Captagon is a type of amphetamine in pill form, most commonly found in the Middle East. Its active ingredient is fenethylline hydrochloride. In recent years, it became increasingly popular, in light of the ongoing Syrian conflict, raising vital questions over the origins and undisclosed purposes of this mysterious drug. What are the facts surrounding this little white pill that the international media has dubbed the fuel of the armed conflict in the Middle East?
Captagon traders in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley said that the pill is easily manufactured in home laboratories, where the stimulants are cut with various drugs and substances: paracetamol, caffeine, aspirin, and even viagra.
Despite the lack of the required technical devices to produce Captagon in the area, many of these devices are smuggled from Syria to Lebanon. According to one of the traders in Bekaa, industrial equipment can be modified, such as chocolate production machinery. Thus, it is imported from China, and modified to produce the narcotic pills.
Saudi Arabia is considered the largest market for importing Captagon. According to several Lebanese traders, the price for a box of 200,000 Captagon pills ranges between $550,000 to $600,000 in Saudi Arabia, which results in a sizable profit margin in light of the low costs of producing the drug. This makes it a desirable income source in the the marginalized areas of the Bekaa Valley.
Customs and security forces in Arab countries, nontheless, intercept enormous portions of smuggled Captagon; up to 70% of the smuggled amounts to Saudi Arabia are confiscated, which contributes to raising the drug’s price.
Traders claim that the drug entered Lebanon through Syrian and Turkish traders, while Lebanese traders modified the drug formula, to add a distinguished Lebanese flavor. Initially, traders produced the pills in Bulgaria then introduced them into the region. Syria was considered the transit point for the drug, which has been fought by the Syrian regime since Hafez al-Assad’s rule. The pills transitioned from Lebanon to Syria, then to Iraq, the Gulf, and Egypt through Saudi Arabian and Jordanian customers.
Captagon Abuse in Syria
The escalation of the conflict in Syria was mirrored by the increasing abuse of Captagon by the armed militias. In parallel, claims arose that the Islamic State was financially benefitting from producing and exporting Captagon. Abu Ahmed, a smuggler in Bekaa, says a Saudi customer has stopped buying the goods from traders in Bekaa, because he can get it cheaper from Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria.
Taym Ramadan, an activist living in Raqqa, says Captagon abuse has spread widely among Islamic State fighters, leading the organization to issue a fatwa (religious edict) permitting militants to use the drug, claiming that it increases their abilities to maintain their jihad.
Ramadan further notes that, during the Islamic State’s early days, Captagon trade was conducted in secrecy, due to the organization’s fatwas, which generally forbade smoking and drug abuse. However, about five months ago, the group endorsed the use of Captagon, due to the spread of the drug among fighters, claiming that Captagon increases the fighters’ concentration, relieves fatigue, and reduces fear during battles.
Dubbed as the drug fueling the conflict in the Middle East, Captagon has swept the region, from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.
Is Islamic State benefitting from the trade of Captagon?
The spread of Captagon abuse affected how the locals view of the Islamic State and its double standard: prohibiting various ‘habits’, while allowing their members to consume narcotic substances, or at the very least overlooking the practice.
Activists in the Sawt wa Soura organization, based in the Islamic State-controlled areas in Syria, revealed that the militant group previously led an arrest campaign against their own members in al-Bukamal city, located in the Deir ez-Zor province in eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq. The campaign targeted security members in the group, known for trading and taking Captagon and other narcotic substances, in what locals considered an attempt by the organization to save face.
Ramadan noted that Captagon is sold wholesale in Raqqa, where the price of 10 pills ranges between $40 to $50. Captagon is usually smuggled to regions controlled by Islamic State through the Turkish borders, which previously fell under the Islamic State control, such as Tal Abyad. However, the amounts of the substance smuggled through those areas declined with the successive Islamic State defeats against the democratic Syrian forces, made up primarily by Kurdish fighters. These forces managed to successfully decrease the Islamic State’s sphere of influence in the north of Raqqa.
Before the Kurdish takeover, the jihadist group was able to export Captagon through Turkey or Iraq, after producing it in small laboratories in Raqqa. After the Kurds assumed control over the borders, the amount of Captagon declined to the point that there is barely enough for local use.
Traders in Bekaa affirm that Hezbollah fighters found Captagon in Islamic State’s possession, as well as with al-Nusra Front fighters in the border area. They further claim that such substances facilitate committing crimes like mass slaughter, allowing the group to broadcast such acts to the whole world.
Ramadan, who monitors the group’s violations, questions such claims, denying the role of the use of Captagon in committing such crimes. He explains that the Islamic State relies on a small group of trained members in their media productions. Moreover, he attributes the sense of calm displayed by the victims to the fact that the videos were rehearsed several times before the victims were actually killed.
It’s All About the Money
Those concerned over the spread of Captagon in Lebanon draw parallels between the phenomenon and the similar spread of the hashish trade in Bekaa, attributing both to poverty, unemployment, and the marginalization of the region. These factors exist despite Bekaa’s strategic border position, where many youth have participated alongside Hezbollah in its battles in support of the Assad regime.
A female Captagon trader tells Raseef22: “The whole thing is a matter of money.”
Meanwhile, Abu Ahmed, a former smuggler, states that while Hezbollah attempted to mitigate the spread of Captagon production, though one of the reasons for fighting this trade was religious, the main reason was to prevent the formation of powerful mafias that could fight Hezbollah over influence in Bekaa. This policy affected and suspended many of the local traders’ businesses.
Captagon abuse is considered one of the toughest challenges for Saudi Arabian authorities. The Secretary General of the National Committee for Drug Control, Abdullah al-Sharif, stated last year that 40% of Saudi drug addicts are abusing Captagon, marking the highest rate among any narcotic substances. Al-Sharif said that the leading factors of the consumption of Captagon are emotional unfulfillment, family problems, and peer pressure.
Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), announced in July 2016, that the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front facilitate the smuggling of the chemical substances used in Captagon production. Fedotov added that the terrorists groups in the region benefit financially from narcotic substance trade. Reuters revealed in a report about Captagon that the pills trade “generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues.”
On October 2016, the Lebanese authorities captured a Saudi prince over the possession of nearly two tons of Captagon pills, which he intended to transport on his private plane from Beirut to Riyadh. This occurred one month before the Turkish authorities announced finding and seizing 11 million Captagon pills in the eastern Hatay region near the Syrian border.