Misreporting of Islamic State Looting Does Damage

A propaganda video released by the Islamic State, or ISIS, purporting to show the systematic destruction of ancient statutes at Iraq’s Mosul Museum circulated widely yesterday, even drawing a statement of condemnation from Metropolitan Museum director Tom Campbell, but experts soon determined that “most, if not all” of the statuary on view at the museum were plaster fakes. Anticipating the possibility of looting or destruction, officials at the Mosul Museum had transported the originals to the Baghdad Museum, London’s Channel 4 reported.

The misrepresentation of the scale of the loss — which nonetheless included the destruction of a seventh century Ninevah winged bull and damage to the Nirgal Gate — mirrored reports of looting at the Baghdad Museum itself in the 2003 aftermath of the American invasion of Baghdad. April 2003 reports from the Associated Press and National Public Radio placed the number of items lost at 170,000, prompting a statement of outrage from then–president of France Jacques Chirac, even though the actual number turned out to be closer to 15,000. Roughly a third have since been recovered, including the three most valuable pieces stolen from the museum, some of which had been trafficked to the United States.

ISIS, too, earns a significant amount of revenue from sales of looted antiquities worldwide, so despite some chest-thumping in the video (at one point a narrator inveighs: “Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey and we do not care, even if this costs billions of dollars”), the terror group is savvy enough to know the difference between a valuable source of revenue and a valuable source of attention. (For more on this, see our recent interview with Congressman Bill Keating on legislation combatting ISIS antiquities trafficking.)

Given the clear propaganda function of the video, which was released by an ISIS press office and fits into the Islamic State’s broader public strategy of conveying a sense of dramatic civilizational clash, it is disappointing to see the Met’s Tom Campbell issue a hyperbolic statement (“Such wanton brutality must stop, before all vestiges of the ancient world are obliterated”) with a haste not befitting a research institution. While the press may be excused for its rush to parrot unverified reports, the damage is still largely done — headlines across the general and art press still bemoan the loss of the “ancient” replicas at the Mosul Museum, even as updates clarify that a major component of the news turned out to be false.

That ISIS is a geopolitical threat responsible for significant atrocities is no excuse for hysteria, which in many ways is the reaction desired by the terrorist group. The damage, even if symbolic, is done.

Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)

(Photo: Still via MEMRITVVideos/YouTube)