The Islamic State earns more than 100 million a year from trafficking looted antiquities and art

The estimate comes from a French security official but there is no consensus over the total figure, which could be tens or hundreds of millions. This trade has grown to offset losses in petroleum revenues. Meanwhile, Iraq and UNESCO have begun to restore ancient Nimrud.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – The Islamic State group makes as much as 0 million annually by trafficking looted antiquities out of Iraq and Syria and selling them on the black market, an unnamed French security official said.

Although other witnesses and experts believe that trade may vary from tens to a few hundred million dollars, the Wall Street Journal reported that it was not possible to put a precise figure on the amount of revenue trafficking generated for the Islamic State.

The trade in items stolen from Iraq and Syria's historical sites has become important to the militant group, as its territory, and by extension its ability to count on oil revenues, dwindles.

"The Islamic State is increasing pressure on this line of trafficking to compensate for the loss of petroleum revenue," the French security official was quoted as saying.

For many Syrian traders and smugglers deprived by the country's six-year civil war, selling the antiquities has become a necessity.

The importance Islamic State places on the trade of antiquities is reflected in the group's use of foreign jihadis to manage its operations. International fighters are considered more loyal than their local counterparts.

IS gave the latter licenses to dig for antiquities, initially for free, but now the group charges 20 per cent of the value of each object evacuated.

One Syrian middleman, Muhammad Hajj Al-Hassan, said that he had recently sold two antique Bibles for ,800 to a Russian buyer in a city in southern Turkey. The Bibles from eastern Syria were then smuggled out of Turkey, hidden in a truck filled with vegetables.

In the summer of 2015 UNESCO, the UN’S education and culture agency, sounded the alarm as Jihadis set about to destroy Iraq’s and Syria’s historical and cultural heritage.

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako made an appeal in December to protect artefacts, artwork and books, calling them a universal heritage worth more than petroleum.

For the Islamic State, the sale of archaeological artefacts is as important as petroleum sales.

The main international organisations, including UNESCO, want to safeguard and protect this heritage with targeted actions.

In fact, Iraqi authorities announced last month that UNESCO launched the first stage of restoration of the ancient city of Nimrud, which is located on the banks of the Tigris River, just over 30 kilometres south of Mosul.

The city, which was liberated from the Islamic State in November 2016, is the cradle of the Assyrian civilisation founded in the 13th century BC.

In 2015, the militant group wreaked havoc on archaeological sites in the city, using bulldozers and explosives to destroy monumental landmarks, whilst filming all these acts of vandalism and destruction.

According to a press statement by Qais Rashid, the undersecretary of Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, after Nimrud's liberation 70 per cent of the city's antiquities were found destroyed.

Iraqi army Maj Gen Diyaa Kazem al-Saidi, who took part in the liberation of the city, said that 200 ancient paintings were stolen from Nimrud. (DS)