Conflict & Justice

How a Texas plumber's truck wound up in ISIS' hands

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When Mark Oberholtzer traded in his truck, he was told the decals would be removed. That didn't happen — and now it's being used by ISIS.

Texas plumber Mark Oberholtzer has had to contend with tough clogs in his business, but probably none so formidable as to require use of a Soviet-made anti-aircraft gun.   

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After a jihadi in Syria tweeted a photo of a 23 mm twin-barreled autocannon mounted on a truck Oberholtzer used to own, it was his muddied reputation that needed repair.

“When that photo got tweeted and then circulated across the world, you knew pretty well that if you needed to get some plumbing done with an anti-aircraft gun in the back of ... the truck, maybe you ought to call ‘Mark-1 Plumbing,’ which is not what he intended,” said Robert Wilonsky, digital managing editor for the Dallas Morning News

It would seem Oberholtzer’s truck made the same journey many potential jihadis from the US make to get to Syria — largely through Turkey.

Oberholtzer is suing a Houston car dealership where he traded in the truck in October 2013. He's seeking more than $1 million in damages after the 2005 Ford F-250, which sold at auction the following month, was shipped to Turkey with decals still affixed. The truck eventually ended up in Syria, where it was outfitted with an anti-aircraft gun and used in the country’s civil war.

The truck, emblazoned with the name and phone number of Oberholtzer’s business, was featured in a tweet Dec. 15, 2014. It was first tweeted by the extremist group Ansar al-Deen. The next day, the photo was used in the closing segment of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” It also happened to be the show’s final episode, pulling in almost 2.5 million viewers, the largest audience in the show’s history.

What followed were more than 1,000 calls from across the country to Oberholtzer’s business and personal phones, Wilonsky said. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Oberholtzer said his office got 10 to 15 death threats. 

The harassment became so unnerving that the plumber took his family to McAllen, Texas, for a week.

"It's affected me, it's affected my wife, it's affected my son — half owner of the company — his kids," the newspaper quoted Oberholtzer as saying.

According to the complaint, filed Dec. 9 and obtained by The Dallas Morning News, Oberholtzer tried removing a decal with the name of his business and phone number from the truck when an employee of AutoNation Ford Gulf Freeway stopped him, fearing paint damage. According to Oberholtzer, the dealership told him it would remove the decal.

“Ever since the 1970s, terror groups and insurgent groups around the Middle East and northern Africa have used what’s called ‘technicals,’ which are basically light pickup trucks, with four-wheel drive and a machine gun mounted on the back, which has turned out to be a game-changer for the kind of warfare that they participate in,” Bloomberg View contributor Edward Niedermeyer said.   

One brand name of pickup in particular was co-opted during the end of the 1987 Chadian–Libyan conflict, dubbed the Toyota War because the truck was so widely used in skirmishes.   

The federal government has been studying the use of pickup trucks by terrorist groups — agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security even paid Oberholtzer a visit to see if he had anything to do with his former truck’s export to Syria.

“This does indicate that maybe down the road pickup trucks might be more closely tracked by officials as they are sort of a dual-use weapon of warfare,” Niedermeyer said. “Ironically, however, it seems at least a few of ISIS’s Toyota HiLux pickups actually came from the United States and Canada. The governments here sent them as non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels and they from there ended up in the hands of ISIS.”