Facebook’s black market in antiquities

Facebook has become a sprawling digital black market, facilitating illicit trade in antiquities from across the Middle East and North Africa. The ATHAR Project 2019 report takes an in-depth look antiquities trafficking on the world’s largest social media platform.

Facebook’s Black Market in Antiquities

Facebook’s “Groups” feature, which allows users to create and control a contained network of individuals with “shared interests,” has become a facilitator for the expansion of antiquities trafficking networks. The Groups provide a seamless environment for digital interactions and cross-border networking between users interested in buying and selling antiquities, allowing them to communicate efficiently and discretely. The ATHAR Project’s report covers nearly two-years of investigative research and incorporates a case study on Groups based in Syria.

ATHAR Project 2019 report by the numbers


Facebook Groups Tracked


Posts recorded


Group Members Monitored


Images gathered

Executive Summary

Facebook’s rapid growth and lack of internal policing mechanisms over the past decade have helped the platform become a digital black market where users buy and sell goods, including illicit antiquities, from some of the world’s most conflict-ridden nations. The social media platform has marketed itself as a tool for the global dissemination of ideas and information. In the process, however, it has unwittingly expanded the communication  abilities of transnational criminal networks the world over.

Today, Facebook offers a veritable digital toolbox for traffickers to utilize, including photo and video uploads, live streaming, disappearing ‘Stories,’ payment mechanisms, and encrypted messaging. Facebook is the perfect platform for a one-stop-shop black market.

This in turn has made Facebook the wild west of social media, providing opportunities for violent extremist organizations and criminal groups to operate in plain sight with little recourse. Facebook and other technology companies receive broad immunity from responsibility for any content posted to their platforms by third-parties under the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230.

Aside from the law, Facebook does have its own internal policies laid out in the company’s Community Standards that prohibit the sale of black-market items like drugs and wildlife. But illicit cultural property is not listed in the banned trades under Facebook’s Community Standards. As a result, today we can find detailed information about antiquities trafficking that has remained active on the platform for years. This data provides a rare look at the inside of the trade.

It is worth noting that unlike other black market trades, there are few statistics on the trade in illicit antiquities. Likewise, little data is available for the legal global trade in antiquities. Art market industry reports typically lump datasets for antiquities together with the broader art market. For a trade that can straddle the legal and illegal realm, it is difficult to get a handle on the amount of cultural property that is currently leaving Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in high volumes.

The public nature of these digital criminal networks therefore offers an opportunity to track the actors in the illicit trade of cultural property. The data in these Facebook Groups opens a window to the early stages of the antiquities trafficking chain. This research builds upon existing knowledge of antiquities trafficking and provides a quantitative lens to analyze the Facebook trade in illicit antiquities and the actors who engage in these crimes. Studying Facebook Groups and the users that communicate and operate within them allows for both a substantive look at the actors and a measurable set of data that can help foster a better understanding of the transnational criminal networks involved in this trade.

This report details the findings of the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project. The goal of this research is to provide a more complete illustration of the digital black market in antiquities from the MENA region and present potential means for disrupting it.

Key Findings

  • An analysis of 95 Arabic Facebook Groups developed for antiquities trafficking indicates that the administrators (“admins”) managing Groups are highly interconnected and have a global reach. There are 488 individual admins managing a collective 1,947,195 members across 95 Facebook Groups. Twenty-three of the admins managing four or more Groups. Their influence extends as far as the United States, where an American antiquities dealer is Facebook friends with at least one admin who runs multiple trafficking Groups and Pages on Facebook.
  • Group members include a mix of average citizens, middlemen, and violent extremists. Violent extremists currently include individuals associated with Syrian-based groups like Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), Hurras Al-Din, the Zinki Brigade and other non-Syrian based Al-Qaeda or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliates. All of these groups are using Facebook as a platform for antiquities trafficking, whether through direct interaction with buyers and sellers or through the use of middlemen who straddle transactions between the general public and terrorist groups.
  • Facebook Group admins compel users to give them money if they make a sale or connection through the Group they have joined. Admins may collect a fee (referred to by some as “khums tax” or equivalent) from any sales generated through contacts made in their Group. The admins can also remove or block users who do not comply. The same khums tax practice was used by ISIS in its governance of illicit antiquities.
  • Traffickers are offering large artifacts, including mosaics, architectural elements, and Pharaonic coffins — all still in situ. These individuals are finding buyers before they put in the effort to remove the objects. Monitoring social media offers a rare opportunity for authorities to stop trafficking before an object has even left the ground.
  • A case study on Syrian-based Facebook Groups reveals that posts from users based in conflict zones make up more than one-third of all posts offering artifacts. Among the active users with locations in the Groups analyzed, 36% of posts offering artifacts have identifiable locations in conflict zones and 44% of posts offering artifacts were from countries bordering conflict zones.



ATHAR Syria CaSe Study Interactive graphs 

Using data from Facebook Group communications supplemented by human-intel on the ground, this report provides a detailed illustration of antiquities trafficking in Syria and throughout the wider Middle East and North African region. The ATHAR Project is currently monitoring 95 Arabic-language Facebook Groups engaging in the illicit antiquities trade.

The Syria case study examines four of the 95 Facebook Groups currently monitored by the ATHAR Project. The four Groups selected all have listed locations in Syria and the data collected spans from each Group’s date of creation through 31 December 2018.

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