The chaos of the war against Bashar al-Assad is fueling the rise of a dangerous, new super-amphetamine across the Middle East.
BEIRUT — In a dank garage in a poor neighborhood in south Beirut, young men are hard at work. Industrial equipment hums in the background as they put on their surgical masks and form assembly lines, unpacking boxes of caffeine and quinine, in powder and liquid form. They have turned the garage into a makeshift illegal drug factory, where they produce the Middle East’s most popular illicit drug: an amphetamine called Captagon.
For at least a decade, the multimillion-dollar Captagon trade has been a fixture of the Middle East’s black markets. It involves everyone from Bulgarian and Syrian gangs, to Hezbollah, to members of the Saudi royal family. On Oct. 26, Lebanese police arrested Saudi prince Abdel Mohsen Bin Walid Bin Abdulaziz at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport for allegedly trying to smuggle 40 suitcases full of Captagon (along with some cocaine) to Riyadh aboard a private jet.
The past several years have seen the global trade in illegal Captagon skyrocket, as authorities across the region have observed a major spike in police seizures of the drug. Local law enforcement, Interpol, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) all agree on the catalyst: the conflict in Syria. Captagon now links addicts in the Gulf to Syrian drug lords and to brigades fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who are funded by the profits, and, after years of fighting, are now hooked on the product.
Captagon began as a pharmaceutical-grade amphetamine called Fenethylline. Patented by German pharmaceutical giant Degussa AG in the 1960s, doctors used it to treat a range of disorders, from narcolepsy to depression. But the drug fell out of favor in the 1970s, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deemed it too addictive to justify its use, with the World Health Organization following suit and recommending a worldwide ban in 1980s.
This is where the free market history of Captagon ends and the hazier black market story — one told by drug lords, smugglers, and law enforcement — begins. What’s clear is that the counterfeit Captagon trade has flourished across the region over the past three years. A 2014 UNODC report noted that 56 percent of all amphetamine seizures in the world occurred in the Middle East; many of the seizures were of Captagon. In a single raid last year, police in Dubai seized 17 million tablets. At $10 a pill — a rough estimate, but one that is widely cited by law enforcement officials and drug treatment specialists alike — this amounts to a total street value trade of around $170 million.
While the Gulf’s appetite for the pill is driving demand, much of the Captagon that finds its way there gets its start in Syria. Since 1999, the UNODC’s annual reports have cited Syria as a production and transit point for drugs from Europe, Turkey, and Lebanon.
Last spring, Gen. Ghassan Chamseddine, head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces’ anti-drug unit, led one of the biggest drug busts in the history of Lebanon: 15 million Captagon tablets. Chamseddine’s unit traced the pills back to a family of Syrians who were trying to smuggle them from Beirut to Dubai in a shipment of corn. “During the interrogation we discovered that they had been smuggling Captagon to the Gulf for years…even before the unrest in Syria,” he told Foreign Policy from his office in Beirut, four floors above an evidence room stuffed full of confiscated sacks of Captagon. “From our experience, we are sure the main production of Captagon comes from Syria,” he added.
Louai Hussein, a former Syrian Border Guard, was stationed on the southern border with Jordan, near Daraa, until shortly before the Syrian conflict began. “A lot of stuff came through us, strange stuff — Captagon, hash, and other drugs,” he said. “The smugglers cross the Syrian border to the Jordanian border, and from the Jordanian border to other borders to deliver these pills and hash to Saudi Arabia.”
As for why Syria became a hub for manufacturing Captagon in the first place, it may have to do with the fact that, before the war, Syria had a vast pharmaceutical industry. With dozens of factories, Syria was the second-largest supplier of pharmaceuticals in the region. It’s not hard to imagine enterprising criminal gangs finding a way to divert some of the country’s supplies of drug precursor chemicals and pill pressing equipment.
Syrian government officials refuse to comment on the thriving Captagon market. But Chamseddine, who confers regularly with various Syrian law and border enforcement agencies, says that, in the years before the war, they told him they were aware that Captagon production occurred around Homs. Lebanese security forces’ interrogations of a Syrian smuggling ring busted in 2013 also revealed a supply chain that stretched back to factories around Homs and near the Syrian city of Yabroud.
Syria’s war has had a profound effect on its Captagon industry. In part, the war’s chaos has allowed drug producers to operate more freely. In a BBC Arabic documentary aired earlier this year, a Syrian opposition figure, businessman, and Captagon producer known as ‘Abu Sous’ said the manager of his underground factory near Homs saw the war as an opportunity to increase production. “I told him no problem, bring all of these things,” Abu Sous said. “And he did and our production increased. The truth is that we sold a lot.”
The ongoing war has also changed his motivations for his involvement in the Captagon trade. Vehemently opposed to both the Assad regime and the jihadi groups controlling parts of Syria, he now describes his Captagon operation as a charitable endeavor. He said that he has channeled money from his earnings to provide funding for weapons, equipment, and supplies to three secular brigades operating around Homs. “Almost, last year, our profit passed $6 million, or more. We put even more than this amount into keeping our secular groups standing on their feet.”
Meanwhile, the war seems to have increased demand for the drug within Syria itself — especially among those on the battlefield. “The brigade leader came and told us this pill gives you energy. Try it,” said a former Free Syrian Army member, speaking from his new home just outside Saadnayel in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. “So we took it the first time, [and] we felt physically fit, and felt like if there were ten people in front of you, you could catch them and kill them.”
The former fighter now lives in a makeshift tent made of plastic sheeting. He says he witnessed widespread dependence among his fellow fighters. “They are addicted, they would stop providing food for their children so they [could] buy Captagon.”
Various reports have alleged that Islamist fighters in Syria, including from both the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, are also using Captagon. These allegations are based largely on analyses of these fighters’ speech patterns in propaganda videos and anecdotal reports of “crazed” fighters. Hard evidence corroborating jihadi involvement in the Captagon trade, however, has yet to emerge.
Nadya Mikdashi, a Lebanese addiction specialist who runs Skoun, Lebanon’s only outpatient treatment center, was not surprised to hear that soldiers on all sides of Syria’s conflict have turned to amphetamines. “Historically, fighters always used drugs,” she says. “Since the beginning of availability of synthetic drugs as well, you know, this has been going on.” Only a few patients in her facility have come in contact with Captagon, but Mikdashi is worried by the recent reports of shipments from Syria being intercepted by authorities from Dubai to the West Bank. “Where are these drugs going? To the Gulf, to Sudan, to different places.…A lot of people in the region are using amphetamines.”
Back in the illegal Captagon factory in Beirut, two men sat at a table patiently unpicking packages of tissues, placing bags of Captagon into them, and carefully gluing the packages shut again. They say Captagon production in Lebanon is now booming as well — small, mobile factories have begun to pop up around the country to feed the unceasing demand. “We do half a million to a million per week or per month; it depends on the orders,” said one of the young men, wearing a tight t-shirt and a baseball cap.
For now, Captagon seems primed to continue booming: The illicit factories seem intent on hiring. “If you like you can leave your journalism career and come and work with us,” one worker said, “then you’ll know why we do this.”
Photo Credit: Mohammed Huwais/AFP