The ruins of Iraq and Syria are proving a treasure trove, with former foes vying to uncover buried bullion, dollars and jewels
Martin Chulov and Nechirvan Mando Erbil
One evening three years ago, Ayad, a former Iraqi army officer, took a call from a contact who not long before had been a mortal foe. The man on the phone was a shepherd from a town that had been a stronghold of the Islamic State terror group, and he had some information to share.
For years, the shepherd had been an IS member, a resident of the hardline town of Baaj who had been swept up in the marauders’ 2014 rampage across northern Iraq and in the blood-soaked bedlam that followed. Tending his flock had given him a unique vantage point on the extremists as they consolidated a stranglehold on Mosul province, and then, when the region slipped from their grasp, as the resurgent national army and global coalition fought back.
The shepherd was now sitting on one of the biggest secrets of them all: where the fleeing terror group had stashed its loot. He knew of one particular site where IS fighters had buried at least $3m (about £2.5m). If Ayad could dig it up, he and his new friend could share in the spoils. The shepherd had contacted Ayad because he felt the former army officer had the connections to pull off the job.
“And then I made a big mistake,” said Ayad, recounting the story in a mountaintop cafe in northern Iraq. “I called my cousin who worked in the intelligence service, and who could get there easier than I could, and asked him to retrieve it. He said he would.”
The decision Ayad was faced with is one of many similar reckonings made in the years since IS was defeated on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, where the most chaotic period in the Middle East’s recent history is slowly giving up its secrets.
From under the deserts of both countries and amid the ruins of their cities, a vast array of treasure is slowly being recovered, often by the most unlikely of consortiums. Once-impossible alliances of former foes have been formed to retrieve some IS treasure, while once-tight family networks have been shredded in the same pursuit.
From islands in the Euphrates, under wells in Anbar province, in the sewers of Mosul’s old city, and under nondescript homes across Nineveh, the treasure of the “caliphate” is emerging, its location pieced together by a small network of people patiently waiting for an opportunity to seize vast amounts of bullion, dollars and jewels that IS had assembled into a makeshift treasury.
Just what, and how much, was buried as vanquished IS members fled is unknown. But the sums recovered so far offer an irresistible lure to a growing number of officials and treasure hunters.
“This isn’t a myth,” said one former IS member, now in Syria. “But there are only a few people left alive who know where some of these stockpiles are.”
In some cases, IS prisoners and avaricious guards have made faustian bargains of freedom in return for riches. And in others, militias, army units, tribes and spies have been involved in a years-long standoff near a suspected hiding spot, with no one prepared to share in the spoils and all willing to bide their time, hoping a competitor looks away, or loses interest.
Former IS members, such as the shepherd, are now a prized asset. “He was only Isis because he had to accept the reality,” said Ayad of the herder who had pointed him to an underground bonanza. “He wanted a cut too. The spoils of war are fair game.”
Ayad’s cousin took two men with him to Baaj in late 2019. He followed directions exactly as they were relayed to him. “I told him to walk to the end of an irrigation pipe, then turn right a few metres and start digging. He did, and he found a blue plastic pickles barrel with a mesh top. He called me and asked what to do. I’m an explosives expert and told him it could be booby trapped. So they cut the barrel instead and the money was all there in bags, wrapped tightly.”
Of all Iraq’s possible treasure sites, say police officers, IS prisoners and intelligence officers, Mosul’s old city offers the most potential. Even with the city now being rebuilt, and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, from where the now dead IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a so-called caliphate in mid-2014, nearly fully reconstructed, rubble is still yielding surprises.
Two years ago, a senior Iraqi police officer recovered a bag containing $1.5m from one ruined home. “I counted it out and decided to give it to the government,” said the officer, a veteran of the fight against IS for the city. “I thought it was my duty. Do you know what they said to me? ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ Rather than get thanks from them, I got suspicion and trouble. I wish I didn’t give that money to them, and next time I won’t.”
The officer pointed to his five war wounds, three bullets and two shrapnel scars. “What has the state given us for our sacrifices? Not much,” he said.
Near his office in the old city are two suspected treasure sites, both known to all the security forces that control the town. “There’s one near a Unesco house and another nearby,” he said. “No one dares take them, because there are cameras nearby. And no one could agree on who gets what.”
In November, the Guardian visited one of the sites and found a freshly dug hole in the ground of a basement floor. “I dug a hole where I was told and all I found was a bag carrying explosives and shit,” said one of the men present. “There was something there, but it had been taken.”
Further west, towards the Syrian border, Shia militias have also been hunting treasure. Prisoners in their custody had suggested that some of the bigger hauls of cash and bullion had been buried in fridges under the soil near the Syrian border town of al-Qaim. “We can’t find it,” said one of the militia members. “But it’s out there somewhere.”
To the south of al-Qaim, a confirmed stockpile of gold and dollars totalling around $16m has laid untouched under a well since it was buried in late 2018. Shia militias, tribesmen, IS, and Iraqi officials are aware of its location, but none dare extract it without other groups knowing, for fear of facing the wrath of their rivals.
“Everyone has had a look at this for a long time,” said a source in close proximity to the leadership of Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq. “If one group tried to take it, the others would kill them. You could probably take it from the well, but getting it from there to safety is impossible. The American army would need to reinvade.
In Erbil, to the north, a Kurdish intelligence officer admitted that his organisation had little idea which of its IS prisoners had information about treasure. “What we do know is they are low on cash and low on options,” he said. “They are back to basic smuggling and stand-over tactics. They can’t tax anyone any more.”
When Ayad’s cousin returned from his treasure hunt in Baaj, he had some bad news. “He told me there was nothing in the boxes, and the mission failed,” Ayad said. “I didn’t believe him. Later his wife told me she had seen all the money laid out in their home. There was $3m total. He bought four new villas after that. And he still tells me they found nothing.” The shepherd also went empty-handed.
“It was the biggest regret of my life to trust [my cousin] with that,” Ayad added. “I know there’s a lot more treasure out there, but that’s the only one I knew of. I was an officer in the Iraqi army when Mosul fell. I went back to fight Isis with the National Defence. We have all paid a big price to rebuild this country. But the biggest price I paid was at the hands of my family.”