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Tomb Raiders and Terrorist Financing: Cutting off the Islamic State's Illicit Traffic in "Blood Antiquities"

With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the world rightfully asked how a militant faction too extreme for Al-Qaeda transformed itself into “the world’s richest terror group ever.” ISIS boasts an annual budget worth $2 billion and a war chest of $250 million, which if true surpasses the Taliban’s (and that of many states). Still more troubling, it is now financially self-sufficient, and no longer dependent on foreign donors. How? Like organized criminal enterprises before it: extortion, ransom, robbery, and smuggling. It perhaps comes as no shock that it has been trafficking arms, drugs, and even oil. However, the public reacted with surprise to reports in June 2014 that ISIS jihadists had earned “millions” by looting the region’s archaeological sites, and then selling its ancient treasures to the highest bidder. It shouldn’t have. Archaeologists, criminologists, law enforcement agents, and military officials have long warned that the illicit antiquities trade is funding crime and conflict around the world. However, under ISIS’ black flag, this looting and trafficking has become not just a side enterprise, but a massive illegal industry. In the last year alone, we have lost some of the Cradle of Civilization's most iconic masterpieces and sites, many of which had survived for millennia. This wanton destruction is erasing our shared history chapter by chapter. And it threatens us all: at this moment, ISIS is converting these "blood antiquities" into weapons and troops, which are seizing cities, slaughtering soldiers, and beheading civilians. This lecture will examine this growing threat to our national security and the world's cultural heritage. In doing so, it will trace the past of looted masterpieces from conflict zones to the very height of the global market, and explore how United States and international law is seeking to cut off this key means of criminal financing. Finally, it will discuss recent progress in this fight, as an unprecedented coalition of countries have joined forces to demand action from both governments and the art market.


Terressa ("Tess") Davis

Terressa ("Tess") Davis

Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition and School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow



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