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Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Goods and Antiquities

Skulls in the mail: Indonesia foils artifact smuggling

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Jihadi networks using Facebook to trade looted antiquities stolen from war-torn countries, report reveals

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Islamist terrorist networks are using Facebook Groups to trade looted antiquities stolen from conflict zones such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, according to a report from the Athar Project.

In analysis of 95 Arabic-language Facebook Groups set up to facilitate the trafficking of looted antiquities, the project, which is run by a group of volunteer anthropologists, discovered that such items are being traded by members of violent extremist organisations including Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), Hurras Al-Din and the Zinki Brigade.

All of these jihadi factions, along with several other Daesh and al-Qa’ida affiliates, are said to be actively using the Groups to trade antiquities stolen from war-torn countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including items that were looted by Daesh in Iraq and Syria before the final collapse of its so-called caliphate in March of this year.

Members of these networks are said to be either using Facebook to trade directly with buyers, or as a means by which to manage relationships with middlemen who sell to dealers and members of the public.

The project found that administrators of these Groups are highly interconnected and have a global reach, noting that a US antiques dealer is linked with one individual involved with the running of multiple trafficking pages on Facebook.

Administrators are said to demand a commission on any sales that are secured as a result of contact made through their Groups, blocking any members who refuse to hand over payment.

Researchers discovered that the 95 Groups analysed for their study were managed by 488 individual administrators, and had 1,947,195 members.

“Facebook offers a veritable digital toolbox for traffickers to utilise, including photo and video uploads, live streaming, disappearing ‘Stories’, payment mechanisms, and encrypted messaging,” the report reads.

“Facebook is the perfect platform for a one-stop shop black market. This in turn has made Facebook the wild west of social media, providing opportunities for violent extremist organisations and criminal groups to operate in plain sight with little recourse.”

Facebook and other social media platforms have become vital tools for organised criminal networks, allowing them to communicate over encrypted internet connections and link up with buyers they might otherwise not be able to reach.

Over the course of the past 18 months alone, Facebook has been accused of facilitating the crimes of people smugglers, wildlife criminals and sex traffickers.

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Border officers at Cairo airport discover mummified human remains in hollowed out loudspeakers

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Customs officers at Egypt’s Cairo International Airport have discovered mummified human remains stashed inside two speakers, according to a statement issued by the country’s Ministry of Antiquities.

After inspecting the speakers, which had been hollowed out to accommodate the remains, investigators were able to identify six separate body parts belonging to two mummies, including feet, hands and parts of a torso.

Border inspectors found the mummified remains after noticing anomalies while scanning a parcel containing the speakers that was bound for Belgium, prompting them to further examine the package’s contents.

The Ministry of Antiquities has not identified who was behind the shipment, or specified whether any arrests have been made in connection with its discovery.

Officials said the remains would be transferred to archaeologists working at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where they would be studied further and restored.

It is hoped that tests carried out at the museum might shed light on where the body parts originate from.

In a post on Facebook, the ministry wrote: “An archaeological committee examined it and confirmed its authenticity.

“They are now confiscated according to the Antiquities Protection law and its amendments. The parts are now at the Egyptian museum for restoration.”

According to the Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities, “all antiquities are strictly regulated and considered to be the property of the State”.

The smuggling out of the country of any such items, including mummified remains, is punishable with a jail term of up to two years.

Last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said it had returned a gilded coffin to Egypt after learning it had been stolen in 2011.

Commenting on the return of the item, Daniel Weiss, President and CEO at the museum, said: “After we learned that the Museum was a victim of fraud and unwittingly participated in the illegal trade of antiquities, we worked with the District Attorney’s office for its return to Egypt.

“The nation of Egypt has been a strong partner of the Museum’s for over a century. We extend our apologies to Dr Khaled El-Enany, Minister of Antiquities, and the people of Egypt, and our appreciation to District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr’s office for its investigation, and now commit ourselves to identifying how justice can be served, and how we can help to deter future offenses against cultural property.”

Live Science reports that cultural objects estimated to be worth some $50 million were smuggled out of Egypt to the US in 2016.

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Bulgarian and Spanish police dismantle cultural goods-smuggling gang that sold archaeological artefacts online

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Tens of thousands of archaeological artefacts have been recovered in a major European law enforcement operation designed to crack down on organised criminals involved in the trafficking of cultural goods.

In total, Spanish and Bulgarian investigators taking part in Operation Sardica, which was backed with support from Europol and Eurojust, seized more than 30,000 items in a day of action that took place at the end of last month.

The effort saw officers conduct raids on 17 properties in Spain and Bulgaria, arrest 13 suspected members of the organised smuggling network, and seize €180,000 (£205,063) in cash.

Spain’s Civil Guard said the gang used the internet to sell large numbers of archaeological artefacts that had been stolen from a number of mostly Bulgarian archaeological sites, including Greek and Roman coins, rings, fibulas, ceramics, helmets, funeral urns, lamps, arrowheads and spears.

Items used to locate metal underground such as metal detectors were also found during the property searches, as well as tools to artificially age objects.

Once the items had been excavated, the criminal gang would transport them to Spain, from where they would be sold online on popular auction sites.

On these platforms, the trafficking gang would have users place false bids on items to artificially increase their sale price.

The smugglers are also said to have been involved in the production of counterfeit archaeological items.

Prior to the day of action, investigators were able to establish that while the Spanish end of the criminal enterprise was based mainly in Valencia, it also had a presence in Alicante, Murcia, Segovia and Zaragoza, as well as in Bulgaria.

In a statement, Europol said: “The smooth coordination and exchange of information were instrumental in the success of this investigation. Europol brought together the different involved police forces to help them connect the dots between their own national investigations and provided analytical support before and during the action day.

“A mobile office was deployed on-the-spot in Valencia (Spain) to help with the cross checking of operational information against Europol’s databases, alongside an expert being present  at the coordination centre set up at Eurojust to coordinate the execution of the arrest warrants and searches.”

Back in July, a coalition of European law enforcement agencies participated in a Europol-backed operation that resulted in the recovery of some 25,000 stolen archaeological artefacts estimated to be worth €40 million.

Europol said the operation revealed the criminal networks behind the illegal excavation and sale of antiquities across the EU are highly organised.

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