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Is Al Qaeda Making Money on eBay

November 25th, 2006 by Skip McGrath

Interpol and the FBI has linked Al Qaeda to the underground trade in stolen art and antiquities and some of these goods may have shown up on eBay

The Middle East is the hotbed for the billion dollar a year underground trade in stolen and fake art and antiquities. It is an old story and has been going on for over hundreds of years.  What’s new is the involvement of Islamofacists and terror organizations using the art and antiquities market for terror financing.  In fact it could have been the source of some of the funds used to finance the 911 terrorists.

The German magazine Der Spiegel wrote an investigative report titled Art As Financing for Terrorists? The report states that Mohammed Atta, leader of the 911 terrorists contacted a German art expert at Goetingen University during his time living in Hamburg in 2000 or early 2001, claiming that he had access to “ancient artifacts of considerable value” which he wanted to sell to raise funds for the purchase of an aircraft. The exact nature of the art objects was not known, but they were thought to have been cultural relics smuggled out of Afghanistan. The professor apparently recommended that Atta contact Sotheby’s Auction House.  No one knows if Atta found a way to sell the artifacts. But, that is not the end of the story.

Recent reports out of Great Britain state that Britain’s MI5 (their equivalent of the FBI), Scotland Yard, Interpol and the US FBI are cooperating on a large investigation that links Al Qaeda, Hamas and other terror organizations to the thriving trade in stolen and fake antiquities.  And some of these items may have been sold on eBay and other online auction sites as well as surfacing at major auction houses including Christies, Sotherbys and Bonhams and Butterfields. Selling through the major auction houses is somewhat more difficult because they are very knowledgeable about fakes and maintain lists of stolen items.  However, many antiquities are stolen from archeological sites where they have not been cataloged.

eBay has an aggressive program to combat the sale of fake and/or stolen art and antiquities and regularly cooperates with the FBI and other law enforcement organizations.  Some of the stolen antiquities can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, however, this rarely occurs on eBay.  Successful antiquities listed on eBay tend to run in the $1000 to $20,000 range and many of them are sold in the live auction format rather than listed on eBay for bids.

Nevertheless, that Al Qaeda would use eBay as a front to sell stolen and fake art and antiquities is not only possible it is probable.  There are millions of Arabs living in the US and many of them are not only sympathetic to our enemies but the FBI is convinced that there are sleeper cells and operatives working here today.  Financing these cells by selling stolen and fake goods on eBay is a lot more anonymous than walking into an auction house such as Sothebys.  Kevin Purseglove, a spokesperson for eBay, acknowledged this in an interview in 2003: “it’s possible items could make their way to eBay. Employees at eBay cannot evaluate each item posted on the site, which has 62 million registered users worldwide.”

The advantage of using eBay to sell stolen items is twofold: Anonominity and speed.  It is fairly easy to set up an eBay account using false or stolen ID which terrorists are trained to use. Alternatively the agents of terrorists can engage in account takeover using phishing techniques.  The other factor is speed.  Auctions at the major auction houses are scheduled weeks or months in advance.  Photos of items to be sold are circulated and the auctions are advertised and promoted.  Whereas on eBay, you can launch an auction for three, five or seven days, sell the item and get paid and then disappear and come back next week with a new ID.  As hard as eBay tries to combat this it happens all the time.

To be sure, eBay is a minor player in this drama.  The bulk of trade in fake and stolen goods takes place person-to-person or through many of the shady galleries and dealers who specialize in this trade, but there is no question that eBay and other online venues play a part –albeit an uncooperative one.  Besides the fact that Mohammed Atta was an evil murderous fanatic –he was also a pretty smart guy.  When I read that story about him I wondered to myself if he ever had an eBay account. If he did, it never came out in the news.

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