New videos released on Thursday apparently show ISIS militants destroying Assyrian and Akkadian artifacts in Mosul—smashing statues and scraping through a winged bull from the 7th century B.C.
This is only the latest episode in a spree of iconoclasm ISIS has unleashed across the areas under its control in Iraq and Syria. In May 2014, there were reports of separate Assyrian artifacts being excavated and destroyed. In July 2014, fighters destroyed the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Nineveh. Earlier this week, reports said the group had burned 100,000 books and manuscripts from the Mosul library.
One way to think about this is as part of a concerted attack on civilization itself. "I'm totally shocked," a professor at the University of Mosul's college of archeology told the AP. "It's a catastrophe. With the destruction of these artifacts, we can no longer be proud of Mosul's civilization."
But another way to think about it is as squarely in a tradition of iconoclasm. Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, himself destroyed idols, according to tradition. There's a strong tradition of icon-destruction in Christianity. And in pre-Islamic Mecca, the Kaaba was the site of multiple idols, which Muhammad cleared out before rededicating the site to God. This is certainly the tradition to which ISIS wishes to claim a connection. The Taliban, another group that claimed fidelity to the principles of early Islam, also spent a great deal of time destroying images of people—most notably the massive Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The tomb of Muhammad in Mecca was itself destroyed by Ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia, early in the 20th century.