Across Syria’s war-ravaged towns and cities, looters are trafficking the country's priceless antiquities to the highest bidder. At the same time, two unlikely spymasters are doing their best to hold the criminals to account. Amr Al-Azm and Katie A. Paul, both US-based academics, are taking on ISIS militants, a hostile regime, and even Facebook, hoping to save Syria’s cultural heritage.
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True Spies Episode 65: The ATHAR Project

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

This is True Spies Episode 65: The ATHAR Project.

AMR AL-AZM: Officially, I never crossed the border. Leave it at that…

You know, there's no way for me to go in and, obviously, I couldn't go in from the regime side because I would be arrested.

NARRATOR: Location: Manbij, northwestern Syria. A civil war is raging. Thousands flee the country in search of refuge. And out in the sandy vastness of the landscape, the distant echoes of explosions commingle with an insistent ‘chip-chip-chip’. The sound of digging. And the diggers are being watched.

AMR AL-AZM: Our team leader would cross over from Turkey into the Manbij area, which was basically ISIS, an ISIS area.

NARRATOR: ISIS - the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria - is a terrorist organization that controlled swathes of Middle Eastern territory between 2014 and 2019. The city of Manbij was among the many settlements that were conquered.

AMR AL-AZM: So there was a lot of looting going on around that area at that time. And our guy, our team leader, with the guys that were working with him, would go out. They would document these looting activities. 

NARRATOR: The team leader? He ran a cell of ‘site monitors’, volunteers who kept tabs on the looting and trafficking of antiquities in the region. By trade, he’s an archaeologist but now he’s in Manbij undercover, gathering information... spying. And no, it’s not for any three-letter intelligence agency. He doesn’t do this for a government paycheck. And neither does the man whose voice you’re hearing now.

AMR AL-AZM: Cultural heritage was a very important component of who we are and what makes Syria Syria, and what makes Syrians Syrians. It's that shared common history. 

NARRATOR: Manbij, in case you were wondering, was one of the main centers for the ISIS Department of Antiquities - the Diwan Al Rikaz. The department acted as a hub for trafficked, looted, and otherwise dubiously acquired artifacts that could be sold to raise funds for the so-called Islamic State.

KATIE A. PAUL: And when we're talking about a country like Syria, this is actually a war crime. The looting and trafficking of cultural property in conflict zones is a war crime based on the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and Conflict. 

KATIE A. PAUL: My name is Katie Paul, I'm an anthropologist and co-director of the ATHAR Project. 

AMR AL-AZM: Hi, my name is Amr Al-Azm, I'm a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

NARRATOR: Amr Al-Azm and Katie A. Paul are co-founders of the ATHAR Project. ATHAR - that’s A-T-H-A-R - stands for ‘Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research’, which is probably why they sprang for the acronym. They combine meticulous research with a network of agents on the ground to document the illegal trafficking of antiquities in Syria. That’s right, this week’s True Spies are academics.

AMR AL-AZM: I had to spend a lot more time keeping, not just in touch with the guys on the ground, but also trying to help them get the information that they were gathering together and then arranging for it to be transferred out.

KATIE A. PAUL: My evenings are usually spent on my couch, really, buried in these antiquities trafficking groups, monitoring and recording as much information as we can. 

NARRATOR: Together, their mission is to create a trail of evidence so that one day, in better times, they might be recovered.

AMR AL-AZM: I always like to remind people that even though I'm the one talking, this is not my story as much as it is the story of the guys on the ground. I'm trying to give them a voice because they're not here to speak for themselves, either because they're unable to or because they just haven't had the opportunity.

NARRATOR: In 2019, the ATHAR Project released a groundbreaking 90-page report detailing the use of social media as a medium through which looted antiquities are bought and sold by extremists and wealthy private clients. But the project isn’t their first collaboration.

KATIE A. PAUL: Amr and I began working together around 2015 after there was a lot of global attention on ISIS's use of antiquities as a source of financing. Our paths crossed because we had both been looking at trafficking in the region. And, of course, with the use of terrorist finance through antiquities, it was natural for us to interact and work on these issues together. 

NARRATOR: Amr is an archaeologist with a career spanning more than 30 years and Katie is an anthropologist. Both have a passion for the ancient world that began in childhood.

AMR AL-AZM: What took me down the path for archeology had more to do with my mother than myself. She felt that was something I would enjoy and she kind of pushed me in that direction. So you could say I became an archeologist because my mother wanted me to become one. And also because I have that strong connection to a culture, a region of the world, a part of the world that's culturally extremely rich. If you think of the ancient Near East, if you think of the Levant, if you think of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, etc, it made sense for me to want to be an archeologist. 

KATIE A. PAUL: So my focus in archeology really was a fascination when I was around seven or eight years old. And I had always envisioned myself going the exact same path as Amr and getting my Ph.D. in archeology and becoming a professor. But I was also looking at the anthropological side of things. And my last semester of grad school was the Arab Spring. And so all of these parts of Egypt and other parts of the Middle East that I had wanted to study traditional archeology in became completely different environments. 

NARRATOR: Katie’s putting it mildly. In the early 2010s, a series of attempted and successful revolutions known as the Arab Spring erupted across the Middle East and North Africa.

AMR AL-AZM: The Arab Spring finally reached Syria in mid-March of 2011 and then very quickly escalated or degenerated - depending on how you look at it - into street protests on the side of the civil activists demanding more freedom, democracy, etc., on the one hand, and the extreme brutal repression by the regime. And by 2012, this turned into an armed confrontation essentially between an armed opposition on one side and the military forces of the regime on the other, with devastating results all around. 

NARRATOR: Even before the Arab Spring, Syria had a long history of political instability. You can hear more about that, as well as the CIA’s dubious involvement in Syria’s post-war politics, in Episode 37 of True Spies, How To Make Friends and Stage Coups. In the early 2010s, as President Bashar al-Assad used any means necessary to cling to power, that state of turbulence looked set to continue. Alongside his academic work, Amr had been connected to political life in Syria for some time. Between 1999 and 2003, he was the director of Science and Conservation labs at the Department of Antiquities under al-Assad’s government. Now, as part of the broad opposition to the president’s regime, he knew that a peaceful transition of power was the only path towards a brighter future for his homeland. Together with several of his Syrian contemporaries, he founded The Day After project, a non-profit organization that, initially, came together to envisage a real change in the country.

AMR AL-AZM: And so, The Day After, the TDA, was born as an NGO from that, with the primary aim of promoting a democratic transition in Syria. And the cultural heritage component was added a year later in 2013... I think it was late 2012. And so we added the Heritage Protection Initiative as one of the initiatives that The Day After works on and being the archeologist, being the person who kind of does this kind of stuff, and having worked in Syria as an archeologist, it made sense that I would essentially, look after that portfolio.

NARRATOR: Working under the banner of The Day After project, Amr’s Heritage Protection Initiative concerned itself with the preservation of Syria’s wealth of priceless artifacts. It wasn’t long before the initiative was called into action.

AMR AL-AZM: I think it was in 2014 when a group of local archeologists and museum staff and curators from the Museum of Ma'arra reached out to me.

NARRATOR: The Mosaic Museum at Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, a city in Syria’s Idlib province, is the home of some of the world’s most striking Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics. As Syria’s ruling regime cracked down on its opposition, the museum came under an existential threat.

AMR AL-AZM: At that time, from late 2013, 2014, Idlib was experiencing a very savage campaign of bombardment, aerial bombardment mainly from helicopters dropping barrel bombs all over the city. And it's done indiscriminately so it was only a matter of time before the museum was going to get hit. And the guys were really, really concerned about what would happen if this essentially historic building got hit by a barrel bomb. It could be devastating, not just for this building itself, but also for the contents of the building, the mosaics.

NARRATOR: Many of the archaeologists, curators, and other academics in the museum’s orbit had worked with or studied under Amr at one point or another.

AMR AL-AZM: So they knew who I was, they knew me quite well. They were familiar with my work. 

NARRATOR: Based in the USA, and with a fruitful career’s worth of contacts and experience behind him, Amr Al-Azm was in a position to help the museum. The experience proved to be an ideal launchpad for the Heritage Protection Initiative. Idlib itself was experiencing, as a region, many of the sites being looted mercilessly. And so we figured that this would be a good moment to start this Heritage Protection Initiative to first and foremost provide the means, the resources, the training for these guys on the ground to protect this museum.

NARRATOR: In the summer of 2014, Amr arranged for the museum staff to be brought to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, away from the heart of the conflict. He used his network of contacts, including friends at the Smithsonian Museum, to secure funding for a short training course. And no, we’re not talking about lessons in fundraising and social-media savvy. No amount of campaigning, appealing, or publicizing was going to save the museum from the high explosives that cratered Idlib province.

No, Amr knew that the situation demanded real, practical action.

AMR AL-AZM: And we were able to provide some basic training for the guys from the museum in Idlib and really just helped them understand how to most effectively protect their museum, mainly through putting down sheets of Tyvek on the mosaics, gluing them on, and then packing sandbags against them to protect from any would be-blasts. 

NARRATOR: The timing was fortunate.

AMR AL-AZM: The first airstrike against the museum happened in early 2015. And it caused a lot of damage to the museum. But because we had just, literally, a couple of months before, finished protecting it and protecting the contents, almost every mosaic - all the important main mosaics - were undamaged by the barrel bombs that they dropped on the museum, even though it had caused extensive damage to the courtyard and the actual structure of the building itself.

AMR AL-AZM: So it proved the effectiveness of their work and it also made them feel like they had done something. They were able to intercede and protect so their work wasn't in vain. 

NARRATOR: This first victory attracted more backing for the Heritage Protection Initiative. That included the Prince Claus Fund, a pot run by the Dutch government, which provides funding for cultural activities all over the world.

AMR AL-AZM: Including protection of cultural heritage.

NARRATOR: In Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, Amr had been able to secure passive protection for the Mosaic Museum. With the backing of the Prince Claus Fund, he could expand his operation, taking a proactive approach to the preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage.

AMR AL-AZM: We were able to then form our first teams of locals, local stakeholders, local activists, archeologists, etc. And we would then send them out to go and start to monitor looting activity on archeological sites in the Idlib region as well as elsewhere.

NARRATOR: These ‘site monitors’ were Amr’s eyes and ears inside Syria. He had become, in a strange sense, a spymaster - the controller for a large network of agents working on the ground inside hostile territory. Using the intelligence the site monitors offered - videos, eyewitness reports, and more - the Heritage Protection Initiative was able to begin gathering up-to-date intelligence on the state of the nation’s antiquities. That included the names of various people and groups involved in their removal and sale on the black market.

AMR AL-AZM: And these guys would go out and they would basically visit whatever sites were within their reach and they could access.

NARRATOR: Because, in the tinderbox of civil war-era Syria, there were any number of reasons why a site might be inaccessible. One of them was ISIS.

AMR AL-AZM: With ISIS, those areas under ISIS control, it was extremely dangerous for our guys to operate there. 

NARRATOR: And, for the so-called Islamic State, the looting of antiquities was big business.

KATIE A. PAUL: When you look at how ISIS really incorporated looting into their financial scheme... This is something we've seen extremist groups do previously, but ISIS was able to really turn it into a formal industry, creating their own shadow government with a Ministry of Antiquities. And that's the kind of thing that was really effective on their end. They created a system of governance around it. So even if they weren't the ones doing the physical looting, they were getting permits and making money off of people who had access to their territory to try to loot. So even if ISIS didn't itself sell an item, they were still profiting from that activity, which is really an expansion of the type of industrialized looting as a source of financing we've seen from other terrorist groups. 

NARRATOR: And their wholesale desecration of Syria’s heritage didn’t end there. 

AMR AL-AZM: So they looted what they could sell. But they also used cultural heritage in other ways. For example, important sites - especially after the coalition started their air campaign against them in 2015 - they started to use cultural heritage sites, archeological sites like Palmyra, Rasafa, and other locations as training camps, as ammunition stores.

NARRATOR: Put yourself in the shoes of an ISIS commander. Don’t worry, you needn’t stay for long. You’re vulnerable to airstrikes by government and coalition forces. You need to keep your vital assets - human and otherwise - as safe as humanly possible from an aerial attack. So where better to lay low than an internationally recognized site of cultural importance? Remember, the destruction of these sites qualifies as a war crime. No Western power wants that kind of publicity. And that’s not the only upside.

KATIE A. PAUL: There's also the aspect of how they utilized the media and were able to get, basically, free public relations, sending out the message they wanted without any extra effort. So whereas American media and a lot of Western media aren't going to show a video of a gruesome beheading that is typical of terrorist propaganda, ISIS would exploit all of the movable objects from a site and then have these performative destructions, which would be shown on-air, even though they were meant to have the same propaganda effect as the types of content that media won't show. 

NARRATOR: So you see, these antiquities aren’t just historical curiosities - pretty pictures and craggy old idols. In the wrong hands, their cultural importance can be weaponized. That’s why it’s so important to Katie and Amr that they are kept track of - wherever they end up. And like so much in this day and age, much of that tracking happens online.

KATIE A. PAUL: This is the next generation terrorist group. Many of the individuals in this terrorist group were also millennials, people born in the 1980s who knew how to use technology effectively in a way that Osama bin Laden did not, for instance. 

NARRATOR: And like most millennials, the next generation of terrorists were hooked on social media.

KATIE A. PAUL: Especially in the early years of ISIS, Facebook was still expanding its global user base and, as a result, they also were not really looking at content moderation. The typical taglines of Facebook were 'move fast and break things' and 'connecting the world'. But Facebook was also being used to connect the world of terrorist groups. And not only does it serve as a global platform, but the tools like in-app language translation, the ability to remain anonymous, were really effective tools for extremists to utilize in terms of radicalizing other individuals and getting their message out to a wider audience outside of their local area. 

NARRATOR: When Katie and Amr began working together around 2015, they discovered a booming online black market for stolen antiquities, as well as other contraband. 

KATIE A. PAUL: With just a couple of clicks it's fairly easy to find content for extremist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda or fringe local extremist groups. And as we saw with the antiquities trafficking, many of these groups will commingle with other types of individuals in private Facebook groups for trafficking, whether it's for antiquities or wildlife or weapons especially. 

NARRATOR: Even today, a large part of Katie and Amr’s work with the ATHAR Project is trawling through Facebook, methodically hunting for groups that offer looted antiquities. There’s no encryption to decode, no top-secret access required. This is what those in the know call Open Source intelligence - taking the everyday data we can all find online, and using a keen analytic eye to filter it for clues. We’ve covered Open Source Intelligence - or OSINT - before on True Spies. Check out Episode 16: N Is For Novichok, or Episode 51: Indian Actors, for a couple of prime examples. Sometimes, finding the information you need to complete your mission is as simple as crossing a language barrier.

KATIE A. PAUL: To find these Facebook groups trafficking antiquities is as simple as searching antiquities for sale in Arabic. That is how explicit the names of some of these groups are. Some of them are country-specific. And they'll say ‘Egypt Pharaonic antiquities for sale’. But the word for ‘sale' in Arabic is in most of the group names that we have identified. 

AMR AL-AZM: Same with gun sales, for example. The Facebook community standards ban the sale of weapons, guns. You put 'guns' and 'sale' and you will have numerous pages all offering guns. 

NARRATOR: Shocking, no? Surely though, these pages would have to be extremely niche to fly below the radar of Facebook’s diligent content-moderation team?

KATIE A. PAUL: With these Facebook groups, we're typically looking at a group that has anywhere from 3,000 members to the largest we're looking at has 450,000 members. 

NARRATOR: Ah. Not that niche, then. Say you’ve stumbled - or in Katie’s case, actively gone looking for - one of these illicit Facebook marketplaces. What would you be looking at?

KATIE A. PAUL: So, especially in the Idlib area, we see a lot of mosaics being offered for sale while they're still in the ground. People will get on their smartphones. They'll video the floor of this area. They're excavating. You'll often see the feet of individuals standing on the mosaic, their bare feet where they had just washed off, so you could see the faces of the mosaic in the image and they'll ask other users what they think the value is. 

NARRATOR: And no, that’s not an innocent guessing game.

KATIE A. PAUL: This is essentially an invitation to bid and people will suggest their assumed value or, more commonly, you'll see them express their interest through saying: “Direct message me. Private message me. We'll talk about this.” 

NARRATOR: Facebook integrates various software into its service - including geo-tracking and a video chat client. A prospective buyer can easily confirm a looter’s location, and the veracity of the goods on offer, with the push of a button. But who, exactly, is buying? The fact is, sometimes it’s hard to tell.

KATIE A. PAUL: What we're looking at, particularly in this Facebook activity, is the middle-man's middle-man. 

NARRATOR: These middle-men have the kind of networks that your common or garden looter simply doesn’t have access to. That’s true of both criminal organizations and people who are simply trying to shift a few relics to feed their families. Once the buyer is in place, there’s a number of ways to proceed.

AMR AL-AZM: Certainly, I remember in 2016, 2017, 2018 - and I presume this continues to this day - you have buyers who would see this stuff on Facebook that they're interested in. They would then travel to, say, Turkey on a supposed holiday. And they would be met by a local fixer who would give them a burner phone and would have made all their hotel arrangements, etc., for them, where they would be staying. And then the fixer would be bringing them the sellers or the individuals who have, supposedly, the items for sale. 

AMR AL-AZM: It could be the actual items themselves or it could be photos of the items that the buyer might be interested in. They would then, over the next few days on this supposed holiday, they would do their business. There may even be an excursion. If there's an object that's not in, say, Istanbul, but is in a neighboring city or somewhere down on the coast, or, say, in Gaziantep - one of the main crossing areas into Syria - or Antakya, which is on the border with Idlib. 

NARRATOR: You might be wondering - how does Amr know all this? We’ll let Katie join the dots.

KATIE A. PAUL: Well, what we've been doing for the ATHAR Project is actually looking at the digital intelligence that we were gathering, and then working with the site monitors to ‘ground-truth’ the information we were getting. 

NARRATOR: So, this is where both parts of the operation - the people on the ground and the online analysis - begin to work in tandem.

KATIE A. PAUL: So, particularly in the Idlib area where we knew there was a well-established network of researchers working on these issues, we would gather information on both extremists and lay-person traffickers - higher-profile traffickers we identified through Facebook - and then send the list of those individuals and the types of content that they were offering for sale onto the team in Idlib to identify who they were.

NARRATOR: Enter the site monitoring teams. Working off Amr and Katie’s digital leads, they moved out into the field to collect proof that antiquities were being removed from their ancient resting places, as well as securing positive IDs on buyers and traffickers. Then, they beamed that intelligence halfway across the world to their allies in the US. And that’s not as simple as it sounds - broadband internet isn’t always reliable in a war zone. Luckily, Amr was once again able to supply the necessary hardware - a satellite internet uplink. A handy hint for the budding field agent: geostationary satellites can supply data to almost anywhere. They’re a must-have for any base of operations.

AMR AL-AZM: We purchased one for the teams in Idlib. They would just take the data, the images, the documentation so we would know that in, let's say, the site of Saint Simeon was targeted a couple of times. It suffered grievous damage. We sent a team up who almost got strafed on the way back but luckily survived. They documented the damage to the site, then returned back to the main center in the museum. And then used the satellite Internet link to upload the information to me. And then I would prepare reports from that which we would then publish on our website.

NARRATOR: And believe it or not, the team in Idlib province that risked being strafed by machine gun fire on the way back to their satellite uplink had it relatively easy. In other, more volatile, areas of Syria, getting information out of the country was an altogether more fractious affair. At the start of this episode, we introduced you to the leader of a team of site monitors near the city of Manbij - a former ISIS territory near the Turkish border. He was tasked with documenting looting activities at the height of the conflict. An academic by trade, he was armed with a mobile phone - and nothing else.

AMR AL-AZM: But they couldn't hold on to that information. You couldn't hold on to it for two or three weeks and then try to cross back because, if he got caught with that information on his phone, he would be killed for sure. 

NARRATOR: So, if you’ve got the stomach for it, picture this: you’ve managed to take photographs and videos of some of the most dangerous men on the planet conducting the business that props up a decent proportion of their budget. You’ve got to get that information to your handler in the USA. But there’s no satellite uplink in Manbij - not for you, anyway. You’ve got to rely on terrestrial telecoms. The only problem is… well, there aren’t any. So what’s an enterprising site monitor to do?

AMR AL-AZM: It was very important that he was able to upload that information and get it off his phone as soon as possible and then wipe the phone clean again. And for that, the only way he could do it was to walk, sometimes several miles, to get as close as he could to the Turkish border, where he could pick up a Turkish cell tower and then upload that information from there to his wife, who was living, at that time, in southern Turkey. 

NARRATOR: If history has taught us anything, it’s that in times of war, when things of great value are at stake, anyone can be a spy. From the volunteers of the French Resistance to the wife of our Syrian site monitor, ordinary people take the gathering of crucial intelligence into their own hands - often with minimal training.

AMR AL-AZM: And then she would let me know that she'd received the package and then she would arrange to send it to me. Then I would pick it up, and then I would do with it what needed to be done. We had to be very careful with that information particularly because, obviously, it was not only important to get the information, but also important to make sure that the individuals - our team leader and these guys - would not be exposed. 

NARRATOR: Amr and Katie’s role is to process this information and present it to the public. But their burden is the risk of exposing the men and women who risk their lives for their shared cause.

AMR AL-AZM: Sometimes, if you think about it, there are only two or three people in the room. And one of them had his camera out, or one of them had his phone out, or one of them was filming. So if that video, for some reason, shows up somewhere where it shouldn't, then the other guys, if they happened to see it, they would know: “Hey, wait a minute. It was you. You're the one who leaked this information.” So we had to be very careful in how we handled that particular set of information for as long as ISIS was in charge.

NARRATOR: But all the parties involved recognize that the risk is worth the reward.

KATIE A. PAUL: Through that ground-truthing, we were not only able to determine that these are, in fact, real people trafficking real artifacts but what types of networks they're connected to.

NARRATOR: You might be wondering, why the need for on-the-ground identity verification if you could simply open up a dialogue with the traffickers via Facebook and figure it out from there? Well, it’s not that simple.

KATIE A. PAUL: The work that the ATHAR Project does is non-participant observation. So, aside from answering the questions that it may take to join a group, we're not engaging. We're not ‘liking’. We're not promoting any activity because we don't want to influence the activity that we're seeing.

NARRATOR: Remember, Katie and Amr are academics. The evidence they’re gathering needs to be empirical - without bias. But that’s not the only cause for caution.
KATIE A. PAUL: It's also important to remember that because we're dealing with conflict zones where there are extremists and we are doing this research from the United States using our personal computers in the evening, we also cannot risk inadvertently speaking to a terrorist and violating multiple US laws. 

NARRATOR: Yes, if you were thinking about starting a sideline in Open Source Intelligence, do make sure you stay on the right side of the law. Or at least take the appropriate steps to hide your identity from any would-be counter-investigators.

KATIE A. PAUL: Of course, we do use a pseudonym Facebook profile for safety purposes for ourselves and our colleagues that work with us.

NARRATOR: And it’s not just their own safety, and that of their team, that Amr and Katie have to worry about. This might sound strange at first, but they have to worry about some of the looters they track, too. After all, not everyone who sells an ancient artifact is an ISIS terrorist. And in Syria, the price of discovery can be steep indeed.
KATIE A. PAUL: We also work to ensure that we are protecting the identities of these individuals because the vast majority of people we see trafficking antiquities are doing so out of necessity, not just because it's a leisurely activity, or they're trying to finance a large organization. And, as a result, we want to ensure that we are not exposing vulnerable populations to some sort of retribution, whether it's from the Assad government in Syria or from some outside actors that are unhappy with the activity occurring in their territory.

NARRATOR: Remember, the likes of ISIS were running the trafficking game in Syria. If a small-time looter was discovered operating on their turf… well, use your imagination. Today, ISIS is something of a spent force in the region. But few of the individuals responsible for the mass desecration of Syria’s heritage have ever faced a war crimes tribunal.

KATIE A. PAUL: Well, unfortunately, when it comes to Syria, the state of the conflict means that there's really not any sort of system to punish these individuals, which is why this documentation has become so important. We're able to actually prove that this material was, in fact, looted from Syria. And if it shows up on the market later, it's being illegally offered. 

NARRATOR: So, for now, Amr and Katie watch and wait. They archive what they can in the hope that, one day when the dust has settled, the powers that be will be able to trace these precious artifacts.

KATIE A. PAUL: When it comes to documenting, the most important things are these timestamps and the visuals. So we're both screenshotting material. And, when it comes to videos, we're actually doing screencast video recordings. So we're recording the items in context on Facebook. Just like it's important to find artifacts in context in the ground, having these items in context where they were found online is incredibly important. So we're recording all of that and building a library of photos and videos that captures all of this material. 

NARRATOR: The ATHAR project’s report on Facebook’s role in the trafficking industry, released in 2019, forced the tech giant to create a policy that explicitly banned the antiquities trade. 

KATIE A. PAUL: They didn't actually have one before, that banned illicit antiquities. 

NARRATOR: A significant victory, you might think. A real ‘David and Goliath’ moment. But the fight’s not over yet. You see, Facebook’s content moderation policy often leads to posts that advertise trafficked material being deleted. For intelligence gatherers and archivists like Amr and Katie, that’s a very bad outcome. Remember, some of these posts could be evidence in future war crimes cases.

KATIE A. PAUL: So as a result, Facebook is not only providing an outlet for these traffickers and actually facilitating the illicit trade for them, they're then helping them clean up their tracks by erasing that evidence. And we know how important social media evidence is because it's been used in recent years in ICC (International Criminal Court) trials. We've seen war criminals associated with [Khalifa] Haftar's forces in Libya actually prosecuted as a result of Facebook video evidence that Facebook had removed but fortunately had been preserved by watchdog groups like Bellingcat. 

NARRATOR: Remember, Katie and Amr have watched some of the world’s most valuable relics - their driving passion - vanish into the murk of the criminal underworld. When it comes to Facebook’s attitude to antiquities trafficking, they refuse to pull their punches.

KATIE A. PAUL: So the platform itself is really culpable in this, not just for providing the tools and the facilitation for this illicit trafficking, but actually helping war criminals clean up their tracks.

AMR AL-AZM: Just because Facebook changes its community standards doesn't, as we found out, it doesn't translate into real action or meaningful changes in terms of what happens to the post or to what Facebook is allowing to be posted on its pages, on its own site. 

KATIE A. PAUL: There's an accountability aspect and a transparency aspect that the platform is unfortunately not willing to engage in. 

NARRATOR: But they’re not just fighting for missing mosaics, stolen statues, and finagled friezes. They’re speaking up for the friends and colleagues on the ground who have risked their lives for a cause. For an ancient, beautiful culture that, when the dust settles, they hope their children might still inherit.

AMR AL-AZM: The level of destruction and the extreme brutality of the war that they had to survive and experience is beyond comprehension. I mean, think of it this way. At one point, the regime was using chemical weapons indiscriminately in some of the areas around Idlib. And in one of those chemical strikes, one of our team member's villages got hit and most of his family died. His wife suffered severe burns to her lungs as a result of that and he had to evacuate. He had to leave. And even though he ended up as a refugee in Turkey and with devastating results for his family - not as a result of working there, but as a result of living in this conflict zone when he could have left everything. Put it this way, he could have left with his family earlier if he'd wanted to, even though his area was constantly being bombarded. But they chose to stay.

AMR AL-AZM: And I think one of the reasons he might have chosen to stay was because he felt he was doing something. He was contributing in a way other than picking up a gun and fighting. And in the end, his family paid a price for that and he ended up a refugee. And, even after that, I mean, we stay in touch. I try to. He still wants to do something. He feels that even though he's outside, he's not in Syria, he still wants to participate in some way to protect this heritage. And that's a testament to the kind of courage that these people have. And so it's their story. They're the heroes. Not me - not my story. 

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another rendezvous with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Amr Al-Azm is a founder and board member on The Day After project and coordinates the Heritage Protection Initiative for cultural heritage protection. He serves as a co-director of the ATHAR Project and is a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

Katie A. Paul is an anthropologist based in Washington, D.C., and co-director of the ATHAR Project. Paul investigates the trafficking of cultural property and its connection to transnational crime and terrorism.

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