A museum can be worth as much as an oil field, provided there is someone willing to buy looted and smuggled art.
The world of antiquities looting has crossed into the realm of terrorism—the ancient pot you buy on eBay, or at a prestigious auction house, might be funding jihadists.
The union of art and terrorism is nothing new. In the 1970s, IRA operatives stole art on several occasions from Irish private collections, in order to sell or swap for the release of political prisoners. In 1999, Mohammed Atta, one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks, flew to Germany with photographs of looted Afghan antiquities, which he sought to sell in order, in his own words, “to buy a plane” that would have been crashed into American buildings. Just a few weeks ago, ISIS bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed statues at a museum in Mosul, destroying pre-Islamic monuments and artifacts, while news filtered out that they were earning “as much as tens of millions” by selling antiquities looted from territory in occupied Syria alone, to foreign buyers. Just days ago, terrorists stormed a museum in Tunisia and killed everyone they found inside. Stolen art and looted antiquities fund terrorist groups. So why has it taken so long for the world to take this seriously, or even notice?
Of course, this is old news to those of us who study art crime. As early as 2005, U.S. Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos and colleagues presented evidence, much of it still classified due to active operations, at the annual Interpol conference in Lyon on stolen works of art, that terrorist groups were funding their activities by selling looted antiquities abroad. At the same meeting, it was announced that art crime was perhaps the third-highest-grossing criminal trade worldwide, behind only the drug and arms trades. This was also the year when Der Spiegel broke the news about Mohammed Atta trying to sell looted antiquities in a precursor to the hijacking plan for 9/11.
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