ISIS has apparently traded in its fleet of Toyota trucks in favor of Kia and Hyundai compacts.
Based on various videos from ISIS propagandists and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), vehicles from South Korean car manufacturers Kia Motors and Hyundai have been spotted with greater frequency in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq and one of ISIS' remaining bastions.
Kia and Hyundai sport-utility vehicles that range from 2010-2015 model years were seen with additional metal plating crudely welded on as armor. Based on the lack of armor on the quarter-panels and the rear, evidence suggests that the vehicles have been used as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in suicide attacks.
The insurgents also made several aesthetic modifications in order to blend with civilian traffic. Painting armored areas of their SUVs to depict windows and wheels, it appeared that ISIS forces had taken the extra step to mask the true nature of their vehicles.
Insurgents, after imposing their rule over Mosul and its residents, had the manpower to acquire and commandeer vehicles from civilians, but SUVs would be a logical choice for ISIS militants to execute their suicide attacks.
Compared to coupes and sedans, SUVs typically have the option for all-wheel drive — allowing them to travel over rough terrain — and a more robust suspension system, allowing it to haul greater weight without the sagging appearance a standard vehicle would typically have if it were loaded with extra weight, such as from hundreds of pounds of explosives.
Alternatively, pickup trucks like the Toyota Hilux make cargo in the truck's bed more visible to ISF drones, making it easier to be detected and dealt with by security forces. Pickup trucks are better suited on the battlefield as "technicals" — light improvised fighting vehicles — with their crew-served weapons mounted from the rear.
But the sheer number of the retrofitted Korean SUVs appearing on Mosul's streets also raises the question of exactly how the insurgents were able to acquire them. When around 2,000 Islamic State fighters first invaded Mosul on June 2014, the city fell with little to no resistance from the region's 10,000 undermanned, under-equipped, and unmotivated security force — within days, the mobile insurgents quickly overtook the city, including its businesses, with their convoys of pickup trucks.
Car dealerships would have also been vulnerable. With their fleets of vehicles, many of them brand-new, dealerships would have been an attractive source for ISIS' transportation needs.
Kia representatives confirmed to Business Insider that it operated two dealerships in Mosul starting in 2012. However, it denied rumors that its vehicles were taken by force.
"We at Kia Motors confirm that there is no loss of Kia vehicles in Mosul," the representative said, adding that the company had successfully removed its units "before the ISIS forces moved in."
"... Our activities from those dealerships were shut down when the occupation of the ISIS forces in Mosul took place in 2014."
Kia representatives declined to comment on the specific numbers of automobiles that were transported out of the city, and the circumstances behind their decision to withdraw before ISIS' assault.
But Kia was not the only automotive company to have conducted business in the country. There were also Hyundai and Chrysler dealerships in Baghdad, about 250 miles away from Mosul.
Hyundai in 2004 was reportedly one of the first new car dealerships to set up shop in Iraq in decades. Chevrolet had pulled out when Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party took control of the country in 1968. After a violent takeover, privately-owned showrooms were banned and the state held a monopoly on new automobiles.
Operating with no insurance, the Hyundai dealership conducted its business during the contentious time in Iraq where American contractors were killed, images of their bodies televised and shocking the world. The location of Hyundai's warehouses remained a secret to help deter potential looters.
"Iraqis are looking for something affordable and reliable, and Hyundai fits the bill," said Nihad Abdul Rahman, assistant general manager of an agency responsible for selling Hyundai cars in Iraq, during a 2004 interview with Automotive News.
"We have sold 38 Hyundais already, but no coupes. They are considered too flashy in these circumstances."
The US Treasury Department's Terror Financing unit opened an inquiry after it had become apparent in 2015 that the Toyota Hilux pickups were a vehicle of choice for insurgents.
"How could these brand-new trucks ... these four-wheel drives, hundreds of them — where are they coming from," Iraqi ambassador to the US Lukman Faily asked in an ABC News interview at the time.
Though conspiracy theorists posited that the trucks were obtained by ISIS forces through nefarious means directly through Toyota, representatives for the automaker said at the time that it had a "strict policy to not sell vehicles to potential purchasers who may use or modify them for paramilitary or terrorist activities."
A report by Public Radio International in 2014 also revealed that dozens of Hiluxes, which were classified as "non-lethal aid," were originally given to the Free Syrian Army by the US State Department in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some of the trucks could have ended up in the hands of ISIS forces after members of the FSA defected.
The numerous Kias in question, however, do not appear to have been acquired through similar means. Based on Kia's statement, the vehicles may have been stolen from the civilians who purchased them during the two-year period in which the dealerships operated there. The model-years of the Kias and Hyundais in the videos — from 2012-2014 — also appear to match the same timeframe.
Regardless of the circumstances that landed these vehicles into the hands of terrorists, the destruction they wreak in western Mosul looks to continue challenging the ISF as they struggle to liberate the city.
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