June 2008

The Loot Route

By Roger Atwood<br /><br />Terrorist groups in Iraq are skimming money off the country’s booming trade in looted antiquities to help finance attacks on civilian and military targets in Iraq, a U.S. military expert on antiquities said. Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who led the military’s probe into the 2003 looting at the Iraqi Museum, said his sources in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East have given him detailed, up-to-date information on antiquities shipments that included percentages paid to people understood by those involved to be representatives of Shiite militias and possibly Al Qaeda. <br /><br /> "I have informants in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and in Geneva, and ones with access to Syria," Bogdanos told <em>ARTnews </em>. "They give me real-time information. I get the information on the day it happens, and what they give me is continuing evidence of a pure revenue stream for these groups from a virtually limitless supply of antiquities. <br /><br />"It’s a tax. The Taliban in Afghanistan finance their work through opium; these groups in Iraq finance theirs from the trade in looted antiquities. It’s not the No. 1 source – that’s kidnapping and extortion. But it’s a source." Investigators have also found evidence that Hezbollah benefits from antiquities smuggling, he said. <br /><br />Bogdanos gathered the information in the course of investigations into antiquities smuggling as an assistant district attorney in New York, his job in civilian life, and has shared it with U.S. and Iraqi authorities. The information is mostly hearsay, he admitted, so it is not admissible in court, but it can be useful in assisting criminal investigations. <br /><br /> "I have every level of hearsay imaginable, with informants who tell me, for example, “I bought an artifact two weeks ago from a guy who I know works for a Shiite militia,’" said Bogdanos. He cautioned that although he has evidence proving that terrorist groups take a cut from artifact smuggling, he has none that shows they finance the actual looting of sites. <br /><br />Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, ancient sites all over Iraq have come under relentless assault from organized looting teams, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. According to widely published photographic evidence, Sumerian sites in largely Shiite southern Iraq, which include the earliest cities in human civilization, have been devastated by looters looking for coveted cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets. <br /><br />It is illegal in the United States, the European Union and most other countries to buy or sell antiquities that can be shown to have been removed from Iraq since 1990. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove exactly when looted antiquities came out of the ground. <br /><br />Other sources said that Bogdanos’ assertions seemed plausible. "We have detected evidence of proceeds being used for drug and weapons trafficking, as well as for money laundering. So it would be a natural conclusion that it would go to terrorist activities as well," said Christopher Marinello, executive director and general counsel at the Art Loss Register in New York. After hearing Bogdanos speak at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University on the link between antiquities smuggling and Middle Eastern radical groups, he was "frankly convinced that there is a connection." <br /><br />Extremist groups levy taxes on shipments of looted antiquities as they travel overland from Iraq into Jordan, Syria, or Turkey, said Bogdanos. The looted antiquities are almost all freshly dug, not stolen museum artifacts, he said. Those culled from Sumerian sites are generally routed through Jordan or Syria, he said. <br /><br />In <em>Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War </em>, a book of essays by experts on Iraqi antiquities recently published by AltaMira Press for the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, Bogdanos recounts how U.S. investigators tracking down stolen museum antiquities in Baghdad often found that the groups responsible for the theft also had ties to violent groups. In 2005, U.S. Marines in northwest Iraq arrested five insurgents holed up in a bunker with weapons and ammunition, and 30 artifacts stolen from the National Museum. <br /><br />Donny George, former director of the National Museum, pointed to evidence that radical groups condone looting. At major Sumerian sites, he said, signs have appeared saying that Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr permits the digging and selling of antiquities as long as the proceeds are used to build mosques or attack American forces, he said. Whether the signs actually reflect Sadr’s views is unclear, he said, but "Sadr is not stopping the digging on these sites." <br /><br />Antiquities are flowing freely out of Iraq, according to George, who is currently a visiting professor of anthropologyat Stony Brook University in New York. "Unfortunately the American forces are doing nothing to stop the looting because they say they don’t have orders." Police forces in Iraq and around the world have confiscated about 4,000 pieces of the approximately 15,000 artifacts looted from the National Museum in the chaotic aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s downfall, he said, including the 4,400-year-old diorite sculpture known as King Entemena statue, which federal agents seized in New York on a tip and returned in 2006 to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, where it remains today. George added that some 17,000 objects believed to have been pillaged from ancient sites since 2003 have been recovered inside Iraq and returned to authorities. That number is probably only a fraction of the looted artifacts in circulation, George said. Hundreds more have been seized in Jordan, Kuwait and Syria, as well as in Europe and the United States, according to news reports. <br /><br />Not all of Iraq’s neighbors are providing information on seizures of suspected looted antiquities, said George. "We don’t know what the Turkish and Iranian authorities have captured." <br /><br />