligned with their version of history. The Romans routinely destroyed whole cities of their enemies, such as Carthage following the Third Punic War.