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How terrorists tap a black market fueled by stolen antiquities

Antiquity plundering—particularly from violence-riddled Syria and Iraq—fuels a $7 billion black market, and some of that money lands in the pockets of terrorists, say archaeologists and international watchdogs.

Priceless pieces of history snatched from illicit diggings or swiped from museum cases have become one of the four most common commodities next to drugs, weapons and human beings to be trafficked by smugglers, according to United Nations investigators.

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, at a street in city of Mosul, June 12, 2014.
Reuters
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, at a street in city of Mosul, June 12, 2014.

Many of those stolen items, from ancient necklaces to stone tablets, are routinely shuttled by middlemen through shadowy backchannels, but ultimately wind up for sale at legitimate auction houses or on the display shelves of Americans, reports the U.N. and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"We've seen examples of objects originating in conflict zones — with the sale of them funding insurgents or terrorism — end up at your local museum or at your private collector's house," said Jason Felch, an investigative journalist who co-authored a book on the crimes titled"Chasing Aphrodite."

"The sale of (looted) antiquities, like drug smuggling, is a way of generating funds for insurgent groups, terrorists or bad guys in general," Felch said. "Archaeological rich areas are a ready source of assets. You can dig something out of the ground and sell it for a few million bucks if you find the right thing and there's a willing market on the other end."

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On Tuesday, Irina Bokova, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), urged Iraqis to safeguard that nation's trove of antiquities as assaults waged by the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have put relics there at risk for looting. UNESCO also has reported that in Egypt, terrorist attacks in recent years have targeted pieces of cultural heritage.

Antiquities plundering and trafficking is estimated to turn a $7 billion underground profit, according to Franscesco Bandarin, Assistant Director-General for Culture UNESCO. That's about one-tenth the size of global drug-smuggling operations, he added.

"People don't think this is a crime. They think this is a lesser crime," Bandarin said at a recent news conference. "That's why you find sometimes objects on sale even on the official auctions, which is quite a surprising thing."

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Terrorists have long been tapping a chunk of the underground relic market. According to the FBI, "fundamentalist terrorist groups rely on looted antiquities as a major funding source."

In 1999, while seeking to raise money for the planned 9/11 attacks, one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, tried to sell a cache of pilfered Afghan artifacts in Germany, reports the FBI, based on accounts from the German secret service.

International laws, including a 1970 U.N. treaty, prohibit the illicit export, import and transfer of ownership of plundered cultural property. U.S. law incorporated that UNESCO treaty in 1983. Britain is one of more than 90 other countries to have signed it.

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U.S. Homeland Security agents offer a running, online catalog of stolen relics that its agents have recovered and returned. Just from Iraq, those items include about 7,500 artifacts (several paintings plus a 4,514-year-old necklace that, after looting, had been sold at auction at Christie's in London).

Christie's public relations official Sung-Hee Park, declined an interview with NBC News recommending that "archeologists and/or law enforcement … are better suited to speak about this matter."

Sotheby's, another leading auction house, did not responded to an interview request emailed by NBC News.

To curb the trade, U.N. authorities actively work as informants to Interpol and to security agents in several Middle Eastern nations, Bandarin said.

But because the smugglers can forge ownership papers for filched antiquities, the chore of tracking and reclaiming those historic pieces is often murky, Felch said.

Thieves often hold poached relics off the market for a "cooling off period" of up to five years so that any police trail has nearly evaporated when they are re-sold. According to Felch, the nation of Jordan now acts as a "pass-through for these objects, and that massive amounts of antiquities are being warehoused there."

"Some do get destroyed but most get sold," added Sam Hardy, an archaeologist in England who runs a blog called Conflict Antiquities, focusing on the problem.

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"The bulk of the middle market are well-off people who want to display their culture, whether they get it through auctions, antique shops, boutiques or galleries," Hardy said. "But there are rich businesspeople and made men amongst them at the top end of collectors, and users of online auction houses at the low end."

But given the ties between plundered relics and insurgent groups, are businesses, museums or individuals who acquire relics known to come from areas of conflict perhaps helping to finance international terrorism?

"Collectors make this decision every day. Increasingly, more and more evidence shows that when you buy ancient art that does not have clear ownership history, you may be helping support bad guys, whether they be the Sicilian mafia or ISIS," Felch said.

"It's becoming increasingly harder to deny that link. Not all looters are terrorists. But some terrorists use looting to make money. People who buy antiquities –- whether they be museums or individuals –- should know that they run the risk of funding an illicit market that may also support terrorism."

— By Bill Briggs, NBCNews.com