Investigator of Baghdad museum looting says antiquity smuggling finances terror

The Associated Press

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ATHENS, Greece: When Baghdad fell to the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein, the world watched in horror as looters ransacked the museum that housed some of Iraq’s most prized treasures.

Today, trafficking of stolen Iraqi antiquities is helping to finance al-Qaida in Iraq and Shiite militias, according to the U.S. investigator who led the probe into the looting of the National Museum.

U.S. Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney called up to duty shortly after 9/11, said that while kidnappings and extortion remain insurgents’ main source of funds, the link between terrorism and antiquities smuggling has become “undeniable.”

“The Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan,” Bogdanos told The Associated Press in an interview. “Well, they don’t have opium in Iraq. What they have is an almost limitless supply of is antiquities. And so they’re using antiquities.”

Bogdanos spoke on the sidelines of a UNESCO-organized international conference Monday and Tuesday on returning antiquities to their country of origin.

The murky world of antiquities trafficking extends across the globe and is immensely lucrative — private collectors can pay tens of millions of dollars for the most valuable artifacts.

It’s almost impossible to put an authoritative monetary value on Iraqi antiquities.

But as an indication, the colonel said one piece looted from the National Museum — an 8th century B.C. Assyirian ivory carving of a lioness attacking a Nubian boy, overlaid with gold and inlaid with lapis lazuli — could sell for US$100 million (€63.4 million). “That would be cheap, I really believe,” he said of the object, which is still missing. Bogdanos described the route for smuggled Iraqi antiquities as follows: From illegal excavations or plundered museums, they are driven overland either west to Jordan or north to Syria; they are then usually sent to one of three cities — Beirut, Dubai or Geneva — in order to obtain papers and “surface”; they can then be sold on to private collectors or even well-known auction houses.

Bogdanos said the complex routes for the trade in plundered antiquities appear to have generated an underground tariff system. “According to my sources, (Lebanese) Hezbollah is now taxing antiquities,” he said.

Bogdanos, 51, an amateur boxer with a Masters degree in Classics who won the Bronze Star fighting in Afghanistan, said the antiquities trade was not an immediate source of revenue for insurgents after the U.S.-led invasion.

“That was not something they did initially. They were not that sophisticated,” he said, adding that it was not until late 2004 “that we saw the use of antiquities in funding initially the Sunnis and al-Qaida in Iraq, and now the Shiite militias.”

Although security has improved dramatically in Iraq since mid-2007, the country is still violence-ridden, with bombings and kidnappings a daily occurrence. In such a climate, it is all but impossible for Iraq’s 1,500 archaeological guards to protect the country’s more than 12,000 archaeological sites.

“Unauthorized excavations are proliferating throughout the world, especially in conflict zones,” Francoise Riviere, the assistant director-general of UNESCO’s cultural branch, said at the conference.

She said UNESCO was deeply concerned about the “decimation” of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

“The damage inflicted on the National Museum in Baghdad, the increasingly precarious state and the systematic pillage of sites, are alarming facts which are a great challenge to the international community,” Riviere said.

Bahaa Mayah, an adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities who attended the conference in Athens, says looters sometimes use heavy machinery to dig up artifacts and destroy the site while they loot.

Mayah decried a lack of cooperation among some European countries, which he refused to name, in returning trafficked goods seized from smugglers.

“We are facing now, especially in Europe, tremendous difficulties in recovering our objects that are seized,” he said.

Bogdanos said smuggling networks did not appear with or after the war. “It’s a pre-existing infrastructure … looting’s been going on forever.”

But it was in the days after the fall of Baghdad in March 2003 that the National Museum was looted. The U.S. came under intense criticism for not protecting the museum — a treasure trove of antiquities from the stone age and Babylon to the Assyrians and Islamic art.

Bogdanos said that according to the latest inventories, a total of about 15,000 artifacts were stolen. Of those, about 4,000 have been returned to the museum, and a total of about 6,000 have been recovered.

Bogdanos was already in Iraq searching for banned weapons and investigating terrorist funding when he volunteered to lead the investigation into the looting after Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

Much of the museum’s looting was carried out by insiders and senior government officials of the time, said Bogdanos, who co-authored a book about the investigation, “Thieves of Baghdad,” with William Patrick. Royalties from the book are donated to the museum.

Bogdanos said not enough is being done by organizations such as UNESCO to protect Iraq’s heritage. “There’s no other way to say it. There’s a vacuum at the top,” he said.