WASHINGTON — A lawsuit filed in the nation's capital provides a window into how the Islamic State group finances its operations, sometimes one ancient gold coin at a time.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Washington seeks to recover four ancient artifacts — a ring, two gold coins and a stone tablet — worth thousands of dollars that are believed to have been put up for sale by the group. Prosecutors said one of the goals of filing the lawsuit, which uses a law that allows the U.S. government to go after the foreign or domestic assets of terrorist groups and is believed to be the first of its kind targeting the Islamic State, is to decrease the market for objects being sold by the militant organization.
"We're hoping that the market truly gets depressed," said Arvind Lal, the head of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia.
The lawsuit in part sets out the "sophisticated system" that the Islamic State group has to profit from archaeological sites under its control in Syria and Iraq. The group sells antiquities, taxes the sale of them by others and takes part of the proceeds of items excavated from archaeological sites it controls, the lawsuit says.
The information that forms the basis of the lawsuit comes from a May 2015 U.S. raid in Syria in which an IS leader, Abu Sayyaf, was killed. Documents from the raid show Sayyaf was the president of the ISIS Department of Antiquities.
The lawsuit says that Sayyaf sold antiquities and the money was turned over to the Islamic State group. Documents recovered during the raid say Sayyaf had the power to allow people to dig for archaeological objects in IS-controlled territories as well as arrest people excavating archaeological objects without his department's authorization.
The Islamic State group also allegedly received at least 20 percent of the proceeds of items excavated from archaeological sites under its control and taxed antiquities sold in its territories. At one point, a child was kidnapped to force an antiquities merchant to pay, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says that antiquities, including hundreds of coins, were found in Sayyaf's possession during the raid. The items "appeared to have been in the process of being sold internationally," the lawsuit says. Items recovered during the raid were later returned to the government of Iraq, the lawsuit says.
Now, the U.S. government is going after four items, pictures of which were recovered on a hard drive and cellphone during the raid. The items were photographed to be sold, but the lawsuit did not say does not say where items may be now.
The lawsuit seeks to recover a ring, two ancient Roman gold coins and a stone slab that contains the carving of a figure and ancient writing. The ring is from a set that previously sold for $260,000 while the stone slab, believed to be from northern Syria, is worth between $30,000 and $50,000. The lawsuit does not give a value for the coins, one of which has an image of the Roman emperor Hadrian and the other his successor Antoninus Pius, but the coins can sell for up to $10,000 according to Zia Faruqui, one of the prosecutors on the case.
Other items could be added to the case at a later date, Lal said.