Art Experts Worry About Islamic State Looting

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The art community wants the U.S. to do more to stop the Islamic State group’s unprecedented destruction and looting of Syrian and Iraqi cultural artifacts, according to the Government Accountability Office.
     The agency released its findings Monday in a 61-page report, which contains the art community’s top seven suggestions for improving U.S. efforts to protect artifacts from pillaging.
     Though not a modern phenomenon, the U.N. has called the recent destruction of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities “the worst cultural heritage crisis since World War II.”
     Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has outright destroyed some cultural property, and has trafficked antiquities all over the world. According to the GAO report, the group encourages archaeological looting to erase Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage, and to raise money.
     However, the group is not the lone actor, the report says. Syrian, Russian and Iraqi airstrikes are said to have taken their toll on the region’s historical cultural property, as have Kurdish and Syrian opposition groups, other terror groups and opportunistic individuals.
     But ISIL, also called ISIS, is a prime actor, and looting of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities has lined the group’s coffers. How much revenue it draws from smuggling artifacts is unclear, the GAO says, but the terrorist group is increasingly turning to the antiquities trade for funding as other revenue streams get shut down.
     “ISIS manages and profits from industrial-scale looting at sites it controls in Iraq and Syria,” the report states, which could be funding some of the group’s terror attacks.
     During a raid to capture ISIL leader Abu Sayyaf, the U.S. found documents showing that the group has an established antiquities division with units devoted to researching archaeological sites and marketing antiquities, according to the GAO report.
     ISIL appears to control and supervise artifact excavation, and collects a 20 percent tax on looted items, which are at risk for smuggling into to the U.S. and Europe by way of Turkey and Lebanon.
     The U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, Defense and Treasury have worked in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution since 2011 to protect Iraqi and Syrian cultural property. Their efforts include information sharing, raising awareness, overseas capacity building, law enforcement actions and destruction prevention.
     But 26 art-market experts surveyed by the GAO gave input on how to bolster these efforts.
     Improving information sharing among U.S. agencies was their top recommendation, followed by better international collaboration to improve data management, like museum inventories. They suggested improving information exchange between international law enforcement agencies, and improving training for U.S. Customs and Border protection on cultural property imports.
     The experts also identified as top priorities improving training for law enforcement officers, creation of a government-wide strategy on cultural property and establishing a central point of contact at the Defense Department, the agency tasked with leading U.S. efforts to implement the 1954 Hague Convention to prevent theft and vandalism of cultural property during conflict.
     The GAO, however, addresses a possible disconnect between the art-market experts and the agencies tasked with protecting cultural property. Its report notes that the experts might not have full access to the inner workings of these agencies.
     “DOD officials also stated that DOD is, and has long been, effectively implementing the requirements of the 1954 Hague Convention, despite art market experts’ apparent misperception that DOD is not effectively implementing the convention or does not otherwise have an effective and coordinated approach to the protection of cultural property,” the report states.
     The Hague requirements have been part of the agency’s longstanding policy during armed conflicts and military operations, the GAO notes.
     The agency said it is not making recommendations based on its recent report, but provided copies to the relevant agencies and congressional committees.

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