Before 9/11, when Mohammed Atta was at Hamburg’s Technical University, Atta made an attempt to sell stolen Afghan antiquities to subsidize the cost of his flying school training in the United States. The archaeologist at the University of Gottingen to whom he made his approach in 1999 declined it, but it is indicative of one Islamist fanatic’s mindset. Atta was not alone in his thinking. Antiquities from the Middle East, North Africa and Central and South Asia are useful in the world of Islamist fanaticism as potential money earners and for iconoclasm.
For centuries, theft in the art world has been of basically two types, stealing or looting in a conventional sense and theft by deception. In English law, “theft itself is dishonestly appropriating the property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of it; and the terms ‘thief’ and ‘steal’ are construed accordingly.” Theft by deception includes fakes, forgeries, and frauds of all kinds, including theft through intentionally bogus provenance and wrongful attribution. This art fraud category of crime is where money is made by art crooks. However, there has been an upsurge in another kind of theft through the rise of international terrorism in recent decades – theft by destruction. (A development of cyber crime in the future may well develop art fraud and theft by algorithm as well.) But curiously, art theft also often presents an Achilles’ heel for thieves in terrorist organizations, organized crime and for disorganized criminals.
Theft by destruction is a relatively new expression for an old concept. It occurs when art objects are destroyed and objects of cultural history are extirpated by their destruction. In recent decades, the Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban, many medieval Sufi shrines were smashed by Ansar Dine (an Al Qaeda franchise) in Timbuktu, Mali in 2012, and important buildings and objects in Palmyra, Syria were destroyed by Da’esh in 2015. The dismal list goes on and on, with religious shrines of many varieties in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere blown up in the past two decades, often with devotees, pilgrims and tourists around them massacred. The World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 can be viewed as theft by destruction of those examples of architectural art, whatever their value as shrines of mammon to the Al Qaeda fanatics who destroyed them, or to others who viewed them on the Manhattan skyline.
In Western Judaeo-Christian civilization with its great input from medieval Islam, a human and moral basis for countering theft begins with the Book of Genesis concept of stewardship, and is explicit in one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal” (in the English words in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible). The concept of stewardship is a moral imperative rather than a morally relative matter, and extends to the worldly domain in which we live, in which our ancestors lived and our descendants will. It is a teaching among Koranic People of the Book, the monotheists of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and we influence one another and many who do not share it with us.
Hybrid or multifaceted warfare is seen in the calculations of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Captain Basil Liddell Hart’s Indirect Approach, and Captain Wass’ Jedi Knight ideas. All provide insights into where we are today, and with them here in this article comes an added art crime perspective. The use of the word hybrid is convenient shorthand for multifaceted warfare. Multidimensional may be better.
Sun Tzu was a Chinese warrior who wrote about military strategy roughly two and a half millennia ago. Of the many Art of War translations and commentaries in English, Samuel B. Griffith’s translation with a foreword by B.H. Liddell Hart (Oxford, 1963) is comprehensive, especially about the crucial use of informants and information to develop war fighting intelligence. Reading Clausewitz is the alternative, for what it’s worth in our era of warfare with terrorists that may last a long time.
Captain Liddell Hart served as a British Army infantry officer in the First World War. The horrors of trench warfare prompted him to design his ideas of the indirect approach which he published early in the Second World War. His strategy was essentially that armies should advance and fight along lines of least resistance and leaders should be innovative.
Captain Wass – Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege (US Army Retired) was the company commander of A Company in the 3d Battalion of the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment, 173d Airborne Brigade in 1968-69, based at Bao Loc in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I know that because I was a 11B2P  in November Platoon, C Company, the 3d of the 503d at that time. Wass was an innovative thinker and carried an impressive Bowie knife. My own company commander was Captain Harold Crowe, a Green Beret survivor. Both were heroes to men who fought under them.
Captain Wass, instead of sticking to jungle paths to search out the enemy, who for us were an assortment of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units, used to get his men to cut up and down streams and rivers, blue lines on the maps we had, and intercept enemy forces that way. It was all small unit fighting at the squad and platoon level to fit the terrain and enemy, and the basic equipment we had. The rest of us, in other line companies, hacked our way through the vine-entwined hell of triple canopy rain forest with machetes, making a lot of noise and generally going nowhere, slowly following the fantasy trails and contours drawn by army cartographers. There is no point in overly complaining about our soldiering substance and style then. That’s the way it was.
Captain Wass went on from Vietnam to become one of the innovators of the post-Vietnam US Army. He became known as a Jedi Knight at the time of the first Iraq War in Operation Desert Storm, and he had ideas which integrated AirLand Battle Doctrine into small wars much more effectively than we had seen in the Central Highlands years before. In retirement, he is still involved in hybrid warfare thinking as a civilian military strategist and consultant at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth.
Captain Wass was a Sun Tzu-thinking, inspirational kind of leader, and a follower of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach. The present 173d Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based in Vincenza, Italy owes much to him in the way it is organized, equipped and ready to fight, as does the modern US Army.
The connection with Italy and hybrid warfare is striking and continues. In October 1969, Caravaggio’s famous painting of the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence was stolen in Palermo from the Oratory of St. Lawrence. Within days, an attempt to steal another Sicilian Caravaggio from the Church of St. Lucy in Syracuse Cathedral square was made. In both cases, the Mafia was rightly blamed, but their apologists claimed that these art crimes were committed because of actions by the oppressive Italian State against them. That is nonsensical self-justification which we need to fight.
To make their own point clearer, in May 1993, La Cosa Nostra exploded a car bomb outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence that killed six people and destroyed three 17th century paintings. Those six dead were simply disregarded as collateral damage by the Mafia in what they considered to be their armed struggle with the Italian government, or at least that part of the government they had not already suborned. The Uffizi is one of the two major art museums in Florence and it was targeted for its importance to Italian society and to national and international culture.
In 1974, an IRA gang stole masterpiece paintings from Russborough, a Palladian mansion in the Dublin Mountains, County Wicklow. That theft of art included works by Vermeer, Rubens and Goya. It was fortunate that the leader of the gang, Eddie Gallagher, had a posh debutante girlfriend, Bridget Rose Dugdale. The paintings were recovered within months in the west of Ireland at her parents’ summer house. At her trial the English Rose said that she and her accomplices stole the paintings in order to get two IRA prisoners serving their sentences in England repatriated to prisons in Ireland. Two others in that gang later went on to Colombia to instruct FARC in the use of mortars and explosives. In 1986, a Dublin gang with connections to both the IRA and Northern Irish Protestant terrorists in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) again hit Russborough and stole the same paintings. That gang was led by Martin Cahill, known as The General, about whom two Hollywood gangster films have been made. By 1993, all of the paintings stolen by Cahill’s gang had been recovered except for two small Francesco Guardi capriccio scenes, and this success was due to the sensible use of criminal informants. I know that because I dealt with those informants.
On the night of St. Patrick’s Day 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed at gunpoint by two men wearing Boston Police Department uniforms. The haul of paintings and two other items they stole are worth purportedly half a billion dollars, making this in dollar terms the highest value art crime ever. In the following years to the present, the FBI has pursued leads indicating that Italian Americans with Mafia connections committed that art robbery. The FBI’s Top Echelon Informant in 1990 was a Boston Irishman named Whitey Bulger, one of whose brothers had close personal connections with the IRA hierarchy. The informants for the FBI in this case appear to have been counter-productive. It will become a case study in ineffective informant handling one day.
It would seem that the FBI took the wrong road twenty-five years ago. The Bureau has been pursuing the wrong trail to recover the Gardner Museum works of art: it was probably not the American-linked Cosa Nostra but the pre-Good Friday Agreement IRA that was involved. Of course, it may have been other thieves, freelance operators, neither Mafia- nor IRA-related, but there are many open and unanswered questions about the FBI’s investigation over the past quarter of a century. The significant aspect of that art robbery was the copy-cat nature to Martin Cahill’s art crimes. It may be that the wrong people have influenced the Gardner investigation. In 1994, Cahill was murdered by the IRA for his links to the Protestant terrorist UVF.
Also in 1994, at the start of the Winter Olympics held in Lillehammer, Norway, the original version of Edvard Munch’s Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo. Again in 2004, also in Oslo but from the Munch Museum, another version of The Scream was stolen. The 1994 set of thieves were local thugs, but the 2004 set were largely Kosovar Albanians living in Gothenburg, Sweden who had committed an armed robbery on a NOKAS cash in transit vehicle in Stavanger, Norway a few months earlier, wearing camouflage clothes with automatic weapons. They murdered a local police officer. To be a distraction crime, they organized that armed robbery of the second version of The Scream. With colleagues from Oslo and London, I was an undercover police officer in the 1994 recovery, but as a retired cop in 2004, my activities and interest in the second art crime were spurned when I pointed out the multinational nature of the people involved in the crime. However, the Oslo police did recover that second version of The Scream two years later in 2006 with a blandishment of a million M&Ms reward to one of the organizers of the crime, a chocoholic of Albanian background named David Toska. Informants are key to solving art crime, and the wider the informants’ international links are, the more useful they can be. Of course, they can be self-serving liars too.
In the months before 9/11, giant Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in Bamiyan, a remote area of central Afghanistan. One had been in place for over eighteen hundred years. Although there is no authority in the Koran to destroy images such as those giant stone buddhas, there are a few religious texts (hadiths) from Islamic antiquity that positively advise against representation in art. Fanatics in Islam are therefore comparable to the fanatics in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant Reformation who destroyed the images of medieval Catholic Christianity, or the iconoclasts within the Greek Orthodox Church in the eighth and ninth centuries. The secular French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were both destructive and iconoclastic. Historical perspective tends to help winnow out theft fads from ideological or theological madness.
The American War of Independence was neither destructive nor iconoclastic. The significance of that was summed up about a hundred and sixty years after the American Revolution by General Eisenhower at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on April 2, 1946, “... I do know that for democracy, at least, there always stand beyond the materialism and destructiveness of war the ideals for which it is fought.” He then went on to speak about a post-war resurgence of attention to cultural values.
Interestingly, when Al Qaeda bands (known locally as Ansar Dine) came out of the Sahara Desert and attacked Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, they were hell-bent on destroying the Muslim shrines of medieval Sufi saints and the Islamic libraries that had been collected from over half a millennium. Recently, at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, an Al Qaeda leader in Timbuktu, Ahmad al-Faqi al Madi, appealed to the Court that he had seen the light and repented of his iconoclasm. The Court decided to convict and sentenced him to nine years’ imprisonment. It will be worth knowing what his fellow iconoclasts in Al Qaeda and Da’esh make of that repentance and his sentence, if anything.
Da’esh attempted to destroy the antiquities of Palmyra in 2015/16 but they were then forced to retreat back towards Raqqa on the Euphrates near Iraq. In August 2016, to celebrate their victory over Da’esh, Russians brought a symphony orchestra to Palmyra and played music where Da’esh had tortured, beheaded and crucified the torso of Khaled al-Asaad, the 83 year old archaeologist and caretaker of the site a few months earlier. From Damascus itself, the Syrian Antiquities director-general, visiting an International Cultural Summit in Edinburgh, said that three-quarters of the looted antiquities seized in anti-smuggling operations have proved to be fakes. They include fake ancient Bibles and Korans. Remember that theft by deception is still theft.
Hybrid, multifaceted, multidimensional warfare, requires consideration of both cultural and anti-cultural elements in conflict, just as General Eisenhower spoke about it directly after the Second World War, and just as the Russians with their symphony orchestra in Palmyra in midsummer 2016 played it. Art theft by destruction, with art theft of all kinds, is a part of our wider world of warfare.
What is to be done?  Those old words of Lenin translated into English suggest that something should be done, and as Ike suggested in 1946, things can be done with positive outcomes. The Marshall Plan helped to achieve those. Today that means innovation integrated with our resources, perhaps best through an indirect approach to the problems of art theft by Islamist fanatics. Sun Tzu, Captain Basil Liddell Hart and Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege reveal that intellectual grasp.
For a start we could improve policing, particularly at borders (including ports and airports). In paramilitary policing contexts, where objects are being transported across boundaries and they are either in the direct control of art thieves and dishonest handlers, or conveyed by their proxies.
Stolen art and looted antiquities can feature more prominently in terms of stop, search, arrest and seizure where necessary. Talking sensibly to the person stopped and searched is highly important.
Second, anti-theft laws can be tightened internationally, and more importantly nationally. Law enforcement could be directed to consider the significance of art crime as a potential Achilles’ heel to criminal organizations, whether specifically terrorist-oriented or against quasi-gangster state operations. Military units in conflict zones can assist paramilitary border forces with that objective.
Third, a far better use of live informants could and should be encouraged for law enforcement officials. In each of the stolen art recoveries mentioned above in this article, all those operations were informant-led. That means the informants did not run the operations but they did provide crucial information. Better training in the use and handling of informants is the key to successful recoveries for stolen art and looted antiquities. Also, an under-used kind of information gathering is through Open Source, or Internet-related, material that does not require an Interception of Communications Warrant. The development of electronic eavesdropping can corroborate what human source informants say, and provide established links to others, and their locations.
The EU Commission’s recent bright idea of a European Army (2015-16)  could be more effectively re-figured as an effective paramilitary border guard given the right training and organization. In fact, Retired Brigadier General Wass de Czege (once a Staff Officer at NATO in Brussels) should be consulted. He would know how to do it. His key to successful innovation is integration. The EU Commission’s best bet would be to complement NATO, and not to try organizing a parallel universe.
What used to be referred to as consciousness-raising is an integral part of educating and assisting in the fight against art crime; against looting, stealing and faking in all of their guises. Although stolen art in wartime and in small wars against terrorists is not a central issue in the War on Terror, it is a significant peripheral matter and one that can assist democratic societies to order their priorities in the fight and when the fight is over. After all, what are we fighting for if not a civilized society for our own and future generations, and as an acknowledgement of past disasters in human civilizations?
Kenneth Clark was an eminent aesthete in the late twentieth century who produced a book and TV series called Civilization. In it he wrote and said to camera, “...order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must try to learn from history. History is ourselves.” And then he added, “Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.”  (By certain individuals he meant the great artists of antiquity, of yesterday and today.)
We need to work on innovative ideas and indirect approaches that will enable us to achieve that. Preserving major works of art from antiquity to our present, and for our future, necessitates it.
Charles Hill served two years in the US Army, after volunteering for the Draft (conscription) in 1967 he had basic, infantry and parachute training. On returning from Vietnam, he received a BA in History from George Washington University (Washington, DC) and was a Fulbright Scholar at Trinity College Dublin. Having retired as a Detective Chief Inspector from the Metropolitan Police (New Scotland Yard) in London in 1997, he works at recovering stolen and looted works of art worldwide. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.