Italian Mob Trades Weapons for Looted Art From ISIS in Libya

Two Italian organized-crime rings are accused of trading in weapons with ISIS fighters for illegally pilfered artifacts from Libya.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

ROME — A fuzzy photo shows the decapitated marble head of an ancient Roman statue; the grainy image is standing in for the gilded sales bills usually displayed in the world’s finest auction houses. There are no certificates of authenticity or patrimony for these artifacts either, just maps with red markings.

This is no ordinary art show.

The maps in question show ancient Roman and Greek tombs that have been pillaged in Libya. These artifacts have been put on the market by Italy’s Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, who are working with the Neapolitan Camorra criminal gang. The showroom is a Mafia-controlled salami factory in southern Italy.

The photos of the stolen loot were shown to Domenico Quirico, an undercover journalist from La Stampa newspaper who was posing as an art collector. He was working with Italy’s Patrimony Police, who have been trying to break an illicit art-for-weapons ring that has been thriving in southern Italy for months.

The marble head, which dates back to the days of the Roman Empire, is going for just $66,000. Another statue, much larger and much older, dating back to ancient Greek times, is going for more than $1 million, but the dealers told Quirico he could have it for $880,000.

Quirico’s exposé uncovered an elaborate ring that is apparently operating in plain view. The illicit art is brought into Italy on Chinese-flagged cargo ships coming from Sirte to the Calabria port of Gioia Tauro, easily the most dangerous port in the country characterized by a mass of illegally constructed buildings mostly made out of abandoned ship containers. It is here that the ‘Ndrangheta has, for years, run the biggest drug-smuggling business in Europe.

On Monday, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano confirmed La Stampa’s reporting, adding that the Italian government is acutely aware the illegal ring of art-for-arms funds jihadi terrorism in nearby Libya. “We have studied the ‘GDP of terror’ and we know that one of the components is the commercialization of stolen art,” he told reporters. “The stolen artifacts feed ISIS and contribute to the GDP of terror.”

The Italian criminal gangs reportedly acquire the artifacts from jihadi tomb raiders in Libya in exchange for a wide range of weaponry, including Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades that the Camorra have in great supply from a long-standing arms-trafficking racket with Russia, Moldova, and the Ukraine.

The weapons are either smuggled back to Libya on the same container ships or left in Europe to be picked up by foreign fighters here. In September, Italy’s financial police discovered what they called “a veritable arsenal of the Camorra” in a stolen car in an abandoned parking lot in a slummy suburb of Naples. In the trunk, divided among duffel bags, were eight pistols, four sub-machine guns, an assault rifle, and 650 rounds of ammunition along with silencers for the weapons. The serial numbers had been scratched off all the weapons, according to police sources. The car was left unlocked, the weapons apparently ready for pickup by someone who could have easily smuggled them into Northern Europe.

Once the art-for-weapons exchange is made, the artifacts are sold on the black market to art collectors who don’t care about provenance. According to Italy’s patrimony police, the bulk of the loot stolen from Libya ends up in private collections in Russia, China, and Japan. Quirico was told that if he didn’t buy the marble statue head, it would go to someone in the United Arab Emirates who had been looking for just such a piece. He was also told that “a famous American actor” had sent someone snooping around for some Greek or Roman artifacts for under $50,000, that they hadn’t found yet.

It is no secret that ISIS has been in the illegal-artifact business for years. Loot pillaged from Iraq and Syria often ends up on the black market.

Last April, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned the UN Security Council that the trafficking of illegal ancient artifacts was funding terrorism. “Around 100,000 cultural objects of global importance, including 4,500 archaeological sites… are under the control of the Islamic State... in Syria and Iraq,” Churkin wrote. “The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$150-200 million per year.” Those treasures were trafficked through Turkey and sold directly to private collectors.

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Now it is clear that the illicit trade also extends to Libya, where the Italian gangs have been trying to make inroads into the lucrative terror-supply business for years and where, according to La Stampa, special militias in Libya have enslaved local archeologists to do the digging and dirty work for them at all five of Libya’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.

According to art historian and journalist Luca Nannipieri, whose book The Art of Terror was released in Italy last week, much of the looted art sold by the self-declared Islamic State ends up in museums, universities, and foundations after it has been effectively “laundered” and given false provenance documents that allow it to legally enter the mainstream market.

Nannipieri spent two years following the trail of several antiquities known to come from sites under ISIS control. “The market finances a network of smugglers, profiteers, and tomb raiders linked to Islamist fundamentalism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt,” he says. He also found evidence that some ancient tombs in Tuscany and Lazio have ended up in the hands of ISIS smugglers who have connections in Italy.

“It is said that beauty will save the world,” he said. “That is false. Beauty and art are often the reason for murders, destruction, oppression, and devastation.”