To defeat ISIS, study the antiquity trade

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.


One way to understand an adversary's aims is to uncover how it organizes and prioritizes elements within its economy. During the Cold War, the CIA allocated significant manpower to analyze the Soviet Union economy. Analysts studied Russian industries to learn about Russian resources and to gain insight on Soviet intentions.

The Islamic State is, of course, not actually a state, but it is attempting to structure itself as such, and investigating how it organizes its industries can tell us about its priorities. For example, the State Department last year revealed ISIS documents showing that the group maintains an antiquities division within its Department of Natural Resources.

ISIS sees antiquities as important enough to tightly control the looting of ancient artifacts within its territory, according to reports. Locals can't dig without an ISIS-approved license and the group takes 20 percent of the value of any artifact sold within its territory. We don't know exactly how much this generates in revenue, but it's clear the organization values the income stream enough to stand up a mini-bureaucracy for its administration.

Probing IS antiquities bureaucracy can also help intelligence analysts identify key figures of influence. For example, analysts should know who supervises the antiquities portfolio and what that might say about their standing in the organization. In November 2014, IS appointed Abu Sayyaf, a Tunisian, to head the antiquities division, acknowledging his superior knowledge of the antiquities trade. He also was aware of Islamic State hostage operations and supervised the group's broader finances.

Half a year later, Abu Sayyaf was killed during a U.S. Special Forces raid in Syria. Unnamed U.S. officials acknowledged that the raid had been made possible by multiple sources of intelligence, including satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance, electronic eavesdropping, and informants. This combination shows that military and intelligence officers need as many access points as possible into ISIS movements and personnel to mount successful counter-operations.

Another reason antiquities smuggling is essential to monitor is it represents an intelligence gap that, if filled, could enhance the government's insight into a host of other illicit activities which may harm U.S. interests. It is well known that terrorist groups use criminal networks to obtain resources and launder money. Uncovering those supply chains moving antiquities from the Levant to buyers in the US and Europe could help identify networks trafficking other materials — or even persons — around the globe.

No estimate of ISIS antiquities revenue — big or small — will answer the most critical questions about Islamic State's strategy and operations. As in the Cold War, the U.S. Government needs to get smart on its enemy. Analyzing this activity will let the U.S. learn more about how Islamic State works and help America meet its stated goal of degrading and destroying the terror group.

Commentary by Yaya J. Fanusie, a former CIA analyst. He currently is director of analysis for the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @signcurve.

Disclosure: All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions of views of the Central Intelligence Agency or any other U.S. government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author's views.

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