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Opinion: Illegal antiquities trade funds terrorism

By Matthew Bogdanos, Special to CNN
  • The illicit trade in illegal antiquities is little discussed, says Bogdanos
  • Becoming an important source of revenue for terrorists, he adds
  • Bogdanos: Western antiquities dealers complicit in the illegal trade
  • He says: UNESCO must step in to halt the destruction of our cultural heritage

Matthew Bogdanos, a colonel in the United States Marine Corps, led the investigation into the looting of the Iraqi National Museum while serving in Iraq in 2003 and wrote about his experiences in his book, "Thieves of Baghdad." He talks to CNN about why the loss of these treasures, often to terrorists and insurgents, is a tragedy and why the trade should be better policed.

(CNN) -- The illicit trade in antiquities is a worldwide epidemic on the list with drugs, weapons and human trafficking but is rarely talked about.

While I was serving in counter-terrorism operations in Iraq in 2003 as a Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, I volunteered to investigate the looting of Iraq's National Museum.

From my experience, I can say that the illegal antiquities trade has become a revenue stream for terrorist activity in the region.

In 2005, every single weapons shipment that we seized, whether from terrorists or insurgents, also contained antiquities. These trucks, but also caves, buildings and other hiding places, would contain boxes of rocket propelled grenades alongside boxes containing ancient tablets and figurines.

As far as smugglers and terrorists are concerned, money is money, however you get it. Once we saw this, we verified with our informants that this was happening. I can't say that this practice started in Iraq, simply that we identified it there first.

Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq has no opium but it does have antiquities. The terrorists themselves don't do the actual looting, that is usually done by locals. But the terrorists realized that there is a new market and they have the right of first refusal on antiquities.

From my experience, I can say that the illegal antiquities trade has become a revenue stream for terrorist activity in the region

We found that the same infrastructure that is used to smuggle weapons in and out of Iraq is also used to smuggle antiquities.

When you consider the routes out of Iraq and on to the rest of the world, therefore via Lebanon, it should come as no surprise that Hezbollah saw this movement as a source of financial gain. We began to see Hezbollah taxing the movement of antiquities.

One of the main problems with looting is that if a site is undiscovered, you simply don't know what you don't know. Interpol estimates that the illicit antiquities trade is worth billions of dollars. My question is: How do they know that?

If it is illegal and, therefore, a clandestine trade, how do you know the dollar amount? It is similar to the drug trade, you guess from the amount you're able to seize. It is not a scientific approach, nor one I am comfortable using in assessing the total value of the worldwide trade in illegal antiquities.

The antiquities trade, though, is much thornier and takes in a number of stages that are difficult to police: looting on the ground in Iraq itself; the movement of the looted object from Iraq to a low-level security country such as Lebanon or Jordan; its movement to a free port such as Dubai or Geneva; its laundering and "legitimizing" by antiquities dealers, who create fake provenance documents for it; its further laundering and legitimization through being exhibited in art fairs and museums; and eventual sale.

In the eyes of a museum or an auction house, the object is clean simply because no-one has questioned its provenance along the way. Looting is profitable to everyone in the chain, to a greater or lesser degree.

The antiquities trade (is) thorny and ... difficult to police

We should be looking to target each stage, but that would require enormous international cooperation.

What we need is a single, legitimizing voice, today's version of Winston Churchill of the 1930s talking about the dangers before it is too late.

We don't have that voice right now. It should be the Director General of UNESCO, but for whatever reason that person has chosen not to seize the opportunity presented by the tragedy that is the destruction and loss of our shared cultural heritage.

The reason I stress the terrorism aspect is that for many people, if I talk about the importance of cultural heritage, that's just white noise to them. If that argument doesn't resonate, then telling them that they can fund terrorism will.

But here's another reason to stress, and that is that most of the pieces that were looted in Iraq pre-date Islam, pre-date the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims, pre-date Christianity, pre-date even Judaism.

They are a potent reminder that our cultures have more in common with each other than the daily bloody headlines would suggest. Our disparate cultures have a common, fundamental root, and these objects recall that.

Pick your reason -- each one is enough to say, stop this now. Something is happening every day that is irretrievable and potentially very dangerous, and we need to put its reality and its scope on the table, so we can derive whatever resources there are available to stopping the madness.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Bogdanos, relayed to CNN in an unrecorded phone conversation.