Friendly fire: accounting for the stolen arsenal of ISIS

The use of hundreds of Toyota utility trucks in ISIS propaganda videos has prompted debate over the military supply chain in the Middle East. How does advanced equipment end up in the hands of militant groups, and is it possible to address this violent cycle of supply and demand?


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Among the many disturbing images that have emerged from ISIS's campaign of terror in Iraq and Syria, one seemingly trivial detail prompted a flurry of controversy in the automotive industry and beyond. In the militant group's many propaganda videos showing fighters parading through Raqqa and other captured towns, there is a notable abundance of white Toyota utility trucks, specifically the Toyota Hilux compact pickup truck and the larger Land Cruiser.

These civilian vehicles have become such a prominent fixture of ISIS footage - in one video showing a parade through Raqqa, ABC News reported that more than two thirds of the vehicles seen are Toyota trucks - that awkward questions have emerged for one of the world's largest car manufacturers.

"Regrettably, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Hilux have effectively become almost part of the ISIS brand," Counter Extremism Project CEO and former US ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace told ABC News in October. "ISIS has used these vehicles in order to engage in military-type activities, terror activities, and the like. But in nearly every ISIS video, they show a fleet, a convoy of Toyota vehicles and that's very concerning to us."

So why have these trucks become a virtually omnipresent part of ISIS's public face, and how has the world's public enemy number one gotten its hands on so many? It's an interesting question in its own right, and perhaps more importantly, it provides an entry point into the much larger and more troubling issue of Western-made military equipment falling into the worst possible hands.

Hilux and Land Cruiser: "ubiquitous to insurgent warfare"

In October 2015, questions surrounding ISIS's extensive use of Toyota trucks moved to the state level as the Terror Financing unit of the US Treasury Department announced an inquiry into the issue.

Toyota has announced that it is co-operating with the inquiry, and that it has safeguards in place to protect its supply chain and stop the sale of vehicles to purchasers who might use them "for paramilitary or terrorist activities". Tracking vehicles that have been stolen or re-sold, however, is a hopeless endeavour.

"Toyota has announced that it is co-operating with the inquiry, and that it has safeguards in place to protect its supply chain."

It's impossible to get a better understanding of the Toyota issue without acknowledging the role that Toyota utility vehicles - and the Hilux model in particular - have played in the history of insurgencies and paramilitary warfare. The truck is prized by fighters in rugged terrain around the world for its reliability, off-road capability, suitability as a heavy weapons platform and nigh-on indestructible frame.

From Somali pirates and paramilitaries across Africa to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, the Hilux isn't just part of ISIS's brand; it's a tool and symbol of non-state fighting forces the world over. Such is the vehicle's paramilitary appeal that it even has a war named after it in the form of the Toyota War in 1987, during which a plethora of Land Cruisers and Hiluxes carried Chadian troops to a decisive victory over invading Libyan forces.

"The Toyota Hilux is everywhere," Andrew Exum, Middle East defence expert and now Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy at the US Department of Defense, told Newsweek in 2010. "It's the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It's ubiquitous to insurgent warfare."

Misuse of Toyota trucks: no shortage of sources

So in a sense, Toyota is today a victim of its success with the Hilux. ISIS's access to these vehicles likely stems from a host of potential sources, including the US State Department reportedly providing 43 trucks to Free Syrian Army rebels in 2014.

Australia's Daily Telegraph reported in August that New South Wales had seen a spike in stolen Hilux trucks, as well as a massive jump in the number of unrecovered stolen vehicles (473 of 834 stolen Hilux pickups have not been found), leading to speculation that they were being shipped to the Middle East and snuck into the conflict zone.

And that's not even taking into account the Toyota vehicles that have been sold legitimately in the region - 31,000 Land Cruisers and Hiluxes were sold in Iraq alone in 2013-14 - and subsequently captured by extremist fighters. There is clearly no shortage of avenues by which ISIS and its allies can get their hands on these vehicles, and the perennial popularity of Toyota's models among insurgents goes some way towards explaining their disproportionate appearance in ISIS propaganda videos.

Although worthwhile questions are clearly being asked by the Treasury Department of Toyota and its supply chain integrity, accusations of some sinister collusion between the company and ISIS seem more in the realm of conspiracy theory than reality. Nevertheless, there is an expectation in some quarters that the company should be doing more.

"I don't think Toyota's trying to intentionally profit from it, but they are on notice now and they should do more," Wallace argued in October. "They should be able to figure it out... how are these trucks getting there? I think they should disclose that, put a stop to that, and put policies and procedures in places that are real and effective to make sure that we don't see videos of ISIS using Toyota trucks in the future."

The wider issue: Iraq and Syria's chaotic military supply chain

Demanding that procedures be put in place to stop ISIS using Toyota trucks is all well and good, but the reality is that all players in the Middle East, the US military included, have found it almost impossible to secure the supply chain integrity of equipment that is far more dangerous than a range of civilian utility vehicles.

ISIS is now well-stocked with sophisticated small arms, vehicles and heavy weapons supplied by the US and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia to the various forces resisting the terror group in Iraq and Syria.

A September 2014 report by arms-tracking organisation Conflict Armament Research studied ISIS weapons captured by the Kurdish peshmerga in the summer of that year, concluding that ISIS had captured "significant quantities of US-manufactured small arms". The study also discovered M-79 anti-tank rockets identical to those supplied by Saudi Arabia to anti-Assad fighters in Syria who had been identified as non-extremist.

"Major defeats of the US-supplied Iraqi armed forces have provided several materiel bonanzas for the group."

ISIS has clearly taken advantage of the region's legacy of violent conflict to enhance its arsenal through piecemeal acquisitions, and major defeats of the US-supplied Iraqi armed forces have provided several materiel bonanzas for the group. When Iraqi forces fled ISIS after losing the northern city of Mosul in June 2014, they left behind a huge stockpile of equipment for the insurgents to plunder.

Losses like this one, and a similar defeat in Ramadi in May 2015, mean that more than 2,300 armoured Humvees, tens of thousands of machine guns, dozens of M1A1 main battle tanks and more than 50 M198 howitzer artillery pieces are thought to have fallen into enemy hands, although more advanced weaponry such as the tanks may prove impossible for ISIS to operate and maintain in the long run.

"If you say [ISIS] have captured the equivalent of at least three to four [Iraqi Army] divisions' worth of equipment, much of it American-supplied, you would be very safe," said Center for Strategic and International Studies military analyst Anthony H. Cordesman in June 2015.

Violent cycle of supply and demand

As a result of these losses, along with other factors, ISIS has become possibly the best-armed military group in the area, making it difficult for opposing forces to resist them. The US is continuing its pledge to send billions of dollars' worth of new equipment to Iraq over the next few years, with no guarantee that these deliveries won't simply fuel the ISIS war machine for years to come. But the alternative is to stand back and offer no support to the only groups fighting ISIS on the ground.

What's the solution to this violent cycle of supply and demand? Unsurprisingly, there are no easy answers. The efficacy of the US military's local training efforts in Iraq, which have struggled to find any kind of success in recent years, is intimately linked to the integrity of supplied weapons, and improvements in training with specific reference to asset denial could certainly make a difference, but past losses show that positive outcomes from this investment would still be far from certain.

Detailed coalition intelligence on the status of the many active militias and rebel forces in the region will help the vetting process when it comes to which groups to supply, but the sheer complexity of the situation - in Syria particularly - makes it extremely difficult to keep up with myriad shifting fortunes and allegiances. In the absence of any real political will among Western allies to fully commit to potentially disastrous ground operations in Iraq and Syria, the anti-ISIS coalition appears locked in the same uncertain cycle of air strikes, training and equipment supply while two countries burn and millions of refugees continue to flee the region.