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Palmyra, where East met West, is symbolic target for Islamic State

Satellite images released by the U.N. confirmed the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra by Islamic State forces, part of a pattern of targeting ancient sites in Syria and Iraq. Jeffrey Brown talks to Michael Danti of Boston University and Brenton Easter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the losses at Palmyra and how authorities are tackling antiquities smuggling.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, first, militants in the Islamic State group have been destroying temples and historic treasures in Syria over the past couple of weeks, all part of a continuing campaign to target the region's cultural heritage.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story, part of our continuing series Culture at Risk.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Satellite images released yesterday by the U.N. confirmed the fears: the destruction of the Temple of Bel in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

  • GIOVANNI BOCCARDI, UNESCO:

    We know for sure that some time after the 27th of August, most likely on the 30th of August, this temple was blown up by explosives.

    UNESCO official Giovanni Boccardi:

  • GIOVANNI BOCCARDI:

    It was dedicated to a local god, Bel, but during Byzantine times, it was turned into a church and then with the arrival of the Arabs, it was turned into a mosque. So this is why it has this profound humanistic meaning, which goes beyond sort of historic and even aesthetic aspects.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Palmyra, a modern city and antiquities site located 150 miles northeast of Damascus, was taken over by ISIS forces in May, who then continued a pattern of targeting ancient sites in Iraq and Syria. Last week, they destroyed a smaller temple at Palmyra and, before that, beheaded Khaled Al-Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist who had looked after the city's sites for more than four decades.

    On another front, the FBI last week issued a statement urging U.S. art dealers to be careful when buying antiquities from the Middle East, saying there is evidence collectors have recently been offered artifacts plundered by Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.

    Joining me now is Brenton Easter, senior special agent with the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University who's worked in the region for many years and advises the State Department.

    Michael Danti, let me start with you.

    Help us to understand a little bit more about what has been lost. Tell us about Palmyra and the specific temple.

  • MICHAEL DANTI, Boston University:

    Palmyra is a site that dates back to the Bronze Age, several thousand years B.C., but what it's most known for is standing Greco-Roman remains that largely date to first and second centuries A.D.

    It was essentially an antiquity where East met West in the Syrian desert, linking up with the great caravan traffic between the Mediterranean and East Asia. So it's an incredible fusion of cultures and antiquity. It was known in antiquity for its multicultural diversity.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You and I talked about this issue most recently after the destruction of sites in Iraq. When you look at something this, is there a pattern that you can discern about why specific sites are being targeted at this point?

  • MICHAEL DANTI:

    Yes.

    In many ways, Palmyra serves as a microcosm for the larger picture, for Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra destructions as they move into new territory. As their footprints have expanded out, the first step generally is they carry out deliberative destructions of Muslim heritage, generally Sufi and Shia sites, such as mosques, historic schools and cemeteries.

    And those destructions happened immediately after ISIL moved into the Tadmor region, the Palmyra region.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right.

  • MICHAEL DANTI:

    They blew up two very important Muslim sites.

    Then they move on to looting cultural assets, museum collections, the collections of private individuals. And they began discussions in ISIL leadership in Tadmor about looting the archaeological site of Palmyra using contractors. That was followed by the planting of large IEDs in many of the structures at Palmyra. And then it was just a matter of waiting before something happened.

    And we don't know what the timing yet means of these destructions of Baal Shamin and Bel temple. That may become clearer…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me bring in Brenton Easter on that issue, particularly on — we have the FBI issuing this warning. We hear a lot about the antiquities as a source of revenue for ISIS.

    Is this a certainty at this point? And what specifically are you seeing coming onto the antiquities market?

    BRENTON EASTER, Immigration and Customs Enforcement: One of the things that HSI has done phenomenally over the past few is we have begun to target these cases not just as cultural property investigations, but also as financial investigations.

    So, we are tracing the money. And we do see that these revenue streams can feed into other things. We are trying to tackle that angle. One of the things that I heard earlier on the program that Gwen Ifill was speaking about is how conflict is a problem with immigration.

    Well, when you have conflict areas where people are fleeing or moving in large quantities, you're also going to have a lot of these smuggled commodities, which ISIS can use as a revenue fund, being smuggled as well.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    How much — can I just ask, in that, how much…

  • BRENTON EASTER:

    Sure.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do we know how much money we're talking about? Do we know how many pieces we're talking about? What is the extent of the damage and of what's flowing on the market?

  • BRENTON EASTER:

    Well, that's a very good question.

    And I don't know if you're ever going to be able to get an exact number or total on any of that. You're hearing different reports from all different people saying different things. What we have seen is that there are these commodities coming out, they are being offered to people outside of Syria. Sometimes, the pieces are still in Syria when we see them being offered.

    Other times, they have made it to some of the transshipment locations. What we have noticed is that once they do leave, they enter into a very large transnational criminal organization network, which is expert at smuggling these things, it's expert at layering false provenance and paperwork to be associated with these pieces, so that they can be entered onto the market.

    They also are very good at storing these things for a period of time, so, sometimes, you will have these pieces sit for five, 10 years before they will actually be shown somewhere in one of the major consumer markets like New York.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, I was going to ask you briefly about the U.S. Is there evidence that it is coming in? I know this is — you're working very hard to stop it from coming into the U.S. Is there any evidence that pieces are getting in yet?

  • BRENTON EASTER:

    Well, what I can tell you is that we are creating a very large database that deals with looted and stolen antiquities.

    Now, that includes not just coming out of Syria or Iraq or the Middle East, but stuff that's being looted all around the world, although we do have a lot of stuff that is specifically coming out of these conflict regions that we're discussing tonight.

    When it does come across the U.S., we hope to intercept it. When it does hit the markets, we do hope to hit it. However, at this point, we aren't seeing large amounts of this commodity hitting at this time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Michael Danti, just very briefly, 30 seconds, if you could, are we expecting — the way that this gets attention, do you expect to see more of this or what can be done at this point?

  • MICHAEL DANTI:

    With regard to the deliberate destructions, what can be done is to eliminate ISIL. Nonstate actors in Syria and Iraq are primarily responsible for this type of destruction.

    Sources on the ground in Tadmor claim that there will be more of these ISIL destructions, so that they can gain media attention and to take away some of the attention from their recent failures in other areas in Iraq and Syria.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You think some of it does have to do with failures; that's why they might be doing this?

  • MICHAEL DANTI:

    Yes, I think sometimes that they're trying to control the message and to divert attention away from territorial losses to Kurdish forces in the north and in some other theaters in the conflict zone.

    It serves as a very powerful ideological tool for the organization for recruiting and it's a form of psychological warfare. And ISIL believes that this type of destruction of pre-Islamic heritage is primarily targeting the West.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Michael Danti and Brenton Easter, thank you both very much.

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