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Toyotas and Terrorists: “Why are ISIS’s trucks better than ours?” said the American GI

  • Published
  • By Major Michelle M. Chiaravalle

One of the hottest commodities in the military, or even for civilian contractors, is having a vehicle down range when you are deployed in the Middle East. Anyone who is someone has their own Ford F-150, especially those in leadership, as a work vehicle for driving around a military base. If you were deployed in Afghanistan, you were lucky if you had a truck to share to get from your dorm to work; if not, you were stuck either walking for 20 minutes in your battle rattle gear with your weapon or riding a packed school bus with your fellow service men and women.

While everyone would have preferred their own vehicle, like back in the US, it would have cost too much. Even still, the United States spent nearly $10 billion on vehicles and aircraft in Afghanistan between 2010-2020, which does not even cover the cost of fuel, parts, maintenance, or even the shipping of the vehicles.[1] Therefore, it was generally accepted that dragging your feet through the desert or sweating your butt off on the bus ride was a logical part of the “suck” in deployments. Yet, then, on the American Forces Network news, you would see an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) caravan consisting of hundreds of Toyota trucks parading through the deserts. These vehicles were not the stereotypical filthy beat-up trucks but shiny new Toyota pick-up trucks and SUVs, particularly the Toyota Hilux.[2] Violent non-state actors (VNSA), such as ISIS, were capable of acquiring Westernized vehicles through various means of raising funds and global logistical networks. The Toyota Hilux was particularly preferred due to its performance and looks.

ISIS is a militant Islamist group whose goal is to solidify and expand its control of territory and govern through the implementation of its strict interpretation of Sharia law.[3] ISIS has a clear goal, but it means nothing if they do not have the logistical means to carry it out. It is just like running any organization. Take youth soccer, for example; the YMCA Youth Soccer aims to provide opportunities for individual skill growth for their players.[4] To meet that goal, a few logistical items are needed: a means of transportation to and from games; the kids themselves need a mode of transportation just to get to practice. If the kids cannot show up to practice or get buses to games, then the YMCA does not have a way to meet its goal.

ISIS requires a means of transportation to implement its violent Sunni jihadist ideology of being the self-proclaimed caliphate with religious authority over all Muslims. They have to move their terrorists through the rugged desert terrain, be able to quickly infiltrate and exfiltrate, combat enemy forces, and, most importantly, be able to recruit human capital constantly. A decked-out Toyota Hilux with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back was the perfect means, especially because the Toyota Hilux has already been tested and approved by other VNSAs.

Toyota Hilux trucks have been a fixture of several extremist movements since the late ‘60s. The Toyota Hilux has been used by Somali pirates on the streets of Mogadishu, Sudanese freedom fighters, Pakistani militants, as well as Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and the Congo. As a fast, maneuverable truck, the Toyota Hilux has proven useful for VNSA fighting against lightly armed special forces, especially when mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun that could easily penetrate lightly armored vehicles.[5] It is also a very robust vehicle capable of withstanding elemental and physical extremities, as shown on the British TV show “Top Gear.”[6]

Not only does the formidable Toyota Hilux meet the specifications ISIS needs to conduct terrorist acts, but it also sends a pretty good recruiting message. Sustaining a force requires a massive commitment of resources for a VNSA, especially considering that ISIS needs to constantly replenish its members to counterbalance the attrition endured by its tactics to use suicide bombers.[7] Therefore, an ISIS convoy of new Toyotas, rebranded with the seal of the caliphate, parading through seized territory in the Middle East is perfect propaganda to disperse across destabilized regions suffering from droughts, war, poverty, etc.[8] Using Toyotas in its propaganda, ISIS can demonstrate its financial standings and ability to acquire items in locations where the standing government cannot, particularly items from globalized countries. It is not surprising that people would prefer working for ISIS to the Syrian government because being a terrorist just happens to pay more. This is how ISIS can acquire educated personnel who have essential capabilities that elevate its Sunni jihadist ideology.[9] When an individual has no place to work in a country such as Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq, it only makes sense to work for ISIS, where you get paid and get a nice Toyota Hilux.

ISIS needed the financial and logistical means to acquire these modern vehicles that could go undetected by the US and its allies and partners. It is difficult for new VNSAs to secure a funding source since they cannot negotiate and trade with legitimate countries.[10] Thus, ISIS had to turn to illicit forms of financing, particularly in Middle Eastern countries with destabilized and incompetent governments, like Syria.[11] With these governments unable to protect and provide for their people, ISIS could quickly proliferate and profit off of the vulnerable populations with ease. Within these occupied territories, ISIS exploits companies such as banks and oil reservoirs, as well as extorts, steals, taxes non-Muslim populations, kidnaps for ransom, accepts donations from non-profit organizations, recruits foreign fighters, and fundraises through modern communication networks to bank their funds.[12] ISIS eventually amassed nearly $2 billion by 2015, becoming the wealthiest terrorist organization in history.[13] Even though ISIS’ revenues dipped due to measures taken by the US and its allies, the U.S. Department of Treasury estimates it has about $100 million available in cash reserves in 2021.[14]

In addition to acquiring the money, ISIS needed to launder its illegal funds so they could more easily use them. Contrary to its portrayal in Hollywood movies, paper and metal currency is inconvenient as millions of dollars weigh a lot and cannot be stuffed into two shiny silver suitcases.[15] In reality, ISIS transfers its funds outside the region by relying on financial facilitation networks that use money remitters or by transforming it into tangible assets to help its violent operations, like Toyotas.[16] However, turning money into real assets like Toyota Hilux trucks and getting them into the hands of ISIS requires a lot of work.

First, the Toyota Company has taken some measures to make it more difficult. They have been fully cooperating with the U.S. Treasury Department’s inquiry, placing safeguards in its supply chain in hopes of preventing the aid of terrorist activities.[17] They have a strict policy to not sell vehicles to purchasers who may modify or use them to conduct terrorist activities. Also, Toyota states that they have procedures and contractual commitments to prevent its products from being diverted for unauthorized military use.[18] However, these measures can only do so much as it is a hopeless endeavor to trace every stolen or re-sold vehicle that reaches the black market, particularly through neighboring countries such as Turkey and Egypt, but throughout the US and the rest of the world thanks in part to diasporas.

Diasporas are people who have dispersed from their point of origin but still have attachment enough to the place they left that they can provide resources or still influence what is happening there.[19] Years of war and civil strife have created a significant number of refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran, who have moved into neighboring states in the Middle East, as well as Australia and Europe.[20] This is by no means implying that refugees are bad and intentionally funding VNSAs. Having often left behind other family members and friends who may still need support, these refugees want to help loved ones back in their home country. While this can be as simple as sending clothes, perishable foods, money, or even information that may seem useful to loved ones back home, they may unknowingly support someone who now has ties to a VNSA.

At the same time, diasporas may include people who already had ties to a VNSA. These individuals are crucial to sustaining VNSA activities because they can put roots down in a new location, obtain citizenship, and create a robust underground network. In the case of ISIS and its Toyota Hilux trucks, there have been reports of a spike in stolen Toyota Hilux trucks in New South Wales, Australia, in the summer of 2015. An abnormally high number of these vehicles (473 out of 834) had never been recovered, leading to the speculation that they have been shipped to the Middle East and smuggled into conflict zones.[21] The diaspora network could have easily contributed to these activities, especially when the retail value of a Toyota is $50,000.[22] With a diaspora working in car dealerships, car factories, and shipping companies, it is possible to create a system to easily move stolen Toyota Hilux vehicles from Australia to Turkey to the hands of ISIS. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know precisely the exact methods and timelines it takes for Toyota Hilux vehicles to be smuggled into the hands of ISIS because it did not catch the attention of anyone until the ISIS propaganda video showing a fleet of nice Toyota Hilux vehicles surfaced.

Beyond diasporas, ISIS may have acquired Toyota Hilux vehicles thanks to the perpetual cycle of U.S. involvement in Foreign Military Sales with the Middle East. There have been previous cases, such as when the U.S. State Department delivered 43 Toyota trucks to Syrian rebels back in 2014, a year before the ISIS Toyota Hilux propaganda clip surfaced.[23] While the U.S. had good intentions in supporting Syrian Rebels against a corrupt government by providing them with Toyota Hilux trucks, there was no way for the U.S. to hold them accountable and ensure the assets do not make it into the hands of a VNSA like ISIS. While this may be a small portion of the $45.8 billion in U.S. Foreign Military Sales, this can represent a significant boon for a VNSA with limited means.[24] In the end, the incentives or payouts that ISIS offers may outweigh the desire to overthrow a corrupt government. American weapons, supplies, and vehicles provided to Iraqi forces could also have helped supply ISIS. When ISIS began invading the northern city of Mosul, Iraqi forces just fled, leaving behind stockpiles of weapons and vehicles, like Toyota Hilux trucks.[25]

There are many possible avenues by which a VNSA like ISIS could acquire nice-looking Toyota Hilux trucks. This helps us understand how complex and sophisticated ISIS is. To obtain its objective of solidifying and expanding its territory under strict Sharia rule, ISIS needed a means of transportation that has been proven over the years by other VNSAs. The Hilux happens to be tactically effective and efficient in conflict zones, as well as able to serve as an excellent recruiting tool. To procure them, ISIS had the two essentials of funding and logistical network. With its coffers filled through various illicit means, ISIS had the means to provide financial incentives to facilitate their procurement, whether through diasporas around the world, such as the network that stole and smuggled Toyota Hilux trucks from areas such as Australia or by bribing other groups that had received US foreign aid. Of course, ISIS was also able to take them from the Iraqis during their attack on Mosul.

Therefore, the next time someone is deployed in the Middle East and their battle buddy is complaining about dragging their bags and weapons everywhere because none of you are important enough to have your own vehicle, at least you can eat up some of the time by explaining possible reasons how ISIS has a better ride than you.


Maj Michelle M. Chiaravalle
Major Chiaravalle currently serves as an instructor at Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base. She is an Aircraft Maintenance Officer by trade with multiple deployments to her credit. While watching footage of her jets in action, she often wondered how terrorist networks acquired such nice trucks. After spending hundreds of hours reading thousands of pages about dirty money, she was able to isolate the source and process by which notable terrorist organizations can repeatedly acquire vehicles from vocally anti-terrorist countries.

This paper was written as part of the Dirty Money elective at ACSC.


[1.] Kathy Gannon, “EXPLAINER: US, NATO pledge billions to back Afghan forces,” AP News , July 27, 2021,  (accessed April 11, 2023)

[2.] Matthew Mosk, Brian Ross, and Alex Hosenball, “US Officials Ask How ISIS Got So Many Toyota Trucks,” ABC News, October 6, 2015,

[3.] “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” National Counterterrorism Center, (accessed April 12, 2023)

[4.] “Youth Soccer,” YMCA Montgomery,, (accessed April 12, 2023).

[5.] Pamela Engel, “These Toyota trucks are popular with terrorists-here’s why,” Business Insider, October 7, 2015,

[6.] Peter Lyon, “The Indestructible Toyota Hilux Just Went to Finishing School,” Forbes, January 4, 2018,

[7.] Margaret D. Sankey, Blood Money: How Criminal, Militias, Rebels, and Warlords Finance Violence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022), 7.

[8] Engel, “Toyota trucks.”

[9.] Sankey, Blood Money, 7-8.

[10.] Ibid, 6.

[11.] Margaret D. Sankey, Dirty Money Spring Elective Class Lecture IP 1, IP 2, and IP 7, ACSC.

[12.] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “2022 National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment,” February 2022, 5-8,

[13.] “Money Matters: Sources of ISIS’ Funding and How to Disrupt Them,” The Centre for Geopolitics & Security in Realism Studies, October 25, 2015,,of%20any%20other%20terrorist%20group, (accessed April 14 2023).

[14.] Gregory Sullivan, “Memorandum For Department of Defense Lead Inspector General,” U.S. Department of The Treasury, January 4, 2021,

[15.] Sankey, Blood Money, 154.

[16.] Treasury, “2022 National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment,” 6.

[17.] Chris Lo, “Friendly fire: accounting for the stolen arsenal of ISIS,” Army Technology, February 1, 2016,

[18.] Shannon Luibrand, “Toyota aiding Treasury Dept. probe into Mideast terror group vehicles,” CBS News, October 6, 2015,

[19.] Sankey, Blood Money, 96.

[20.] David Dyssegaard Kallick, Cyierra Roldan, and Silva Mathema, “Syrian Immigrants in the United States: A Receiving Community for Today’s Refugees,” The Center for American Progress, 13 December 2016,; Kelsey P. Norman, Lisel Hintz, Rawan Arar, “The Real Refugee Crisis is in the Middle East, not Europe,” Project on Middle East Political Science, February 3, 2017,

[21.] Chris Lo, “Friendly fire”; Robbie Patterson, "Spike in theft of $50k Toyota HiLux 4WDs in Sydney’s east could be black market operation say police,” Daily Telegraph (Australia), July 7, 2015,

[22.] Cindy Tran, “ A dubious distinction: Hilux utes stolen from Sydney ‘are the preferred armored vehicles’ for ISIS fighters in the Middle East,” Daily Mail, August 17, 2015,

[23.] Mosk, Ross, and Hosenball, “How ISIS Got So Many Toyota Truck.”

[24.] U.S. Department of State, “Fiscal Year 2022 U.S. Arms Transfers and Defense Trade Fact Sheet,” Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, January 25, 2023,

[25.] Lo, “Friendly fire.”

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