day 6

Meet Captagon, the nightmare drug fuelling Syria's civil war

Captagon is an amphetamine widely used by fighters in the Syrian civil war for its ability to make people alert, fearless and ready to kill with abandon.
A customs officer displays a handful of confiscated Captagon pills. (REUTERS / Nikolay Doychinov)
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by Brent Bambury

When authorities at Charles de Gaulle Airport discovered 750,000 pills being smuggled into the country inside industrial moulds, the drugs were so well hidden they needed special tools to cut them out.

It turned out that the drug in the shipment was Captagon, a powerful amphetamine.

Investigators said this week they believe some of the cache was en route to Saudi Arabia.

That would make sense: Captagon use is unusual in France, but very common in the Middle East, especially in Saudi, where it's used recreationally and in Syria, where it plays a surprising role in the country's civil war.

Workers in France drill into the industrial moulds used to smuggle 140 kg of Captagon, an “amphetamine-type stimulant” through the country. (Douane Francaise)

As the news broke this week that Captagon had been seized in France, some outlets dubbed it the jihadist drug. Fighters in Syria have been known to take Captagon because the euphoric high makes them fearless.

It's also powerfully addictive and the stuff circulating in Syria is said to keep users awake for days.

One fighter, who appears in a BBC documentary, explains that, "if the leader told you to go break into a military barracks, I will break in with a brave heart and without any feeling of fear at all."

                    

A pill-fuelled war

Max Kravitz spent several months researching Captagon, interviewing aid workers and tracking its use in the conflict zone. He has lived in Syria and studied Arabic at the University of Damascus. He co-authored a detailed paper for the Columbia Journal of International Affairs, which states that Syria is now the Captagon capital of the world.

On Day 6, I asked him if all the fighters in the Syria conflict were hopped up on amphetamines.

"I would argue, you know, all of them aren't," he said. "But there definitely is evidence that amphetamines are plentiful in the Syrian conflict."

And, according to Kravitz, Captagon's use is not limited to specific factions.

"The evidence was relatively clear that, at one point or another, someone from all sides has been involved in the use of Captagon and amphetamines."

Kravitz's research concludes fighters from the Free Syrian Army to ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra all appear to have taken amphetamines.

"It has been used by people on all sides of the conflict throughout the entire country."

It's easy to see why.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army cheer and react during a fight with the Islamic State in the town of Dabiq in October 2016. (AFP/Getty Images/Nazeer al-Khatib)

         

The perfect war drug?

In the BBC documentary, a Syrian fighter claims Captagon gave him the stamina and strength to take on and kill ten men at once. That's a typical reaction to the drug.

"It, among other things, lowers inhibitions," Kravitz says. "[It] gives people a euphoric feeling that they can take on the world and are relatively indomitable. [It] suppresses appetite and gives you a very long burst of energy, something like 18 to 24 hours."

Amphetamine use by fighters is not new, but I wondered if the specific properties of Captagon made it the perfect war drug.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army take part in a battle against the Islamic State in a Syrian village north of Aleppo in October 2016. (AFP/Getty Images/Nazeer al-Khatib)

"That depends on what your values are in the war," Kravitz says.

"It is incredibly deteriorating and debilitating and it makes fighters take risks they otherwise wouldn't take. But if your goal is simply to take said hill regardless of the human cost, it certainly seems to be doing the job."

                   

Big money for Hezbollah

The value of the pills seized in France is estimated to be $2.3 million. In 2014, three Syrians were busted moving a shipment of 17 million pills into the United Arab Emirates. The street value of those pills would have been in the hundreds-of-millions of dollars.

The profits of the illegal Captagon trade are enormous, and are likely being used to fund some of the Syrian conflict.

"The markup is incredible," says Kravitz.  "And that's a lot of cash when you're moving a million to four million pills at a time."

An anonymous Captagon producer in the BBC documentary, described as a political figure opposed to the Assad regime, says he used his drug profits to bankroll secularist brigades.

"Last year, our profits were more than $6 million," he says in the documentary.

He also claims that money helped support 12,000 fighters.

Kravitz says all factions in Syria are hungry for the profits.

Syrian police show seized drugs and captagon pills at the Drug Enforcement Administration in the capital Damascus in January 2016. (AFP/Getty Images/Louai Beshara)

"From the research we did, we found a body of evidence to say that … a number of sides of the conflict have been using Captagon to fuel fighters and fund their campaigns."

There's also evidence to suggest that one player dominates: Hezbollah.

"The preponderance of evidence we found suggested that you'd need someone with a significant infrastructure and experience, both with Captagon and with the logistics of moving a significant amount of product," Kravitz says.

"Hezbollah was a known actor in the conflict and they were … the only actor we could really find that would have those kinds of capabilities."

Kravitz says it's impossible to conclude how much profit Hezbollah is collecting in the Syrian drug trade, or where it might be investing it. But he says it seems likely the Assad regime is involved, at least on some level.

"The Assad regime has been known to collude with Hezbollah, and based on the amount of product leaving Syria, and having to be able to traverse Syria from a variety of different exit points, you'd need relative freedom of movement. And given those needs, it would be incredibly unlikely you could do so without the state actor being involved."

                  

The Saudi clients

While Syria has become the main producer of Captagon, the buyers are often in Saudi Arabia.

There's enormous demand inside the kingdom. In 2015, two tons of the drug were found on the private jet of a Saudi prince. Despite draconian penalties, drug trafficking in Saudi yields an estimated $6 billion each year.

So how does a conservative Muslim country where alcohol is banned become the biggest client for an addictive amphetamine?

"Captagon's strange because it used to be used for medicinal purposes," says Kravitz.

He believes the drug's history as a pharmaceutical may have made its recreational use less taboo.

"The resistance to using said drug, because it had theoretical medicinal purposes in the past, would be less frowned upon, or there would be less resistance to it by users than something like cocaine or marijuana or alcohol, that's never necessarily had a medicinal use."

And now in neighbouring Syria, the chaos of a civil war gives remarkable cover to the production and transit of this addictive illegal substance.

"In our research," says Kravitz, "We found when the conflict in Syria began, Syria itself stopped paying relative attention to its borders and focused on its internal conflict, which left that issue to its neighbors."

Members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) take position in Idlib in northwestern Syria in February 2012. (AFP/Getty Images/Bulent Kilic)

In addition, before the civil war, Syria had an advanced pharmaceutical industry.

"Syria, prior to the conflict, was a significant industrialized nation. You have most of the means of production available in terms of electricity and water and roads, which most people take for granted."

"Syria itself, as a country in conflict, is arguably a great case study in terms of when the state becomes weakened or distracted by a much more present crisis, black market and illicit activities thrive."

And those activities have consequences for Syria and the Middle East.

In May, Saudi border guards intercepted a suspicious vehicle crossing from Jordan. They seized the car and the driver fled.

There were 2,100,000 Captagon pills inside.

To hear our interview with Max Kravitz, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.