Does Looting Fund Organized Crime and Terrorist Organizations?

This recent article published by the National Geographic seems to indicate that the answer to this question is a resounding yes. The article on the National Geographic’s website is a summary and analysis of an article printed in the June 2014 edition of the British Journal of Criminology by Scott MacKenzie and Tess Davis titled Temple Looting In Cambodia: Anatomy of a Statue Trafficking Network. The article on National Geographic and the paper it is reporting on describe the infamous looting of the notable temple site of Banteay Chhmar in Cambodia in 1998, and the paper by MacKenzie and Davis goes on to describe other similar looting events, revealing the inner workings of the looters’ organization and how their supply chain eventually reaches wealthy antiquities collectors. The article goes on to provide similar incidents in other war-torn and otherwise unstable government situations in Egypt, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other places where instability has left important sites unguarded and vulnerable to looting. Looting is extremely common in the previously mentioned areas because it is a reliable source of income in otherwise volatile locales where other methods of earning income are disrupted. The real revelation of the paper is that although it was widely assumed, this paper provided some of the first and most well-documented proof of organized crime looting sites to fund criminal enterprises.

This paper and the National Geographic post written about it are extremely relevant to current events which further illustrate the main point of both that looting and crime are closely intertwined. While the National Geographic should be considered by no stretch of the imagination to be an equal to an academic, peer-reviewed article such as the paper it is reporting on, in this case it is surprisingly well-sourced and backs up the premise of the paper with further elaboration on the Cambodian example as well as similar cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere which show that similar networks of looters are involved in these locations as well. The article touches on methods of the looters as well, bringing up an interesting tangent regarding the relative ease of finding archaeological features using satellite imagery of services like Google Earth. In this case, digital resources and open access to the public can be good for amateur researchers trying to locate new sites, but also harmful because the same information is available to people like looters whose motives are much more harmful to the archaeological record.

Overall, the article and the paper are both very useful for spreading awareness of the increasing issue of looting and illegal sales of artifacts. These issues are important for museums to consider in that it has become evident that there exists ways of forging provenance and laundering looted items to make them appear legitimate. As such, even though museums usually aren’t the prime targets for looted artifact sales, institutions should be wary of acquiring objects from high risk areas like those previously mentioned in order to collect artifacts in an ethical manner. Obtaining objects ethically is becoming more of a challenge for museums as looting is on the rise with new ways of disguising looted objects with ethically collected ones.

Recent unrest in Syria and Iraq caused by ISIS once again is proving that there is a link between looting and terrorist activity, showing that looting is a trend that will continue in areas of instability and conflict. Another article, also by the National Geographic explains how, like al Qaeda before them, ISIS is now utilizing the illicit taxing of the rights to dig for artifacts as well as the sale of the items themselves as a large source of funding in addition to the sale of oil in the Middle East. Their process of cashing in on these objects is less organized than the examples in Cambodia and elsewhere in the previous article, but because of this much more damage is being done by a larger number of people with varying degrees of affiliation with ISIS. The following descriptions and images are from:

Apamea as seen on Google Earth July 19, 2011.

The ancient city of Apamea, in Syria—founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals and nominated in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage site—as seen on Google Earth on July 19, 2011.
Apamea as seen on Google Earth April 3, 2012.

Less than a year later, the same area at Apamea—seen here on Google Earth April 3, 2012—is covered with looting holes and clearly shows the massive destruction of the war. ISIS is believed to be using the proceeds from such plunder to help finance their insurgency.

5 thoughts on “Does Looting Fund Organized Crime and Terrorist Organizations?

  1. Great way to us your blog post as a way to increase the awareness. I know that we have discussed this issue as a class, but I did not realize how prominent it still was in cities all over the world. It was interesting to read the information about ISIS and how it is more than just terrorist activity. Thought the terrorism and death toll may be the most important aspect, the looting of artifacts may get overlooked because of that exact reason. I can’t even begin to imagine what these people across the world are going through and to think about the museum looting happening as often as it does is something that I did not expect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post brings up many interesting points. For one it shows how easy it is to find things on the internet these days and it also brings up the question should certain information be reserved or off limits to the public to prevent looting. Another point that interests me is how hard it is for museums to attain items now a days. Since the threat of acquiring looted or stolen items is so easy is it ethical for museums to keep acquiring items altogether? Should they just be grateful for what they have now and just display that? This post brings up many good points that we could discuss in class and regarding ethics and looting.


  3. I really like how your blog talked about what we discussed in class but also went further and connected to current events. Referencing ISIS I think helped to alert me to not only that looting was a loss to countries, but a gain to horrible regimes and people with power. Isn’t ISIS destroying people bad enough without them destroying culture too? What I think would have been very interesting to include, although perhaps difficult to research, is who is it that is receiving/buying/using these looted pieces? Which world renowned museums and galleries are contributing and perpetuating the continuation of looting and the disrespect for culture. I also wonder how looting styles very from country to country, from Afghanistan, to Russia, to the US. Hopefully, if public awareness can be grown about this issue, looters will have a more difficult time profiting from this despicable trade in the future.


  4. I really like how you brought current events into our discussion. That being said I do wish you had tied it in closer to museums. I understand that you said that it is something that museums should consider. But, how is effecting them currently and what are they doing about it? Do big museums have an impact on the business of looting? You very clearly demonstrate the problems of looting which was really helpful in understanding the crisis is occurring globally. I also think including the before and after pictures of an area that had been looted was every effective in bringing home your points about how ISIS has made illegal excavations even more of a problem.


  5. This is a great way to continue looking at the articles and topics we’ve been discussing in class. It would have been interesting if you had talked about specific objects that had been looted and the process that happens to bring them back to their home countries. I agree with ankina that it would be helpful to look into what museums are specifically doing to make sure they aren’t receiving looted objects and if there are any specific cases.
    This is a really good, in depth article though and I appreciate that you are extending the discussions we have in class to the blog!


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