If the name Toyota Hilux doesn’t immediately ring a bell for you, that’s OK. They haven’t been sold in the U.S. since 1995, when Toyota decided Americans wanted a safer, comfortable, overall more modern truck and replaced it with the Tacoma. And even before ’95, we never got the Hilux here as the Hilux, per se – we got it as the much more creatively named Toyota Truck. I know, it really paints a picture, doesn’t it?
But for the rest of the world, the Hilux has the go-to pickup of choice since 1969, with over 12 million sold worldwide. It’s up there with the Jeep CJ, the Land Rover, and the Toyota Land Cruiser as one of those few unkillable, go-anywhere vehicles that can take anything you’ve got and keep charging. You can find them chugging through rain forests in the South Pacific, crossing the Sahara Desert, ferrying explorers in the arctic, and just about everywhere in between. Top Gear memorably took a modern Hilux to the North Pole, and later to the mouth of an active volcano. They also hit an older one with a wrecking ball, crashed it into the ocean, set it on fire, and blew it up in a building demolition. It survived.
Unlike a Wrangler, which can run into the low $40K range fully-loaded, an $80,000-plus Land Cruiser, and a now defunct Defender, a base-model two-door turbo-diesel Hilux will set you back about $22,990 in Australia, or $16K and change in U.S. dollars. So being cheap, common, and nearly indestructible, they’re in high demand, especially in unforgiving climates. And right now, nowhere is the climate more unforgiving than in Iraq and Syria, and in these troubled states, the iconic Hilux is earning a whole new reputation: The transport of choice for ISIS. This week, the U.S. Treasury has launched a formal investigation as to why.
On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer. As Newsweek reported back in 2010, the durability and ubiquity of the Hilux has made it popular with terror groups and insurgents dating back to the 1970s. Looking back at news items over the years, they’re everywhere. As reporter Ravi Somaiya details:
A ragtag bunch of 20 or so Sudanese fighters raise their arms aloft in the back of a Hilux in 2004. Pakistani militants drive through a crowd, guns high, in 2000. It goes on. Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq — U.S. Special Forces even drive Toyota Tacomas (the chunkier, U.S. version of the Hilux) on some of their deployments.
Speaking with Newsweek, Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army Ranger and fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says the Hilux is “the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare. And actually, recently, also counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee.”
But there’s little the U.S. can do about decades-old trucks in troubled parts of the world. What the U.S. Treasury Department’s Terror Financing Unit is investigating is the influx of new trucks that keep popping up in seemingly every new ISIS’s propaganda video. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Luckman Faily told ABC News, “This is a question we’ve been asking our neighbors,” adding, “How could these brand new trucks… these four wheel drives, hundreds of them — where are they coming from?”
According to Toyota, the Feds’ guess is as good as anybody’s. Speaking with ABC News, company spokesman Ed Lewis said the company has a “strict policy to not sell vehicles to potential purchasers who may use or modify them for paramilitary or terrorist activities,” and added that the company – like most automakers – has no way to tracking their vehicles once they’ve been bought by a middleman or private party. The company is fully cooperating with the U.S. on the investigation.
ISIS is extremely well-funded, and it’s probable that it’s largely getting trucks from middlemen who are buying them legitimately from dealers. But there’s also evidence that the group is stealing the trucks from other parts of the world and having them shipped to its strongholds. An Australian newspaper recently reported that 834 Hilux trucks were stolen from the Sydney area in 2014-’15 alone, with strong evidence that hundreds of those ended up in Syria.
Experts estimate that there are now several hundred Toyotas in the ISIS fleet, mostly Hilux trucks and Land Cruisers (the boxy 70 series pickup dates back to the 1980s and is still popular in Asia). While Toyota can’t do much about it, the company is dismayed that its rugged pickup, long a source of pride for the company, is now being associated with the world’s most infamous terror group, and seeing its logo splashed across countless propaganda videos doesn’t the company much good either. It’s certain that ISIS doesn’t exactly have a fleet account with Toyota, but don’t be surprised if both the U.S. government and Toyota start taking a much closer look at large shipments of Hilux and Land Cruisers in coming months. There may be no such thing as bad PR, but if there’s any exception to the rule, it’s probably this.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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