The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that the United States is seeking a warrant to seize one of the antiquities trafficked by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a gold ring that was identified in its previously filed civil complaint and that is believed to have been confiscated by authorities in Turkey.The United States also amended its year-old forfeiture complaint to add three additional antiquities, with a total of seven items now included in the lawsuit. The amended complaint alleges that ISIS, which is designated by the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, markets and sells antiquities to finance its terror operations.
The amended complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks the forfeiture of seven archaeological properties that were depicted in photographs found during a raid of a residence of Abu Sayyaf, a senior leader within ISIS, in Deir Ezzor, Syria, in May 2015. The original items included a gold ring, two gold coins, and a carved stone. The amended complaint adds a gold brooch as well as a gold necklace with a matching brooch. These items date to ancient times and are believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In a related filing, the United States submitted a motion seeking authority to seize the gold ring identified in the complaint. The filing indicates that there is probable cause to believe that ISIS attempted to facilitate the transfer of the ring to a Syrian antiquities trafficker, who sold the gold ring to a person in Turkey for approximately $250,000. This same Syrian antiquities trafficker also sold additional antiquities contained in the larger set identified in the amended complaint. According to the amended complaint, Turkish law enforcement subsequently confiscated the gold ring.
The initial lawsuit was filed in December 2016, following an investigation into items seized in the raid of Abu Sayyaf’s residence. During the operation, Abu Sayyaf was killed when he engaged with U.S. military forces.
According to the amended civil complaint, the United States recovered data from electronic media during the raid, including photographs of the properties at issue. These documents additionally revealed a significant amount of information about the organizational structure of ISIS and Abu Sayyaf’s position within the network. For example, according to the lawsuit, in multiple documents written on ISIS letterhead, Abu Sayyaf referred to himself as the President of the Ministry of Natural Resources Antiquities Department and discussed depositing the proceeds of their trafficking into ISIS’s treasury.
The subsequent investigation has revealed that antiquities, including at least one of the antiquities in the complaint, were being sold in U.S. dollars as part of these efforts.
At the height of its influence, ISIS controlled large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, including multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites and other sites that contain archaeological and ethnological materials that are important to the cultural heritage of the people of Syria and Iraq. The complaint states that ISIS created a sophisticated system for extracting wealth from these resources, including through the sale and trafficking of antiquities. According to the complaint, Abu Sayyaf’s antiquity trafficking directly financed ISIS.
Under United States law, all assets, foreign or domestic, of a terrorist or terrorist organization, and all assets, foreign or domestic, affording a source of influence over any such entity or organization, are subject to forfeiture.
“These court actions are the latest step in an ongoing effort to disrupt the ability of ISIS and other terrorist groups to finance their operations,” said Jessie K. Liu, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. “They reflect our determination to locate precious stolen antiquities and preserve the cultural heritage of ancient sites that fell under ISIS’s control.”
“The FBI continues to work tirelessly with its partners to recover these precious antiquities stolen by ISIS, who sold them on the black market in order to finance their terrorist operations,” said Andrew W. Vale, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “ISIS members extorted and threatened to arrest anyone outside of the terrorist organization who attempted to excavate, sell or transport antiquities from the territory under their control.”
“The State Department is working to ensure full implementation of the multiple UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit all forms of financial support to ISIS and other terrorist groups,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Jennifer Zimdahl Galt. “We applaud the work of DOJ and the FBI to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property.”
According to the complaint, Abu Sayyaf’s electronic media contained a number of images of antiquities. The documentary style, lighting and focus of the photographs indicate that these images were prepared for marketing in order to sell the items internationally. The United States sought authority to seize the following item identified in the complaint that was filed last year.The United States sought authority to seize the following item identified in the complaint that was filed last year: