The Islamic State terror group continued its rampage across areas of the Middle East this week, seizing the ancient town of Palmyra in Syria.
Palmyra is strategically located — as The Wall Street Journal notes, it’s at a crossroads between Damascus, the capital of Syria, Homs, a supply center for the Syrian army, and Deir al-Zor, a government stronghold.
Another big motivating factor for the terror group (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) is money.
Palmyra is an ancient city that has been occupied for thousands of years and has seen many civilizations pass through it. It’s home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many valuable artifacts.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider that ISIS makes most of its money from racketeering, which includes collecting “taxes” from the residents who live within the borders of the territory it has taken over, plundering people’s homes, and looting historical sites and selling antiquities on the black market.
“It’s a racket. And that’s how ISIS continues to survive and thrive,” Schanzer said. “They need to jump from community to community in order to sustain themselves financially.”
Smugglers who talked to BuzzFeed News described Palmyra as a potential windfall to their business. One Syrian smuggler said he was sure ISIS would sell the artifacts they could get their hands on in Palmyra.
Museum workers reportedly removed as many artifacts as they could before Palmyra fell earlier this week, but there are likely many antiquities left behind that ISIS could still plunder.
“[The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad] is trying to mitigate the damage and perhaps prevent ISIS from being able to cash in” on the antiquities in Palmyra,” Schanzer said, adding that there is major profit to be gained from treasures that can be taken to market. Analysts are unsure of specifics, but ISIS could make tens of millions of dollars from one archaeological area, Schanzer said.
There’s also evidence of ISIS digging up archaeological sites in other areas and taking whatever they can, according to The New Yorker. One archaeologist said some sites looked like “Swiss cheese” because of all the holes.
ISIS likely works with smugglers who have networks in the Middle East and can transport looted goods into Turkey and other countries where there is a black market demand for them.
“There are almost certainly going to be antiquities dealers waiting in the wings waiting to spirit this stuff out of [Palmyra],” Schanzer said. “In Turkey in particular … you’ve got these fairly lawless borders, borders that have been exploited repeatedly … so the assumption is that we’ve got established smuggling routes and people bringing illicit goods over the border.”
The looting also serves another purpose — ISIS releases propaganda videos of militants destroying ancient sites in a bid to attract recruits and get media attention from the shock value of the destruction. Much of the media coverage surrounding the seizure of Palmyra focused on the fact that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was now in danger.
“The horror and shock, this is the archaeological equivalent of a beheading,” Schanzer said. “Certainly there will be the shock value of this and that will jolt people.”