On October 10, 2014 in Washington, DC, the Antiquities Coalition and Middle East Institute held a roundtable discussion on Cultural Racketeering: A Global Crisis” and its role in financing terrorism in the region.  Cultural racketeering is the systematic looting and trafficking of art and antiquities by organized crime. The gathering explored what potential solutions the international community could employ to protect cultural heritage from looting and other destruction by terrorist groups such as ISIL. The roundtable drew on experts from leading think tanks, universities, non-profits, and the legal field to develop innovative solutions and outline the efforts that must be undertaken to slow down the rampant theft of history from the cradle of civilization.

Organized criminals and terrorist networks have taken advantage of the ongoing turmoil and unrest in the region to plunder museums, archeological sites, religious institutions, and storage areas.  Recent reports have confirmed that looted antiquities are being sold to raise funds for purchasing weapons and sponsoring terrorist activities.  The looting and illicit sale of antiquities constitutes one of the top five black market crimes worldwide, netting tens of billions of dollars each year. And those that aren’t looted are often destroyed.  Networks such as ISIL are also engaging in cultural and ethnic cleansing; eradicating any existence of cultures that differ from their extremist beliefs.

The first session of the round table sought to explore the scope of the overall challenge and identify what networks are engaged in the problem to help find the most effective response. The current crisis caused by ISIL and its affiliated groups in the Middle East warrants swift and effective action. The group explored the role can the US government, particularly the Departments of State and Treasury, play in stemming the sale of illicit antiquities for profit as the government continues to focus more resources on the fight against ISIL and similar terrorist groups.

The US government’s current efforts to eradicate ISIL serve as a crucial opportunity to combat the illicit trade, not only from the perspective of stopping the source, but also by curbing the demand. The US is currently one of the top consuming markets for looted antiquities from the Middle East. A coordinated effort between “source” countries in the Middle East could make a significant difference in reducing the flow of these illegal obtained antiquities.

The second half of the round table — a solutions session — revealed the critical need for up-to-date, reliable data to present the government and interested parties with the tools to address the criminal trade in antiquities and the role it plays in financing terrorist syndicates.  The group noted that engaging the laws and regulations of market nations and the way in which they apply to consumers and sellers of knowingly looted antiquities is critical to any long-term success. Additionally, building awareness in the global community will help educate individuals about the negative consequences of buying illicitly obtained artifacts.

Further research needs to be conducted into the smuggling networks and revenue streams. The greatest obstacle in combatting cultural racketeering is the market driven by a demand that is growing, and a supply stream that is flourishing. Of primary importance in the collection of data is a need for credible numbers around the regional and global scope of the problem. Grasping an understanding of the financial losses to nations and gains to terrorist groups is key to gaining the attention of the US government as well as other international governments in the fight against ISIL.

The round table closed with plans to convene a working group led by the Antiquities Coalition and the Middle East Institute and comprised of experts across the fields of heritage, terrorism, finance, and law to gather the data necessary to effectively combatting cultural racketeering.

The roundtable group outlined several additional potential solutions, meant to address both the source and demand sides of the market:

  • Build Coalitions of Like-Minded Countries: Bring the collective efforts and resources of countries under attack together to fight looting.
  • Engage Demand Countries: Work with US, EU, Japanese and other governments to explore potential solutions.
  • Make Best Use of International and Domestic Laws:  Consider best use of international laws to counteract the sale of illicit antiquities for profit.
  • Outreach to the Private Sector:  Coordinate with the auction houses, antiquities stores, and other outlets to explore best practices.
  • Public Relations Campaigns:  Explore possible campaigns against the purchase of illicit antiquities or “blood antiquities.”
  • Increased Security and Databases:  Explore ways to better protect sites, and track excavated artifacts.
  • Social Entrepreneurship:  Create economic opportunities for the local community around cultural heritage sites to develop vested business interests in protecting the sites.