U.S. Files Lawsuit Against ISIS Aimed At Recovering Looted Artifacts

Dec 15, 2016
Originally published on December 16, 2016 3:05 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We noticed an unusual case on the docket of the federal court in Washington today. The plaintiff is the United States government. The defendants include two gold coins and a ring with a dark green gemstone. The Justice Department says the Islamic State looted these artifacts. The group has been selling historical treasures to finance its terror operations. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In the middle of May 2015, U.S. military forces raided the compound of a senior Islamic State leader in eastern Syria. The U.S. government believed Abu Sayyaf and his wife had been involved in the mistreatment of Kayla Mueller, an American held hostage by ISIS before her death. Sayyaf died in that May raid, but special operations forces seized a trove of electronic evidence. On his hard drives and cell phone, FBI investigators found pictures of a ring, coins and other ancient treasures. Now the Justice Department is suing for their return. Arvind Lal is a prosecutor on the case.

ARVIND LAL: We would like to make sure that anybody who tries to buy these items knows that we are going to come get them at some point. If you are in the business of selling them, if you are actively supporting ISIS, we are going to come arrest you and prosecute you.

JOHNSON: The lawsuit includes pictures of handwritten receipts and permits issued by the Islamic State. In all, they present a vivid description of a bureaucracy topped by Abu Sayyaf, who presided over the Department of Antiquities. Assistant U.S. Attorney Zia Faruqiui...

ZIA FARUQUI: There is a sophisticated network in place to traffic these items and to regulate how they're excavated and how people are extorted of them.

JOHNSON: For instance, the papers describe how a 16-year-old boy was taken hostage at gunpoint in a dispute over payment for some of the artifacts. Authorities say the looted objects could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Andrew Keller is a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, where he works to stop terror financing for the group he calls ISIL.

ANDREW KELLER: ISIL systematically exploits all of the resources within the territory they control, whether that's oil and gas or antiquities. At the height of their territorial control, they sat on about 5,000 archaeological sites that they were able to loot and profit from.

JOHNSON: The State Department says the stolen treasures are yet another loss to people in the Middle East who have already sacrificed so much to ISIS. Evan Ryan is an assistant secretary of state for Educational and Cultural Affairs.

EVAN RYAN: We want to make sure that Iraq and Syria are not losing their past, their history and all that there is there.

JOHNSON: It's not clear whether U.S. authorities will recover and return the ring and gold coins. The FBI has entered the items into its national stolen art file. That list is supposed to help art buyers and dealers identify looted objects. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.