Call it a cold case in a hot place.
At the height of the battle to retake Mosul in early 2017, northern Iraq was a sketchy neighbourhood — a place where even broken-down wrecks weren’t safe.
Canadian special forces operators were reminded of that fact when one of their armoured pickup trucks was stolen from a training range — a case that left military police scratching their heads.
According to documents obtained by CBC News under access to information law, the theft was reported to the military’s criminal investigation branch in March 2017, almost a month after the Toyota Hilux was discovered missing from a range west of Erbil which had been used to train local Kurdish fighters.
According to internal Department of National Defence documents, the vehicle had reached the end of its life cycle and was no longer serviceable.
During the Afghan war, the Canadian army routinely destroyed disabled vehicles to prevent them from falling into insurgent hands — a practice known as “BIPing” (Blow in Place).
Pickup stripped of military equipment
That wasn’t the policy in Iraq, however. According to the documents, the Hilux was to be used as a “training aid” because it had a broken rear hatch, a damaged right door and “major drivetrain issues.”
The pickup had been stripped of Canadian radios, electronics and other military equipment, said an April 12, 2017, summary of the military police investigation.
The special forces contingent left it unattended on the training range on Feb. 4, 2017. They learned it had disappeared 10 days later when they arrived back in the area after a forward deployment assisting Iraqi security forces as they fought a prolonged battle with entrenched Islamic State militants in Mosul.
“Security measures had been arranged but as the vehicle had been demilitarized and was to be used for training purposes, it could be left unattended on the range,” said Dan LeBouthillier, a Department of National Defence spokesman.
The documents noted the pickup was carried to the range on a flatbed truck.
The theft was the only incident of its kind during the Canadian advise-and-assist training mission in Iraq, LeBouthillier said.
The documents show military police interviewed Kurdish commanders and local fighters, all of whom claimed ignorance about the missing truck.
Looking for suspects
At times, the partially redacted internal reports read like a dark comedy as they describe how a pair of investigators navigated the dangerous and surreal landscape looking for suspects and traces of the vehicle.
Interviews were conducted through a translator and were sometimes sidelined by the capricious timetable of some Kurdish commanders — one of whom didn’t show up for his interview and had to be reached by phone at an undisclosed location.
“He did not have any new information on the missing vehicle’s location, nor did he identify any possible suspects,” said the report, which did not identify the Kurdish commander.
“He will canvas his troops on the matter.”
One Canadian soldier, whose name was blanked out in the documents, said he searched local scrap yards and “believes the vehicle may have been taken by local farmers or inhabitants to eventually sell it for parts in the scrap yard.”
Military officials were most concerned about the fact that the vehicle still contained its armour plating, which was slipped between the pickup frame and the interior.
The theft came at a time when Islamic State extremists were known to be building massive suicide trucks using scrap metal bolted to ordinary vehicles.
In 2016-17, multiple U.S. media reports warned that ISIS mechanics were skilled in creating “professional-grade” armoured vehicles out of scrap.
However, the unidentified Canadian soldier told investigators “the probability of the [pickup] being taken by the enemy is very negligible” because the range was located near Kurdish checkpoints, who would have spotted it being stolen.
The investigation ended, according to the documents, with no suspects, no forensic evidence and no vehicle.