The Islamic State's destruction of ancient sites in Syria and Iraq has dominated the headlines recently, along with claims that the group reaps enormous profits from looted antiquities. The U.S. government is focused on cutting the Islamic State's funding streams, but probably no one outside of ISIS knows exactly how much money the group is making by trafficking ancient artifacts. As a former CIA officer who worked as an economic and counterterrorism analyst, my response to the question is simple: It doesn't really matter.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials should pay close attention to the antiquities trade emanating from Syria and Iraq, but not because they need to know precisely how much money ISIS brings in. What is important is that the trade itself reveals something about the Islamic State's operational infrastructure, its links with partners and middlemen, and how the group is exploiting the local civilian population. All of this is critical to understanding how the U.S. and its allies may defeat the group militarily, financially, and ideologically.