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Ancient Treasures Help IS Finance Terrorism

  • Heather Murdock

FILE - This image from a video posted on a website frequently used by Islamic State shows a militant hammering at a face on a wall in Iraq's ancient city of Hatra, April 3, 2015.

FILE - This image from a video posted on a website frequently used by Islamic State shows a militant hammering at a face on a wall in Iraq's ancient city of Hatra, April 3, 2015.

Islamic State militants released two videos this past month, boasting about the bombing of priceless ancient artifacts in Iraq.

The destruction of “cultural heritage” in the Middle East is an element of the war, funding extremism and fueling sectarian violence.

Before modern day maps of the Middle East, before the Ottomans and the Romans, and before thousands of years of kings and caliphs, were the Assyrians - one of the world’s first modern empires.

Assyrian rule spanned what is now Iraq, across the Middle East to Egypt and into Turkey, surviving roughly 19 centuries.

Rise in destruction

In recent months, the Islamic State group appears to have increased its destruction of historical treasures in Iraq, targeting the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud, Hatra, Nineveh and Khorsabad.

In one video, militants appear to be bombing Nimrud and destroying art and monuments with sledgehammers.

A man claiming to be an Islamic State fighter says they are crushing old ideas of polytheism, and threatens to “smash” Christians and Americans.

Chatham House analyst Tim Eaton says, despite the ideological rhetoric, the militants also stand to profit from the destruction.

“What is not nailed down, what is movable, they will sell. The artifacts themselves have no value to them in terms of their history, but they do have a monetary value and the Islamic State is very clever in selling them: in moving them, and selling them," Eaton says.

He adds the sales of ancient art and artifacts, collectively known as “cultural heritage,” from Syria an Iraq are estimated to have added anywhere from $36 million to $200 million to Islamic State coffers. The figures, however, are mostly “guess work,” Eaton says, because there is no real way to track black market art sales in war zones.

The destruction of cultural heritage, he adds, is a weapon, fueling sectarian tensions by destroying treasures cherished by minority religious or ethnic groups.

“It is a statement which says: ‘This is our heartland. You do not belong here. This is what we believe,' " he says.

Thousands of people have been killed since the militants grabbed vast territories in Iraq and Syria less than a year ago. The extremist group appears to be gaining ground in Libya.

On Sunday, the group released its latest terror video of the slaughter of roughly 30 Ethiopian Christians. The death toll is guesswork, too, since none of the videos can be independently verified.

Tragic losses

Bahia Shebab, an American University in Cairo professor, artist and historian, says the loss of lives and livelihoods cannot be directly compared to the loss of cultural heritage, but that both are tragic.

“This history is our identity. It is what we should be handing to the future generations," Shebab says. "So even if we die, these artifacts and these monuments carry our story and they carry the stories of where we came from.”

Besides extremist propaganda, she says, ancient treasures in Syria and Iraq are being stolen by looters or simply destroyed by bullets and bombs in the fighting.

In Syria, more than 220,000 people have been killed since 2011. Ancient cities like Aleppo and Homs have all but crumbled and all of the country’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites have been damaged.

Shehab says the impact reaches far beyond the Middle East.

“Destroying cultural heritage is not only relevant to people living in these areas, but it is the cultural heritage of humanity. It is very painful to see the destruction that is taking place," she says.

As the Islamic State group continues to ravage Iraq, analysts say many of the treasures are undocumented and the world may never know exactly how much the war has cost.