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Media captionGoing undercover to monitor the trade in smuggled antiquities

Facebook is becoming applied by networks of traffickers to obtain and sell looted antiquities, the BBC has discovered.

Private groups also go over how to illegally excavate ancient tombs, according to analysis by academics.

Facebook says it has removed 49 groups following the BBC’s investigation.

The BBC has also observed proof that antiquities are nevertheless becoming smuggled from Iraq and Syria into Turkey, regardless of a police clampdown and the retreat of the Islamic State group.

‘Facebook’s watch’

Roman mosaics nevertheless in the ground in Syria are becoming presented for sale on Facebook pages shown to the BBC by Prof Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist who has had to leave Syria and now operates at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

On the rooftop terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus in the Turkish city of Istanbul, he points to a Facebook photograph of a sculpture which a user in northern Syria claims is from the ancient web page of Palmyra, looted and broken by Islamic State.

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Traffickers are utilizing social media to advise on illegally excavating and exporting antiquities from Syria and Iraq

Prof al-Azm, has spent two years trawling by means of hundreds of Facebook groups, quite a few of which are private and usually have thousands of members.

“What we’ve observed is an explosion of web pages and customers on Facebook. It really is transnational and Facebook is primarily permitting this to take place on its watch.”

Individuals use the groups to exchange concepts on how to dig up web pages. 1 writes about an excavation that is below way and warns of the dangers of tomb collapse and suffocation.

There are also “loot-to-order” requests. In one particular case Facebook administrators ask for Islamic-era manuscripts to be created out there in Turkey.

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The BBC has been shown private Facebook groups supplying antiquities for sale in Syria and Iraq

“It really is genuinely opened our eyes to how accelerated these trafficking networks are,” says fellow researcher Katie Paul.

“Now if you dig anything up in your back yard and you do not know a trafficker, you can hop on Facebook, share photographs of what you have located and connect with people today who are prepared to obtain it.”

The actual transactions take spot offline, out of public view.

About 70% of artefacts leaving Syria are fake, according to the country’s director of antiquities, but amidst the dross there are some really high-priced products.

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Prof Amr al-Azm says the Facebook groups nevertheless operate regardless of efforts to eliminate them

In a statement, Facebook stated co-ordinating legal activity was not permitted on the web page “and following the BBC’s investigation we have removed 49 groups”.

But Amr al-Azm says quite a few of the groups he is observing are nevertheless on Facebook.

Smuggling antiquities

The trade is not just taking place on the world wide web.

Turkey has been applied as a smuggling route for centuries. Millions of pounds worth of looted antiquities have crossed more than from Iraq and Syria in current years, Turkish police told the BBC.

Tighter restrictions on the borders have stemmed the flow but regardless of that and military defeats by the Islamic State group, objects are nevertheless becoming presented for sale.

The BBC has been monitoring this trade with the assistance of Abu Musa, a Syrian archaeologist who escaped from IS-controlled territory 4 years ago.

Abu Musa, not his actual name, attends meetings held by intermediaries for sellers of stolen art.

“I know this perform is really unsafe and tricky,” he says.

“I perform with people today who are like a network of mafia.”

He shows us photographs and videos sent by a number of sellers across the area. They incorporate a further mosaic nevertheless in the ground which he believes is genuine and worth thousands of pounds.

“I see my history and my culture destroyed in front of my eyes,” he says.

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A mosaic claimed to be from Aleppo, presented for sale on Facebook

The struggle to save the wealthy cultural heritage of the Middle East is daunting.

“What is taking place in Syria is dreadful,” says Dr St John Simpson, curator of the Middle East Division at the British Museum.

“It really is heartbreaking. Just about every web page that is broken is broken forever.”

All sides in the conflict in Syria have been accountable for ransacking ancient web pages, says Dr Simpson.

They incorporate impoverished citizens, seeking to make a bit of dollars, and extremist groups cashing in.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organisation, Unesco, has described looting by IS on “an industrial scale”.

But they do not just destroy. They also use the trade as a funding stream, even though estimates of how a great deal it is worth differ wildly involving millions and billions of dollars.

Western art industry

It is not possible to say exactly where the stolen artefacts finish up due to the fact quite a few of them disappear from public view.

Police raids in Barcelona final year led to the seizure of mosaics and sarcophagi from Egypt and ancient Greco-Roman web pages in Libya.

Two art dealers are accused of becoming involved in a smuggling ring that trafficked antiquities to finance a group affiliated to IS. The pair deny the allegations.

It is the very first police operation of its sort targeting the financing of terrorism from looted art, according to Spain’s interior ministry

Other individuals are most likely to stick to due to the fact this illicit trade is fuelled by conflict and lack of order.