The Justice Department on Thursday filed legal action in an effort to recover looted Syrian artifacts believed to have been trafficked by the Islamic State — marking the first time the U.S. has gone to court to obtain antiquities once held by the terrorist group.
The four items sought through the forfeiture complaint include a gold ring, two gold coins and a carved stone that are estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and date back to as early as 330 B.C. The ring alone previously sold for $260,000, according to court documents.
U.S. officials do not know the whereabouts of the items, but U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Channing Phillips said he hopes the complaint will serve as “a warning to those who traffic in precious antiquities and who seek to profiteer from ISIL’s exploitation of the cultural heritage of areas under its control.”
Photos of the antiquities were recovered during a 2015 raid of a compound in eastern Syria in which Abu Sayaaf, an Islamic State leader, was killed. The raid uncovered a trove of other artifacts that have since been turned over to officials at the Iraq National Museum.
The FBI previously has put art collectors on alert about relics stolen and trafficked by the Islamic State. Officials warned that amid the backdrop of war, the Islamic State has turned to looting archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq and stealing relics from regional museums to sell the items on the international market. They also warned that buying items sold by the Islamic State may provide financial support to the terrorist group — a potentially criminal offense.
U.S. officials in 2015 estimated the Islamic State had regional control of as many as 5,000 archaeological sites. The group has lost control of a significant amount of territory over the last year, but just this weekend Islamic State fighters retook the Syrian city of Palmyra, known for some of the world’s most treasured ruins.
Paul Abbate, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said finding the four looted items described in the forfeiture documents is essential to helping stop the illegal flow of funds that support the terrorist group’s activity.
“The documents unsealed today reveal that ISIL specifically directed its members to steal archaeological objects for purposes of selling them on the black market in order to use the proceeds to support this designated terrorist organization,” Mr. Abbate said. “ISIL members extorted and threatened to arrest anyone outside of the terrorist organization who attempted to excavate, sell or transport antiquities from the territory under their control.”
The four items sought include a gold ring from Deir Ezzor, Syria; two Roman-era gold coins featuring the emperors Hadrian Augustus Caesar and Antoninus Pius; and a stone carving believed to be from the archaeological site of Tal Ajaja in the Khabur region of northern Syria. The items are being sought under a U.S. law that allows for the forfeiture of all assets belonging to terrorist organization.
According to the Justice Department complaint, antiquities experts have said the appearance of the photographs depicting the four items indicates they were being prepared for marketing and eventual sale on the international market. Officials said at least one of the items was sold.
In the forfeiture complaint, the Justice Department delves into complex details of the Islamic State’s extortion strategy. While Sayaaf was known for overseeing the group’s gas and oil operations, recovered documents refer to him as president of the group’s Ministry of Natural Resources Antiquities.
The complaint states that in addition to marketing and selling antiquities to finance terrorism operations, Sayaaf extorted individuals who excavated or sold antiquities in Islamic State-controlled territory and levied a 20 percent tax on items excavated from the region. Documents recovered during the raid include excavation permits and receipts for tax collections and payments. Many of the transactions were made in U.S. dollars.
In addition to the Justice and FBI efforts to crack down on the illegal trade, the State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information that leads to a significant disruption of the Islamic State’s antiquities operations.