“Now it’s over 100 groups on Facebook that are involved in it and are active. The number is growing, it’s not shrinking,” al-Azm, a founding member of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, said, adding that social media has helped traffickers extend their reach in short periods of time.
“When we published our report, Facebook was asked if they were going to do anything about it, and the answer was: if you have any information, give it to us. But we have an issue on that. For Facebook to come and delete this information, it would be destroying not only records that one day could be used to prosecute looters, criminals, traffickers etc., so they will be destroying evidence that can be used in the court,” al-Azm said.
The historian pointed out that these objects did not come from museums, making these posts on Facebook the only documentation available for the artefacts in question. It is for this reason that al-Azm emphasized the importance of cooperation on Facebook’s part so that this data could be preserved and the appropriate action taken against traffickers.
“This is coming straight from the ground, so the only picture, the only evidence proving that this object ever existed in our human history is the image that somebody posted on Facebook. If you are going to delete that, then it will be lost, the record will be gone. So for us, it is imperative that Facebook preserve this data and take all the necessary steps to download it and save it for future needs, and then begin to cooperate with law enforcement agencies and with groups like ourselves who are involved. We have a lot of experience to help them begin to disrupt the use of the platform for this kind of activities,” he continued.
The researcher noted that starting this fall, he had been seeing Facebook grow increasingly aware of the problem. In particular, the social media platform has hired a team of regional experts on Syria who are now looking into the situation, he added.
According to the Amr al-Azm, a possible launch of Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency may inadvertently boost trade in looted antiquities from conflict zones.
“Can you imagine how much easier it is going to be now for these people to buy and sell? We are really worried about that. It is going to make the situation much worse. Trafficking that occurs on Facebook is not just looted antiquities,” al-Azm, a founding member of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, said.
He remarked that Facebook had yet to address the initial problem of the illegal antiquities trade via the social network.
“Without Facebook addressing the initial problem of what is being sold on its platform, by launching the currency they are just adding yet another way to make the platform even more attractive for these people to do their business. From the Facebook monetization perspective, it is perfect of course. They make money off it. The revenue is too good,” he continued.
On Gateways of Smuggling Looted Antiquities
Some of the artefacts plundered in Syria go to Turkey through passing points controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front terrorist group (banned in Russia), according to al-Azm. However, he said that Lebanon was now “the main exit point” for looted artefacts, followed by Turkey and Jordan “to a lesser extent.”
Buyers can be found in the Gulf states, Southeast Asia, Europe and America, according to the researcher, who has studied the activity of almost 100 Arabic Facebook groups involved in the trade of looted cultural items from the Middle East.
“Here is a real-life example. There is a Jordanian dealer who has a fixer in Istanbul. The Jordanian dealer gets a sense of what he wants on Facebook, then he tells his fixer what he is looking for. Then he books a flight, a holiday in Istanbul, he shows up in Istanbul, the fixer meets him at the airport, gives him a one-time-use phone, takes him to the hotel and then the fixer will arrange for the people with the goods to come to the hotel to meet with the guy. He sees the samples of the goods and then he decides to take an excursion trip to southern part of Turkey near the Syrian border where there are some other goods that may look interesting for him, and then he settles the bill, he leaves Istanbul, and then the smugglers do the arrangements,” al-Azm said.
The situation in Lebanon is slightly different because dealers there usually have "associates in Syria and in opposition-held areas" that they can send check the item, and who then leave and open a route for said item to be smuggled into Beirut, he continued.
Smugglers use Lebanon because of the loose control over the movement of cultural items and the existing arrangements between Syrian looters and Hezbollah, the researcher suggested.
“Now, on Facebook, there is a guy who is selling a looted item from Afrin with a beautiful mosaic. I have been told that they are now sitting north of Beirut waiting to be shipped out. The thing was looted by a Nusra affiliate. Then they had arrangements with Hezbollah people, they smuggled it to Lebanon, and they get smuggled out,” al-Azm said.
He further remarked that corrupt officials close to the Syrian government may also be involved in these illegal schemes.
“You can’t see it in terms of the regime being involved officially in the traffic of looted antiquities, but endemic corruption and non-state actors, as well as para-military formations fighting alongside the regime supplement their income by participating in illegal trafficking, dealing, smuggling of contraband, including looted antiquities,” al-Azm said.
On Liability For Trading Looted Artifacts
Trade in looted antiquities needs to be countered from both ends, and the acquisition of such items made into a criminal offence directly tied with funding terrorism, the researcher continued.
“The problem of trafficking in antiquities is like anything else — it’s a supply and demand. You have to address the supply side, but you also have to address the demand side,” al-Azm said.
One way of achieving this, according to the researcher, would be to make people understand that the items of suspicious origin they buy have a “fairly high chance” of having been “looted and trafficked by an entity, person or organization with terrorist connections,” thereby making the buyer a funder of terrorism.
“If we can somehow get that to become a legal thing, criminalize it, then it’s not just that you are buying a questionable item – you are now funding terrorism. That becomes a much bigger issue legally,” he continued.
Such an approach could be a “game-changer,” al-Azm said.
“Until that, I don’t think we will be doing anywhere near what should be done. … But I do not think there is a will on the part of the international community to go that far either. Unfortunately, in the absence of all that, it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
The ATHAR cooperated with people on the ground who could witness and document looting. The research team could then compare the information they had received with sale offers on Facebook. Most ads were for jewellery, coins and mosaics, some of which are worth up to $80,000 dollars.
A final report summarizing the project’s work was published in June 2019. At the time, it had found that 95 Arabic Facebook groups were using the platform for antiquities trafficking and that individuals associated with terrorist organizations in Syria were among their members.