Narcotic Chaos in Syria: The Captagon Drug Business Presents a Peril to Syrians – and now Europeans as well

Syrian civil war

By: Ivo Dekkers
Picture credits: wikimediacommons

A variety of common ways to weaponize for insurgents, terrorists, and other armed groups have been known to the world for a long time. Money laundering, extortion, charity (primarily in Islamic societies), mineral mining (mostly in Africa), oil, state-sponsorship, and intricate economic schemes comprise a small number of such strategies. Another large contributor to funds for armed groups worldwide is the sale and cross-country smuggling of narcotics. A particular drug has resurfaced in global media as of 2015, a pill going by the name of Captagon. Commonly called Abu Halilain in Arabic (“father of two halfmoons”, denoting the two c’s the pills are engraved with), its industry has been growing exponentially since 2015 [1].

Territory controlled by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is a hotbed for the production of the drug, with its main destination being the Gulf States. Here, Captagon is used primarily by young Khaleejis hosting parties in the Gulf’s boundless desert or by students to cram for exams. Captagon is a chemically linked compound drug consisting of fenethylline and hydrochloride placed under the larger umbrella of amphetamines. It causes, among other things, increased cardiac activity, boosted vigilance, better concentration, and a general ‘good feeling’. This combination of fenethylline and hydrochloride internally breaking down to amphetamine is not new and originates in the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, the drug has reportedly been given to ISIS fighters by its leadership to boost strength, bravado, and focus in battle. After initial coverage of the drugs as a primary funding vehicle for ISIS in Syria in 2015, the media directed attention elsewhere. But the producers of Captagon did not. The drug became more adaptive, and production intensified and expanded, reaching an industry-like level in recent years [2]. The current annual market value of Syrian Captagon is estimated to be worth $3.4 billion, although this number is likely higher [3]. This is roughly 28 times more than the value of Syria’s largest legally exported product, olive oil, which yields $122 million yearly. For comparison, the 2021 Syrian GDP amounts to $27 billion and is expected to plummet to $17 billion in 2022, while Captagon is likely to continue to grow rapidly. 

In addition to Syria and the Gulf, Captagon has reached Europe in recent years as well. Traditionally, Captagon shipments passed through the ports of Latakia, Tartus, Benghazi, and Jeddah. However, large quantities have recently been seized in Italian and Greek ports, while other shipments traced back to Latakia were found in Romania [4]. Investigations by various institutions, among which the OCCRP and COAR, linked shipments to large-scale crime networks with close ties to the Al-Assad family [5]. These networks used the Latakia port as an export facility, where a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad holds great sway. The second-largest shipment of Captagon (84 million pills, equal to 14 tons) ever seized was in the Italian port of Salerno in 2020, amounting to approximately $1.2 billion and originating from Latakia as well [6]. A different way of smuggling the drug is by land, primarily via militant criminal networks into Europe through Turkey and via Jordan and Saudi Arabia into the Gulf [7]. Recently, it became apparent that various groups even resorted to using refugees to smuggle drugs, without their knowledge, from Syria into Jordan by adding them into knapsacks filled with food given to refugees before crossing the border. Additionally, the drugs have also been smuggled by air. In 2015, a Saudi prince was arrested in Lebanon, suspected of attempting to smuggle Captagon pills to Saudi Arabia in his private jet. These are just a few instances of the multibillion-dollar pill smuggling business originating in Syria. The drug generates serious medical issues, especially due to the increasing number of users and high tendency of addiction. Furthermore, Captagon raises additional security issues now that it has traveled from the European neighborhood directly into the heart of Europe. 

This begs the question of what the purpose of Captagon is. Generally, narcotics tend to serve a tripartite purpose. First and foremost, health authorities use various drugs and chemical compounds for medical purposes. This is where many current recreational drugs originate. Second, recreational use continues to be a significant purpose for a large variety of narcotics. Similar to other amphetamines and cocaine, among others, Captagon is used recreationally as well. Third, as in numerous wars in history, drugs are used as a stimulant for soldiers and other parties involved in battle. It keeps them awake, it stimulates them, makes soldiers feel stronger and happier, and floods the body with adrenaline. Furthermore, it injects war-torn economies with much needed cash, oftentimes serving the destructive parties with very little merits to be identified. In the case of Syria, the sale of Captagon kept the war going which in turn fueled continuous drug production, resulting in a textbook catch-22 situation. Fast-forward to 2021, the drug’s production has only drastically increased, and its benefits are now enjoyed by the top of the Syrian government. In reconsolidating Syrian control, the Assad regime has assured a piece of the pie by seizing control of various manufacturing plants and labs located deep into Syrian territory. 

The results of these recent developments are manifold. First, Captagon profits continue to fund the deadly Syrian war. The regime, (cross-border) insurgents, ISIS, and even regional allies all reap the benefits of the lucrative dirty business. Secondly, criminal networks, especially in the mountainous border belt with Lebanon, exploit its advantages as well. However, not all outcomes are financial. Third, in the already destroyed Syria, a surge has been discovered in drug addicts causing significant societal burdens in the fragile Syrian communities. In addition, and fourth, a serious need for increased attention by law enforcement to counter the surge, domestically, regionally, and even internationally, is imperative [8]. 

The Captagon business has clearly spiraled out of control. At least for those having to deal with the impact. The drug is reaching Europe and it has been in its direct neighborhood for years. As such, effective countermeasures and policies are crucial. It is now clear how the situation has evolved from 2015-2021 and a need for intervention is paramount in the foreseeable future. It must be ensured the industry cannot go through rapid development again as it did in the six years from 2015-2021. With so many actors involved and affected, a clear strategy to counteract this is essential, but still lacking. Understandable as it is, Captagon is seriously affecting the regional balance and impacting various societies for which reason its global footprint is considerable. This prompts swift and efficient action by Europe and the U.S. in cooperation with their allies. Realistically, the only person able to put a stop to the dirty Captagon business is Bashar al-Assad himself. Researchers at the Atlantic Council propose a “name and shame” tactic be employed, refocusing attention which is currently absent [9]. Moreover, close cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces anti-drug units is another strategy which NATO allies could use to curb the rampant Captagon industry and limit further regional spillover. Although Syria has seemingly turned into a narco-state and the drug spread into Europe, attention must once again be directed towards those most affected: the Syrian people.

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[1] “Syria Has Become a Narco-State.” The Economist, July 19, 2021.

[2] Dettmer, Jamie. “Amphetamine Seizures Highlight the Role of Syria in Trafficking.” Voice of America News, August 4, 2021.

[3] “The Syrian Economy at War: Captagon, Hashish, and the Syrian Narco-State.” Center for Operational Analysis and Research, April 27, 2021.

[4] “Syria Has Become a Narco-State.” The Economist, July 19, 2021.

[5] Eid Ashour, Ahmed, Sameh Ellaboudy, Maher Shaeri, and Cecilia Anesi. “Greek Captagon Bust Leads to a Criminal Gang and the Port at the Heart of Syria’s Booming New Drug Trade.” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, June 16, 2021.; “The Syrian Economy at War: Captagon, Hashish, and the Syrian Narco-State.” Center for Operational Analysis and Research, April 27, 2021.

[6] Dettmer, Jamie. “Amphetamine Seizures Highlight the Role of Syria in Trafficking.” Voice of America News, August 4, 2021.

[7] “Syria Has Become a Narco-State.” The Economist, July 19, 2021.

[8] Dettmer, Jamie. “Amphetamine Seizures Highlight the Role of Syria in Trafficking.” Voice of America News, August 4, 2021.

[9] Larson, Ian. “Narcos: Syria Edition – and What the US Can Do About It.” Atlantic Council, June 14, 2021.

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