Asymmetric terror funding - How ISIS is exploiting Western capitalism

Catherine Shakdam
Catherine Shakdam is a political analyst, writer and commentator for the Middle East with a special focus on radical movements and Yemen. A regular pundit on RT and other networks her work has appeared in major publications: MintPress, the Foreign Policy Journal, Mehr News and many others.Director of Programs at the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, Catherine is also the co-founder of Veritas Consulting. She is the author of Arabia’s Rising - Under The Banner Of The First Imam
ARCHIVE PHOTO: Tourists walk in the historical city of Palmyra (Reuters / Nour Fourat)
ISIS, the Wahhabi-inspired terror group, has taken to antiquity dealing to fund its activities, making our world’s heritage a commodity. As world powers tighten the lid around this group, this new brand of war profiteering is financing terror’s army.

ISIS radicals have grabbed headlines over recent years as they pillaged and rampaged their way through Iraq and Syria’s historical and cultural heritage, sacrificing priceless archaeological artifacts to the altar of their toxic ideology. But the jihadists made sure that what it did not burn it would sell on the black market to replenish its coffers.

Interestingly the Wahhabi radicals who made such a show of destroying the world's heritage by butchering centuries-old statues and other ancient remnants of civilizations' past in the greater Levant have had no qualms selling antiquities, quite literally profiting from what they themselves labeled as an affront against God.

While the "dark caliph", Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, promised his followers that his army would lay waste to Egypt's most prominent architectural landmark: the Sphinx, cleansing the Muslim world from its own apostasy, he most certainly omitted to mention that the very financial solvency of his terror network has relied on his men's ability to capitalize on the spoils of war - including of course the illegal sale of stolen antiquities.

For a movement which claims itself so holy and pure in its observance of Islam tenets, ISIS seems to have missed those verses which outlaw thievery and banditry; but then again, one man's bandit is another's capitalist. And though al-Baghdadi has advocated destroying monuments to fulfill "a religious duty,” he remains silent when it comes to antiquity profiteering. Maybe in ISIS' version of Islam those selling idols stand immune of all wrongdoings.

It is difficult to forget ISIS militants earlier this year ruthlessly disfiguring 2,800 year old Assyrian images at Nineveh, and how the Mosul Museum was attacked and its treasures obliterated to the sounds of hammers and crowbars.

But however despicable ISIS' dealings have been of late - its exploitation of natural resources, human trafficking and antiquity profiteering – who is standing on the other end of those trades?

Who exactly is ISIS selling to? Regardless of the nature of the trade, the laws of capitalism still apply here and without a buyer ISIS could not have fed, sustained and expanded its terror machine.

READ MORE: ‘Culture cleansing’ ISIS could target British Museum artifacts, says outgoing director

Few will blink at the idea that ISIS would sell out the historical heart of Arabia by dispatching its ancient treasures to greedy dealers in the name of profiteering, what about those individuals or, in this case powers, which have acted as the facilitators of terror?

In this case which is the greater evil, the thief or the enabler?

After all, if ISIS has been able to capitalize on its stolen Iraqi and Syrian artifacts it is because they found a market for them.
In a world such as ours where surveillance has become so systemic and globalized are we to believe that black market traders can truly operate under the radar; or would it not be more accurate to assume that the powers that be are in fact playing an angle here?

As it happens, ISIS's blood trade has found its way to the streets of London. In a report for The Guardian this July, Mark Altaweel, a near-east specialist from the UCL Institute of Archaeology exposed this disturbing reality, laying bare the underbelly of a new terror network.

The span and depth of this alternative black market, or "blood market" as Altaweel coined it, is so vast that UNESCO has already rung the alarm; although it is more concerned at present with preserving what's left of Arabia's heritage than chasing tomb raiders.

"This deliberate destruction is not only continuing, it is happening on a systematic basis. The looting of archaeological sites and museums, in Iraq particularly, has reached an industrial scale of destruction," said Irina Bokova, the head of the UN cultural agency UNESCO on July 2.

Beyond the realization that the world is losing its history and cultural legacy to a gang of Wahhabi extremists, it is the hundreds of millions of dollars this terror group stands to make which should have us worried - especially since those powers at war with ISIS have shown no interest in shutting down its financial network.

As noted by Neil Brodie of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University, “If no one was buying, people wouldn’t dig it up. This material sells.”

Now that ISIS has institutionalized illegal excavations and stolen antiquity trading, Western dealers might want to reconsider their positions since their less than ethical business habits are de facto enabling terror.

Qais Hussein Rashid, head of the Baghdad Museum (head of Iraq’s State Board for Antiquities and Heritage or Iraq’s Deputy Tourism and Antiquities Minister) warned about the gravity of the situation both from a cultural and security standpoint when he explained that ISIS is actively robbing people's identity markers by raiding their connection to the past, while financing a grand Wahhabist terror movement.

"It's an international artifacts’ mafia. They identify the items and say what they can sell," he said. “Since some of these items were more than 2,000 years old it was difficult to know exactly their value," he said.

Khaled Kleit, a retired art dealer in Baghdad believes that in between Syria and Iraq, ISIS banked several hundred million dollars already, notwithstanding what the group still stands to make in Libya or even Egypt.

In March at a symposium in Iraq, the Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Adel Fahad Shershab called upon “friendly countries to take a genuine stand to restore the stolen antiquities."

Interestingly, while Western politicians have advocated stripping their nationals' civil liberties to better defeat extremism, cracking down on such a lucrative trade as antiquity dealing appears low on their list of priorities - Or is it that those "traders" would much rather keep those channels open, thus keeping the business of terror very much alive to serve ulterior political motives?

At which point does capitalism become synonymous to racketeering and terrorism by association?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.