How Facebook Made It Easier Than Ever to Traffic Middle Eastern Antiquities

Article published at worldpoliticsreview.com on August 14, 2018. Written by  and

The instability that followed the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011 has given rise to some of the most devastating conflicts the Middle East has ever seen. Syria and Iraq, in particular, have suffered from the dismantling of state infrastructure and the expansion of terrorist and violent extremist organizations, most prominently the self-styled Islamic State.

The Islamic State’s short-lived dominion over some of the most archaeologically rich territories in the “Cradle of Civilization” of Mesopotamia gave it control over many of the region’s most valuable cultural assets. And the group exploited this to maximum effect. Setting itself apart from terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and the Taliban, whether in Afghanistan or Yemen, the Islamic State was able to commodify cultural heritage as a resource that could simultaneously provide financial sustainability and propaganda value, compounding the psychological impact of its terrorism on civilian populations. Notably, it ushered in a new era of terrorism financing fueled by the black market trade in cultural property.

Although the looting of antiquities is a centuries-old practice, such objects had never before been converted into an extractive resource by a terrorist group. The existence of a robust, and largely unregulated, international market for art and antiquities dominated by Western nations provided ample opportunities to launder movable cultural artifacts into the global marketplace—opportunities that are not available when trafficking in oil, weapons or other traditional sources of terrorist financing.

It is no surprise, then, that antiquities trafficking across the Middle East has caught the world’s attention. Yet the world’s understanding of how traffickers operate, and how the rise of the internet has fueled their activities, remains limited. Specifically, the use of social media platforms, most of all Facebook, for this kind of trafficking has added a new and largely unexplored challenge to combating it.

Listen to Amr Al-Azm and Katie A. Paul discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. Their audio starts at 20:02.

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Since the Arab uprisings, Facebook has grown to be one of the most-used social media platforms by the region’s massive youth populations. As of 2016, there were over 80 million Facebook subscribers across the 22 countries that make up the Arab League, with more than 1.6 million being added every month. As Facebook’s subscriber base in the Middle East and North Africa has grown, the platform’s capabilities have continued to evolve. What was once a means of uploading photos and videos now offers features including live streaming, video chat communications and options for encrypted messaging.

Facebook is the most high-profile of the social media platforms that have been used as vehicles for the sale of illicit artifacts; others include WhatsApp, Telegram and Viber. Antiquities traffickers use these platforms to evade the authorities and circumvent regulations imposed by online auction and e-commerce sites like eBay, LiveAuctioneers and Etsy (though these sites are frequently used as well).

The current “Community Standards” on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp fall short of providing the means to report and remove pages and groups that engage in the trafficking of cultural property. While Facebook and other technology giants have had success in targeting the movement of drugs and weapons on their platforms, they have struggled to rein in antiquities traffickers, who have devised their own methods of communication that have helped them skirt rules against such transactions, as well as the artificial intelligence designed to enforce them.

The rise of the Islamic State ushered in a new era of terrorism financing fueled by the black market trade in cultural property.

For the past 10 months, we’ve been carrying out a study to monitor these traffickers’ activities. This work has allowed us to identify Facebook pages and groups in which users are engaging in the smuggling, purchasing and selling of stolen cultural material, including the sharing of information about illegal excavations. Though the study began last October, the data collection process has involved reviewing Facebook archives going back several years. The earliest relevant pages and groups we’ve found date back to late 2013, indicating that the use of Facebook for antiquities trafficking is a fairly recent phenomenon.

The data analyzed so far has revealed a sophisticated network of looters and traffickers who have developed new tools and methods to facilitate their illicit transactions. These include visuals such as maps and diagrams to aid in looting efforts and a system for submitting specific “loot-to-order” requests that are quickly fulfilled by other group members.

More broadly, it is becoming clear that social media has brought the world of transnational trafficking to the fingertips of a large number of internet users throughout the region, while streamlining the process of executing individual transactions. The complete study will be published in a forthcoming paper.

Looting Tips from a ‘Professional Adventurer’

To identify relevant Facebook pages and groups, we began by searching Facebook for broad common Arabic terms related to antiquities. These include the Arabic words used for “treasures,” “monuments” and“artifacts.” All searches were conducted manually, and no scraping for data was involved, in accordance with Facebook’s policies. Once we identified the pages, we canvassed and recorded individual posts and communications.

Groups and pages for the illicit antiquities trade on Facebook facilitate two main activities: looting and trafficking.

Those dedicated to looting are focused on sharing information about how to illegally dig. Group members develop infographics to illustrate the types of tombs that exist in particular locations and regions and their subterranean architecture. In countries like Egypt, users provide instructions, including video instructions, for creating makeshift water pumps to keep looting pits dry from groundwater. They also include tips on how to spot the signs of a promising location for illegal excavation, including tomb entrances.

A sample infographic posted in a Facebook group devoted to looting.
Image retrieved Nov. 7, 2017 (courtesy of authors).
 

One looting group, to take an example, was created in September 2016 as a means of crowdsourcing knowledge for carrying out illegal excavations and authenticating anything that diggers might find. To gain entrance to the group, Facebook users are required to submit a request to “join” and then answer a brief series of questions in Arabic. The questions include, “Why do you want to join this group?” and “What is your profession?” They are generally broad and they also rotate, meaning not all prospective members go through the same screening process. The groups’ administrators review the answers and decide whether to accept or reject admission requests.

Interest in this group seems to have been intense. Within a year, it had amassed more than 51,230 members, despite the fact that it was officially “closed,” or private. Roughly 5,000 of those members were active posters to the group page itself. In addition, many group members shared their WhatsApp numbers or requested that any communications be conducted through private Facebook messages, meaning that many of the group members’ interactions were kept out of the public eye.

Members have used the group to both request and provide instructions on how to find, excavate and loot from sites and tombs, along with what types of material to look for. These instructions come in the form of detailed posts including images, videos and even labeled infographics depicting, for example, what one might encounter underground when excavating a tomb.

Some members of the group have posted images of Egyptian artifacts on sale at major international auction houses as a means of conveying how much certain types of pieces could be worth and what types of objects are in demand. In one post, dated April 25, 2017, a user provided photos from Sotheby’s, the New York-based auction house, of Pharaonic artifacts from Egypt. These included small statues known as shabtis, which are frequent targets for traffickers due to the ease of transporting them. The post include the estimated values of individual Sotheby’s lots, apparently as an incentive for those seeking an easy payday. The tactic worked: Just one day after the images were posted, another user shared an image of a similar shabti, albeit of a lower quality, that the user was apparently interested in selling.

In October 2017, a group member based in Cairo posted extensive instructions on how to find and loot a Roman tomb. He described the layers and types of material one would encounter while digging through the tomb toward the actual grave. He noted that tombs include a layer of stone as well as a layer of thick soil, and that diggers might become discouraged by the thickness of the soil and think they’ve missed the grave altogether He urged them not to give up, and wrote that broken pottery pieces in the soil should be taken as a sign that the grave is nearby. The post featured photos to give users a better sense of what Roman tombs look like. Soon after these instructions were posted, Roman-era material began appearing in postings on the group’s page.

A post from a Facebook group devoted to looting with images of Egyptian artifacts that had
recently sold at Sotheby’s, the New York-based auction house. Image retrieved
Nov. 7, 2017 (courtesy of authors).

Looting pages also include posts from individuals who are in the process of carrying out excavations. One of the administrators of the aforementioned group has been posting images of ongoing illicit excavations from as recently as June and July. His posts include observations about the risks of death from suffocation or tomb collapse. They also include images of water pumps and hoses he uses as a means of lowering the groundwater in his looting pits. He signs off each of his lengthy status posts with the phrase “memoirs of a professional adventurer.”

While the membership of looting groups is generally skewed toward young people who are technologically savvy, online tools have been developed that are geared toward those who are less so. For example, instead of GPS coordinates and images pulled from Google Earth, posts are sometimes illustrated with simple, almost childlike graphics illustrating the underground layout of specific tombs. In one such infographic, posted in November 2017 and illustrating a Roman tomb, a pot of gold is shown at the bottom of an underground staircase near a grouping of trees, giving the image the look of a treasure map.

The Global Trafficking Marketplace

Facebook groups dedicated to trafficking, meanwhile, are more like online marketplaces, primarily used for arranging the movement of specific pieces and establishing connections between middlemen and buyers.

These groups generally have smaller memberships, with a greater rate of repeat-engagement by members. One of the Facebook pages we examined was operational from 2013 until this past March, when Facebook removed it for undisclosed reasons. Though it had a total membership of just over 16,000, significantly lower than some of the looting groups we examined, some 2,020 members were seen actively engaging and posting on the page with regard to the purchase, sale or theft of artifacts. We have also identified multiple users who are active on several trafficking pages. Some of them offer the same artifacts on more than one page.

Of the 2,020 members we studied, 1,552 provided information identifying their current locations. The traffickers come from places like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Turkey and Iran, as well as destinations outside the Middle East. Dozens of users in the United States, Germany, England, France, Belgium and elsewhere were engaged in the sale and purchase of artifacts through the page.

Looters are now targeting material with a previously unseen level of precision—a practice that Facebook makes remarkably easy.

Most members seemed to be using their real Facebook profiles. This means information like their gender, hometown and current location—and even the schools and colleges they attended and their cell phone numbers—is potentially visible to anyone with a Facebook account. Based on their relatively limited engagement with trafficking pages, it’s reasonable to conclude that these are less seasoned traffickers.

While the communication on trafficking pages we examined primarily takes place in Arabic, people write in a variety of other languages, including English, Farsi and French. At least some conversations are facilitated across language barriers by the translation tools provided by Facebook.

For years, heritage experts have understood that looters and traffickers routinely share knowledge and learn from one another about the trade. Prior to the expansion of internet access in the Middle East, though, traffickers connected primarily through face-to-face interaction and other traditional means of communication like phones and snail mail. The internet in general, and Facebook in particular, have sped up communications and exponentially increased the ability of such people to develop networks, exchange information and conduct business transactions across national borders relatively securely.

The content of both the looting and trafficking groups enriches our understanding of the knowledge traffickers possess and how they operate. Until recently, we knew that looters and traffickers would devise missions based on local knowledge and sharing information by word-of-mouth. The use of infographics, however, shows that many looters have a much more complete and sophisticated understanding of what they are looking for, and a more methodological approach to seeking out tombs and other looting sites, than experts previously realized. And while this detailed knowledge used to be in the hands of the few, social media has allowed it to be disseminated to the masses.

Our research also shines a light on loot-to-order transactions, in which artifacts are stolen in response to specific requests, or “orders,” for material. Until now, there has been little evidence confirming that this actually happens.

On Facebook, though, it unfolds in plain sight. On one of the trafficking pages we reviewed, its administrators were making loot-to-order requests less than two months after the page was created. These requests included contact information for the requesting buyers, who were themselves often middlemen. The requests covered particular types of cultural property from particular periods. For example, the administrators at one point indicated they were seeking Islamic-era manuscripts and books that could be made available in Istanbul, Turkey, by a specific date. Other times, they posted requests for Jewish manuscripts, books and artifacts that could be made available in Amman, Jordan. (Amman is a common transit point for traffickers moving material into Israel, which has a large market for Jewish artifacts.)

A post from a Facebook group devoted to trafficking shows a “loot-to-order” request for
Jewish material in Amman, Jordan. Image retrieved Nov. 6, 2017 (courtesy of authors).

Responses to these requests varied. Some members would post a comment showing an image of the type of object being sought, illustrating an ability to fulfill the order. Others would simply state that they had an example of the type of desired object, and request to communicate privately with the administrator. Others would post their contact information, such as an email address or phone number, to connect more securely.

These loot-to-order requests signify a major evolution in antiquities trafficking. Looters are now targeting material with a previously unseen level of precision—a practice that Facebook makes remarkably easy.

Confirming Looted Pieces

People share all kinds of images, videos and other content on social media, so how can we be sure that artifacts being offered on these pages are actually what traffickers say they are?

Some pieces are so rare that they are easy enough to track. For example, on-the-ground intelligence gathered by The Day After Initiative, a Syrian-led civil society organization currently based in Istanbul, combined with our own online research, has allowed us to trace the journey of one especially rare, perhaps even one-of-a-kind item.

The piece is carved from limestone with four outward-looking, intricately detailed carved faces. The object was probably an ornamental fitting. It was initially tracked by The Day After and documented by its affiliates in June 2015. It originated in territory once held by the Islamic State, most likely Raqqa or Manbij, both cities in Syria, before making its way to southern Turkey. Two years later, it appeared in a post on a Facebook page devoted to antiquities trafficking.

We do not know what has become of the piece, as communications about it have been conducted in private. However, its quick journey to the online marketplace suggests that looters are not sitting on antiquities for extended periods.

A screen grab from footage of an artifact that had been looted from Islamic State-held territory in Syria
in 2015. The footage was obtained by affiliates of The Day After Initiative (courtesy of authors).

In other cases, photographs and video footage of antiquities and other items are posted on Facebook in the places where they were originally discovered. Carved reliefs, freshly unearthed artifacts and even chandeliers in historic mansions have all been offered up for sale with accompanying images. The sellers, in these cases, are simply waiting to identify interested buyers before looting them.

In general, though, it can be difficult to confirm the provenance of antiquities being hawked online, and it is up to buyers to establish their authenticity. Sellers usually provide opportunities for buyers to verify the origins of goods by allowing them to examine the goods either personally or through a trusted local intermediary. Moreover, payment is usually made only after the buyer has secured, and presumably authenticated, the goods.

An Uphill Battle

Whether it appears on a Facebook group or at a formal auction house, any sale of artifacts originating in Syria, Iraq and most other countries in the Middle East these days is likely to be illicit due to the fact that such transactions are prohibited by more than half the countries that make up the Arab League. Countries where the trade is prohibited include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen. The antiquities trade has also been suspended in Lebanon since 1988, after the government there determined it could not control the market because of the country’s civil war.

In Egypt, which is home to a majority of the members of Facebook trafficking groups we surveyed, looters and traffickers face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million Egyptian pounds, or around $55,000. Egypt is also considering a new law that would increase the penalty for looting or trafficking to life in prison.

Such penalties, however, are difficult to enforce, as online transactions are almost impossible to regulate. To be sure, certain platforms have recently taken steps to discourage fraudulent and otherwise illegal transactions. In September 2017, eBay released a new seller regulation policy that expressly prohibits the exchanging of emails, phone numbers and other personal contact information between users. The eBay policy update also strongly discourages any commercial interaction between users outside its platform. Unlike Facebook, eBay also has an entire policy dedicated to cultural relics.

What was once an underground industry, accessible only to seasoned traffickers, has been democratized.

Officially, transactions on Facebook must take place via its Marketplace or Buy and Sell Groups features. But as we’ve observed in our study of how Facebook is actually used, members can easily get around this by making their communications private or migrating to other social media platforms like WhatsApp.

Facebook does not currently enforce an explicit ban on transactions involving illicit cultural property. Following Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in April, Facebook began undertaking a massive rewrite of its User Agreement and Community Standards, which presents an opportunity to incorporate such a ban. This would potentially help the platform target and remove future trafficking and looting pages before they gain traction. However, the Congressional hearings concerned an altogether different set of issues, and there is no indication that curbing antiquities trafficking is an objective of the rewrite.

Such initiatives aside, the slow regulatory response to the rapid growth of illicit antiquities trafficking online has likely encouraged more and more people to get involved. What was once an underground industry, accessible only to seasoned traffickers, has been democratized. The proliferation of Facebook and other social media platforms has created a different kind of revolution in the Middle East, one that enables any cultural property thief to operate as a transnational trafficker with contacts and buyers far and wide.

While these new digital communities may be difficult to track, by infiltrating them we can better understand how they operate. Using Facebook as a vehicle for “stealth” ethnography allows us to see how these groups’ tactics continue to evolve, potentially allowing for the adaptation of new methods to combat the plundering of the Middle East’s cultural riches.

But our findings also underscore the fact that we are facing an uphill battle against antiquities trafficking. As criminals continue to adapt, we must adapt with them to have any hope of saving our past.

Amr Al-Azm is a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. He is a founder and board member of The Day After Initiative and currently coordinates the Heritage Protection Initiative (HPI) for cultural heritage protection in Syria. Follow him on Twitter at @alazmamr.

Katie A. Paul is a research analyst based in Washington, D.C. She is an affiliated researcher with The Day After Initiative and has served as a fellow at the Antiquities Coalition. Follow her on Twitter at @AnthroPaulicy.

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