Social Control Emerging as ISIS Motive for Erasing Cultural Heritage in Syria

DAMASCUS — Among these patriots are regular citizens as well as the stellar nationalist employees of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) who this observer has interviewed extensively over the past nearly three years as they elucidate why ISIS destroys and loots our irreplaceable antiquities. This observer’s research has been augmented by other eyewitnesses, some who are themselves former jihadists or their victims, to ISIS looting and its distribution of franchises to sell off our shared cultural heritage give witness.

Heretofore, three varying but cogent explanations for ISIS’ rabid destruction of our shared cultural heritage have been commonplace.

The first identified the well documented Islamic State iconoclastic antipathy towards their and our pre-Islamic past. The second is that the jihadists are generally considered to be profiting hugely from selling our looted antiquities.

Thirdly there has been some evidence-but not compelling in this observers judgment, that jihadists are destroying our cultural heritage in Syria as ‘publicity stunts’ to get attention on social media, with some motivated by profit and offering to sell Syrian artifacts via Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. Meanwhile, according to a US Congressional staffer this week, leftover artifacts are currently being sold by IS to locals at public auctions including but not limited to Raqqa, Mari, Dura-Europos and Deir al Zor.

With respect to the first and second explanations, it is well documented that ISIS has ransacked thousands of artifacts from dozens of World Heritage and archaeological sites in Syria and that the profits from flogging cheap our cultural heritage helps IS meet its monthly budgets, more than 50% of which goes to pay salaries and multiple relatively generous benefits to its fighters and their families.

Yet research by this observer on this subject concludes that ISIS looting income, contrary to many claims including a recent one by  CBS News that  reported that ISIS generated “hundreds of millions of dollars” from antiquities transactions, although that figure—which rivals the annual haul of antiquities sold legally throughout the entire world, has not been backed up by probative, material data.

One expert, Randall A. Hixenbaugh, Director of New York based Hixenbaugh Ancient Art, told a Manhattan conference recently, “We’re looking at objects that are worth hundreds of dollars here. When we say that these antiquities are worth millions of dollars, where is the evidence of this? I think that prompts people to pick up shovels in eastern Syria. Are we not adding to the problem right now, by hyperbolic assessments of value?”

On May 15, 2015 a raid by American Special Forces on an ISIS safe house in a small village outside Deir ez-Zor killed ISIS leader Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf who was in charge of  overseeing the excavation of our cultural heritage. The raid also freed an 18-year old Yazidi slave woman, and captured a trove of documents that revealed far lower amounts from marketing cultural heritage artifacts than earlier estimated.  The raid also uncovered  many USB’s containing documents verifying that our cultural heritage artifacts are for ISIS just a natural resource to be extracted from the ground rather than as “ghanim” a.k.a looted items or spoils of war.

Selling plundered antiquities is frankly not strategic funding for IS compared to oil, banks, taxes and stolen goods. Far from the initial claims that ISIS was making tens of millions or more from stolen antiquities, the true figures are likely far lower. Some antiquities can indeed be sold to the final buyer in Europe, the United States or Asia for large amounts. But most of the material coming out of the ground in ISIS areas on a daily basis, such as pottery, glassware, coins, and architectural fragments are worth, at most, several hundred dollars at the final point of sale.

The total annual income of ISIS from antiquities is currently calculated by this observer and others who are more expert, at only a few million dollars; compared to, say, oil revenue, which for 2014 was estimated to be between $100 million and $263 million.

Admittedly hard data is tough to come by and while archaeologists can no longer visit most of Syria, they do monitor cultural depredation in Syria from the secure vantage point of outer space. Employing pretty amazing high-resolution satellite imagery as Oxford University’s Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) is doing as it instructs us and gives us hope for restorations of our cultural heritage in Syria with its One Million Images project.

This observer submits that there is a forth and even  more sinister reason that has not been much considered with respect to the Islamic State brand, which admittedly is an ambitious and seductive vision that has proven to be a fairly major social media success. He posits for dear readers consideration that the destruction and looting of our heritage underpins an intricate scaffolding of intense micro-managed social control over its captive populations, a system that is designed to intensely regulate individual behavior.

This even applies with respect to where and when to excavate and to loot our antiquities with maps and time and date-stamped permits in hand, at assigned archaeological sites thought worthwhile to excavate and to strip of anything guessed to be of some value.

Recently ISIS has introduced a highly organized control over looting of our cultural heritage which is evidenced by satellite photos revealing neat rows of looting holes on archaeological sites. As noted above, ISIS considers antiquities a natural resource such as oil or gas along with its large-scale operation of theft of personal and real property. Its Department of Precious Resources (Diwan al Rikaz) which controls mines and minerals also now oversees antiquities and issues excavation permits. Diwan al Rikaz demands on average 20% of objects excavated, it also applies a sales tax and uses social media to augment its marketing while relying mainly on obedient citizens to do the excavation work while its fighters perform their jihadist duties elsewhere. Unlike oil extraction, antiquities looting are not a major guaranteed stream of income in fact locally the activity is a bit of a gamble. As in a Los Vegas casino, many can wager but with only a long shot prospect of a high payoff. The vast majority of artifacts currently being unearthed at sites in Syria are of great archaeological importance but little value on the art market.

Increasing its social control by regulating the theft and destruction of our past is now part of a wider and expanding organizing frenzy of the IS.

The ISIS glossy propaganda magazine, now issued in 14 languages, ‘Dabiq,’ named after a key site in Muslim apocalypse mythology,  and which bills itself as a periodical magazine focusing on the issues of tawhid (unity), manhaj (truth-seeking), hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war) and jama’ah (community) frequently features ISIS attacks on Syria’s pre-Islamic heritage sites.

Typical of its taunting of those who value culture heritage is Dabiq’s recent comment:

Enemies of the Islamic State were furious at losing a ‘treasured heritage.’ The mujahid?n, however, were not the least bit concerned about the feelings and sentiments of the kuffar. (ed: ‘non-believers’). The kuffar had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Syria should embrace and be proud of. Yet this opposes the guidance of Allah and His Messenger and only serves a nationalist agenda.

This sort of ISIS iconoclasm mirrors its other social control punishments. Dabiq recently featured a post-card size list of good citizen ‘reminders’ recommending that it be always carried by IS citizens:

Death for blasphemy against God, death for blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad, death for apostasy against Islam, death to both the penetrator and receiver of gay sex, hand and leg amputations for theft, more than two dozen violations such as drinking wine earn 80 or more lashes, while “highway criminality” brings death by crucifixion.

Another sign of intensifying social control by ISIS is found in recently issued laws on Hijab wearing in Syria. According to  conversations of this observer with recent women escapees from IS areas in Syria, all women past the age of puberty must comply with the following social control  rules on Hijabs or face draconian punishments. Specifically, all women in Syria must wear Hijabs that are thick and not revealing. “It must be loose (not tight). It must cover all the body. It must not be attractive. It must not resemble the clothes of unbelievers or men. It must not be decorative and eye-catching. It must not be perfumed.”

In the south Beirut Hezbollah neighborhood of Dahiyeh, where this observer currently resides, Shia women are known and appreciated for their attractive often richly colored head coverings and scarves/hijabs and for their special way of tying them to one side under their chin that is quite distinctive, attractive and often are conscious fashion statements.  This is forbidden for all Muslims in IS areas of Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere ISIS has control of populations on penalty of 80 lashes.

Further tightening social control is evidenced by ISIS which is currently introducing a higher organized and centralized control over looting of our cultural heritage which is evidenced by satellite photos revealing neat rows of looting holes on archaeological sites.

ISIS considers antiquities a natural resource such as oil or gas along with its large-scale operation of theft of personal and real property. Its Department of Precious Resources (Diwan al Rikaz) that controls mines and minerals also oversees antiquities and issues excavation permits, takes on average 20% of objects excavated, applies a sales tax and uses social media to augment its marketing which relies mainly on obedient citizens to do the work while its fighters perform their jihadist duties elsewhere.  Artifacts are now also being sold, according to Syrian citizens who have fled, to locals at public auctions in Raqqa and Deir al Zor.

By controlling antiquities like other resources, ISIS inserts itself into countless holes in the ground. The real goal is not simply cash profit but rather it is psychological control over new ranges of behavior and thought of its subjects which is part of its totalitarian vision of absolute control. ISIS has transformed the pre-Islamic past of Syria into a forbidden zone, a mere natural resource to be exploited. But while the financial profits may be relatively small, more importantly it also offers ISIS yet another way to control the behavior and thoughts of its population, transforming them from captives into dependents of the “Caliphate.”

Increasingly the Obama administration and its allies are frustrated regarding the subject of the need to protect and preserve Syria’s Endangered Heritage. They remain less than confident that ISIS plundering of our heritage in Syria as part of its intensifying social control in its “Caliphate” can be stopped anytime soon.

Yet at the urging of the White House, last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee worked on  H.R. 1493, the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act and  favorably reported the measure for full consideration by the Senate.

The original bill which passed in the House of Representative in June 2015 called for the appointment of an Assistant Secretary of State as the new United States Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, commonly referred to in Washington as a “Cultural Czar”. The new language which was designed to obtain early passage, recommends “that the President should establish an inter-agency coordinating committee to coordinate and advance the efforts of the executive branch to protect and preserve international cultural property at risk.”

The mandate of the new inter-agency committee, to be chaired by an Assistant Secretary of State, includes working to protect and preserve international cultural property in Syria while working to prevent and disrupt cultural heritage looting and trafficking in Syria.

The legislation’s mandate also includes protecting sites of cultural and archaeological significance while seeking to provide for the lawful exchange of international cultural property from Syria.

Franklin Lamb is author of the recently released book Syria’s Endangered Heritage: An International Responsibility to Preserve and Protect. He is currently based in Beirut and Damascus and reachable at Read other articles by Franklin.