Facebook’s Looted-Artifact Problem

The Islamic State turned the social platform into a global marketplace for stolen relics—until a group of vigilante archaeologists took matters into their own hands.

​​​​​​Photographs by Lenard Smith

One afternoon last winter, Adnan Al Mohamad sat across from me at an Istanbul cafe, wearing a tweed blazer and an oxford shirt embroidered with olive branches. He sipped tea from a tulip-shaped glass and recounted the years he’d spent risking his life trying to stop Syria’s artifact-trafficking networks.

In 2012, he was living with his wife and children in Manbij, an agrarian region outside Aleppo. It was a beautiful place to raise a family: Ancient Roman roads laced through the farmland, a reminder of its legacy as a global trade route, and the hills surrounding Al Mohamad’s home grew barley, olives, and figs, some of Syria’s main exports at the time. Beneath the fertile topsoil lay a trove of ancient artifacts of the region’s long history: Byzantine mosaics, statues of Hittite goddesses, funerary busts, Roman tombs filled with gold coins.

One day, Al Mohamad noticed that the hills were honeycombed with holes. At the time, he was working as an archaeologist at Aleppo’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in the Department of Excavation, and he immediately recognized the holes as a sign: looters. He reassured himself that although the artifacts had immense cultural value, they weren’t worth much on the market: A mosaic could maybe go for $15, if anyone even wanted to buy it. Extracting, transporting, and selling it for that price hardly seemed worth the risk for looters.

Yet when he investigated the ditches, he found that the artifacts were indeed disappearing. So, using his background as an archaeologist, he posed in person and online as an artifact appraiser. Soon enough, people started asking him for advice on pricing and connections outside Syria. He invited them to send him photos on WhatsApp of artifacts they planned to sell, and cataloged them as evidence.

As the civil war escalated in Syria, the Islamic State moved in and claimed Manbij as part of its caliphate; eventually, in 2014, Al Mohamad’s family fled to Turkey, while he stayed. Over months, he established a network of about 100 informants throughout the region who tipped him off to who was digging for the artifacts and where. Through these networks, he started to hear what was going on: The looters were finding buyers abroad who were willing to pay exorbitant prices for looted artifacts. They were using a website called Facebook.

Before the war, almost no one Al Mohamad knew used Facebook. But as conflicts displaced communities, people across the Middle East turned to the social network to stay in touch with family and friends: From 2011 to 2017, users in Syria increased 1,900 percent.

During this time, ISIS was searching for more ways to finance its self-proclaimed government. Aleppo doesn’t have much oil, and operating a militant caliphate is expensive. So it expanded its revenue streams to include the extraction of Syria’s cultural-artifact reserves, eventually establishing a Department of Antiquity that managed the process and taxed looters 20 percent on all sales. On Facebook, it found a perfect place to sell its spoils. Online, looters now had access to a wide network of deep-pocketed dealers and collectors in America, France, Dubai, and elsewhere, and they could connect with many of them at once, Al Mohamad learned, simply by posting a photo of a looted artifact in a group. A mosaic that would sell for only $15 in Syria could fetch more than $35,000 from a buyer on Facebook; other artifacts could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And because Facebook did not prohibit selling historical artifacts on its site, almost nothing was stopping ISIS from destroying UNESCO World Heritage sites and ransacking museums.

By 2014, the group had turned Facebook into a vertically integrated one-stop shop for looted items: It was not only the best place to sell them, but the best place to research and verify an artifact’s authenticity, assess its monetary value, and recruit and train new looters and smugglers inside and outside Syria. Looting soon became one of ISIS’s main income sources in regions such as Aleppo, and one of the only job options for residents trapped in these ISIS-controlled territories. This January, the UN Security Council released a report on terrorism financing, citing Facebook as “a tool for the illicit trafficking of cultural property” that benefits ISIS. It adds that authorities “report difficulties combating online radicalization, recruitment and fundraising via social media platforms, in particular Facebook.” (Representatives from Facebook declined to comment on the report, or this characterization.)

A decade and a half into its existence, Facebook has clearly succeeded in its mission to bring the world closer together: It has connected friends and families across the globe, and it has also united and empowered criminal networks. And in the years after ISIS’s antiquities trade took off, it allowed Al Mohamad and a small group of vigilantes to track those criminals, using the same online tools the networks were using. Facebook reflects and occasionally amplifies the biggest issues in the world—white supremacy, disinformation, harassment, political polarization, illicit trade—but it has long taken a hands-off approach to regulation on its platform. As a result, people such as Al Mohamad have found themselves forced into the role of amateur detective, lobbyist, police officer, taking it upon themselves to fight not only with the bad actors themselves, but with the social network that gives them space.

Al Mohamad has black hair and gentle, lunar eyes, and he takes his work seriously. “I became an archaeologist because I love my heritage,” he told me in Istanbul. He hated what he was seeing in Facebook groups and in the pockmarked hills outside Aleppo: Centuries of history—his family’s heritage—sold to the highest bidder, via a platform that had made it unprecedentedly lucrative and scalable, but appeared to him to be indifferent to the consequences. “Facebook is how our community has stayed connected during the war, but at the same time, it’s also helped destroy it,” he said. “For Syrians, this is real life, not an online life. Smuggling and trafficking these artifacts is a war crime, so why isn’t Facebook held to the standard of international law?”

Al Mohamad spent eight years documenting the looting, in hopes of ultimately persuading Facebook to change its policy and ban the sale of historical artifacts on its platform. It was risky; ISIS regularly posted bounties on Facebook for people it suspected of similar acts. When the organization discovered that Palmyra’s antiquities chief, Khaled al-Assad, had spirited away museum artifacts for their protection, it beheaded him.

But Al Mohamad was worried Syria would lose its artifacts forever. So he collected data and evidence, and stored it on a memory card he kept hidden in his home. Every few months for more than three years, he would tuck it into his jacket’s inner pocket, rev up his motorcycle, and smuggle it through five ISIS checkpoints to Jarablus, a Syrian village on the bank of the Euphrates less than one kilometer from Turkey—so close he could see the Turkish military officers stalking the border. Through friends, Al Mohamad had gotten a Turkish cellphone, and in Jarablus, he was close enough that he could catch a signal from a Turkish cell tower—out of reach of ISIS, which controlled the internet in its Syrian territories. Al Mohamad would insert the memory card into the phone and wait for the signal to catch. When it did, he’d send all the files to his wife, who was living just over the border. Then he’d wipe the memory card clean, and drive back to Manbij. His wife would then transfer the files across the globe to Portsmouth, Ohio, to a man named Amr Al-Azm.

I met Al-Azm Last november over a Turkish breakfast of diced tomatoes and feta at his hotel in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district, a quarter studded with neoclassical consulates. He had a cumulus of white hair and a baritone voice made to carry through lecture halls, and he picked at his plate as we carped about jet lag. Syrian by heritage, he’s now in exile, shuttling between Ohio, Istanbul, and Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the Syrian border, where he leads an unprecedented effort to track artifact trafficking. Al-Azm’s ancestors ruled Damascus for a period in the Ottoman era, building princely limestone palaces and hammams that remain historic landmarks. He was drawn to archaeology and eventually earned a doctorate in the field from the University of London, before becoming a professor at the University of Damascus, and the director of conservation at the Syrian government’s Department of Antiquities and Museums from the late ’90s to the mid-aughts. But, sensing rising political tensions, he left Syria in 2006 with his family for a teaching position at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Six years later, the civil war ripped Syria apart, and when it did, a group of Al-Azm’s former colleagues and students, including Al Mohamad, called in an SOS. They told him that while a humanitarian crisis unfolded, Syria’s cultural heritage was also falling casualty to the war. “I knew it would all be gone if we didn’t act,” Al-Azm said. He was animated by the same desire to protect his culture as Al Mohamad, but he also saw a practical upside to protecting these artifacts: “Safeguarding cultural heritage plays an important role in post-conflict stabilization,” he told me.

He began assembling a grassroots team of Syrian activists, and trained them to conduct a range of interventions for “emergency” artifact preservation through the Day After Heritage Protection Initiative, which he co-founded in 2012. Since then, the group has worked to inventory and protect antiquities, and gone undercover at antique markets abroad looking for looted artifacts. It has partnered with similar-minded organizations, such as the Los Angeles–based Arc/k Project, to document Palmyra Castle using photogrammetry, and the British crime-prevention firm SmartWater, to develop a new technology that covertly marks artifacts with a traceable code. And it has undertaken countless intelligence-gathering missions, like the ones Al Mohamad embarked on.

In his home office, in a small city near the Ohio-Kentucky border where he now teaches at Shawnee University, Al-Azm pieced together the information he received from Al Mohamad and other sources, sifting through violent extremist content, scanning satellite images of looted terrain and crumbled buildings, and monitoring the internet. “By 2014, social media was being rapidly flooded with looted antiquities. The more we looked, the more we found. It was spreading like a virus,” he said. “That’s when it hit me: Facebook is advertising the very same artifacts we’ve dedicated our lives trying to save.”

That same year, Al-Azm met Katie A. Paul, a D.C.-based anthropologist and research analyst, at a roundtable on trafficking networks. Inspired by her family’s Greek heritage, Paul has wanted to be an archaeologist since she was 7 years old; she had been on her way to earning her doctorate when the Arab Spring happened. “I saw people risking their lives to protect their heritage,” she recalled to me over the phone. “I joined what I thought were these Facebook heritage-monitoring groups, but they ended up being trafficking groups. I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of me: There seemed to be thousands more traffickers than activists.”

Paul abandoned her doctorate in order to monitor these trafficking networks. “The research has taken over all of my nights and weekends,” she said. “Every data point I can find, I record; every post, every single comment, recordings, time stamps, I screenshot—yes, it’s data, but it’s also criminal evidence.”

In 2018, Al-Azm and Paul co-founded the Alliance to Counter Crime Online with a team of online-trafficking and policy experts, as well as the ATHAR Project. Over two years, Al-Azm and Paul monitored a sample of 95 Facebook looting groups across the Middle East and North Africa, which included 488 administrators and nearly 2 million members. For every group or page they discovered, Facebook’s “recommended pages” directed them to three more, uncovering a circuit that looks less like an unconnected set of lone amateurs than an organized criminal network governed by the same rules, and using a common code to signal to buyers that they are selling historical artifacts. Their Facebook pseudonyms reference artifacts, and many of them list their profession as “archaeologist.” Every time a sale is made, these admins earn a 20 percent commission—just as ISIS had through its Department of Antiquities. Paul and Al-Azm used their on-the-ground intel to verify and cross-reference what they were tracking online, including the names of looters and their affiliations with ISIS and other Islamist militant groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

“This isn’t like the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Al-Azm said, referencing the account of a shepherd boy who unwittingly stumbled upon one of history’s most valuable archaeological discoveries. “They do internet market research and check Sotheby’s to see what similar things are selling for—it’s a sophisticated network.”

Facebook groups, Al-Azm and Paul found, aren’t just being used to facilitate sales, but to help train a generation of looters, providing a place where members can share techniques, excavation tutorials, and pricing guidelines. One Facebook user in Tunis annotated a satellite-image screenshot with instructions for how to use Google Earth to identify promising archaeological sites for looting; another in Egypt offers a tutorial on building a pump to remove groundwater from looting pits. “It’s almost like an accelerator program for looters,” Paul said. (A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment about this assertion.)

The sales are held as online auctions, in which looters post photos and videos of artifacts, or hold Facebook Live sessions, and members bid on them in the comments. Group members also submit requests for specific items, which looters then go out and hunt for. “An admin will put out an open call to the group for in-demand items, like manuscripts or mosaics, then members will post photos of what they find, along with their WhatsApp numbers,” Paul said. Some looters offer their services for hire; ATHAR found one enterprising scuba diver in Egypt offering to break into underwater tombs for the right price.

Ancient mosaics—of peacocks, of Hercules, of erotic mermaids—are particularly popular; looters roll them up like carpets and smuggle them out of Syria through Turkey and Lebanon. Paul and Al-Azm also documented Pharaonic tombs plundered in Egypt, church bells pilfered from Libyan basilicas, Tunisian cemeteries raided for tombstones, and a human-skull cup stolen from Tibet. One man attempted to smuggle mummy remains in a speaker system from Egypt to a Facebook buyer in Belgium. According to the UN, artifacts have been hidden in consignments of vegetables and sewn into the lining of smugglers’ garments, then dispersed to buyers via yachts and trucks.

ATHAR found that more than one-third of all artifacts advertised in Facebook groups came from conflict zones. Yet foreign governments lack the authority to moderate content on Facebook’s platform, and nations in conflict have even fewer resources to fight these networks on the ground. So some countries hard hit by looting have resorted to petitioning the U.S. State Department to impose stricter import restrictions on historical artifacts, through a memorandum of understanding. Syria, in particular, has been so affected by looting that in 2016 the U.S. passed a law banning the import of all ancient Syrian art and artifacts, in order to discourage looting and curb ISIS’s cash flow. But smugglers found a loophole: Now, they traffic them into Turkey to disguise their origin, and art dealers advertise them to Western buyers as Mesopotamian or Byzantine. The FBI warned art collectors and dealers that illicit artifacts were flooding the U.S. market, circulating through e-commerce sites, to private collectors, at antique stores and loosely regulated art trade shows where they become impossible to trace. The final owner may never know that what they bought was trafficked and possibly used to finance terrorism. “People assume if they find an artifact for sale inside the U.S., it must be legit, when that’s not, in fact, the reality,” Paul said.

Lenard Smith

In June 2019, ATHAR released a 90-page report titled “Facebook's Black Market in Antiquities: Trafficking, Terrorism, and War Crimes.” In it, Al-Azm and Paul propose that Facebook prohibit the promotion of illicit cultural property in its community standards, and, rather than delete content that violates those terms, share it with experts and law-enforcement officials, who can use it as criminal evidence as they prosecute the actors involved and return confiscated artifacts to their origins.

Facebook’s data-use policy already allows it to submit to law enforcement content that may serve as evidence, and the company regularly turns over such information as it relates to other crimes on the platform. Facebook posts are becoming more commonly used in trials; in 2017, the International Criminal Court brought a warrant for war crimes against a Libyan general based solely on videos uploaded directly to Facebook. But in the summer of 2019, instead of documenting evidence of looting, Facebook began deleting groups. Al-Azm was dismayed: “Facebook is a record keeper whether they like it or not,” he told me. “They have a moral obligation, if not a legal obligation, to preserve this data for proper use.”

In October, Paul and Al-Azm received a phone call from Facebook’s public-policy team, including Vittoria Federici, who has a background in Middle East conflict and policy. According to Paul, Federici explained that Facebook had been removing historical artifacts for sale when it was “absolutely clear that such items have been looted,” in accordance with the company’s community standards on “coordinating harm and publicizing crime.” But Federici said she recognized the need for a policy specific to illicit cultural property and told them that Facebook was ready to create a plan.“The people we spoke with showed a deep understanding of these challenges, thinking about the right issues and asking all of the right questions,” Paul recalled of that conversation. (Federici could not be reached for comment.)

Paul and Al-Azm didn’t hear from Facebook again until this spring, when the social network told them it had consulted with a handful of other experts such as heritage lawyers, museum curators, and auction houses, and were in the final stages of drafting a policy.

Before the company could finish, the COVID-19 crisis hit. With the world sheltering in place, looters struck vacant archaeological sites and unguarded artifacts. According to ATHAR, at least five new trafficking groups launched in the Middle East in the early days of the pandemic; one group gained 120,000 new members in a single month, from mid-April to mid-May—exactly when lockdowns were initiated in the region. With heritage sites around the world suddenly unprotected, establishing a policy became more urgent than ever.

Finally, in June—nearly a decade after the looting had first been documented, and a year after ATHAR’s report—Facebook released a policy on historical artifacts. “We now prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artifacts on Facebook and Instagram,” Greg Mandel, a public-policy manager at Facebook, wrote to me in an email. This includes archaeological discoveries and ancient manuscripts, tombstones, coins, funerary items, and mummified body parts.

Paul and Al-Azm had gotten what they wanted—kind of. While Facebook now bans the sale of historical artifacts in its written policy, it does not proactively enforce it—instead, it acts only if a user reports the content, which Paul argues is unlikely to happen, because most trafficking occurs in private groups. “This is why we see everything from wildlife to drugs to conflict antiquities continue to flourish on the platform,” she said in a call to me the day the policy was released. “Whether there is a policy against it or not.”

In the weeks after Facebook updated its policy, Paul reported 11 posts as “unauthorized sales,” including an antique sword, historic religious artifacts of human remains, and an Egyptian coffin that had been advertised in a group called “Pharaonic Antiquities for Sale” in Arabic. Seven of those reports were met with a response stating that the post had been reviewed by Facebook and was not determined to violate its Community Standards, and three with a message that Facebook “couldn’t prioritize” the report, because of a shortage of moderators due to COVID-19. Only one post, featuring Benghazi coins, was removed. “We’re committed to enforcing the policy; because the policy is relatively new, we are compiling training data to inform our systems so we can better enforce. It’s an area where we are going to improve with time,” a Facebook spokesperson commented.

“Facebook is the largest social-media company in the world, and it needs to invest in teams of experts to identify and remove networks rather than playing whack-a-mole with individual posts and accounts,” Al-Azm told me. “Otherwise, nothing will change.”

Facebook’s business model is dependent on maximizing engagement, which means cultivating as many groups, connections, and users as possible. But its content moderation systems tend to place the onus on individual users to monitor a diffuse and ever-growing body of rule-violating posts, while the systems that create those posts hide in plain sight. “The effort to police antiquities, hate speech, or harassment rests heavily on reporters and users to expose problems,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. “It has 2.7 billion users uploading ads and content in more than 100 languages every second of every day. Facebook could not possibly hire enough people who speak all those languages to keep the service crime-free. So policing Facebook will always be a frustrating, cosmetic, and unsuccessful endeavor.”

Al-Azm and Paul plan to continue monitoring the looting networks and present their findings to the UN, UNESCO, and other authorities, with the goal of pressuring Facebook to adopt and enforce an effective policy. And Al Mohamad stopped doing his reconnaissance work when he reunited with his family in Istanbul, where they now live in a district nicknamed “Little Syria.” When we met, we talked about all that’s been lost during the nine-year civil war, and what will likely never be returned, and at some point in the conversation, he lost his appetite. He told me about how, in Syria, when he couldn’t sleep, he would sneak out in the middle of the night to shovel dirt over mosaics to conceal them from looters, like an on-the-ground content moderator. Sometimes, he considered scraping together money to buy some of the artifacts being advertised on Facebook himself. He said he would have, if the proceeds wouldn’t have gone to ISIS. If his work saved even one, he told me, it was worth it to him. “Many people think that artifacts are for the past, but they’re also for the future,” he said. “The work that I did, and the risks I have taken, was all to save our heritage. In the end, I did it for my children.”