There is no doubt that Islamic State (IS) is an organized, wealthy operation. In 2012, President Obama compared ISIS to Al Qaeda’s jayvee team, muddying the true extent and ability of the group.
But since then, IS has killed vast numbers of people and maintained control of an Iraq-Syria caliphate for over a year. However, the terrorists have claimed more than land: they’ve adopted Toyota, the Japanese car brand, as their vehicle of choice.
Widespread videos posted online through IS-linked websites and social media accounts show caravans of Toyotas, many of which have been outfitted with artillery, and many of which appear to be brand new.
Both Toyota Hilux pickups and Toyota Land Cruisers “have become fixtures in videos of the ISIS campaign in Iraq, Syria and Libya, with their truck beds loaded with heavy weapons and cabs jammed with terrorists,” says ABC News.
“Regrettably, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Hilux have effectively become almost part of the ISIS brand,” Mark Wallace, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations and CEO of the Counter Extremism Project, a nonprofit working to expose the financial support networks of terror groups.
It’s unclear just how many Toyota vehicles the extremist group has. Lukman Faily, Iraq's ambassador to the United States, believes IS has received hundreds of brand new Toyotas in recent years.
The Terror Financing Unit of the US Treasury Department, in conjunction with Toyota, has launched an investigation into how the terrorist group acquired the vehicles.
The importance of the investigation rests on the vital role vehicles play in mobilizing and assisting terrorist groups. Undermining the IS vehicle supply chain could have a significant effect, as evidenced by the edge that these vehicles have given previous terrorist groups, such as the Taliban.
In the 1990s, the Hilux truck served a pivotal role for the Taliban insurgency, giving the group a way to quickly mobilize troops. BBC correspondent David Loyn went so far as to rank the Hilux among the “great game-changers of modern warfare,” according to Public Radio International.
“The Toyota Hilux is everywhere,” Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and fellow of the Center for a New American Security, told Newsweek. “It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare."
Despite its popularity among rebel groups, Toyota has a “strict policy to not sell vehicles to potential purchasers who may use or modify them for paramilitary or terrorist activities,” as well as procedures in place “to protect supply chain integrity,” Ed Lewis, Toyota’s Washington-based director of public policy and communications, told ABC News.
While Toyota’s own figures show a tripling of sales of the Hilux in Iraq during 2013, US authorities are also investigating other sources from which the cars could have originated, as part of a broader effort to “prevent Western-made goods from ending up in the hands of the terror group.”
But the US has, in fact, knowingly exported Toyotas that could now potentially be in the terrorist group’s fleet. In April 2014, a report published by Public Radio International announced that US State Department aid sent to Syrian rebels included 43 Toyota trucks.
At the time, the Hiluxes were meant to support the Free Syrian Army, serving as “force enablers,” with the ability to house crew-served machine guns or other types of military equipment, Oubai Shahbander, a Washington-based advisor to the Syrian National Coalition, told Public Radio International. It’s unclear where the vehicles are now.
In general, exporting cars from the US is an easier process than most think. Used cars are often sold in auction fashion, meaning the highest bidder wins. Within as little as two transactions, IS could have trucks from the US in their possession.
For example, a Texas plumber’s truck made headlines last year when it appeared in an IS video. The plumber lost track of his truck after he sold it to a used car dealer. But the company’s name and phone number painted on the side of the truck made it easily identifiable when it appeared in the video, carrying gun-wielding extremists.
Furthermore, Toyota’s Mr. Lewis admitted it’s impossible for the company to track vehicles bought and resold by middlemen.
To add to the irony, the company manufactures a minivan model in Japan: The Toyota Isis.