With Facebook’s Help, Middle East Antiquities Trafficking Enters the Digital Age

With Facebook’s Help, Middle East Antiquities Trafficking Enters the Digital Age
Ancient mosaics, which were damaged by shelling, inside a 17th-century caravanserai, Maaret al-Numan, Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 26, 2013 (AP photo by Hussein Malla).

In this week’s Trend Lines podcast, WPR’s editor-in-chief, Judah Grunstein, and managing editor, Frederick Deknatel, discuss the current tensions in U.S.-Turkey ties. For the Report, Amr Al-Azm and Katie A. Paul talk with WPR’s senior editor, Robbie Corey-Boulet, about how looters and traffickers of Middle Eastern antiquities are using Facebook to improve and expand their illicit trade in the digital age.

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How Facebook Made It Easier Than Ever to Traffic Middle Eastern Antiquities

Trend Lines is produced and edited by Peter Dörrie, a freelance journalist and analyst focusing on security and resource politics in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie.

To send feedback or questions, email us at podcast@worldpoliticsreview.com.

Podcast Transcript:

Hi, everybody, and welcome to Trend Lines, a podcast on global affairs brought to you by World Politics Review. I’m Judah Grunstein, WPR’s editor in chief.

A little later for this week’s report, WPR’s senior editor, Robbie Corey-Boulet, will be talking with Amr Al-Azm and Katie Paul about how looters and traffickers of Middle Eastern antiquities are using Facebook to expand their illicit trade in the digital age.

But first, I’ll be joined by WPR managing editor, Freddy Deknatel. Hi, Freddy.

Hey, Judah.

We’ll be talking about the escalating spat between the United States and Turkey. Before we get started, let me mention up top to everyone listening that if you’d like to drop us a line with questions or comments, you can email us at podcast@worldpoliticsreview.com.

Freddy, over the past week or so, we’ve seen president Donald Trump’s administration sanction top officials from the Turkish government and double tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. Turkey responded by slapping retaliatory tariffs on a range of U.S. products including cars, alcohol, and tobacco.

The current dispute is ostensibly over the U.S. demand that Turkey free an expat American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who’s been detained there on charges of being involved with the failed coup attempt against Turkish president, Erdogan, two years ago.

There’s a lot more backstory here in terms of the recent deterioration in U.S. Turkey ties.

There is, and really the backstory, sort of how far back we want to go … You can go to the start of the Trump administration or years before that. The Syrians have a war, the Arab Spring. Basically, as Erdogan has amassed more power in Turkey, his relations with the U.S. have deteriorated, so this isn’t a problem that is purely on the Trump administration’s agenda. This was a problem for the Obama administration as well.

There’s sort of a been a buildup in tensions between Turkey’s position as a member of NATO but really sort of bucking security ties with the U.S. or sort of being selective in how it wants to deal with those. Trump has obviously escalated things much further as he has with a lot of other foreign policy issues.

What’s interesting is you mentioned, under president Obama, ties had deteriorated already. There seems to be a little bit of a rebound. Trump and Erdogan have developed, apparently according to reporting from the recent NATO summit, a personal rapport.

I think this current dispute over Brunson has a lot to do with domestic politics in the U.S. in terms of Trump’s desire to deliver for what’s become sort of a cause célèbre for the American evangelical movement.

At the same time, despite the personal rapport between Trump and Erdogan, we’ve seen the two countries drifting increasingly apart. Turkey, for the early part of the 2000s, was on a course to try to integrate into the European Union. It seemed to have a very successful foreign policy in the Middle East. A conciliatory policy that allowed it to have close ties with not only the U.S. but also Iran, Syria …

At the same time, there were some rocky relations with Israel, but the economic relationship there never deteriorated. More recently, like you said, the Arab Spring … In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Erdogan, it seemed, started becoming more and more of a policy entrepreneur in the region and a loose cannon. That coincides with him amassing more and more power within the country.

Does it surprise you to see the U.S. government take such a strong position with, as you mentioned, a treaty ally, Turkey’s part of NATO? It’s become somewhat indispensable at this point in the U.S. regional policy.

Is there an off-ramp here? Are you surprised that it’s gotten to this point?

Yeah. First, I’m definitely surprised. Even still, I can’t fully understand or explain why it is that things have raptured up in the last few days so quickly. Trump, as he always does, tweeted these threats against Turkey recently imposing higher tariffs, and I think certainly the issue around Brunson, making him the focus of this whole spat, is for U.S. domestic reasons more than anything.

But beyond that, it’s hard to explain. Turkey analysts and watchers that I follow on Twitter for example … I think there’s been a lot of questions about why now. This doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense politically, economically … Turkey is, despite all the bevy of tensions with the U.S. over Fethullah Gulen, the dissonant cleric who is in the United States who Turkey wants extradited, and the U.S. has refused.

Or the tensions within NATO. There are still allies within NATO. There are still countries that share a lot in terms of ties. Not just the military ties. Economic ties. The idea of further torpedoing an economy in Turkey that has had a lot of problems recently … Many of them are Erdogan’s responsibility or his own doing in the way that he’s managed the economy there.

I don’t really understand this latest spat, what Trump’s thinking is, ultimately. I think that the underlying issues are far more consequential than any effort to get this one American released from prison in Turkey.

Right, and he’s not even the only dual American citizen or dual citizen that’s being held there. But if I’m not mistaken, there are almost a dozen, if not more, others. He’s become the face of this dispute.

You mentioned Syria. Another unusual development among two treaty allies is that, as recently as within the past year, Erdogan essentially threatened to have Turkish troops fire on American troops in Syria because the American-led coalition’s closest allies on the ground in Syria are the Syrian Kurdish militias that have been really essential in the fight against the Islamic state there.

The Turks are extremely concerned about the possibility of an autonomous or independent Kurdish entity on their border because they fear or, ostensibly, they fear that it could encourage the same sort of movement within the Turkish-Kurdish community.

Again, as you’ve said, and as other people have pointed out, U.S. Turkey ties have always been rocky, even in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Turkey denied the U.S. access to bases there to launch a northern invasion as well. It’s not as if the relationship hasn’t had its challenges in the past.

There’s this question that I’ve seen raised about whether Turkey is essential to U.S. policy in the region, or whether it’s an obsolete alliance for the U.S. given the direction that Erdogan is taking the country.

Where would you come down on that?

It’s somewhere in between in my mind. In the case of Syria, it’s on multiple sides of the war in terms of U.S. interests. Erdogan and Turkey in general … The Turkish military is deeply opposed to any building up of any Syrian Kurdish forces for what it could mean for the PKK in Turkey and just the question of Turkish autonomy in general in the region.

They’ve been adamantly opposed since Obama’s second term to any U.S. assistance for the Kurds and any sort of outcome in Syria that would benefit Kurds there. At the same time, they’ve also been backing very strongly, probably more directly the U.S. in most of the war, Syrian rebels who are not Kurdish rebels. Suni rebels mainly.

As Aron Lund pointed out in a great briefing this week on the big picture look of Syria and where things are probably headed, the last remaining province that’s outside of the Assad regime’s control is in northwestern Syria, Idlib, where Turkey basically had a two-part sort of mini-invasion over the last year or so, and there’s an established presence of Turkish troops, Turkish advisors, embedded in Syrian rebel groups.

Turkey, in a lot of ways, holds the keys to Idlib. The U.S. needs Turkey there, and there’s this sort of strange dance between Turkey and Iran and Russia as well, since they also sort of hold the keys to resolving or trying to wind down this latest stage of the war there.

The U.S. finds itself on multiple sides, at least in Syria, when it comes to Turkey. Then, of course, there’s also a key airbase in Turkey that the U.S. really needs to conduct a lot of military operations throughout the region. It’s a complicated situation, to say the least.

From the Turkish perspective, and this, I think, is emblematic of what we’re seeing in a lot of these bilateral disputes, whether it’s trade or in other areas that the Trump administration is provoking.

The Turks don’t really have a whole lot of good alternatives. There’s a lot of talk about the Turkish Russian Iranian access in Syria. In terms of Turkey and Russia, long-term, historically, there’s a lot of mistrust. It’s not very clear whether Russia could replace what the United States and NATO provide to Turkish regional interests and national security in general.

As much as Turkey is very problematic to the U.S., the U.S. partnership is, in some ways, problematic to Turkey. It obviously creates problems for them as we’re seeing now and also in Syria with U.S. interests diverging from Turkish interests.

At the same time, despite developing tactical cooperation, let’s say, with Russia and Iran, the idea that somehow Russia could replace the U.S. for Turkish national interest seems, to me, a little far-fetched.

Right. I agree with that, and I think that Russian can’t provide the economic benefits that strong U.S. ties do. Also, I think there’s an element which the U.S. plays this game as well with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region that are even more autocratic than Turkey. Erdogan doesn’t like being criticized by the United States for his political record and record on human rights and other things, but he’s not alone there. So I think that that’s, long-term, more manageable.

The thing that is one other sort of wrinkle to the story that’s so strange to me is that Trump taking this very aggressive hard line when he was coming into office. And at the end of the campaign in 2016, his now disgraced national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was a paid – although he didn’t admit it at the time – lobbyist for the Turkish government. Reportedly, there was a scheme that Flynn was working on with the Turks with allies of Erdogan. I think it was some businessmen in Turkey. To basically try to forcibly extradite to sort of kidnap Fethullah Gulen and get him back to Turkey.

There were people in Trump’s war bid in the White House who went on to work in the administration and who were basically trying to do Erdogan’s bidding in the United States. The idea that it’s come full circle now, that Trump is leading this aggressive anti-Turkish line from Washington is bizarre.

The plot turns and twists are harder and harder to follow. Gulen, just to point out … Erdogan accuses Gulen of having been behind the coup attempt two years ago. From what I’ve read, there seems to be at least some evidence that lent support to that claim.

One final thought. I remember from the mid-2000s the Turkish foreign policy, at the time, was very creative, very active, proactive, and it was called zero problems with neighbors in which Turkey tried to be not so much a bridge between the Middle East and Asia and Europe and the north but a hub between them all and was cultivating at least cordial ties with Iran, Syria, the Gulf countries, Europe, the U.S., and Africa.

It seems like, in the course of a little more than a decade, we’ve gone from zero problems with neighbors to zero neighbors without problems for the Turkish foreign policy.

Yeah, and also that Turkey … This is actually one point that, picking up from Aron Lund’s briefing again, sort of questions of how can Turkey solve these problems with its neighbors. It’s embedded itself in Syria. Is there any solution to that mess?

As Aron pointed out, in the case of Cypress, Turkey’s happy to have endless interim solutions. The conflict there has gone on for many years. Obviously, it’s not a war anymore, but it’s a bit unresolved for decades. The idea of Turkey involving itself in Syria and sort of leaving a semi-frozen conflict in the same way that Russia might as well, to me, is an interesting point to sort of think of these problems with neighbors and how it might serve Erdogan’s interests to sort of leave things semi-permanently unresolved.

Semi-permanently unresolved seems like it could be a good theme for the Middle East for the near and mid-term future, unfortunately.

Yeah, everything is frozen in flux, or something.

With a lot of ad hoc coalitions. Alright, two things I want to mention before we get to the who said that segment. First, please make sure to leave a rating and review of the podcast on iTunes or wherever it is you subscribe to it. That helps us spread the word about what we’re doing.

Second, if you want to keep up to date on the topics we’re covering at WPR, go ahead and sign up for our free newsletter. It includes a daily preview and a weekly recap with free access to unlocked articles all week long all at no cost.

To sign up, just go to bit.ly/wprpodcast.

Alright, Freddy, I have a feeling we have picked the same topic for our “Who Said That?” I don’t know why, but it’s just an intuition I have or a hunch I have. Let’s hear yours.

Alright. “He wasn’t great with recognizing that the leader of a country might be 80 or 85 years old and isn’t going to be awake or in the right place at 10:30 or 11pm their time.”

Alright, well, we don’t have the same topic, and that was a report about Donald Trump who, according to these reports, which I take with a grain of salt, he did not really understand the idea of time zones and impetuously wanted to be put in touch with world leaders whenever he got the yen to talk to them.

Exactly. Actually I feel like I haven’t heard clearly disgruntled NSC staffers or former staffers talking to reporters about embarrassing Trump details in foreign policy in a little while.

The other part of the story that I think was interesting was that … or obviously their points about him mispronouncing the names of countries, but there was another official saying that he actually did a very good job of saying Cote d’Ivoire.

Right. I have a feeling we are going to find ourselves almost in withdrawal after Trump eventually leaves office in terms of the kind of juicy leaks that have been coming out of the White House for the past 18 months.

Alright, here’s mine. “Blank ranks 12 in economic freedom. Venezuela ranks 179. It’s simply egregious.”

Oh, I think I actually had seen … I don’t know the angle of who said it actually, but I think there was a criticism from somewhere in the U.S. media claiming Denmark was worse than Venezuela. Then a Danish politician was correcting the record.

Exactly. It’s the Danish finance minister, Kristian Jensen – responding to a Fox News segment. Big surprise there …


… that condemned what he called Denmark socialist policies and compared the country to Venezuela. There were a number of rebuttals of that that are worth watching. Pretty brutal rebuttals, and I think Fox has since basically admitted their error.

Alright, Freddy, which WPR article would you like to flag for everyone this week?

Daniel McDowell’s latest briefing on how debt traps from China’s huge built-in road infrastructure initiative could end up roiling the international monetary fund and really forcing it to confront whether it is increasingly on China’s side or still on the U.S.’s side in terms of who it will bail out and how it allocates loans and funds.

It’s a great piece, and Dan has this unique talent of being able to make these international finance issues very accessible for people who might not have expertise in them. I know I’ve learned a lot from him over the years as he’s contributed to WPR.

I’ll mention the email Q & A we did with Caitlin Fouratt on the influx of Nicaraguan asylum seekers into Costa Rica and the challenges that’s creating for the country’s resource-strapped refugee services.

Costa Rica, as we’ve covered in the past few years, has already experienced an increase in the scale and diversity of migrant flows to and through the country. With the crises in Nicaragua and Venezuela showing no signs of letting up, the situation is not likely to get easier any time soon.

Alright. Great stuff, Freddy. Thanks.


Now over to Robbie for the report.

The rise of the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria ushered in a new era of terrorism financing fueled by the black market trade in antiquities and other cultural property, yet the details of how that black market worked remain obscure.

In this week’s in-depth report for WPR, Amr Al-Azm and Katie Paul detail their research into how the market took shape and the central role that the internet, and Facebook specifically, played in facilitating these transactions.

Amr and Katie, how are you both doing today?

Pretty good.

Wonderful. How are you doing?

Doing great. Thank you both for being with us. To start with a background question, I wanted to ask. Why have antiquities in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria, become so vulnerable to trafficking in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings?

Trafficking and, let’s say, looting antiquities and trafficking antiquities is a very old time-honored tradition in many parts of the Middle East, if not many parts of the world in general.

However, as the Arab Spring sort of took hold and a number of countries found themselves with deteriorating security conditions, the withdrawal of the state and its institutions from many parts of the country, both in Iraq and Syria in particular, after late 2011, 2012. All of these factors would’ve contributed to a breakdown of law and order, of the normal way in which cultural heritage, whether it’s sites, monuments, museums, et cetera, would’ve been protected, would’ve been managed, would’ve been looked after.

And so as that happens, you find that people were increasingly able to go out and begin to essentially loot these sites. It’s important to point out two things here as well. One, that most of the looting is not being done by organizes crime or gangs. At least in the early stages, a lot of it was being done just by local people who had lost their means of livelihood.

As the conflict sort of evolved and became more and more destructive, people’s livelihoods were lost. Their means to provide for themselves, for their families, were compromised. People turned to alternate ways, if you will, to make a living.

For example, in Syria and probably in Iraq as well, every Syrian knows and essentially lives right on top of an archeological site, next door to an archeological site, or within a stone’s throw of an archeological site. It’s no secret. There are these what you might describe as an urban myth. There is, beneath every house and in every basement, somewhere some pot of gold or some bit of treasure buried.

All of these ideas, these common folks stories, have existed for a very long time. When people find themselves in difficult times, they have no means to provide for their families. They turn to, in this case, looting. We call this subsistence leading, actually. There’s a term for it. It’s different from the more organized, more criminal, type of activity where you have literally local mafias who also have been able to loot and had looted even before the beginning of the Arab Spring, but the breakdown of law and order with the retreat of the state and its organizations and its institutions …

It also means that these criminal elements, if you will, are able to now operate with much more freedom and even impunity. When you put the two together, you start to get a very catastrophic sort of situation.

Finally, there’s always been a very active market, if you will, an international market, for elicit materials. Looted antiquities are just another component or element of this.

In what way did the Islamic state set itself apart from other violent extremist groups that have held territory in this region when it comes to profiting from the cultural riches that are there?

With, as we call them in Arabic, Daesh, there’s a new development here. Initially, when ISIS take over or begin to take over a territory from as early as late 2013 but certainly right the way through 2014 and 2015 until they reach their maximum, if you will, extent of power and control.

What we have with ISIS is essentially a change, if you will, in perception with regards to looting antiquities where it’s no longer something that’s done by local people on a personal scale or something that is essentially the occasional local mafia that sort of loots from time to time or gets its opportunity. This more opportunistic type of looting.

What happens with ISIS is that they essentially see cultural heritage, whether it’s museum objects, whether it’s museum objects, whether it’s sides, whether it’s monuments as a resource. A resource to be exploited like any other resource like oil, like cash crops, wheat, barley, cotton. It’s a form of income for them. They begin to address it as such. They put it under that special ministry they created, [inaudible 00:26:45], which is essentially the office of resources, and they have a special department for looting of antiquities.

Really, once that happens, then the intensity with which looting occurs rises exponentially to a point where, effectively, ISIS industrialized the process of looting. Now, they’re bringing in bulldozers and moving large amounts of earth. They’re employing … I don’t want to say hundreds but at least, as far as we know, large crews with 10, 20, 30 people paying them wages for their work and taxing the sale of any looted antiquities. They established a system of taxation for the sale of these looted antiquities. They essentially control the process right from the very beginning to its final outcome in a very highly organized manner. That is very different and also not seen at that level at that scale in the region before.

How has the rise of the internet and Facebook and other social media outlets in particular facilitated this kind of trafficking?

I would say it’s not just the rise of the internet and Facebook but particularly their really sharp rise in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. What used to be a situation where people would traffic or identify smuggling networks through face-to-face interaction or existing personal connections, now, basically transnational and global trafficking networks are at anyone’s fingertips.

The farmer who finds an artifact in his field and previously wouldn’t have had anyone to connect with can now log onto Facebook, find one of these trafficking groups, and, in an instant, connect with traffickers from his local community, from his country, and from the wider region depending on the value of his artifact.

Basically, prior to the rise of the internet, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, someone would have to be tapped into a local smuggling network in order to move material, but now the process of finding and identifying people who are willing to purchase material, even if it’s just a one-off find in someone’s backyard or basement, has increased in speed and efficiency making it much easier for anyone to become a trafficker and not just a looter.

In Syria, for example … Prior to the internet … I’m thinking here in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, what would happen is that they would be buyers who would show up to sites or to the homes of known looters, and they would come by once every few months, and they would sort of see what that potential looter or villager or whoever was happened to have, and then they would buy that material, pay them a pittance for it, and then take it away with them.

As Katie said, once you have internet, that local farmer or village person or whoever it is doesn’t have to wait for that buyer to show up. He can now not only connect to other would-be sellers and buyers, but he can actually advertise his wares for the entire world to see. It not only sort of opens the looter to a much larger world but also empowers them to demand better prices for the goods that they’ve looted, and so it makes looting far more profitable and therefore much more worthwhile their time.

Katie, can you describe then the study that you detail in this piece for WPR? What were you looking at? How did you go about devising it?

Since the Arab Spring and particularly the Egyptian revolution, I’ve been really fascinated on the power of social media in the MENA region. I had actually been studying social media and its role as a form of counter-trafficking in Egypt looking at how activists, or I call them archeo-activists, would use social media to share information on sites that were being looted or storehouses that have been raided, particularly in a security vacuum after the police forces dissolved following Mubarak’s ouster.

We’re already aware that traffickers would send direct messages to people through social media and try to sell material. I know I’ve been contacted directly through social media messages by people trying to sell material, but I was really compelled to want to understand what would push people to reach out to strangers like me online who could easily be authorities, a troll, anything.

What would compel people to put in that kind of effort to actually seek out individuals? Basically, it had to have worked for someone at some point for people to take that risk.

To start, we began searching Facebook in particular just because it has so many tools available in terms of messaging, videos, photos, long descriptions. We start with Facebook and searching for common terms used in the antiquities trafficking trade. The word for treasure, for instance, which isn’t typically used in the media in Arabic but is frequently used in trafficking trade. We just wanted to kind of see what turned up.

After searching through the various posts and pages and groups, whatever was publicly available, once we landed on the group which is the trafficking group that we outlined in the article, it really opened an entirely new world and a new digital network we didn’t know existed.

Not to mention that Facebook’s algorithm also suggests similar pages to us. Once we figured out the right lingo that’s used, Facebook actually started recommending similar groups and pages that use the same type of terminology or had a lot of common followers as the ones we were looking at. It opened up this whole new realm of groups that we could access both publicly and join privately to monitor their communications.

You described in the piece the two different kinds of groups that you examined. Looting groups and trafficking groups.

What were these set up to do? How effective have they been?

Trafficking groups were set up more for people to find buyers or sellers for artifacts and to tap into the transnational networks we were kind of discussing. That digital transnational network that people wouldn’t have been able to access previously.

It allowed for loot to order requests which was where a group admin … The admins were typically higher level or more knowledgeable traffickers. Would put out a request for a particular type of material. For instance, there were examples of admins for the trafficking group requesting Islamic material, specifically manuscripts and books, to be available in Istanbul. People would then reply right there in the comments with screenshots or images or even video of the types of artifacts they had available that matched that description noting that they lived in Istanbul or could be nearby and providing their cell phone number so that they could communicate directly through WhatsApp and move off the public platform. So the trafficking groups facilitated that type of activity.

The looting groups, while trafficking did take place on those, they were more primarily used for crowdsourcing knowledge on how to find and dig a tomb. So with the growth of social media, you also now have a lot of people, who previously didn’t have any sort of internet or social media literacy, suddenly thrust online, and they want to use it as a way to capitalize on these new economic opportunities they found through looting.

One of the ways they would do that is crowdsourced knowledge on these looting groups. In general, the membership of the looting groups tends to be much higher. A lot of people aren’t engaging, but they’re just kind of following the commentary. There’s one looting group that’s particularly focused on tombs in Egypt and even teaches people the mechanics, the tools, and what they would need to pump water out of an underground tomb so that they don’t drown. It’s essentially here’s what you need to do to make sure you don’t suffocate. Here’s what you need to do to make sure the tomb doesn’t collapse.

Not only that, but they would actually post extensive descriptions of types of tombs like what a Roman tomb in Egypt of the first century would look like. If you’re digging down two meters, you run into a different type of material. Don’t stop. That’s just a sign your X meter is above the tomb. Really in-depth descriptions encouraging people and explaining to them a roadmap of how to loot tombs, and it’s really created a crowdsourcing platform for people to gain knowledge on illegal excavation. Knowledge that used to be held by a small group of people is now available to anybody through some of these groups.

What can you tell us about these people? Who is actually using these groups?

The groups that we fully recorded thus far, each group usually has multiple admins. The admins often tend to be from the same country, although the group may cater to a wide range of individuals. Typically, a lot of people from the region engage in them. Basically anybody who can communicate in the primary language, whether that’s Arabic or Turkish.

The admins of these groups are usually very seasoned in what they do. I gave the example of the trafficking group. The admins would request specific loot to order material asking for specific periods, types of material to be available in certain cities of certain dates. These are people who were already tapped into a network to be able to be making those kind of loot-to-order requests.

But for the looting group, one of the … The looting group that we actually outlined in the paper was created by Egyptians and is being led by admins who are extremely experienced looters. We know this because they’re actually documenting the how-to’s of their looting process day to day. Particularly recently in June and July, the admins started posting very detailed descriptions of the process of looting day to day including photos, photos of the tools they’re using, photos of what the tomb looks like, and he’s essentially using the page like an open journal. He signs off each post as memoirs of a professional adventurer.

The people that are using the groups on the whole, the people that become members of these groups or pages, are less experienced, but many of them join just to have a forum to ask people questions as they go through their own looting processes.

In terms of the users, one more thing we should know is that, although looting and trafficking particularly in the Middle East is usually thought of as a male-dominated activity, we actually found, on the trafficking page specifically, over 100 women engaging, and almost every single one of those women was a mid to high-level trafficker. The women were not looters. They were getting on the pages saying, “I can connect you with a buyer from this country. I’m looking for this kind of material.” That’s something that we, although we know that there are a lot of women engaging in male-dominated roles in different parts of the Middle East, we didn’t expect to see such a high number of women engaging as actual traffickers on these pages from a variety of countries.

What would you say are some of the major takeaways from your research in terms of how the internet and Facebook in particular have changed the way that this type of trafficking unfolds?

The most important takeaway for us here was the ease of access and the speed in which these interactions can happen. Before the internet, before Facebook, and before social media platforms, these kind of connections did exist, but they took a lot longer to establish. Communications took longer to occur.

In terms of transactions, again, all of this would take a lot longer. I call it a time compression. One of the most important things that we’ve seen is the fact that there’s this incredible time compression where now everything can occur at a much faster rate, almost instantaneous, and reach a much much wider sort of audience than possible before. I think that really has had a huge impact on how looting happens and the scale in which this looting is happening.

Another aspect here as well is, and I briefly touched upon this, this company-mingling or finding different types of groups of people interacting in a space where they don’t normally do that. In particular and of concern is where you have extremist ideologies at play. You have radical extremists who are political extremists or religious extremists. It doesn’t matter what kind of extremism you’re talking about here. Who are now able to sort of enter a community and essentially use that community as part of their interaction, as part of their discussions, communications, about looting and trafficking. They can also engage and find potential new recruits in a space and in a way which law enforcement and entities that are essentially supposed to be monitoring this activity are not looking.

If I was a law enforcement agency, and I’m trying to monitor extremist political or religious activity, I would look in a lot of places, but I would not necessarily be looking for this kind of recruitment activity on a page that is dealing with looting of antiquities. It would not be the first place for me to stop and check.

I would say also that, while much of this activity is currently being recorded online, the final transactions are taken place out of sight or at least out of a public forum if they move to an encrypted messenger. Not to mention that there’s a certain ability for individuals to remain anonymous or mask their identify on the internet.

While we do see a lot of people using their personal profiles, there are certainly more careful, higher level individuals that have anonymous profiles or profiles created specifically for the purpose of trafficking, and they will indicate as such. That poses a new problem because, even in the days of person-to-person trafficking networks, you could at least have someone that could inform on the name or identify of an individual higher up in the chain, but the anonymity provided by the internet and different social media allows people to hide much more easily and particularly when they can do things like digital payments or payments through something like Bitcoin or any other kind of blockchain technology that is really masking identify.

It’s a new challenge in this aspect of trafficking. We’re not just talking about falsified paper, falsified importation documents. We’re actually talking about people who are hiding in the shadows but operating in public.

Has Facebook tried to crack down on this activity? If so, has it had any luck?

As far as we know, Facebook is likely not aware that this is occurring. We’ve extensively looked at Facebook’s community standards and commerce policies, both last Fall and recently since the update following the April 2018 congressional hearings.

What we found is that, though Facebook did update their community standards to include that there should be no activity with regard to wildlife trafficking, there’s still nothing that exists with regard to cultural property. It listed cultural property specifically.

Because Facebook’s reporting mechanisms and their monitoring mechanisms only focus on things that expressly violate their community standards, there’s not even a way to appropriately report these pages because they don’t violate any community standards, and you can’t just write a message to report something. You actually have to go through the processes.

It asks you, “Hey, is it spam?” That’s a big problem because, since it’s not in Facebook’s community standards, they don’t have a mechanism for us to be able to report these things, nor do they have an existing mechanism to monitor it which allows these groups to really flourish on their pages without any sort of oversight.

Facebook has recently taken efforts to work with the coalition of organizations in combating wildlife trafficking on their site which is a huge first step. Wildlife trafficking has a lot of overlap with the antiquities trade, particularly when you start talking about antique ivory pieces. They’re very similar trades, and a lot of times groups traffic in both wildlife and ancient artifacts.

Facebook definitely has a model for what can be done to combat these types of pages. But from what we’ve seen, we’re currently looking at over 40 trafficking pages just in Arabic. We’ve identified some in Indonesian and Turkish. This is really a widespread problem happening on their platform.

What about law enforcement agencies? Is there evidence of attempted crackdowns on their parts? Why is this activity so difficult for them to police?

In terms of law enforcement, on an individual level, different countries have been making efforts to try to curtail this type of activity. Egypt, in particular, has had parliamentary hearings trying to enact laws that combat trafficking on Facebook. There has been a lot of Egyptian media about the fact that trafficking is occurring on Facebook and what they can do about it.

But because it’s such a difficult area to police, and even now, we’re seeing the difficulty with policing private social media companies and how that content is managed. There’s really not any effort to crack down on what’s appearing on the pages.

The countries like Egypt have made efforts to increase the penalties for looting and trafficking as a way to discourage people to stop looting. The current bill is looking to increase trafficking penalties for looting or trafficking of antiquities to life in prison in Egypt.

One of the issues with that is, as Amr mentioned, a lot of looting activity we see is subsistence looting. In lieu of economic downturn, people are only doing this out of necessity. People don’t necessarily want to dig through their own living rooms and risk their house collapsing unless that’s their only means of feeding their family that evening. Particularly in areas of crisis and conflict, that’s a lot of what we’re seeing is people don’t have the ability to loot on an industrial scale, but there are a lot of them, and they’re in very dire straits, and so they’re doing this out of necessity.

Those types of penalties don’t necessarily discourage that kind of looting. Those individuals are preyed upon by people that have more organized trafficking networks. There’s a bigger problem. Looting is really a symptom of other issues, whether they be security vacuum or economic downturn. It’s not something that …

There’s always an underlying cause to it. Because these transactions, a lot of them are taking place out of site, it’s very difficult to police to provide evidence that that final transaction’s actually made, especially if they’re happening through encrypted messaging apps.

That leads into what I was going to ask next which is … What do you think it would take to curtail this type of trafficking? I imagine it would involve addressing some of those underlying causes that you mentioned.

What do you think is needed on that front?

Look, with antiquities trafficking, and essentially sale of looted artifacts and cultural heritage material, you have to see it as an issue of supply and demand. You have a supply end that it starts or begins in, as we see, areas that have either been disrupted by conflict or corruption or malfeasance.

They’re often coming from parts of the world that are, at the moment, going through upheaval, but there’s also a demand side. That demand side is very much centered here in the west, in Europe, in the United States, and also in rich countries even within the Middle East itself like the Gulf states. Qatar, the Emirates, et cetera. All of these countries have individuals, populations, that are essentially providing the demand for these looted artifacts.

If you’re gonna curtail this type of activity, if you’re gonna really really try to stop this trafficking in looted antiquities, you need to attack it from both ends.

On the one hand, you need to try and make it harder, if you will, for looters to loot, make it less easy for them to advertise or promote their looted materials. But at the same time, I think it is if not equally important, even probably more important, to shut down or restrict the demand side of things.

For that to happen, you really need the cooperation of not just the different law enforcement agencies, but you also need the cooperation of the auction houses, and the dealers, and the antiquities market itself. You need the cooperation of the buyers by raising their awareness. Obviously, you’re not going to get everyone on board.

But if enough people … There are going to be some people who maybe just don’t know or think they’re doing … Some people even go as far as saying it’s okay to buy a looted artifact because, somehow in their misguided sort of way of justifying it, they think they’re doing a good thing. I know this is looted, but if I buy it, I’m going to save it from ISIS who’s going destroy it. Well, actually, ISIS doesn’t destroy objects simply for ideological reasons. They’d much rather sell you the object and make money off it. No. When you’re buying it, you’re more than likely helping ISIS. You’re not saving the object from ISIS.

And then obviously, the tech companies like Facebook, like Twitter, like Google and so on and so forth.

It really needs to be this cooperative effort between all these different elements in order for us to really begin to sort of deepen roads into this type of illicit trade. For that to happen, you also need legislation. We’ve seen some movement. We’ve seen some activity certainly here in the United States and in some European countries, in England, with regards to taking on this challenge, but I think there’s still a lot more to do.

Amr and Katie, thank you so much for your piece, and thanks for taking the time to talk me through your research today.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Many thanks to Amr Al-Azm and Katie Paul for joining us this week. If you’d like to read more about how traffickers are using Facebook to make the illicit trade in Middle East antiquities more efficient, you can find their in-depth article on worldpoliticsreview.com.

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