Now for Sale on Facebook: Looted Middle Eastern Antiquities
SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES
BY: KAREN ZRAICK
Ancient treasures pillaged from conflict zones in the Middle East are being offered for sale on Facebook, researchers say, including items that may have been looted by Islamic State militants.
Facebook groups advertising the items grew rapidly during the upheaval of the Arab Spring and the ensuing wars, which created unprecedented opportunities for traffickers, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio and a former antiquities official in Syria. He has monitored the trade for years along with his colleagues at the Athar Project, named for the Arabic word for antiquities.
At the same time, Dr. Al-Azm said, social media lowered the barriers to entry to the marketplace. Now there are at least 90 Facebook groups, most in Arabic, connected to the illegal trade in Middle Eastern antiquities, with tens of thousands of members, he said.
They often post items or inquiries in the group, then take the discussion into chat or WhatsApp messaging, making it difficult to track. Some users circulate requests for certain types of items, providing an incentive for traffickers to produce them, a scenario that Dr. Al-Azm called “loot to order.”
Others post detailed instructions for aspiring looters on how to locate archaeological sites and dig up treasures.
Items for sale include a bust purportedly taken from the ancient city of Palmyra, which was occupied for periods by Islamic State militants and endured heavy looting and damage.
Other artifacts for sale come from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The majority do not come from museums or collections, where their existence would have been cataloged, Dr. Al-Azm said.
“They’re being looted straight from the ground,” he said. “They have never been seen. The only evidence we have of their existence is if someone happens to post a picture of them.”
Dr. Al-Azm and Katie A. Paul, the directors of the Athar Project, wrote in World Politics Review last year that the loot-to-order requests showed that traffickers were “targeting material with a previously unseen level of precision — a practice that Facebook makes remarkably easy.”
After the BBC published an article about the work of Dr. Al-Azm and his colleagues last week, Facebook said that it had removed 49 groups connected to antiquities trafficking.
Dr. Al-Azm countered that 90 groups were still up. But more important, he argued, Facebook should not simply delete the pages, which now constitute crucial evidence both for law enforcement and heritage experts.
In a statement on Tuesday, the company said it was “continuing to invest in people and technology to keep this activity off Facebook and encourage others to report anything they suspect of violating our Community Standards so we can quickly take action.”
A spokeswoman said that the company’s policy-enforcement team had 30,000 members and that it had introduced new tools to detect and remove content that violates the law or its policies using artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision.