Every year, customs officials across the Middle East seize thousands of kilogrammes of the synthetic psychotropic drug captagon hidden in fruit crates, boxes of confectionery, tubs of hummus and even the stomachs of live sheep. In March the Iraqi authorities found three million tablets in shipments of apples on the border between Syria’s Deir al-Zor province and Anbar province in western Iraq. A few weeks later, Saudi Arabia seized eight million, and released photos of the smugglers with the haul (1).
The US thinktank New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy estimates the retail trade in captagon was worth $3.46bn in 2020 and potentially over $5.7bn in 2021 (2). Most trafficking takes place in the Middle East, though shipments are occasionally stopped in North Africa. Last November Morocco said it had seized two million tablets exported from Lebanon, some headed for West Africa.
Captagon is easy and cheap to produce, which makes profit margins substantial: a single tablet (whose effects can last four days) costs a few US cents to make and sells for up to $20 in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. While the drug is banned by the civil authorities, users see it as different from substances explicitly proscribed by the religious authorities, such as alcohol, cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Caroline Rose, co-author of the New Lines Institute report, says, ‘In the Gulf states, captagon is very popular as a recreational drug. And to some extent, it allows users to get around the cultural taboo on using narcotics. It’s prized because it enhances productivity – for instance, taking it will keep you awake to revise for exams.’
Captagon, now a generic name, was originally the brand name of a psychotropic drug based on fenetylline (a synthetic amphetamine-type stimulant) developed by the German company Degussa Pharma Gruppe in the early 1960s to treat attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy. It was sold as a round, white tablet with a logo of two linked Cs. Soldiers, university students and ravers began using it after discovering that it kept them awake.
The potential for recreational use and risk of dependence led in 1986 to fenetylline being listed in schedule 2 of the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, with the aim of curbing production and trade. Most stocks in Western Europe were destroyed, but an informal trade developed in the Balkans: Bulgarian-made pills were shipped to the Middle East via Turkey.
Laurent Laniel, an analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, explains: ‘At first, traffickers used existing stock, and when that ran out they replaced the fenetylline with amphetamine sulphate [Speed]. The name of the drug stayed the same, but its chemical formula changed completely.’ In the late 1990s, the prospect of Bulgaria joining the EU and the rapprochement between the EU and Turkey gave the traffickers less room for manoeuvre and forced them to move production to the Middle East.
Europe is still one of the world’s largest producers of amphetamine sulphate, but captagon manufacturing is concentrated in an area straddling Lebanon and Syria. Lebanon dismantled many captagon laboratories in the early 2000s, but 20 years on, the country still has a host of small mobile labs operating along its porous border with Syria, especially in the Bekaa.
‘Every time the Lebanese decide to have a raid, [the mobile labs] move across the border into Syria and come back when things quieten down,’ Rose says. There are often clashes between the Lebanese army and traffickers, who are quick to open fire. In February three soldiers were killed during a raid in Haour Tala, in the Bekaa (3). Captagon is also a cause of diplomatic tensions between Lebanon and the Gulf states. In June 2021 Saudi Arabia banned Lebanese fruit and vegetable imports, forcing traffickers to find other options. In April Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces announced they had seized ten million tablets in Tripoli, hidden in a shipment of rubber bound for Saudi Arabia via Senegal.
But Lebanon is far from the only centre of captagon manufacturing. According to Rose, most production happens in Syria, in labs she describes as ‘industrial-scale’. The operation is thought to involve at least 15 major sites, many on the coast, which is controlled by the Assad regime. It spans Damascus, Aleppo and Homs provinces, as well as areas on the borders with Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Since the regime rules with an iron fist, it’s clear that captagon production is only possible because the authorities turn a blind eye. Syria, diplomatically isolated, under Western sanctions, and until recently on poor terms with neighbouring Turkey and Iraq, is trying to diversify its revenue sources, even if that means being labelled a narco-state – an accusation Damascus rejects.
My sources suggest that Major General Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother and commander of the Syrian Republican Guard’s elite fourth armoured division, plays a key role. ‘The fourth division oversees a series of industrial captagon production facilities, most located in areas under the regime’s control. It has also strengthened its presence on Syria’s southern border with Jordan and Lebanon,’ says Rose. Thomas Pietschmann, a researcher with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), urges caution in apportioning blame: ‘It’s a blame game where all the actors have their own political agenda. Some maintain the Syrian regime is making captagon; others say it’s rebel groups or jihadists.’ Whatever the truth, Lebanon and Syria use as much captagon as their neighbours.
Last September the US passed a Captagon Act, which calls the trade in the drug a ‘transnational security threat’. According to Republican congressman French Hill, who sponsored the act in December 2021, it will make it possible to disrupt and dismantle production networks linked to the Syrian regime. He told me that the US had, with its allies and partners, developed a strategy to improve public health in the region, reduce the Assad regime’s scope for illicit finance and strengthen regional stability. The US and UK have imposed sanctions on those responsible for the captagon trade, quoting independent experts who believe it could be worth as much as $57bn to the Assad regime (4) – ten times the usual estimates of the value of the Middle Eastern market, and three times the trade of the Mexican cartels.
The list includes senior civil servants, business leaders, militia commanders and family and friends of Assad, as well as members of Hizbullah, which is accused of using its military and logistical capabilities to protect labs and distribute the drug. Laniel believes the network goes well beyond the Syrian state: ‘I find it hard to believe the Syrian government is supplying tonnes and tonnes of captagon without any help. The traffickers are running considerable risks – in Saudi Arabia they get the death penalty. Given the scale of the operation, there must surely be an institutionalised trade in the Gulf states, with local actors handling the merchandise.’
However, the Gulf authorities are determined to prevent captagon use from becoming as widespread as the use of qat in Yemen. Between 2020 and 2022, the number of captagon shipments seized in the region went from 80 to 513 in a year (a 541% increase), according to UNOCD documents I have seen. Will normalising relations between Syria and the other members of the Arab League force Damascus to agree to curb trafficking?
The Arab League summit in Jeddah on 19 May saw Assad’s return to the fold and led to closer diplomatic contact between Syria and the Gulf kingdoms, except Qatar. Captagon had already featured in negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, and Maher al-Assad visited Saudi Arabia in March for preparatory talks. After the Arab League summit, Saudi diplomats confirmed that captagon had been discussed – but denied media claims that Riyadh had offered Damascus $4bn to end production entirely, or at least prevent trafficking to the Arabian peninsula (5).
With the Gulf states keeping a closer watch on imports from Syria and Lebanon, captagon is now being shipped via Asia, Africa and Europe. Several consignments have been seized in Greece and Italy, and neighbouring countries, especially Jordan, seem to be increasingly involved in local trade and consumption.
https://mondediplo.com/2023/07/03captagon Middle East’s drug of choice, by Clément Gibon (Le Monde diplomatique