ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq are earning between $150 million and $200 million a year from illicit trade in plundered lucrative antiquities, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said in a letter released on Wednesday.
“Around 100,000 cultural objects of global importance, including 4,500 archaeological sites, nine of which are included in the World Heritage List of … UNESCO, are under the control of the ISIS … in Syria and Iraq,” Ambassador Vitaly Churkin wrote in a letter to the U.N. Security Council.
He said the profit derived by the militants from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at U.S. $150-200 million per year.
ISIS’s antiquities division is responsible for the smuggling of artifacts in the group’s equivalent of a ministry for natural resources, Churkin wrote. Only those who have a permit with a stamp from this division are allowed to excavate, remove and transport antiquities.
Reuters previously revealed some details of the group’s war spoils department, after it reviewed some of the documents seized by U.S. Special Operations Forces in a May 2015 raid in Syria.
But many details in Churkin’s letter appeared to be new.
The envoy from Russia, which has repeatedly accused Turkey of supporting ISIS by purchasing oil from the group, said plundered antiquities were largely smuggled through Turkish territory.
“The main center for the smuggling of cultural heritage items is the Turkish city of Gaziantep, where the stolen goods are sold at illegal auctions and then through a network of antique shops and at the local market,” Churkin wrote.
In an interview with NBC News, an ISIS smuggler, who asked only to be identified as Abu Mustafa, spoke in detail about the lucrative antiquities trade in which he has been involved.
In an apartment in a Turkish town near the Syrian border, the 38-year-old man said: “They destroy those large statues for the cameras.”
“They’re too big to move, anyway,” he said, before turning his attention to the smaller prize in the plastic bag: the relief of an ancient sun god. “What they are really interested are these.”
Abu Mustafa said he personally transferred and sold more than 10 artifacts, according to NBC.
Turkish officials were not immediately available for comment on the Russian allegations. Tension has taken over Russian-Turkish relations ever since Turkey shot down a Russian plane near the Syrian border last November.
Churkin said jewelry, coins and other looted items are brought to the Turkish cities of Izmir, Mersin and Antalya, where criminal groups produce fake documents on their origin.
“The antiquities are then offered to collectors from various countries, generally through Internet auction sites such as eBay and specialized online stores,” he said. Churkin named several other Internet auction sites that he said sold antiquities plundered by ISIS.
“Recently ISIS has been exploiting the potential of social media more and more frequently so as to cut out the middleman and sell artifacts directly to buyers,” he said.
EBay said it was not aware of the allegations that it was being used to sell plundered items.
“eBay has absolutely zero interest in having illicit listings of cultural or historical goods appear on our platforms,” it said. “We’re currently looking into the claims of this letter.”
“To date, we are not aware of any direct evidence of listings for items on eBay that resulted from ISIS looting or similar activity,” it added.