For One Syrian Militant Group, “Pick-Up Lines” Have a Texas Twang
A pick-up truck that belonged to a Texas plumber a year ago wound up in jihadi hands. How did it get there? Here is what we know – and what the mainstream media and a handful of angry, completely confounded Americans do not know.
By Tom Wyld
For the past week, #HiveInt, the league of strategists and intelligence analysts on Twitter, have been digging deeper into a report, first written by Caleb Weiss, on the appearance of a pick-up truck on the internet.
But this was no ordinary pick-up truck advertised on E-Bay.
The Ford F-250 photo was posted on the website of a self-identified Syria-based militant alliance, and the men onboard were members of a largely Chechen anti-Assad militant group.
And mounted on the truck bed: a Russian-made heavy machine gun.
The truck’s logo captured everyone’s attention – including press here and abroad. The logo was not that of the Chechen fighters’ Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (“Army of Emigrants and Supporters”). It was not the sign of the alliance to which this particular Jaish or Army belongs, namely Jabhat Ansar al-Din (“Partisans of the Religion Front”).
The logo was that of Mark-1 Plumbing of Texas City, Texas – complete with the small business’ phone number.
According to the militant posting, the photo was taken in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city ravaged by violence, jihadi infighting and the war against dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Aleppo is also 20 miles west of Al-Safirah, site of Assad’s largest chemical weapons compound. A writer with the blog Line of Steel and a contributor to the warrior-favorite Long War Journal, Caleb Weiss was first to break the story. Bravo Zulu to this young political science student who studies security policy and militant trends. (Unmarked photo from a militant site.)
I telephoned the Texas firm. Many rings, no answer, no voice mail. Caleb Weiss was more fortunate. He reached a “very nice woman” who was “happy” to answer his questions about the pick-up. When he said he had called about a photo, the woman knew which one. After all, she had received many phone inquiries about it before Caleb’s call.
Not surprisingly, those calls included “about six” that were “threatening” and voiced by people the employee “couldn’t understand.” The woman said the firm had notified the authorities about the photo and the threats. Read Caleb’s post for details here. Keep in mind his was the first report on the incident posted on Monday, 15 December. Since then, the story has garnered major media attention, has undergone many twists and turns and prompted outraged, threatening phone calls – and the employee understood all to0 well those additional angry calls.
The Fabled Truck – Sold, But By Whom?
By Tuesday, CBS News reported that the firm had brought an attorney aboard. Presumably this was the small business’ “representative” who told CBS the pick-up was sold in October 2013 to Auto Nation. An Auto Nation representative refused to provide the network the vehicle’s sales history over the phone and hung up.
Also on Tuesday, ABC News reported the truck was driven to Auto Nation and traded “last fall.” The truck was then sent to auction and subsequently sold to a “Southwest Houston” company. It may have been sold many times since. A source describes the area in SW Houston as a “heavy immigrant and auto trading” hub – a motor-mecca, if you will.
Today (Wednesday, 17 December), the Galveston County Daily News wrote that the truck was sold to Auto Nation “three years ago,” attributing the statement to Mark-1 owner Mark Oberholtzer. The businessman said he usually takes his firm’s decals off the truck when they are sold, but reckoned Auto Nation would do that for him.
Among the decals on the F-250 in question? A state inspection sticker that expired September 2013. But state inspections must be conducted annually in Texas, casting doubt on the claim by the Galveston County Daily News that the truck was sold “three years ago.”
Also in support of a transaction occurring last year, USA Today reported today that Mr. Oberholtzer drove the truck to Auto Nation and traded it in November 2013.
In short, give or take a month or two, Mark-1’s pick-up truck was sold legitimately about a year ago to a dealer and, from there, to an auctioneer.
So How Did a Texas Truck Get to a Battlefield in Syria?
Aboard ship, obviously. But how did the truck get aboard ship? That is the trickier question.
“Technicals” – intelligence parlance for pick-up trucks modified for combat use – are the vehicles-of-choice for militants worldwide. Conflicts and hot zones are expanding, not contracting, and that creates a burgeoning demand and, therefore, a black market, for plain vanilla pick-ups, even from the U.S. Only upon arrival in an area controlled by jihadis are the pick-ups converted to “technicals.”
From the dealership to an auction in Southwest Houston, the truck was likely loaded into a container that was ultimately lifted aboard a container ship (a.k.a. “box ship” among mariners) moored pier-side at the Port of Galveston or Port of Houston. The Port of Galveston accommodates about 1,000 ships and handles 10 million short tons of cargo annually. Much of that cargo is inside containers. The sort of boxes motorists see aboard trains and trucks on the highway, these containers are measured in “Twenty-Foot Equivalent units” or TEUs.
The world’s largest box ship, EMMA MAERSK, can carry more than 18,000 TEUs. If every container aboard EMMA MAERSK held cars or trucks, that would equate to 36,000 vehicles. (Promotional photo from The Maersk Group.)
Assessment: Jihadi Sympathizers Love East Coast Seaports
Assessment number one: Alarmingly, citing Mr. Oberholtzer, USA Today reported that recent threats are being conveyed from people across the USA. “We have a secretary here,” he said. “She’s scared to death. We have families. We don’t want no problems.” Presumably, some of those American callers are making the outrageous leap that, by selling the truck last year, he was aiding jihadis.
Here’s an assessment from a former Navy commander in his sixth year of intelligence and counterterrorism analysis – namely, me: Neither Mr. Oberholtzer, his firm nor his employees have anything whatsoever to do with Islamic militants, and Americans have no right or foundation to assert same, much less place angry, threatening phone calls. Basing those angry calls on reports by mainstream media (which those same callers uniformly mistrust) only serves to double their shameful behavior. Knock it off.
Assessment number two: The Ports of Galveston and Houston are not alone. I assess that used car dealers in close proximity to east coast seaports are shipping pick-up trucks to all sorts of legitimate buyers overseas. Some find their way to recipients in, say, Turkey and the Middle East. Most are legit. Some are not.
Shipping is a simple affair. The shipper completes a manifest or cargo declaration (“1 pick-up truck, brand ABC, worth X dollars”), signs the form, seals and locks the container, and off it goes. On arrival, only the recipient listed on the manifest may open the container, and the truck rolls to its final destination.
What about inspecting all containers? Impossible, impractical and wholly disruptive of an extremely time-sensitive business. And also fruitless. The top 25 U.S. ports that accommodate container ships handle 11 million TEUs annually.
What if authorities opened the container that held the Texas truck? What would they find? Why, they’d find a truck – the very one lawfully owned and accurately listed on the manifest. To get a handle on this, law enforcement and port security must look ashore – upstream from the seaport, not along the waterfront.
In closing, I have only one source for the following piece of evidence, but that source has proven impeccable.
In the case of the truck that took to sea from a Galveston or Houston seaport, the shipper was not a plumber in Texas.
He is a Syrian.
[SIDEBAR IS BELOW—–]
Are the New F-250 Owners Al Qaeda?
Not according to research by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an Oxford graduate and analyst with the Middle East Forum, a think-tank devoted to promoting American interests in the region. That said, Chechen jihadis in Syria vs. Al Qaeda may be a difference without a distinction.
The new truck owners’ group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMWA) belongs to an alliance of three other groups formed in July 2013. The alliance is called Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JAD). The pick-up photo was found on the JAD website.
In November 2013, JMWA transformed when its previous leader and a cadre of his followers joined Ad-Dawlah Al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic State” or IS, now mislabeled by the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream media as “ISIS” or “ISIL”). Made up largely of Chechen jihadis, JMWA can best be viewed as the Syria-based wing of the Caucasus Emirate, designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. and many other nations.
Fighters in Syria from the largely Chechen Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMWA). (Photo from a jihadi site, courtesy of Caleb Weiss)
JAD and its 4 member-groups advocate Shari’a Law and the formation of a caliphate and oppose the U.S.-led coalition operating above, if not in, Syria and Iraq. The alliance opposes the U.S. and the West for all the usual reasons that prompt militants to kill Westerners: from Afghanistan and Gitmo to the fuel rod of Islamist rage: “the Jews’ occupation of Al-Aqsa” mosque in Jerusalem. So, JAD hardly consists of the “moderate Syrian rebels” Congress has just voted to arm.
So JAD is akin to IS and the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (“Victory Front” or JAN). JAD, however, will not join JAN and wants nothing at all to do with IS. Their fighters don’t even refer to IS by name. Reasons: fierce competition among the groups, persistent enmity between leaders and perhaps a non-aggression pact, however tacit. Said one JAD spokesman to analyst Aymenn Al-Tamimi: “We don’t fight [IS], and they don’t fight us. Anyone who says [JAD] is affiliated with [IS] is lying.”
Thus, the new owners of a Texas plumber’s old pick-up truck hate us for the same reasons IS and JAN hate us. All are driving hard toward the same destination. Each just prefers to travel alone and via a different route.
A former Navy Commander, Tom Wyld served nearly 5 years as director of intelligence for a private security firm specializing in training and operational support of U.S. Navy SEALs. He continues to provide intelligence, investigative and counterterrorism support to former SEALs. Prior assignments include Communications Coordinator, Swift Boat Veterans & POWs for Truth; lobbyist for State Motorcyclists’ Rights Organizations (e.g., ABATEs); and Chief of Staff and PR Director for the Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying and political arm of the NRA.