Brutal ISIS regime is funded by raiders of lost art
The Whatsapp message appeared on his iPhone: photos of an ancient Mesopotamian vase worth $250,000 (€225,993), part of a highly-valued set that is waiting to be extracted.
The recipient, Amr Al Azm, replied that he was interested. How to proceed? A message from a different account followed. The vase could be smuggled through Lebanon.
Al Azm, an anthropology professor in Ohio, was faking it, as he does when photos of looted antiquities are sent to him in the belief that he is a collector or dealer. He is a detective - self-appointed -hoping to save some of mankind's rarest and most vulnerable artefacts by tracking the burgeoning antiquities trade of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The world went into shock earlier this year after Islamic State released videos of its bearded operatives smashing ancient artworks with sledgehammers and drills. But the destruction has given way to looting for sale via eBay, Facebook and Whatsapp.
The self-declared caliphate is now a growing player in the $3bn (2.71bn) global antiquities market. Buyers are filling the extremists' coffers.
"Islamic State operates like a diversified criminal business," Louise Shelley, author of 'Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism', said by phone from Turkey. "They think like business people."
After initially collecting a 20pc tax from antiques looters and dealers, it now runs its own digs and trades.
The Syrian opposition says that in recent months the group has set up a government branch, chillingly known as the archaeological administration, in the Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border, which manages loots and sales.
Islamic State acts as a supplier for a complex chain involving at least five brokers and dealers, said Michael Danti, an adviser to the US State Department on plundered antiquities from Iraq and Syria.
The extremists are closely linked to Turkish crime networks in the border towns of Gaziantep or Akcakale, he said. Once the artefacts are smuggled into Turkey, a broker will cash them for resale to dealers who have pockets deep enough to pay for storage and wait up to 15 years to sell, when law enforcement is less focused on them.
Archaeologists estimate that as much as $300m (€270m) worth of antiquities are now flooding the market through Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as part of Islamic State's transactions.
Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University, said he has seen a spike in the number of uploaded photos of cuneiform tablets and antique stamp seals, though some are fake.
The US International Trade Commission reported that between 2012 and 2013 when Islamic State expanded its reach, American import of declared antiquities from Iraq increased by 672pc.
But in many cass dealers will sit on treasures for more than a decade before drip feeding them onto the international art markets. (Bloomberg)