Is the ‘Jihadi Drug’ Moving Out of Syria?
The DEA says Captagon production is shifting back to Europe. Experts are doubtful.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Captagon — a potent amphetamine known as fenethylline — has been trumpeted as a “jihadi drug,” used by fighters in the conflict to improve their combat effectiveness. Breathless news reports described drugged-up “superhuman soldiers” fighting for days without sleep.
But more than just increasing the number of tweaked-out Islamic State militants, the war in Syria has fundamentally changed the region’s black market, moving Captagon production closer to the drug’s primary consumer market: partygoers in Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Now, according a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration report obtained by Foreign Policy, Captagon production is reportedly shifting away from the Middle East and back to southeastern Europe — its original production hub.
The report documents an April seizure of 120 kilograms of Captagon precursor chemical in Sofia, Bulgaria — the most recent of several raids over the past year. According to the agency, the bust, in conjunction with other DEA reporting, demonstrates that Captagon production is “reemerging in Bulgaria” and that the country is returning to its “former status as an important source country for Captagon.”
The DEA declined to comment on the report.
Before 2011, Captagon was primarily produced in southeastern Europe. A cadre of experienced chemists and weak law enforcement facilitated the proliferation of small labs that exported vast quantities of the drug to the Middle East. “There were several groups in Bulgaria in particular that were quite involved in production,” said Tom Blickman, an expert at the Transnational Institute’s drugs and democracy program.
Increased law enforcement pressure in Europe, coupled with the economic realities of drug production, prompted a shift in Captagon production to the Middle East. “It’s just cheaper and less risky to move the drug from Lebanon, Syria, or Turkey across Iraq or Jordan into Saudi Arabia, into the Gulf states,” said Matthew Herbert, a Tunisia-based researcher focused on black-market economies.
Yet outside experts questioned the DEA’s assertion that production was moving back to Europe. “A full-scale realignment of the trade back to Eastern Europe would surprise me quite a bit,” Herbert said.
“The locus of Captagon consumption is still fundamentally fixed in the Gulf,” he said.
What might have changed, though, is trafficking patterns.
In May, French police confiscated 750,000 Captagon pills worth about $1.7 million in two separate seizures. “The shipment came from Lebanon, but it was caught in France, and it had a complicated route — back to Turkey into Saudi Arabia, and obviously not meant for the European market,” said Martin Raithelhuber, a synthetic drug expert with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Captagon’s circuitous route to market is backed up by findings in the UNODC’s recently released global synthetic drug assessment. Though there has been an increase in Captagon seizures in southeastern Europe, the report connects this trend to an “expansion of amphetamine [trafficking] in the neighbouring Near and Middle East,” not to an expansion of European production itself.
Sometimes, it might just be cheaper to send a shipment of Lebanese-produced Captagon to Saudi Arabia via France. “The reality is that container ships and all the accouterments of modern logistics transportation are by far the largest means of transporting drugs throughout the world,” Herbert said.
That doesn’t exclude the possibility that some production is shifting back to Europe.
Bulgarian chemists have long been in demand, even in places like Syria and Lebanon — and the DEA document cites a reported increase in European drug traffickers’ demand for that expertise, as well as precursor chemicals.
“The knowledge is still there,” said Blickman of the Transnational Institute. “They know how to do it. If you have a group with the knowledge, contacts, equipment to produce [the drug], unless you arrest the key people in it, it’s hard to stop completely.”
Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. @Rhys_Dubin