Reports of major ISIL purchases of Toyotas have been met with cries of astonishment at the terrorist group’s ability to bankroll a huge fleet of brand new cars. Presumably, both regular import restrictions and extraordinary counterterrorism sanctions should have precluded their purchase and export for the benefit of the world’s most notorious terrorist organization. Clearly, there seems to be as much reason to believe ISIL remains in a viable position to make lucrative purchases as there is to persuade oneself that U.S. and allied counterterrorism campaigns are making them cash poor. Spurred on by media fascination at the brazen openness of the pictured vehicles—pickup trucks and SUVs—being shipped, the phenomenon is seen as a challenge to conventional intelligence views of how money flows to, within, and from a major terrorist organization.
Moving toward an explanation, what remains unmentioned are the enormous reserves—now estimated in the billions of dollars—that ISIS has accumulated from extortion, sales of antiquities in overrun lands, and most important, sales of oil and gas from captured fields. More than a year ago, after ISIS methodically swept across large swaths of Iraq, it expropriated the oil fields and intact supply chain infrastructure that serviced the overtaken regions. More important, the logistics operation kept pace with ISIL’s revenue needs, barely missing a beat. Estimates of oil revenue from spot and contract sales climbed into the tens of millions of dollars monthly. With that much money literally in the bank, ISIL is more than capable than ever of buying up the pictured row upon row of Toyotas—and probably has the wherewithal to spend a lot more.
The remaining question is where ISIS finds the vehicles and presumably works with the third party seller to alter sale and delivery manifests to execute a mundane scheme of gray market diversion. Toyota can be expected to resist inquiries that answer this question because the result will only call into question the viability and integrity of its export program. Once that question is answered, the next step is to build out the recommendations in a recent RAND Corporation study of ISIL finances, and move to shut down the illicit oil production and interdict the flow of hard currency that fuels purchases of not just Toyotas but payments to its paramilitary cadres, munitions, and everything else in its war making arsenal.