Though the Toyota Hilux is not sold in America, it should be: it excels at every activity rugged American guys like: traversing dirt roads, snaking up the side of a ski-mountain, or hauling home a load of gravel. It’s an agile four-wheel drive pick-up with proven Toyota reliability, which is exactly why the 4Runner's evolutionary forebear has become the unofficial car of the Islamic State. Well, that and the fact they have a fleet of them at their disposal.
Recent footage from Al Jazeera and the New York Times has shown Islamic State militants traveling down scarred middle-eastern roads in blindingly white Toyota Hiluxes, trucks originally supplied by the US Government to the rebel Al Nusra front, otherwise known as "al Qaeda in Syria," before being seized by ISIS. In videos, these trucks are outfitted with accessories definitely unavailable at the dealer: bed-mounted Soviet machine guns, gun racks, and small grenade launchers. As used by ISIS and insurgents the from Somalia, the Hilux is a "technical," the military term for maneuverable, light-weight vehicles retrofitted with weapons and used in lieu of larger, specially-built military gun trucks. The term comes from Somalia, where private security forces spent the nineties hiring gunmen to protect their personnel on the ground with "technical assistance grants". A fleet of "technicals" today serves the same purpose as a light cavalry brigade did historically.
There's good reason that Toyota Hiluxes are the "technical" vehicle of choice. For one, they're the preferred truck of NGOs like the UN, UNICEF, and the Red Cross (along with another rugged Toyota, the Land Cruiser). Oftentimes, then, when there is an influx of new vehicles in a country or location (Somalia, Iraq) with few foreign imports, the Hilux is dominant, and highly visible. Furthermore, the Hilux is uniquely suited to unpaved terrain: unlike many modern vehicle, it has an ultra-strong body-on-frame design, with a fully boxed (reinforced) bed and full-time all-wheel-drive. It comes in a crew-cab design (four doors), so that even with a small footprint, it can carry 6 men in-cab and cargo in the bed. Lastly, and most famously, the Hilux is incredibly reliable, fixable, and self-perpetuating, in that its large presence means a vast supply of spare parts and local expertise, which makes those in need of a truck unlikely to choose another brand.
This appropriation is a reversal of the usual military-to-civilian product pipeline. Trucks like the Willys Jeep, Hummer H1 (no longer sold), and Mercedes Gelandewagen were all originally manufactured as strict military-only vehicles, with Spartan interiors, multi-speed all-wheel-drive systems, and battle-ready features like run-flat tires and high-mounted, half-shaft axels. They proved so adept and beloved by military personnel that civilian versions emerged post-armistice. We know them today as the Jeep Wrangler, Hummer brand (from H1-H3), and the Mercedes G550 and G63 AMG, the latter of which sell for $115k and are driven by celebrities like Iggy Azalea and Kim Kardashian.
Toyota isn’t to blame for manufacturing such capable trucks, and we’re sure that, if possible, they would happily pay to stop this sordid product placement. Still, effective is effective - even when that effectiveness is horrifying.
Photos by Stringer / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images