U.S. on Hunt for Antiquities Trafficked by Islamic State

WASHINGTON (CN) – In its first forfeiture action targeting foreign assets of the Islamic State group, the U.S. government says a raid in Syria revealed that the group is selling valuable antiquities to fund its operations.

“Notorious ISIL leader” Abu Sayyaf died in the May 2015 raid near Deir Ezzor, Syria, according to the Dec. 15 complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

A hard drive belonging to Abu Sayyaf, described in the complaint as the president of ISIL’s antiquities department, shows that he sometimes sold items personally on behalf of the group, taking home 20 percent of the proceeds.

“These transactions were often in U.S. dollars ,” according to the complaint.

The raid of Aby Sayyaf’s home uncovered hundreds of coins and documents that shed light on ISIL’s organizational structure.

Justice Department officials say photographs were also uncovered of of four archaeological items: two gold coins, a rare stone and a gold ring.

“The documentary style, lighting, and focus of the photographs indicate that these images were prepared for marketing in order to sell the photographed items internationally,” according the complaint.

At least one of the items mentioned in the complaint has already been sold.

The complaint notes that the ring previously sold for $260,000.

Believed to be from the Hellenistic-Roman period, dating approximately from 330 B.C. to 400 A.D., the “ring has an oval shaped dark green gem in a bezel setting,” according the complaint.

“The gold band is decorated with ‘C’-shaped scrolls flanking the bezel,” the complaint continues. “The gemstone is serpentine, carved on the front with an image of a crowned bust in profile facing left. The crown is turreted. The head possibly depicts a turreted and veiled goddess named Tyche (the daughter of Greek gods Aphrodite and Zeus or Hermes).

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The Antoninus Pius is dated approximately 138-161 A.D., and the Caesar coin is dated approximately 125-128 A.D. Both are “ “sourced to any large, urban Hellenistic or Roman city in Syria, including Apamea, Palmyra, Dura Europos, or Bosra,” according to a statement from the Justice Department.

As for the carved Neo-Assyrian stone, the Justice Department believes this item came from an upright stone slab bearing a relief design. It is carved with an image of a provincial official, most likely a eunuch, facing left, with his right forearm and hand raised.

“This item is believed to be from the archaeological site of Tell Ajaja in the Khabur region of northern Syria,” the Justice Department said.

In addition to the complaint, the government filed another 15 pages of exhibits with photographs from the raid.

“The documents unsealed today reveal that ISIL specifically directed its members to steal archaeological objects for purposes of selling them on the black market in order to use the proceeds to support this designated terrorist organization,” said Paul M. Abbate, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

Even amid the frenzy of war in Syria, members of the terrorist organization were able to establish a profitable black market for a variety of baubles. The Justice Department said many of the trafficked relics were unearthed from territories to which ISIL had laid seige.

Abbate added that ISIL members “extorted and threatened to arrest anyone outside of the terrorist organization who attempted to excavate, sell or transport antiquities from the territory under their control.”

Thursday’s complaint comes only a few months after the Government Accountability Office released a 61-page report detailing its suggestions for how to recover cultural treasures lost to pillaging. Members of the United Nations called the destruction of Syrian and Iraqi artifacts “the worst cultural heritage crisis since World War II.”

The trafficking of such cultural items, the GAO reported, was not only for profit but to undermine or erase Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage. Exactly how much ISIL has earned through the shadowy dealings is still unclear. Thursday’s filing suggests that the group has bureaucratic-like operations in place to fund its operations.

Investigations showed that Sayyaf established an “antiquities division” with specific task forces dedicated to researching archaeological sites and further, how to sell what was found. Sayyaf even maintained excavation permits and wrote receipts for the collections “on ISIL letterhead,” the complaint stated.

For his troubles, Sayyaf frequently referred to himself on the documents as President of the Ministry of Natural Resources Antiquities Department, according to the complaint.

Investigators also found that there were “discussions of depositing the proceeds of ISIL’s antiquities trafficking into ISIL’s treasury,” the announcement said.

The GAO report noted that ISIL appeared to collect a 20 percent tax on looted items, which could be smuggled onto U.S. soil from Turkey and Lebanon.

Efforts to protect valuable Iraqi and Syrian heritage pieces have been underway since 2011.