Italian mafia in arms-for-artefacts deals with ISIS

The port of Gioia Tauro. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Gioia Tauro. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

‘The ‘Ndrangheta is motivated by money, it’s not strange that they were working with an organization like the Islamic State,’ says Domenico Quirico, journalist of the Italian daily ‘La Stampa’, who encountered a bittersweet episode for any reporter a few months ago. Someone knocked on his door to reveal an exclusive story: that the powerful Calabrian mafia was giving weapons to ISIS in exchange for stolen archaeological artefacts that were arriving from the docks of Sirte (Libya) to the port of Gioia Tauro in the southern region of Reggio Calabria, the stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta in the country.

With this information at hand, Quirico decided to check in situ. He posed as a rich buyer and, months later, was able to arrange a meeting with a ‘ndranghetista in the citadel of Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi Coast, a popular tourist destination. The goods shown to him included statues, urns, vases and other vessels mainly from the archaeological ruins of the Roman cities of Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Cyrene in today’s Libya.

‘All were objects obtained from ISIS in exchange for stolen weapons, mostly Kalashnikovs and anti-tank rocket launchers,’ explains Quirico now. Last month he finally published the story in La Stampa. ‘They (the criminals. – Ed.) also said they had more valuable objects that came from other countries in the Middle East. But for them I would have to go to Gioia Tauro and it would be more dangerous,’ he says. ‘For a statue, I was asked €60,000; for another Ancient Greek piece, I was told it was worth €1m, but they could sell it to me for €800,000. I was also assured that before the sale I could bring in an archaeologist to prove the authenticity of the goods.’

Following shocking revelations, the prosecutors’ office in Salerno opened a case on 17 October and launched an investigation into the allegations of ‘trafficking for terrorist purposes and mafia association’. A separate investigation was also launched by the Heritage Unit of the police of Naples. ‘The role of criminal organizations is being investigated (by anti-terrorism units and intelligence services),’ Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano reacted, adding that ‘it is known that the sale of stolen art is an element of terror GDP.’ If the facts are confirmed by the Italian Justice, it will be the first known case that probes links between Italian mafia and ISIS.

A year ago, the prosecutor of Reggio Calabria, Federico Cafiero De Raho, already suggested such a scenario. In an interview at the time, De Raho said that his office was conducting a research to understand if some foreigners, while in Italy, carried out antiquities trade with ISIS and other terrorist organizations. ‘We keep attention high,’ he assured. ‘Surely now we will begin with Gioia Tauro,’ he reacted after the story broke out that the Calabrian’s port became a place of skullduggery between the terrorist group and the ‘Ndrangheta.

According to Maurizio Simoncelli, co-founder of the Institute for International Research ‘Archivo Disarmo’, one of the leading NGO that studies arms trade in Italy, the case is indeed disturbing but not surprising. ‘The ‘Ndrangheta is the organization that has the necessary logistics capacity to carry out trafficking of this kind. Italy enjoys a unique geographic position and it is not the first time that the port of Gioia Tauro is under suspicion,’ he tells Europe Insight in an interview, noting that ‘in the past years, illegal arms shipments, captured in Gioia Tauro, ended up in the hands of the armed groups in Libya but then Italy imposed a state secret on the matter.’ Inspecting lots of shipping containers that pass through Mediterranean ports daily still remains a serious challenge for all governments and law-enforcement agencies in the region.

Many museums and archeological sites were demolished by ISIS. But their relics flooded black market. Credits: AP

Many museums and archeological sites were demolished by ISIS. But their relics flooded black market. Credits: AP

The prosecutors are yet to answer the questions of, how many weapons were given by the ‘Ndrangheta to the Islamic State, and was this business limited only to Libya or did it spread to other war-torn countries. ‘It’s hard to know because even the few agencies who investigate illegal arms trafficking have enormous difficulties in getting accurate data,’ says Simoncelli, referring to a project of the Research Centre on Transnational Crime, an institution that is working on mapping arms trafficking. ‘What is known for sure is that an operation like the one I witnessed could not be carried out by a lone individual, it requires mobilisation of the entire structure of the ‘Ndrangheta,’ says Quirico.

‘Around 100,000 cultural objects of global importance, including 4,500 archaeological sites, nine of which are included in the World Heritage List of UNESCO, are under the control of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq,’ Russia’s Ambassador Vitaly Churkin wrote last April in a letter to the UN Security Council. ‘The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at $150-200m per year,’ he added. No surprise then that the ‘Ndrangheta was involved.

Back in 2015, the media including The Washington PostThe Guardian and The Independent reported that some objects stolen by ISIS were subsequently sold in London and New York.

Other materials