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The Bizarre Tale of 'ISIS Book Club'

A museum in Aleppo, Syria. (Photo: © UNESCO/ Prof. Abdul Karim

The stash of books about ancient coins and Egyptian pyramids seemed to belong more in a 1950s library in Germany than on the back of a truck filled with shoulder-fired missiles. Then again, if you’re an Islamic State fighter with plans to loot and sell antiquities to the West in order to fund your cause, it helps to know which objects to look for.

How ISIS fighters came into possession of the books was anybody’s guess. But amid a stream of reports that the group is looting and destroying precious cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, the news of the volumes sparked a miniature flurry of detective work on Twitter.

The library’s appearance in a photograph on the Conflict Antiquities blog, alongside a post about a cache of hundreds of antiquities and receipts that were seized by U.S. Special Forces members, was reportedly “the first material proof” that the Islamic State was trafficking antiquities.

Driven largely by archaeologists and numismatists, the stream of retweets and pleas for help–“it’s a super-long shot, but does anyone recognize this book?” one tweet read–quickly yielded fruit. Recognizing the ancient Phoenician coins that appear one of the pages, the numismatist Ute Wartenberg correctly identified it as a scholarly tome that isn’t easy to come by: La Syrie Sous la Domination Achéménide by Maurice Sartre. 

“It’s not a book that you look up. It’s not even one that you can find in a bookstore. It would be one that you would find in an academic library,” says Sam Hardy, the author of Conflict Antiquities and a specialist in illicit antiquities. “It suggests that they’re making educated choices.” The other titles were identified as German-language books on the pyramids of Egypt.

As for the seized receipts, they dated back to the 1980s, prompting a slew of other questions. Where were the objects headed? Who was buying them? What would an ISIS book club look like and was it an accurate predictor of where its readers might strike next (for instance, the pyramids of Egypt)? Was this really “the first material proof” that the Islamic State has been trafficking antiquities?

According to Hardy, not exactly. “In terms of evidence, this is not significant in any new way. It just confirms what we already know, that items have been strategically trafficked in and out of Syria and the region, by various actors inside and outside the state, long before ISIS was ever around,” Hardy says.

Yet his posts can provide a glimpse into how archaeologists and other antiquity experts are documenting the extent to which antiquities are being traded and destroyed by the Islamic State. Like Hardy, many such experts are not on the ground in Syria, but are working from other countries. So instead of using shovels and picks, they are relying on digital tools like satellite imagery, Twitter, and open source sites like Bellingcat to excavate information and bring it to the public.

A lamassu at the North West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, in Nimrud, Iraq. It was reported that the site was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

And by crowd sourcing their knowledge, such experts are fleshing out details and context in ways that mainstream news outlets cannot. A recent post by the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology showing an image of the license that the Islamic State granted to excavators, to curry funds and local favor, is a good example of academic investigators diving into the weeds. Other sites like this include Pocket Change, and the blog run by the British archaeologist Paul Bradford.

What’s more, these ad hoc digital efforts seem to mirror the ad hoc efforts of archaeologists that are working in conflict zones. Despite recent moves to stop the destruction and looting, the international community can only do so much. Demand for these objects is high (the U.S. is one of the largest importers). And major museums and institutions like UNESCO, which typically partner with local museums and organizations, are hamstrung in a place like Syria, where the regime is an international pariah and 70% of the country is controlled by rebels. As a result, most efforts to save a site from being looted or destroyed are being led by individual actors.

“Forging strategic partnerships with the Syrian state is nearly impossible, so the protection of the sites is often left to local activists, local NGOs, local archaeologists and museum curators, who are trying to do what they can, for the most part pretty much unsupported,” says Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history at Shawnee State University, and former head of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Damascus.

“Let me be clear, this is not a single network, this is a multiplicity of networks,” says Azm. “These partners are trying to find some sort of financial assistance to keep them going and get the information out.” Azm says that the archaeological networks are often fractured by competition. “You have a clique in Berlin, a clique in Paris, a clique in London, a clique in Italy, a clique in Spain, you have some mad Dutch antique books dealers. It’s very, very ad hoc.”

The Lion of Al-lāt in Palmyra, Syria, from early 1st century AD. It was destroyed by ISIS on 27 June 2015. (Photo: Mappo/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Azm says he personally has about 20 to 30 people on the ground in Syria who are relaying information back to him and running missions to save precious sites. Mother Jones recently reported how Azm’s network saved one of the largest corpus of mosaics in Syria by packing it into sandbags three months before it was barrel bombed. Other groups are performing similar rescue missions across the country.

“Oftentimes ISIS is coming into one side of town while our trucks are rolling out of the other. It’s stuff that movies are made of,” Azm says.

At the same time, he is exasperated by the media’s obsession with ISIS and antiquities, especially when it obscures the complicity of the Syrian regime, international smuggling routes, and the market in the West. “I am sure there is some mongol warlord looting in outer Mongolia but no one cares. The minute ISIS raises the black flag, everyone wants to talk about it.”

Hardy agrees: “I just called it a book club because some Islamic State activists follow my blog, so I think it's good to make them sound ridiculous as well as repulsive. But it does show that they are very organized in their criminal activities.”