At least 90 Facebook groups directly related to illegal trade of antiquities in the region were detected.
Groups on Facebook have exposed antiquities that were smuggled from the Middle East during the Arab Spring riots and the subsequent war that ravaged parts of the region, creating unprecedented opportunities for those involved in trade and smuggling of antiquities, Amr Al-Azm, professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee University, Ohio, and former Syrian Archaeologist. Dr. Amr and his colleagues were trying to monitor the trade within the “Athar” project they are supervising.
Meanwhile, Dr. Amr Al-Azm said, “Social media has succeeded in reducing barriers to entry into this market. At present, there are at least 90 groups on Facebook that are directly related to the illegal trade in antiquities in the Middle East. These groups include tens of thousands of members.”
Often, these groups publish photos of these pieces or queries about them in the group, and then move on to chat, WhatsApp messages, or text messages, making it difficult to track them. Some users publish requests for certain types of pieces, providing an incentive for traders to offer them for sale, a method that Dr. Amr Al-Azm described as “theft by request”.
Others publish detailed instructions to aspiring thieves on how to find archaeological sites and dig in order to extract treasures.
The pieces for sale include a bust statue that is believed to have been stolen from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which has been occupied by ISIS for a period of time, during which there were massive thefts and destruction of historical monuments there.
The other antiquities offered for sale on these groups often come from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Most of the pieces do not come from museums or private archaeological collections, where the antiquities are cataloged to ensure their preservation.
Dr. Amr Al-Azm said: “The antiquities were plundered from the archaeological sites directly. No one had seen any of them before. The only evidence we have of their existence is when someone publishes the image of the piece on the Internet.”
Dr. Al-Azm, together with Dr. Katie Paul, directors of Athar Project, wrote in the World Politics Review last year that theft by requests showed that traffickers and smugglers were aiming to steal the antiquities with the highest levels of accuracy required, which is, thanks to Facebook, of the easiest.
After the BBC published an article about Dr. Al-Azm’s work and his colleagues last week, Facebook said it had closed 49 groups related to trade and smuggling of antiquities.
Dr. Al-Azm reported that there are 90 groups, including many large groups, involved in this illegal trade still exist. But more importantly, he said, Facebook should not simply close those groups, which are now a crucial evidence for law enforcement agencies, archaeologists, and heritage experts.
In a statement issued on last Tuesday, Facebook company said it “continues to use people and technology to exclude such activities outside of Facebook,” and encourages others to report anything they suspect or directly violates the Company’s standards so that they can quickly take the necessary measures “.
The Company’s spokesperson said that policy enforcement team has 30,000 members and they have developed new tools to detect and remove content that violates laws or policies using artificial intelligence, automated learning, and computer vision.
Trafficking in antiquities is an illegal trade in most parts of the Middle East, and dealing with the stolen effects of illegal activities under the provisions of international law. But it may be difficult to follow or prosecute perpetrators of such crimes.
Laila Amin Doli, an attorney in New York who specializes in arts and cultural heritage, said that identifying sources of looted antiquities could be one of the strenuous and stressful endeavors, and a major obstacle before lawyers and academics alike.
Dr Al-Azm said that his research team pointed out that Facebook groups are run by an international network of antiquities dealers looking for buyers everywhere, including the West. Sales are often completed in person and in cash in nearby countries, despite efforts in Turkey and other countries to combat cross-border trafficking of antiquities.
Al-Azm criticized Facebook for not listening to the warnings of sales of stolen antiquities through the Company’s groups early in 2014. At that time, it would have been possible to close these groups and force them to stop or at least limit their growth.
With the past expansion of ISIS, elements of which, using heavy equipment, were able to loot and destroy ancient archaeological sites where there had been no excavations prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. The terrorist group allowed local people and other thieves to steal from ancient archaeological sites and imposed a 20% tax on the profits of those thefts.
Some local people and cultural heritage experts were quick to document and preserve ancient monuments, including efforts to the physical protection of monuments and the creation of three-dimensional models and maps to preserve archaeological sites. Despite these great efforts, thefts and losses were catastrophic.
Satellite images show how priceless archaeological sites, such as the site of Mary and Dura-Eupopos in eastern Syria, have been dotted with the excavations of antiquities’ thieves. At the Mosul Museum in Iraq, the gunmen took photos for themselves holding heavy hammers and smashing what they saw as pagan from the previous civilizations monuments. These acts were designed to serve the propaganda efforts of the terrorist group.
According to a UN report, Twenty-four of Syria’s cultural heritage sites have been destroyed during the country’s civil war. An additional 266 such sites have been affected, and 189 of those are moderately to severely damaged.
Different factions, groups, and people have also benefited from looting in archaeological sites. In fact, the market was so saturated that the price fell significantly over a long period of 2016, Al-Azm said.
At about the same time, elements of ISIS spread out after the despicable regional defeats of their terrorist group and transferred their new experiences in looting the antiquities to their countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other parts of Syria, such as Idlib.
“It’s purely a matter of supply and demand,” Al-Azm says and any new request, gives thieves a new incentive and the arising money may be used in the financing of some terrorist groups.
“Instead of just deleting the pages or closing the groups, Facebook should develop a more comprehensive strategy to stop the sale of stolen antiquities while allowing investigators and law enforcement agencies to keep the hastily published photos and loaded records on these groups. After all, they may be the only evidence available to law enforcement agencies, archeologists, and heritage experts,” Dr. Amr Al-Azm added: “Just deleting the page or close the group from Facebook leads to the destruction of massive evidences that are necessary in identifying, tracing, and restoring the looted treasures in the coming years.”