Adonis Diaries

Archive for February 18th, 2015

The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS

Artefacts looted from Syria
The gold-plated bronze figurine (photo D Osseman) was stolen from the museum in Hama, western Syria

The trade in antiquities is one of Islamic State’s main sources of funding, along with oil and kidnapping.

For this reason the UN Security Council last week banned all trade in artefacts from Syria, accusing IS militants of looting cultural heritage to strengthen its ability “to organise and carry out terrorist attacks”. (The US looted Iraq artefacts for 8 years)

The BBC has been investigating the trade, and the routes from Syria through Turkey and Lebanon to Europe.

The Smuggler

It has taken many calls and a lot of coaxing to get a man we are calling “Mohammed” to meet us. He is originally from Damascus but now plies his trade in the Bekaa valley on the border between Syria and Lebanon.

He’s 21 but looks much younger in his T-shirt, skinny jeans and black suede shoes. As we sit in an apartment in central Beirut I have to lean forward to hear the softly spoken young man describe how he began smuggling looted antiquities from Syria.

“There’s three friends in Aleppo we deal with, these people move from Aleppo all the way to the border here and pay a taxi driver to sneak it in.”

He specialised in smaller items which would be easier to move on – but he says even that has become too risky. “We tried our best to get the items which had most value, earrings, rings, small statues, stone heads,” he says.

Smuggler: “IS stole from the museums

He made a good profit but bigger players with better connections “sold pieces worth $500,000, some for $1m”, he says. When I ask who’s making the money and controlling the trade in Syria his gentle voice takes on a flinty tone: “IS are the main people doing it. They are the ones in control of this business, they stole from the museums especially in Aleppo,” he says.

“I know for a fact these militants had connections overseas and they talked ahead of time and they shipped overseas using their connections abroad.” Mohammed is still involved in cross-border trade, but no longer in antiquities. “Anyone caught with it gets severe punishment,” he says. “They accuse you of being IS.”

The Go-between

To sell looted antiquities you need a middle-man, like “Ahmed”. Originally from eastern Syria, he is based in a town in southern Turkey – he doesn’t want me to specify which one as he doesn’t want the police to know.

As a Turkish-speaker he is popular with Syrian smugglers, who ask if he can move goods on to local dealers. When I speak to him via Skype he shows me a blanket next to him filled with artefacts – statues of animals and human figures, glasses, vases and coins. They were dug up in the last few months.

“They come from the east of Syria, from Raqqa, all the areas controlled by ISIS (Islamic State),” he says. Islamic State plays an active part in controlling the trade, he tells me. Anyone wanting to excavate has to get permission from IS inspectors, who monitor the finds and destroying any human figures, which are seen as idolatrous (those Ahmed is showing me have slipped through the net). IS takes 20% as tax. “They tax everything,” he says.

gold coins

The main trade is in stoneworks, statues and gold, and it can be extremely lucrative. “I have seen one piece sold for $1.1m,” he says. “It was a piece from the year 8500BC.”

He gently handles each artefact as he brings it closer to the webcam to give me a better view. He has had to pay a sizeable bond to the smugglers to get this material and he doesn’t want to lose any of it.

The final destination is Western Europe, he says. “Turkish merchants sell it to dealers in Europe. They call them, send pictures… people from Europe come to check the goods and take them away.” Ahmed will have to return the looted artefacts to his Syrian contacts, as I am clearly not buying them, but he won’t be returning to his homeland. “If I went back I’d be killed,” he says.

The Dealer

It’s an unremarkable tourist shop in the centre of Beirut. Inside the glass cases are ancient oil lamps, rings and glassware but the shop owner, a laconic man in his late 40s, has an unusual selling tactic – he says much of it is fake.

However, he assures me he does have genuine pieces from the Hellenic and Byzantine periods, around 1,000 years old. I’m interested what other items he can get, mosaics for example? I had been advised by archaeologists that mosaics would almost certainly be looted – at the moment, that would mean most likely from Syria.

He asks which kind I want. Faces, animals, geometric designs? “If you’re serious we can have a serious negotiation… there is always a way,” he promises. When I ask if it’s legal he smiles as he tells me the only way to legally ship these items is with official documentation from a museum saying they have been cleared for export.

A statue from Palmyra

If it was only a small mosaic I wanted, I could take the chance and try to smuggle it out myself but he warns it’s a serious decision, as I could get caught. For a fee he can have them shipped to the UK but it will cost me many thousands of pounds.

We shake hands as I leave and he gives me his business card. It has only taken 10 minutes to be offered illicit antiquities. Arthur Brand, an investigator who helps recover stolen antiquities isn’t surprised, it chimes with his experience in Lebanon. “I’ve been there several times and at times and it really is amazing,” he tells me from his base in Amsterdam.

“The illicit trade is run as a professional business with with offices and business cards and you can buy antiquities from Lebanon, but also from countries like Syria, Iraq.” The link between smugglers and dealers is the dirty secret the art world doesn’t want to admit to, he says.

The Cop

He could easily pass for the star of an Arabic cop show but Lt Col Nicholas Saad is a real policeman, head of Lebanon’s bureau of international theft. In his office, filled with certificates from the FBI and Scotland Yard, he shows me photos of huge Roman busts seized in a recent raid in Lebanon.

We go up to the roof of his police station, where out to the east, beyond the mountains, is the border with Syria. This is where refugees pour into the country and are exploited by the smuggling gangs.

Lt Col Nicholas Saad: Most money is made in Europe

“The refugees come in big numbers and the gangs put things between the belongings of the refugees,” he explains. Since the conflict in Syria he has noticed a significant increase in the smuggling of looted artefacts, “especially from the Islamic parts, Raqqa (the base) of the Islamic State”, he adds.

His team has seized hundreds of Syrian artefacts. “We have the archaeology expert that said they’re very valuable from the Roman period, from the Greek period, years before Christ,” he says. But there isn’t a market for them in Lebanon. “Lebanon is a transit station, it’s one of the the doors that goes to Europe. The real money is made in Europe.”

The Treasure

Inside the Beirut National museum are treasures from the cradle of civilisation – Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine statues, busts and sarcophagi 3,000 years old. Hidden away from the public in a store room below the main galleries, seized looted antiquities wait to be returned to Syria.

My guide is Dr Assaad Seif, an archaeologist and head of excavations at the directorate general of antiquities in Beirut. He rings a bell and a wrought iron door is unlocked. Inside are scores of items – pottery, stonework – but the most valuable items are sealed away in a warehouse. “We have huge funeral sculptures, representing men and women used to seal the tombs, from Palmyra,” he says.

Dr Assaad Seif: Some smuggled artefacts are fake, others are worth $1m

Most of the seized items are from excavations rather than thefts from museums. The looters target warehouses at ancient sites like Palmyra, a Unesco world heritage site. “The warehouses at archaeological sites have objects they know are not listed or catalogued yet, and they think it could be easier to sell them,” he says.

“The Palmyra objects had value for people in Syria… it gives a kind of identity,” he says. Although reluctant to put a price on any of the bigger items, after some coaxing he relents. “We have a dozen objects that would sell for $1m each on the open market.” I understand why they keep them out of sight of curious foreign visitors.

The Destination

File on 4

Stolen tablet

You can hear Simon Cox’s radio documentary on File on 4, on BBC Radio 4, at 2015 on Tuesday 17 February – or afterwards on the BBC iPlayer

It has taken days to get through to Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim, the archaeologist in charge of Syria’s dept of antiquities in Damascus. When I do reach him, he’s angry. “The sites under the control of ISIS, in these areas we have a disaster, a lot of problems. IS attack all things just for the money,” he says.

It is our memory, our identity, for the government, the opposition, for all Syria.” It’s impossible to stop the looting but he is adamant more could be done to crack down on the trade. “We are sure through all the sources a lot of objects go from Syria to Europe, in Switzerland, in Germany, in UK – and Gulf countries like Dubai and Qatar,” he says.

It was a common refrain.

Everyone from the Lebanese police to Mohammed the smuggler and Ahmed the go-between said the main market was Europe.

In the UK there have been no prosecutions or arrests for selling looted Syrian artefacts but Vernon Rapley, who ran the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiquities squad for almost a decade, says too much shouldn’t be read into this.

“I’m quite confident that there have been seizures of material like this,” he confidently states, as we stroll around his new workplace, the Victoria and Albert museum, where he is director of security.

Rapley still liaises closely with his former police unit and he is certain that artefacts from Syria are being sold here. He wants the trade in these antiquities to become “socially repugnant and unacceptable” so that in the future, he says, “we don’t have interior decorators looking for these things to decorate people’s houses”.

You can hear Simon Cox’s radio documentary on File on 4, on BBC Radio 4, at 2015 on Tuesday 17 February, or afterwards on the BBC iPlayer


Why the innocents are tortured?

Why would the regime arrest and torture someone if they didn’t do anything wrong or if they can prove their innocence?

Such a question seems to be a common logical retort by many Egyptians in response to accusations that the regime, personified in its security and judiciary bodies, carries out gross injustices such as random arrests, assault, torture, beatings, illegitimate detention, sexual assault and killing.

At first glance it seems to cast a shadow over irrefutable evidence that the regime is indeed torturing many of its citizens, including the innocent.

That is why we must remind ourselves of reality and attempt to answer that question:

Why would the regime torture the innocent?

Why torture the innocent?

Wael Eskandar in  /   February 23, 2014

Perhaps the answer to this question is best illustrated in the 1979 film, ‘We’re the bus guys’ where two people are arrested after a fight with the ticket collector on a bus.

The guys are taken to police headquarters and mistakenly transferred with political prisoners to a torture camp. They defend themselves by explaining that there must be some kind of mistake – that they’re the bus guys – but no one cares to listen.

The warden doesn’t care either, he doesn’t necessarily disbelieve them but he’s under orders to get confessions out of all prisoners. After all, it’s not like the other political prisoners are more criminal in any way.

Torture and humiliation ensue in the name of the country and the reason they ended up there along with the political prisoners gets lost along the way.

The story is set between 1966 and 1967 and is based on true events.

Back then, the mukhabarat, Egypt’s intelligence services, were dominant in dealing with political security matters. They told the guards – the torturers – it was necessary to lock these people up, they were enemies of the state and Egypt would triumph if they were held in prison.

In 1967, after Egypt was defeated in the Six-Day War, one question haunted the torturers: “Why were we defeated if we locked all the bad guys in?”

The story of the bus guys is the story of the Egyptian regime post 1952 when the free officers enslaved an entire nation. Power was in the hands of a few self-seeking individuals who profiteered from their positions and constantly fought to retain them.

It remains very similar to the story today.

The keys to the dynasty changed hands within security services, but the regime’s indifference – and perhaps even contempt for its citizens – carried over.

Upon taking over, President Mohamed Anwar Sadat arrested old power brokers within the government in 1971 to empower himself and keep their followers from regaining ground.

Sadat attempted to uphold Nasser’s previous promise to end the ‘intelligence State’ by reforming the security apparatus already notorious for its harsh oppressive practises.

Under Sadat, there were moments where such practises were reduced considerably but the targeting of political opponents remained focused and old security practises were revived at various times. Towards the end of Sadat’s reign, state security had been more empowered to deal with the country’s internal politics.

In 1981, officers within the military conspired with extremist Islamists and assassinated Sadat. When Hosni Mubarak became president, more power was granted to the police represented by state security, the sadistic arm of the Mubarak regime.

This was partly due to the assassination of Sadat, which meant that the military was not immune to infiltration and that mukhabarat failed to uncover the plot to assassinate the president.

Mubarak was also attempting to sideline Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, the defence minister at the time and a popular figure within the ranks of the military.

By the 1980s and 1990s, state security had become so strong that it replaced intelligence as the main driver of the political agenda.

Along with other factors, shifting control to the Ministry of Interior allowed one ministry to become both the judge and executioner, and thereby, torture became systematic by spreading inside police stations and over a much wider range of offences not limited to the political.

Under the firm grip of either intelligence services or state security, citizens’ rights and their dignity are disregarded.

The current security apparatus is not trained to serve the people, but the regime.

But regimes aren’t human and perhaps that is why most members of the security apparatus are dehumanised.

On a more practical level, those inflicting the torture are quite separated from those making the arrests; they are taught not to listen and to inflict pain no matter what words are uttered by their victims.

Another way to describe it is that the regime does not care how many innocent lives they destroy, but how many threats to the state are averted irrespective of the cost.

There are bound to be a handful of threats amidst the thousands they have arrested and killed. In the end, torturers are not held accountable because orders come from the main agenda drivers who protect the state and, in many ways, are the state.

In all likelihood they do not think that torturing innocent people is a mistake in the first place.

The state has been consistent in its approach but the more worrying aspect of today’s Egypt is the silence – and even blessing – in response to such practises.

(Turkey was and still is a security State, even worse than Egypt, even during this 2 decades of “Democratic system“)

Many have not only turned a blind eye, but even blessed the brutality of the state and created excuses.

Perhaps it is as American philosopher Eric Hoffer says, “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.”

Many Egyptians today believe that the police state can help solve the current crisis by offering some sort of stability.

Researchers Thomas Plate and Andrea Darvi described it best when they said,

“The tragedy of the secret police solution is that it is such a blunt and crude instrumentality that in the name of preserving paradise it winds up creating hell. And when even the moderate critics of the regime are eliminated, incarcerated, exiled, or intimidated, the secret police machine rolls on … Enemies of the regime will be created even if real enemies have long since ceased to exist.

In the end, the answer to the question as to why the regime would chose to torture the innocent is found in the question itself.

It’s because the regime chooses the immoral act of torture in the first place.

It is because the security apparatus that is violating the law also controls who is to be held accountable for violating the law.

It is because the regime doesn’t really care.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all the bus guys.

To be subjected to grave injustice is just a matter of chance. It does not help if you do everything right, abide by whatever laws you can, cheer for the police despite their injustices, or keep to yourself.

Sooner or later, you or someone close to you will fall victim to these injustices.

By that time, it will not matter to security forces if you had been protesting their rule or cheering them on.

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He is a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and has written for Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, Counterpunch, and Jadaliyya, among others. He blogs at





February 2015

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