October 1, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State and Heritage: Impact Tops Income

 • The so-called Islamic State (IS) is allowing unscientific excavations of ancient sites

• The organization is also destroying mosques and monuments, to include the tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq, in July

• Such destruction is another form of intimidation and suppression, and not just a source of income to bolster the group’s rise

• The destruction and appropriation of heritage sites and artifacts follows in a long tradition among terrorist organizations and occupying forces.


Looting is a traditional occupation for occupying forces. Historically, in the immediate aftermath of victory, a successful leader might allow his troops a defined period to do whatever they liked and take whatever they could carry as a form of reward. Often this largesse was little more than a practical recognition that any effort to prevent it would risk mutiny, but sometimes it was a more calculated way to demoralize the enemy by destroying his sense of belonging and identity. This is no less true today.

It may seem callous to express outrage at the destruction of cultural artifacts and the looting of museums by the so-called Islamic State (IS) at a time when thousands of people are suffering far more directly from its murderous rule, but as noted by a meeting of UNESCO in Paris on Monday, loss of heritage in a war zone can seriously impede post-conflict recovery.

The theft and export of Assyrian tablets from Iraq dating from the ninth century BC and similar crimes, may seem pretty insignificant compared to the other difficulties faced by the countries that now occupy that space, and today’s population may seem rather remote from their Assyrian forbearers, but these things matter. The ingenuity and aesthetics of ancient civilizations can be an inspiration and a source of pride; even more, they can provide a sense of continuity and stability. Such artifacts and sites provide the foundations of heritage and identity, and emphasize creativity over destruction. Furthermore, they can encourage optimism that the retrogressive influence of the modern barbarians is but a blip in history. All these elements should provide the foundations for the reconstruction of the Syrian and Iraqi states after the current turmoil has died down.

It is an understanding of the power of heritage, however subconscious, that leads IS to allow unscientific digging in ancient Syrian and Iraqi sites, and the pillaging of the uncovered treasures. Though IS takes a cut—reportedly 20% of the value of the finds—the significance of the destruction is of greater importance than the income generated. For IS, the age and beauty of ancient buildings is of no significance compared to what they represent. Thus Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose to make his first appearance as Caliph in the Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, believed to have been built on the orders of Nuraddin Zengi, a great military leader of the twelfth century and a hero of the founder of IS’s predecessor group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But the next month, al-Baghdadi sanctioned the destruction of three ancient mosques and shrines in Mosul, dating back to the ninth century, on the basis that they attracted worship to individuals rather than to God. This ruthless insistence on ideological absolutism had a more chilling and lasting impact on the local population than any number of executions.

The images of the looting of the Baghdad museum by Iraqis in 2003, or the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001 are still fresh in the public consciousness. The first was a fine example of an invading force standing to one side while criminal opportunists sought to make a quick buck, and inspired the famous Donald Rumsfeld throwaway—“stuff happens.”  But the pictures had a real effect, both on Iraqis and on overseas observers.  They raised questions about the unintended consequences of invasion and the priorities and responsibilities of an occupying force. The destruction of the Buddhas negated what little sympathy the Taliban had gained by bringing a degree of stability to Afghanistan, and it was seen as an unnecessary and egregious act of ideological fervor. It gave the US invasion later that year added justification.

Tyrants inevitably like to stamp their authority on the territory they have conquered either by the destruction of what has been before or the creation of monuments to their own glory. Saddam Hussein famously ‘rebuilt’ a palace of Nebuchadnezzar II at Babylon with bricks each stamped with his name. Perhaps if he survives long enough, the new ‘caliph’ will do the same. But he should take note of Shelley’s poem on hubris, Ozymandias:


I met a traveler from an antique land,

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.

Look on my works ye mighty and despair!”

No thing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


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