Strange bedfellows: Why are the Mafia trading arms for art with ISIS?

The 'Ndrangheta, a notorious branch of the Italian Mafia, have been swapping guns for priceless artifacts with ISIS

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| Image: STR / AP/Press Association Images

While it might sound like a very odd pairing, ISIS have been doing business with a branch of the Italian Mafia based around Naples.

As ISIS continue to pillage UNESCO world heritage sites across Iraq, Libya and Syria, they have been accumulating priceless works of art and artifacts which are of interest to collectors in Europe and further afield. 

Speaking on the Pat Kenny Show on Friday, Paddy Agnew of The Irish Times explained how the deal between the militant group and the Mafia in Southern Italy, in particular located around the city of Calabria.

"It comes as no surprise because ISIS are dealing with the 'Ndrangheta, the Mafia in Calabria, and we've all known for a long, long time that they have two major sources of revenue," explained Agnew. "One is importation of cocaine - they're the biggest importers of cocaine in Europe - and the second one is arms. 

"Italian investigators have always imagined that there were some sort of arms trades going on between ISIS and the 'Ndrangheta, but what they didn't realise is that it was on an exchange basis. 'We'll sell you priceless ancient art in exchange for guns,' and they're selling from UNESCO type world heritage sites in Libya." 

In order to expose the dealings, Domenico Quirico, an experienced reporter for La Stampaposed as a wealthy art collector from Turin, and met with people in Naples to try and get access to those who were trading the priceless works.

In a scene that sounds as thought it had been lifted from a movie script, Quirico met the dealers in a meat processing factory, where he was allegedly shown a statue of an emperor which dated back to the second century, and told that he could buy it for €60,000.

"These are all going to private collectors and they don't intend to show them to anybody," Agnew added. "They're not selling them to museums and places, they're selling the to places where they're not going to be on public view."

For the 'Ndrangheta, who believe themselves to be a Catholic organisation at their core, dealing with ISIS might seem to be a strange move, but Agnew explained that when it comes to the Mafia, there's only one principle that really matters./ 

"Business is business, and that has always been the Mafia's approach," he explained. "If they can do business with these guys, then they will. Organised crime in this city represents something like 8-10% of GDP, so you're talking about a huge sum of money.

"The largest and by far the most profitable part of the Italian Mafia is the 'Ndrangheta and selling arms is a large part of their business. Who on the world scene at the moment needs arms more than ISIS? They're an obvious client for them." 

However, it is not only the Italian Mafia who are involved in these deals. The artifacts make their way from ports controlled by ISIS to the port of Gioia Tauro on Chinese boats, while the arms that are then sent to ISIS arrive from Ukraine and Moldova.

"Basically you have ISIS, the 'Ndrangheta, the Russian Mafia and the Chinese Mafia all involved in this flourishing business," explained Agnew. "[The report] is just confirming what we know. The Italian interior minister, Angelino Alfanowas asked about Quirico's report and he said: 'Look, we've always known that ISIS has been selling priceless ancient art, we've always imagined that was part of their GDP, and this is just the proof of it.'"