Roman imperial treasures looted by ISIL on US wanted list

Experts broadly agree that ISIL has made tens of millions of dollars from the trade in looted treasure

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on March 27, 2016 shows destruction in the museum of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra after government troops recaptured the city from Islamic State (IS) fighters the previous day. 
Archaeologists were rushing to the ancient city of Palmyra to assess the damage wreaked by the Islamic State group, after it was ousted by the Syrian army in a bloody battle.

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American authorities are trying to recover a collection of ancient gold artefacts allegedly looted by ISIL, including a gold ring sold for $250,000 (Dh918,000) and jewels depicting a Roman emperor.

The new court filings are a vivid illustration of the way extremist militants in Iraq and Syria have been using antiquities to fund their campaign.

Three of the items were depicted in photographs found during a raid on the residence of Abu Sayyaf, the nom de guerre of a senior ISIL leader, in Deir Ezzor, Syria, in May 2015.

And all are believed to have been crafted in a workshop that produced gold jewellery for the elite Roman citizens of the city of Dura Europos, which once stood on the banks of the Euphrates in today’s Syria.

Jessie Liu, US attorney for the District of Columbia, said: “These court actions are the latest step in an ongoing effort to disrupt the ability of [ISIL] and other terrorist groups to finance their operations. “They reflect our determination to locate precious stolen antiquities and preserve the cultural heritage of ancient sites that fell under [ISIL’s] control.”

In the new filing, made in Washington, prosecutors allege there is probable cause to believe that ISIL tried to facilitate the transfer of a gold ring to a Syrian antiquities trafficker, who then sold it to a person in Turkey for a quarter of a million dollars.

The complaint adds that Turkish law enforcement officers later confiscated it.

A second suit dates to the raid that killed Abu Sayyaf, who was also known as Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad Al Tunisi. At the time the operation was hailed for revealing significant information about the operational structure of Isis and Abu Sayyaf’s role in hostage taking and the group’s oil and gas activities.

US officials claimed it yielded more intelligence than any other raid in American special forces history.

Multiple documents written on ISIL letterheads were also recovered, according to the lawsuit. In them, Abu Sayyaf referred to himself as the President of the Ministry of Natural Resources Antiquities Department and discussed depositing the dollar proceeds of trafficking into the ISIL treasury.

Photographs taken from electronic media found at his home have revealed seven antiquities, which are now subject to US seizure.

A gold brooch dating to the third century AD featuring a cameo of Minerva or Athena is believed to be worth $20,000, while a necklace depicting the Roman emperor Gordian III is valued at $50,000.

Prosecutors believe the documentary style, lighting and focus of the photographs meant the items were destined to be marketed to international buyers.

At the height of its influence, ISIL controlled swathes of land across Syria and Iraq, including multiple Unesco World Heritage Sites and other locations known for their archaeological treasures.

Syria alone has 4,500 known archaeological sites.

The complaint states that ISIL created a sophisticated system for extracting wealth from these resources, including through the sale and trafficking of antiquities, which was used to directly finance ISIL.

Investigators believe stolen items were smuggled from ISIL territory across borders with Turkey and Lebanon, to be stored in warehouses in Europe and Asia before possibly reaching dealers in the West.

The business was so sophisticated that locals were issued licences to dig for artefacts, according to a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal. Finds would then be sold to ISIL at below market rates.

The operation was often overseen by foreign jihadists, who were considered less likely to try to steal valuable discoveries.

Estimates vary widely but experts broadly agree that the group has made tens of millions of dollars from the trade in looted treasure.

Under US law, all assets of a terrorist or terrorist organisation, and all assets “affording a source of influence” over any such group are subject to forfeiture, wherever they may be in the world.

Andrew Vale, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, said: “The FBI continues to work tirelessly with its partners to recover these precious antiquities stolen by [ISIL], who sold them on the black market in order to finance their terrorist operations.

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