(Bloomberg) — Islamist militants used sledgehammers and
drills to smash ancient artifacts and statues in Iraq’s northern
city of Mosul, saying the relics were against the teachings of
Islam, according to a video by Islamic State.

The five-minute video, posted on websites used by the
jihadist group, shows several bearded men inside what’s
identified as the Mosul Museum, breaking up large sculptures. In
another scene, a man drills through the statue of a winged bull,
an Assyrian protective deity, that was almost 3,000 years old.

The bull was destroyed four days ago, Layla Saleh, a former
official at the Mosul Museum, said by phone on Thursday. Other
statues seen being broken in the film are from the Nergal Gate
in the ancient city of Nineveh, located near Mosul in what’s now
northern Iraq.

The smashing of artefacts is the latest act of violence
that Islamic State has broadcast to the world. The group has
filmed the beheading of prisoners including Egyptian Christians
and American journalists, and the burning alive of a captured
Jordanian pilot. The U.S. is leading a bombing campaign against
Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The group’s cultural vandalism carries echoes of the
Taliban in Afghanistan, which blew up two giant Buddha statues
in Bamiyan Valley in 2001, and another Islamist group, Ansar al-Dine, which destroyed Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu in 2012.

‘Tragic Assault’

The Sunni Muslim group has directed much of its violence at
Shiites and non-Muslim minorities. In recent weeks, Islamic
State militants have attacked predominantly Assyrian Christian
villages in northeastern Syria, taking dozens hostage according
to human rights groups.

The filmed attack on the Mosul artefacts drew widespread
condemnation. Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York, called it an “act of catastrophic
destruction to one of the most important museums in the Middle
East.”

“This mindless attack on great art, on history, and on
human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on the
Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to
unite people and promote human understanding,” Campbell said in
an e-mailed statement.

In the Islamic State video, a bearded militant justifies
the action by saying that idols were worshiped in the past and
had to be destroyed.

‘Conquered Countries’

“The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands
when he went into Mecca,” the militant said. “We were ordered
by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the
companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they
conquered countries.”

Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city and the surrounding
Nineveh province fell to Islamic State in June last year after
its fighters routed the Iraqi army. It’s the largest city that
the group has captured. U.S. and Iraqi officials have recently
signaled that they’re planning an offensive to recapture it,
though it won’t start for some months.

The Mosul Museum’s collection covers the range of
civilizations in the region, among the world’s oldest, with
sculptures from royal cities such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra.
The winged bull is one of a pair of statues — the other is in
the British Museum in London — and has appeared on Iraqi
banknotes.

Saleh, the Mosul museum official, escaped to Baghdad in
September after the Islamic State takeover. In a phone interview
at the time, she said the city’s antiquities were “at real risk
and danger from the both sides of the conflict, Islamic State
and the coalition forces fighting it.”

She said the items in the Mosul museum were likely to be
destroyed because they were too large to be smuggled out and
sold. Smaller antiquities were moved to Baghdad after 2003, when
the U.S. invaded Iraq, Saleh said in September.

“Destroying these statues means the erasure of whole
civilizations,” she said on Thursday.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Zaid Sabah in Washington at
zalhamid@bloomberg.net;
Kambiz Foroohar in New York at
kforoohar@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Andrew J. Barden at
barden@bloomberg.net
Ben Holland, Jim Silver