Al-Qaeda depended on foreign donations to run its violent and terrorist activities. Acting differently, ISIS injected blood in the veins of its economy by seizing financial resources in areas it occupied in Syria in 2012 until its fighters were dismissed by the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad in early 2018.
The group’s criminal activities to raise cash included blackmailing, kidnapping people and demanding a ransom and lootings archaeological sites. In addition to expropriation of private property, ISIS used to impose heavy taxes, fines and fees in areas under its control.
The terrorist group sought to establish a Jihadist state only to eradicate the secularist Baathist regime, which seized power in Syria in 1963. Jihadist technocrats were given portfolios to run ISIS-held areas. Baathist ideologists were enthusiastic for secularism for bring about peaceful coexistence in Syria and Iraq, in which 70% of the population are Sunnis and 30% represent different ethnic and religious minorities.
According to its secularist vision, the Baathist regime in Syria drew up cultural policies, which gave top priority to preserving and protecting pre-Islam archaeological sites. On the other hand, Islamic heritage was underestimated.
ISIS and its ideologists denounced Baathist vision, which recommends the separation of religion and state. ISIS’s hostile and violent attitude to ethnic and religious minorities, and pre-Islam civilization stirred up deep worries in the West. Regardless of its systematic destruction of archaeological sites and ancient artifacts, ISIS failed dramatically in its bid to establish a Jihadist caliphate in Syria.
ISIS economy in Syria
ISIS based its economy in Syria on oil revenues (35%), agriculture (20%) and selling looted antiquities (10-20%). Foreign grants constituted only 4%. The Jihadists did not count much economically on cement, phosphate and cotton.
A report issued in October 2015 estimated at US$100m the annual profits ISIS had made from selling ancient antiquities it looted in ISIS-held Syrian areas. The group’s oil revenue in the corresponding period was estimated at US$200m.
A report published by the Guardian in June 2014 disclosed the seizure of more than 160 computer flash sticks, which revealed the most detailed information yet known about the terror group. The Guardian’s report also disclosed that ISIS had won US36$m from selling looted antiquities in the city of Yanbok in the southern-eastern part of Syria, close to Al-Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. Detailed information recorded in the computer flash sticks also showed that an artifact from around 8500 BC was sold in Turkey for US$1.1m.
Archaeologist Michael D. Danti said that looted antiquities constituted ISIS’s second source of finances. According to Danit, an ancient artifact seized by ISIS in the Aleppo National Museum was sold for US$1.5m.
The huge profits ISIS made on illegal trade in ancient antiquities prompted the terror group to target museums built close to archaeological sites outside cities, which came under its control. In a bid to expand its illegal activities, the terror group encouraged the locals and notorious excavators to dig for ancient antiquities in north-eastern areas in Syria. An excavator would get 40% of the profits.
The group seeking to increase its revenues imposed 50% transportation tax on looted antiquities smuggled to areas held by ISIS; and 20% on antiquities smuggled to Turkey. ISIS focused its excavations in eight areas known for their rich archaeological sites, which are Elba, Palmyra, Mari, Apamea, Raqa, Aleppo and Doura Europos.
According to Amr Al Azm, a specialist in the Middle East History in Shawee State University, the huge profit ISIS made on illegal trade in antiquities encouraged its leaders to increase their investments in this industry by purchasing huge excavation equipment. Al Azm also said that ISIS offered good reward to looters and middlemen for their criminal activities. “If antiquity smuggling was not profitable, ISIS would stop it immediately,” he said.
Al Azm indicated that ISIS-held areas in Iraq and Syria have more than 4500 archaeological sites. About 6000 archaeological sites in Syria are on UNESCO’s list of world heritage. These sites are in the ancient cities of Alepo, Basra, Damascus and Palmyra. In addition, Al Azm noted, ancient villages in eastern Syria are rich in ancient antiquities.
Tripartite war in Palmyra
The fall of Palmyra on May 21, 2015 was declared as a strategic victory ISIS won in its bid to take revenge on Syria’s Baathist regime, which in July 1980 detained activities linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and sent them to the notorious prison in the city.
The Syrian authorities cracked down on the MB-linked activists after they attempted to assassinate Syrian President Hafez Assad. About 550 of the MB’s activities and leaders were hanged in a prison built in a desert area and was notorious as the Kingdom of Death.
The terror group was compelled to withdraw from the city on Marcy 27, 2016, only to reoccupy it on December 11 in the same year. The terror group received a devastating defeat on March 2, 2017.
Occupying Palmyra, ISIS controlled Syria’s biggest gas field (about 40km long), which pumped gas to power stations in Damascus and Homs.
The Western public opinion, which was struggling to overcome the nightmare caused by ISIS-led massacres against civilians, voiced strong condemnation to the systematic destruction of antiquities in Palmyra, including the 2000-year-old Temple of Bel.
ISIS also blew up the Temple of Baalshamin, which is one of the most grand and well-preserved structures in the sprawling complex of ruins. Rampaging across the city, the terror group also axed statues of deities in a museum nearby.
ISIS set off explosions in more than 100 shrines belonging to Sufi, Shi’a and Sunni sects. The terror group compared these places as shrines for idolatry. Churches, cemeteries and pre-Islamic sites were also systematically destroyed. Likewise, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan blew up two Buddha statues in Bamiyan region in 2001.
ISIS video “The Destruction of Idolatries” records its militants using sledgehammers to destroy statues in Palmyra.
According to their radical ideology, Jihadists are insisting that Islam is the beginning and the end of history. They are also viewing Islam as the perfect example and the legend. According to the terror group’s outrageous understanding of Islam, it is the Islamic Awakening, which will help revive the era of Prophet Mohamed and his Four Companions.
Ankara’s role in smuggling Syrian antiquities
Since 2011, wars between armed militias and troops deployed by major powers have been raging across the 910km long Turkish-Syrian borders controlled by 18 checkpoints.
The Turkish-Syrian relationship and economic cooperation were shaken in 2011 when Syrian President Bashar Assad accused the Turkish government of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in his country. Retaliating, Ankara backed the Syrian armed opposition forces, the Free Syrian Army, Al-Nusra and ISIS. Observers described Turkey as the corridor for militants travelling to Syria.
Lauren Likhiyan, an expert of Turkish affairs, said Turkish financial institutions were playing a major role in the illegal smuggling of oil in ISIS-held territory. Referring to the huge profits made on this criminal activity, he said that US$2bn illegal deal was concluded in a single day by Turkish middlemen.
With the help of Turkish official institutions, Syrian opposition forces managed to run a thriving black market. Reports released by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development confirmed that about 28% of Turkey’s GDP was not integrated in the Turkish state budget in 2015.
ISIS-linked smugglers, who are fluent in Arabic and Turkish, used to run smuggling networks of oil and antiquity. Big wages were used to tempt archaeologists to dig out ancient antiquities in Syria. The findings were smuggled to Turkey in vans.
According to a Syrian middleman, who used to coordinate negotiations between Syrian smugglers and Turkish buyers, ancient antiquities were brought from ISIS-held areas in eastern Syria and Reqqa. “Turkish merchants were responsible for smuggling these items to Europe,” the Syrian local, who speaks Turkish fluently, said. He said that Gaziantep was the chief black market for ancient antiquities smuggled from Syria.