Jus­tice De­part­ment tar­gets Is­lamic State an­tiq­ui­ties trade

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY AN­DREA NOBLE

The Jus­tice De­part­ment on Thurs­day filed le­gal ac­tion in an ef­fort to re­cover looted Syr­ian ar­ti­facts be­lieved to have been traf­ficked by the Is­lamic State — mark­ing the first time the U.S. has gone to court to ob­tain an­tiq­ui­ties once held by the ter­ror­ist group.

The four items sought through the for­fei­ture com­plaint in­clude a gold ring, two gold coins and a carved stone that are es­ti­mated to be worth hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars and date back to as early as 330 B.C. The ring alone pre­vi­ously sold for $260,000, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

U.S. of­fi­cials do not know the where­abouts of the items, but U.S. At­tor­ney for the District of Columbia Chan­ning Phillips said he hopes the com­plaint will serve as “a warn­ing to those who traf­fic in pre­cious an­tiq­ui­ties and who seek to prof­i­teer from ISIL’s ex­ploita­tion of the cul­tural her­itage of ar­eas un­der its con­trol.”

Photos of the an­tiq­ui­ties were re­cov­ered dur­ing a 2015 raid of a com­pound in east­ern Syria in which Abu Sayaaf, an Is­lamic State leader, was killed. The raid un­cov­ered a trove of other ar­ti­facts that have since been turned over to of­fi­cials at the Iraq Na­tional Mu­seum.

The FBI pre­vi­ously has put art col­lec­tors on alert about relics stolen and traf­ficked by the Is­lamic State. Of­fi­cials warned that amid the back­drop of war, the Is­lamic State has turned to loot­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in Syria and Iraq and steal­ing relics from re­gional mu­se­ums to sell the items on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. They also warned that buy­ing items sold by the Is­lamic State may pro­vide fi­nan­cial sup­port to the ter­ror­ist group — a po­ten­tially crim­i­nal of­fense.

U.S. of­fi­cials in 2015 es­ti­mated the Is­lamic State had re­gional con­trol of as many as 5,000 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites. The group has lost con­trol of a sig­nif­i­cant amount of ter­ri­tory over the last year, but just this week­end Is­lamic State fight­ers re­took the Syr­ian city of Palmyra, known for some of the world’s most trea­sured ru­ins.

Paul Ab­bate, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor in charge of the FBI’s Wash­ing­ton Field Of­fice, said find­ing the four looted items de­scribed in the for­fei­ture doc­u­ments is es­sen­tial to help­ing stop the il­le­gal flow of funds that sup­port the ter­ror­ist group’s ac­tiv­ity.

“The doc­u­ments un­sealed to­day re­veal that ISIL specif­i­cally di­rected its mem­bers to steal ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ob­jects for pur­poses of sell­ing them on the black mar­ket in or­der to use the pro­ceeds to sup­port this des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Mr. Ab­bate said. “ISIL mem­bers ex­torted and threat­ened to ar­rest any­one out­side of the ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion who at­tempted to ex­ca­vate, sell or trans­port an­tiq­ui­ties from the ter­ri­tory un­der their con­trol.”

The four items sought in­clude a gold ring from Deir Ez­zor, Syria; two Ro­man­era gold coins fea­tur­ing the em­per­ors Hadrian Au­gus­tus Cae­sar and An­ton­i­nus Pius; and a stone carv­ing be­lieved to be from the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of Tal Ajaja in the Khabur re­gion of north­ern Syria. The items are be­ing sought un­der a U.S. law that al­lows for the for­fei­ture of all as­sets be­long­ing to ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice De­part­ment com­plaint, an­tiq­ui­ties ex­perts have said the ap­pear­ance of the pho­to­graphs de­pict­ing the four items in­di­cates they were be­ing pre­pared for mar­ket­ing and even­tual sale on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. Of­fi­cials said at least one of the items was sold.

In the for­fei­ture com­plaint, the Jus­tice De­part­ment delves into com­plex de­tails of the Is­lamic State’s ex­tor­tion strat­egy. While Sayaaf was known for over­see­ing the group’s gas and oil op­er­a­tions, re­cov­ered doc­u­ments re­fer to him as pres­i­dent of the group’s Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources An­tiq­ui­ties.

The com­plaint states that in ad­di­tion to mar­ket­ing and sell­ing an­tiq­ui­ties to fi­nance ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions, Sayaaf ex­torted in­di­vid­u­als who ex­ca­vated or sold an­tiq­ui­ties in Is­lamic State-con­trolled ter­ri­tory and levied a 20 per­cent tax on items ex­ca­vated from the re­gion. Doc­u­ments re­cov­ered dur­ing the raid in­clude ex­ca­va­tion per­mits and re­ceipts for tax col­lec­tions and pay­ments. Many of the trans­ac­tions were made in U.S. dol­lars.

In ad­di­tion to the Jus­tice and FBI ef­forts to crack down on the il­le­gal trade, the State De­part­ment has of­fered a $5 mil­lion re­ward for in­for­ma­tion that leads to a sig­nif­i­cant dis­rup­tion of the Is­lamic State’s an­tiq­ui­ties op­er­a­tions.

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