Many questions were raised by the shocking recent propaganda video showing Islamic State jihadists smashing statues, both authentic antiquities and gypsum reproductions, inside Iraq’s Mosul Museum and at the ancient Ninevah archaeological site nearby.
Most important is the absence of an accurate accounting of what has been lost.
Also prominent among the unknowns: Exactly when did the destruction take place? Islamic State entered the city eight months before the video’s sudden release late last month.
Islamic State is engaged in a media war in addition to its horrific ground combat. Knowing when the destruction happened might shed some light on the propaganda’s goal.
One increasingly likely explanation: The video was designed to provide ideological cover for the militant group, which is known to have been profiting from black-market sales of smuggled antiquities. Selling artifacts – material evidence of “false gods,” as Islamic State asserts – rather than destroying them flies in the face of their stated fundamentalist creed.
In short: It’s prophet versus profit.
The five-minute video is an elaborate production that includes narration, a music soundtrack and explosive scenes of sculptures being toppled and clubbed with sledgehammers. The narrator uses Muhammad’s destruction of idols in Mecca as an example for the violent iconoclasm shown in Mosul.
“These statues and idols, these artifacts,” he declares, “if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars.”
News reports of looted antiquities being smuggled to Turkey from Syria and Iraq emerged late last summer and began to proliferate in December. Early last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that “antiquities smuggling by Islamic State has exploded in recent months.”
The lengthy story further claimed, “Looting, often with bulldozers, is now the militant group’s second-largest source of finances after oil, Western intelligence officials say.” The theft and smuggling of ancient art is described as a transnational business that is helping fund terrorism.
Some of those claims have been disputed, with revenue from looting perhaps considerably smaller than originally believed. Whatever the case, this much is certain: An iconoclastic video going viral is a potentially effective counterargument asserting Islamic State’s supposed ideological commitment.
On Monday, Al Jazeera reported that just two of four halls in the Mosul Museum were shown in the propaganda video – one hall for display of Assyrian artifacts and the other for objects from Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site with notable Hellenistic and Roman ruins. (The BBC reported Saturday that Hatra has been demolished, although details remain sketchy.) Not shown was the Islamic hall, said to hold primary artifacts.
Abdullah al-Jumaili, an archaeology professor and advisor to the Mosul Museum, told Al Jazeera that only 300 of 2,200 artifacts originally in the museum remained when Islamic State took control of the city in June 2014. The majority had been transferred to Baghdad four or five months earlier.
“[Militants] deliberately filmed while they were destroying the pieces," he said, while casting doubt on the full extent of the destruction. Jumaili believes the video was staged to demonstrate that the museum’s contents were destroyed, when in reality Islamic State looted many works of art.
Atheel Nujaifi, Mosul’s exiled governor, concurs. They “destroyed the items that they were not able to take with them," Nujaifi told Al Jazeera, citing at least seven important objects not shown in the video.