The Islamic State Isn’t Behind Syria’s Amphetamine Trade

On July 1, Italian police in the port of Salerno announced that they had intercepted 84 million counterfeit Captagon tablets worth 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion), deemed “the biggest seizure of amphetamines in the world.”

Scientists first produced Captagon, the brand name of the drug fenethylline, in the 1960s to treat depression and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Two decades later, the World Health Organization banned the substance due its high potential for addiction, abuse, and other adverse health effects. But counterfeit Captagon—which is sometimes just a cocktail of amphetamines with no fenethylline—remains in demand on the black market in the Middle East.

The pills intercepted in Salerno arrived on three ships from Latakia, a Syrian port, and Italian police quickly announced that the Islamic State was responsible for their production and shipment—allegedly to fund its global terrorism operations.

The incident shows how the connections between drug trafficking and war are often poorly understood. Global media outlets disseminated the information provided by the Italian police without questioning it, replicating misinformation without considering how a scattered group of Islamic State members could pull off such an operation—but the truth is, they probably didn’t.

Indeed, it is more likely that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a hand in producing Captagon, reaping a profit that it can invest into its armed campaigns against civilians and damaging the health of many Syrians who are now addicted to amphetamines after years of war.

The Syrian government has played a role in drug trafficking since as early as the as early as the 1990s. “When Syria invaded Lebanon in the ’90s there were many reports showing the Syrian military were aiding and abetting hashish and opium production in the Bekaa Valley,” said Laurent Laniel, an analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Captagon production flourished in Syria after 2013, when a crackdown in neighboring Lebanon likely forced Hezbollah to relocate its drug production operations next door. The shift came at an opportune time for the Syrian regime, as it needed money to fund its military campaign against rebel groups.

Nearly a decade into Syria’s civil war, Captagon production is still increasing at the expense of civilians. Counterfeit Captagon is relatively easy to produce. A factory space isn’t necessary, only a room big enough to fit a pill press and a few ingredients, which are easy to obtain. The informal economy of the drug trade is a “lifeline for the Assad regime,” said Caroline Rose, the co-author of a report on Captagon produced by the London School of Economics International Drug Policy Unit.

The majority of Syria’s Captagon production sites are in regime-held areas, according to Abu Ja’far, a former truck driver who worked between Homs, Rif-Dimashq, and Aleppo. “You only need some deserted homes and a few workers supervised by someone with strong connections,” Abu Ja’far, who requested the use of a pseudonym out of safety concerns, told Foreign Policy. The locations are spread throughout the suburbs of Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia, as well as in Homs, Qusayr, and Tal Kalakh, he said.

International organizations are unable to conduct research on the ground, meaning there is no concrete evidence linking the Assad regime to the Captagon trade. But sources say that strong protection would be required to produce, sell, and export the drugs from regime-held areas. “It was always possible in a country at war that those best placed to safely manufacture a drug in large quantities would be people in the regime … or in areas the regime were guaranteeing security,” Laniel said.

The Syrian drug operations would likely not be possible without the technical knowledge of Hezbollah, which has links to Captagon production in Homs, Tal Kalakh, and Qusayr, near the Lebanese border. Elsewhere in Syria, Bedouins have played a leading role in the sale and transport of Captagon, according to Abu Ja’far. They were among the first to buy amphetamine shipments coming from Bulgaria via Turkey to sell in Syria, Jordan, and the Gulf states, and they now have a foot in manufacturing, he said.

To pass through checkpoints and ports such as Latakia, it’s likely that connections are needed—tracing the trade back to the Syrian regime. Last year, more than 33 million Captagon pills were seized in Greece after being shipped from regime-held Latakia. And in April this year, Saudi customs seized more than 44 million pills hidden in tea packaging from a company close to the Assad family. “You can say anything that comes out of the port of Latakia can be linked to the regime or someone who has paid to use the port,” Laniel said.

Despite these possible links, many beyond the Middle East have incorrectly linked Captagon with the Islamic State. Reports published after the 2015 Paris attacks indicated that the perpetrators had been using Captagon and described it as a jihadi drug. Toxicology reports later showed the attackers weren’t using any drugs.

At the height of its territorial control, the Islamic State was involved in the black market, trading looted antiquities, arms, and oil. But there is little evidence that the group ever produced Captagon—even if individual fighters used the drug on the battlefield. It would not have been sanctioned at the institutional level because of the group’s Salafism: Islamic State leaders punished people caught smoking or selling tobacco, making it unlikely they condoned the manufacturing of amphetamines.

Furthermore, the Italian police misunderstood Europe as the final destination of the Captagon shipment seized in July, resulting in missed opportunities to hold other countries accountable for the illicit trade. Saudi Arabia has long been the No. 1 consumer of Captagon, which is popular among young and affluent partygoers. As conflict drags on in Libya, it is also possible the large shipment was destined for the port of Benghazi, with Europe as a transit point.

The pills could have been intended for Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which Russia backs in its campaign against the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Russia is one of the Assad regime’s main guarantors, and this illicit trade would make geopolitical sense: to act as a boost for the LNA fighters.

While much of the Captagon produced in Syria is destined for overseas markets, Syrians themselves suffer some of the worst damage from the trade. The worst-quality Captagon tablets are sold within Syria for as cheap as $1 per pill, according to Rose. Producers often mix substances to dilute the compounds, and some pills contain toxic levels of zinc and nickel. “They’re going to sell the worst formulas they have in Syria, because it’s the cheapest and people are desperate,” Rose said.

Captagon is known to inhibit tiredness, hunger, and fear. But its use is now common among all demographics in Syria, not just fighters. The most common side effects include extreme depression, insomnia, malnutrition, and heart and blood toxicity. Those who are addicted find little support from a health care system wrecked by years of war.

The seizure in Italy has marked the opportunity for governments to act to halt Captagon production. Further research should be implemented to collect data on Captagon seizures, including testing the drug’s composition and tracking smuggling networks and shipment frequency. The data could be shared openly between governments and law enforcement agencies.

Countries could then hold those high up in the chain of Captagon production and export accountable through sanctions or other measures, making it harder for the business to be so lucrative. “The Captagon trade is not going anywhere, but the level of the shipment in Italy, they wouldn’t be able to carry that off if further sanctions were placed,” Rose said.

Taking action requires the cooperation of the international community and increased public awareness of the harsh effects the Captagon trade has, particularly on Syrian civilians. The myths around the drug and its production and use by terrorist groups must be exposed and discredited.

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