How Looted Antiquities are Funding Terror

The ancient city of Palmyra was one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the Middle East before the start of the Syrian civil war. In May 2015, Islamic State fighters seized the city. The militants were in power for less than a year, but during their reign they transformed the ancient landscape into a slaughterhouse, murdering prisoners on the stage of the Roman Amphitheater, demolishing statues, tombs, and one of Palmyra’s most precious buildings, The Temple of Baal.

It’s being called the worst crime against cultural heritage since World War II. But the destruction is just one part of a much darker story. After five years of devastating civil war, Syria’s ancient treasures are being plundered by Islamic State militants and sold on the posh private markets of Western Europe. On Explorer: Blood Antiquities, journalist Inigo Gilmore investigates the shady pipeline that winds through the Middle East and into Europe and beyond. What smuggling routes are these looted relics taking? How are they getting through international borders? Who is smuggling them? And who is buying them, and inadvertently funding the Islamic State’s campaign of terror?

Watch: The Danger of Undercover Meetings
Inigo meets with a tipster who gives him information in order for him to set up a deal as an undercover buyer.

Inigo begins his investigation in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep—a city paranoid from the neighboring war in Syria. He meets with a man named Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist and active member of the Syrian opposition. Before the war, Amr was a professor at the University of Damascus. Today, he helps coordinate a group of Syrian archaeologists and cultural activists who—at great risk—cross the border into war-torn Syria to document the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage. They’re modern day Monuments Men of sorts, and they’re risking everything to do this work. Through an anonymous tip, Inigo meets with two middle men and, as an undercover buyer, is introduced to the illicit smuggling world of Gaziantep and the dealers who run it.

Next, Inigo travels to Bulgaria, a country that has been a gateway to rich legitimate European markets for thousands of years. In March of 2015, police seized a trove of priceless antiquities being hidden in a garage in the small town of Shumen. Inigo visits the local museum, where the relics are locked away, and learns the items are likely from the Middle East, possibly from ISIS held territory.

Watch: Protecting Ancient Artifacts
Inigo Gilmore visits the museum where the relics are locked away.

Inigo’s last stop is his hometown of London, where he meets with expert archaeologist Dr. Mark Altaweel to discuss the authenticity and origins of the antiquities he’s encountered along the way.

Don’t miss Explorer: Blood Antiquities Sunday at 8/7c on the National Geographic Channel.