Is ISIS crazy?

ISIS’s capture of Palmyra has aroused fears that the terrorists will smash the archaeological treasures of this ancient Semitic city. The fears are justified, given ISIS’s conduct in places like Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Mosul.

But according to Nicolas Pelham, writing in the New York Review of Books, even as ISIS forces made a great show of destroying some antiquities on display in the museum in Mosul, the leadership was planning to sell others:

The video that ISIS circulated of its demolition job on Mosul’s antiquities museum in February 2015 was designed to market what it did not destroy. Of the thirty original pieces in the museum’s Hatra hall, according to al-Jumaili [an antiquities professor at Mosul University], the ISIS jihadis had hacked at ten.

They had not filmed the prehistoric, Islamic, and priceless Assyrian halls, because those artifacts were for sale. Their rampage through the Hatra hall, al-Jumaili surmised, was designed to boost demand and hike prices on the black market.

An Iraqi government adviser estimated that the caliphate might have already earned hundreds of millions of dollars from its sales of Assyrian remains. ISIS, the adviser told me, is the world’s best-financed terrorist organization, worth an estimated $8 billion. But with America bombing its oil installations, it was anxious to diversify revenues. (These figures for ISIS finances can’t be confirmed but are widely believed by the informed Iraqis I talked to.)

I’m skeptical of the claim that ISIS has made hundreds of millions of dollars from selling antiquities, and it’s unclear that it will come out ahead by smashing one-third of its Mosul museum inventory. However, I don’t doubt that ISIS is making good money from trafficking in captured antiquities.

Which brings us back to questions we discussed during our most recent Power Line podcast: Is ISIS crazed and, if so, how long can it flourish?

Smashing antiquities seems like a crazed act, but not, perhaps, if it’s a method of driving up prices. Mass beheadings seem crazed, but not, perhaps, if they are a method of terrorizing populations into submission and scaring out wealthy citizens whose property will then be confiscated.

In an article in the Atlantic, Graeme Wood argued that ISIS is no mere collection of psychopaths, but rather a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. According to Wood, ISIS expects the apocalypse to follow its defeat of the army of “Rome” at Dabiq, Syria.

If Wood is right, ISIS is, in the final analysis, crazy. But in many subsidiary ways, it is crazy like a fox. As such, it may be able to flourish for quite some time.


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