Stealing Culture to Support Terrorism
We’ve all read the headlines. Someone’s arrested for attempting to sell ancient coins, a thousand year-old sword, or a piece of pottery made by an ancient civilization. It is a form of organized crime few people understand. The stealing of cultural artifacts. Cultural artifacts are defined as anything made by people that provide valuable information about a society’s culture.
As well as being a form of organized crime, the theft and sale of cultural artifacts is used to fund terrorism. For example, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been looting archeological sites in Iraq and Syria. In areas under ISIS control the group has allowed inhabitants to loot historical sites as long as they provide ISIS with a portion of the their profits. While profiting from cultural artifacts has enabled ISIS to diversify its income, it has devastated Syria’s cultural heritage.
Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, plays a major role within the Department of Homeland Security for the investigation, seizure, and prosecution of people attempting to import, export, and sell cultural artifacts in violation of law. HSI’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program is unique within its broad investigative portfolio. HSI has specially trained agents that have learned the latest techniques and methods for conducting investigations into cultural heritage crimes. Federal importation laws give HSI and Customs and Border Protection the legal authority to investigate cultural heritage crimes and seize those artifacts if they have been imported or exported in violation of law.
The methods for selling cultural artifacts vary. Many cultural artifacts have been found on eBay and Craigslist by HSI agents. Undercover agents have posed as potential buyers and subsequently arrested people attempting to sell these items. Reputable auction houses have also been used as a vehicle to sell cultural artifacts stolen from countries by professional thieves who then pose as legitimate sellers to auction houses.
Seized cultural artifacts are returned to their home countries and restored to museums, where people can appreciate their cultural heritage for generations to come.