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Destroy, sell, hide: How Islamic State exploits antiquities

Archaeologist Khaled al-Assad was an iconic figure associated with the study of the ancient cultural site of Palmyra in Syria. In the wake of Assad’s murder at the hands of the Islamic State, Amr Al Azm of Shawnee State University joins Gwen Ifill to discuss his legacy, as well as the militant group’s systematic exploitation of antiquities for propaganda and cash.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Joining me now to talk about Khaled al-Asaad and his work is his former colleague Amr Al Azm, a professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. He joins us tonight from Prague by way of Skype.

    Thank you for joining us.

    Tell us what you can about Khaled al-Asaad.

  • AMR AL AZM, Shawnee State University:

    I mean, Khaled al-Asaad was really an iconic figure here in terms of Palmyra and the history and archaeology of the site of Palmyra itself.

    He worked there from — right from the very beginning. He was involved — this is going back to the '50s and '60s — he was involved in the excavations and the restoration. And later on, he became the director of the Department of Antiquities in Palmyra, oversaw the management and administration of the site for many years until his retirement in 2003.

    It's this very rich source of information, I believe, that we have lost today with his death.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How did the rise of ISIS affect his ability to do his work? He was retired, but he was certainly well-respected. How did that change?

  • AMR AL AZM:

    I mean, ultimately, when ISIS takes over any territory, Palmyra or otherwise, essentially, they are in charge, and they make certain that everybody understands in no uncertain terms that they're absolutely in charge.

    So, for someone like Khaled al-Asaad, he would have had basically — he would have been no able to have any sort of communication or contact or involvement with the site with the cultural heritage. And, in fact, he was arrested very shortly after.

    ISIS, soon after they took over the city, they rounded up hundreds of people they considered to be their enemies. They had lists of names ready and available for them, and Khaled al-Asaad was on that list and would have been — and was — we know was taken away then, and this is back a few months ago.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    When did art and archaeology become political?

  • AMR AL AZM:

    Archaeology, archaeological sites, cultural heritage have been a victim of war, at least in Syria, from quite early on, when the conflict in early 2012 changed from one of protests by civil society against the regime to an armed confrontation between regime and opposition.

    Once that happens, we immediately note a very steep rise in basically acts of violence against archaeological sites and monuments ranging from a very marked increase in looting to actually where the archaeological sites themselves become casualties of war because they're on the front lines.

    And as the areas of conflict expanded in Syria, more and more sites were increasingly vulnerable and became sort of destroyed or damaged as a result of that conflict. And Palmyra is no different in that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And what do we know tonight of the state of the 2,000-year-old UNESCO history site, protected site, the ruins, the Roman ruins? Do we know that they're still intact?

  • AMR AL AZM:

    In the case of Palmyra, they have decided that right now there's no need to destroy it. In fact, they have said — we have heard, in fact, news from some of our contacts telling us that actually they're not going to do anything to Palmyra because they see it as a prospective safe haven from the coalition airstrikes.

    No air coalition is going to strike a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. And this is not the only site they have done it too. They have done that in Resafa, near Raqqa. They have done in at Qalaat Jaabar on the Euphrates.

    So, you know, they're very clever about how they use it. They loot what they can loot. They will destroy what they cannot sell or need to make a propaganda statement, and they will hide amongst what will give them safe sanctuary. They're very versatile and very clever in how they use that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Amr Al Azm, thank you so much for telling us about your friend.

  • AMR AL AZM:

    Thank you.

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