Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq are netting between US$150 million and US$200 million a year from illicit trade in plundered antiquities, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said in a letter released on Wednesday.
“Around 100,000 cultural objects of global importance, including 4,500 archaeological sites, nine of which are included in the World Heritage List of … UNESCO, are under the control of the Islamic State … in Syria and Iraq,” Reuters quoted Ambassador Vitaly Churkin as saying in a letter to the UN Security Council.
“The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$150-200 million per year,” he wrote.
The smuggling of artifacts, Churkin said, is organized by Islamic State’s antiquities division in the group’s equivalent of a ministry for natural resources.
Only those who have a permit with a stamp from this division are permitted to excavate, remove and transport antiquities.
Some details of the group’s war spoils department were previously revealed by Reuters, which reviewed some of the documents seized by US Special Operations Forces in a May 2015 raid in Syria.
But many details in Churkin’s letter appeared to be new.
The envoy from Russia, which has repeatedly accused Turkey of supporting Islamic State by purchasing oil from the group, said plundered antiquities were largely smuggled through Turkish territory.
“The main center for the smuggling of cultural heritage items is the Turkish city of Gaziantep, where the stolen goods are sold at illegal auctions and then through a network of antique shops and at the local market,” Churkin wrote.
Churkin said jewelry, coins and other looted items are brought to the Turkish cities of Izmir, Mersin and Antalya, where criminal groups produce fake documents on their origin.
“The antiquities are then offered to collectors from various countries, generally through internet auction sites such as eBay and specialized online stores,” he said.
“Recently ISIL has been exploiting the potential of social media more and more frequently so as to cut out the middleman and sell artifacts directly to buyers,” he added.
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