Loot, sell, bulldoze: ISIS grinds history to dust

ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is the world’s richest terrorist group after seizing £250m from Mosul’s banks when it drove the Iraqi army from the city last month.

It could be about to become richer after imposing a “tax” on looted antiquities in the vast region of Syria and Iraq it controls, much of it part of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. Local Isis emirs determine the tax rates and anyone refusing to pay is killed.

The tax was revealed by Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian-born academic. They are part of a heritage taskforce set up by Syria’s opposition interim government and met local activists in secret to document damage to sites under ISIS rule.

Al-Azm, associate professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, said: “What we learnt suggests that Isis is involved in illicit antiquities trading, but in a way . . . more complex and insidious than that reported to date.”

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The terrorist group also controls sales. The main market is in Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold on the Syrian-Turkish border.

“ISIS clearly is involved and profiting at every level, from extraction to final sale and exit from Isis territory,” Al-Azm added. “The damage is phenomenal. They’re not only digging up known sites; they’re bulldozing everything.”

Nada al-Hassan, head of the Arab states unit at the UN cultural organisation Unesco’s World Heritage Centre, singled out an Assyrian black basalt royal stele from the 8th century BC that the London auction house Bonhams withdrew from sale in April after estimating its value at up to £795,000.

“That was intercepted by Interpol,” she said, adding that it was a “success story” because there was proof that ISIS had been responsible for digging it up.

Patty Gerstenblith, a lawyer specialising in cultural heritage at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, said: “The antiquities market is much more ‘underground’ now. Any suspect artefact is likely to be sold privately and we wouldn’t know about it.”

Syria’s most significant sites include Dura Europos, a classical cosmopolitan city with some of the world’s earliest churches and synagogues.

A satellite image taken in 2012 showed that a tiny part of the 150-acre site had been excavated. Another, taken a few weeks ago, reveals every square yard dug up by looters.

“I don’t see any place they’ve missed,” said one archeologist. “It would take centuries to excavate that much properly.”

For the moment Isis appears to have protected the Mosul museum, which was badly looted in 2003 after Iraqi security forces melted away — that time before the arrival of American troops.

“The museum is locked and so far nothing has happened to it,” said Ruya Muhsen, its director, by phone from the city. “We wait and we wait — we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She has been unable to return to the museum since ISIS took control but has received reports indicating that nothing has been removed.

Mosul residents say fighters have destroyed the 13th- century tomb of the historian Ali ’Izz al-Din Ibn al-Athir al-Jazari, who travelled with the Islamic sultan Saladin. A strict interpretation of Sunni Islam considers shrines idolatry.

Videos show a bulldozer demolishing the entire structure above the tomb. The brass dome, painted concrete and tombstone shatter in a shower of rubble and dust as a fighter in a white robe with his face wrapped in a white scarf looks on. The monument’s most historically valuable part, the ornate Abbasid-era tombstone, was previously moved to the Mosul museum and said to be intact.

“We heard a pledge that they won’t harm anything in Mosul, but with our experience with what happened in Syria and other places, you can’t be an optimist,” said the Iraq office of UNESCO.