ISIS makes nearly $200 million a year from antiquities

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Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq are netting between $150 million and $200 million per year from illicit trade in plundered antiquities, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations said in a letter released on Wednesday.

"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," Ambassador Vitaly Churkin wrote in a letter to the U.N. Security Council.

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"The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at U.S. $150-200 million per year," he said.

The smuggling of artifacts, Churkin wrote, is organized by Islamic State's antiquities division in the group's equivalent of a ministry for natural resources. Only those who have a permit with a stamp from this division are permitted to excavate, remove and transport antiquities.

See photos of the destruction brought by ISIS at the ancient site of Palmyra:

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ISIS makes nearly $200 million a year from antiquities
A view shows the damage at the Monumental Arch in the historical city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A burnt book of the vision of Saint Jean is seen on the ground next to a damaged church on March 31, 2016 in the modern town, adjacent to the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate in this file handout picture provided by SANA on March 27, 2016. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters/Files ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A view shows the Roman Theatre in the historical city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Jounalists walk near the remains of the Monumental Arch in the historical city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A view shows the remains of the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Smoke rises from the modern city as seen from the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A picture taken on March 31, 2016 shows destruction at the museum of the ancient city of Palmyra, some 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 31, 2016 shows pieces of beheaded and mutilated sculptures on the ground at the museum of the ancient city of Palmyra, some 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of the external columns of Palmyra's Temple of Bel in the ancient Syrian city on March 31, 2016 The main building of the ancient temple, the 'Cella', was destroyed by jihadists of the Islamic State group in August 2015 as well as a row of columns in its immediate vicinity. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
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Some details of the group's war spoils department were previously revealed by Reuters, which reviewed some of the documents seized by U.S. Special Operations Forces in a May 2015 raid in Syria.

But many details in Churkin's letter appeared new.

The envoy from Russia, which has repeatedly accused Turkey of supporting Islamic State by purchasing oil from the group, said plundered antiquities were largely smuggled through Turkish territory.

"The main center for the smuggling of cultural heritage items is the Turkish city of Gaziantep, where the stolen goods are sold at illegal auctions and then through a network of antique shops and at the local market," Churkin wrote.

Turkish officials were not immediately available for comment on the Russian allegations. Russian-Turkish relations have been strained ever since Turkey shot down a Russian plane near the Syrian border last November.

SEE ALSO: ISIS' finances are taking a serious hit, and it's hurting morale inside the terror group

Churkin said jewelry, coins and other looted items are brought to the Turkish cities of Izmir, Mersin and Antalya, where criminal groups produce fake documents on their origin.

"The antiquities are then offered to collectors from various countries, generally through Internet auction sites such as eBay and specialized online stores," he said. Churkin named several other Internet auction sites that he said sold antiquities plundered by Islamic State.

EBay did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

"Recently ISIL has been exploiting the potential of social media more and more frequently so as to cut out the middleman and sell artifacts directly to buyers," he said.

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