When terrorists traffic looted antiquities on Facebook

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When terrorists traffic looted antiquities on Facebook

Recent work by a group of anthropologists reveals how the American social network is being used by terrorist groups to illegally resell antiquities around the world.

The conflict between the Islamic State, on the one hand, and the Syrian Democratic Forces and the international coalition, on the other, has already resulted in a dramatic toll: hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of invalids and displaced persons. But a report published in recent days mentions another disaster, a cultural one, made possible by Facebook.

Several extremist groups benefit from this trafficking

The Athar project, led by a group of anthropologists and available on a dedicated website, followed 95 Facebook groups in Arabic, monitoring some two million users. And the situation is clear: people living in conflict zones (Syria, Yemen, Libya, etc.) illegally offer antiquities for sale. According to the researchers, several extremist groups benefit from this trafficking, some of which are fighting in Syria or are affiliated with Al Qaeda or the Islamic state.

The process is even well established, and some of the administrators of these groups go so far as to impose a tax on new members, called khums. This is the same name used by Daech to tax the antique trade. "[This] also reveals a more worrying problem: the institutionalization of the antiquities trade initially established under Daech has never been completely dismantled, it has only moved to a new medium," the report says.

Facebook's features at work

Facebook also allows members of these groups to exchange information, such as screenshots from Google Earth showing archaeological sites, even designating the best way to loot them. Several functionalities of the platform then come into action: Facebook Stories allows the diffusion of images, the encrypted messaging of the social network hosts the members' communications. The Athar project report even mentions the possibility of using the Facebook payments tool for transactions.

However, this illegal trade is not the sole responsibility of traffickers from conflict areas, even though more than a third of the messages posted on these Facebook groups are posted by users located in these regions: according to the report, 44% of publications were issued by users located in countries bordering these conflict areas. The network analysis also revealed that one of the most important members of this trafficking network is based in Michigan City, Indiana, USA.

Facebook has no legal responsibility to prevent these sales

The US government has imposed restrictions on the import of antiquities from Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq. And the export of such objects is illegal in most countries in the Middle East. But Facebook has no legal responsibility to prevent these sales. Worse still: according to Katie Paul, an anthropologist who co-directed the Athar project, the social network removes the groups concerned once identified, rather than preserving evidence of their activities, which could be used in court. In addition to the cultural tragedy that this traffic represents, its economic importance should also be highlighted, since the sites concerned are particularly popular with tourists. This is a further threat to the return to peace and prosperity in the regions concerned.