Production, trafficking and consumption of Captagon in the Middle East have all skyrocketed in the past decade, with the small, off-white pills rising to become the region’s most popular drug.
The synthetic amphetamine has long been associated with the Syrian civil war, where fighters on all sides popped pills before heading to front lines.
While huge quantities of Captagon are still being produced in Syria, experts, law enforcement and officials warn it is spreading over the borders to Lebanon and Jordan too, risking destabilising the region and flooding the Middle East with cheap but dangerous drugs.
In a series of articles from across the region, The National has documented the Middle East’s new war on drugs, uncovered the game of cat and mouse between sophisticated drug cartels and customs agencies using technology to intercept concealed shipments headed to lucrative markets in the Gulf.
On the front lines of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on Captagon, the kingdom’s K-9 unit is training world-class working dogs in an effort to beat increasingly complex attempts to smuggle drugs into the region’s biggest market.
While the kingdom recently banned agricultural imports from Lebanon in an effort to rein in trafficking, users, doctors and health officials warn of the heavy toll amphetamine abuse can take on addicts and reveal how the kingdom is working to counter Captagon’s popularity.
But Captagon producers holed up in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, an ancient, fertile territory well out of the reach of the country’s security forces, boast of how easily they can manufacture large quantities of the pills, and of how much money they can make from the lucrative trade.
By air, sea and land they smuggle the drugs towards the Gulf.
The Black Desert, an arid expanse of volcanic rock and sand that stretches over the border between Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, has emerged as the centre of a smuggling network fed by Syrian and Jordanian producers, which Arab security officials fear could destabilise the region.
Iraq has long been awash with Iranian made crystal meth but counter-narcotics forces are seizing Captagon in massive quantities.
While it was a transit route for Captagon from Syria, officials warn the pills are now the second most popular drug in the country and security forces are struggling to keep up with trafficking that they say could be fuelling terrorism.
In Egypt, veteran drug dealers say the influx of new synthetic drugs such as Captagon has changed habits and is fuelling crime – in a country that once tolerated the recreational use of hashish – setting off alarm bells for drug officials.
Where did Captagon come from?
First synthesised in the 1960s, it was used as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Genuine Captagon contained a stimulant called fenetylline, but the substance was banned by a UN convention in the mid-1980s because of its side effects. With no accepted clinical use for the drug, official production ceased in the 1980s.
“The fenetylline stock that remained in Europe was largely destroyed, but part of it was trafficked and sold on the black market in the Middle East,” said Laurent Laniel, principal scientific analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
When that stock ran out, amphetamines were used as a replacement for fenetylline and placed in Captagon tablets, giving rise to the drug that is popular today.
“The name survived. Captagon – now an illicit product, containing an illicit drug – was trafficked to what appeared to be its largest markets: the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and apparently Saudi Arabia,” he told The National.
Criminal gangs from Bulgaria and Turkey helped to introduce Captagon to the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.
But a crackdown on laboratories and the manufacturing process in Eastern Europe and Turkey caused production to move into the Levant.
In 2015, a Saudi citizen was caught at a Lebanese airport trying to smuggle two tonnes of Captagon pills in his private jet.
“Fairly serious organised criminals from Lebanon were seen in the airport on the same day that the prince was leaving on his private jet. There is speculation that these criminals were delivering the Captagon to the Saudi prince,” Mr Laniel said.
Efforts to crack down on production in Lebanon revealed similarities with labs discovered in Europe.
“European authorities at the scene told me the machines to manufacture and tablet the pills were, in fact, very similar to what they are used to finding in illicit labs in Europe,” he said.
This led experts to believe that European criminals are playing a role in the production and trafficking of Captagon in Lebanon.
Captagon production in Syria
Experts are crying out for more information on Captagon, saying that relying on data of busts alone to try and determine the scale of the crisis and estimate how much may be being produced is hampering efforts to stop the trade.
While the production and smuggling of Captagon remains shrouded in mystery, much of the region’s supplies have been traced back to Syria.
Several intercepted shipments of Captagon, including a possible world-record seizure in Italy worth more than $1 billion, were traced back to territory controlled by the Syrian government and Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Ian Larson, an analyst at COAR and the lead author of its recent report on Captagon, said: “Most of the primary centres of Captagon production are under the control of Damascus. Many are Assad regime strongholds like the Latakia coast, including places like Basa. The primary export channels for industrial-scale production are ports controlled by regime officials."
In war-ravaged Syria, it is hard to determine the level of official knowledge of the drug trades, although Syrian and Jordanian military officials met in Amman in September to talk about how to stop drug smuggling over their shared border.
"There is a lot that simply isn’t known with absolute with certainty about the Syrian Captagon trade," said Mr Larson. "The Assad regime’s involvement isn’t in question, however."
Experts say Captagon production and trade is proliferating in weakened states like Syria, Lebanon and eastern Libya because instability and eroded government control at best means bribery and corruption are commonplace even if there isn't direct official involvement.
"Lebanon, like Syria, has experienced total economic devastation. In both countries, there are organised narco-trafficking operations, but the incentives are growing for smaller wildcat operations," said Mr Larson.
“Obviously, the proliferation of the drug economy in recent years is a response to the country’s economic destitution and the need to reward loyalists.”
While there’s no hard evidence that connects senior Syrian government officials to the trade, Mr Larson and others say they must be aware.
"Much of the evidence is circumstantial, but it is compelling," Mr Larson said.
Though Italian authorities were quick to blame ISIS in Syria for the massive shipment that arrived in Europe in July 2020, experts raised doubts that the extremists could have produced and smuggled such a shipment of pills, which were so well hidden in giant rolls of paper that even X-ray scanners didn’t detect them.
Germany's Der Spiegel magazine and British newspaper The Times alleged that Samer Kamal Al Assad, a paternal cousin of Syria's leader, runs several Captagon factories disguised as packaging companies in a village south of government heartland Latakia, and the paper cylinders hiding the pills were allegedly manufactured in a factory recently set up in Aleppo so as to avoid sanctions.
Shipments seized in Greece and have also been traced back to Latakia.
Several other high-profile Captagon shipments have since been intercepted and traced back to areas of Syria under government and Hezbollah control, including a shipment of 2.1 million pills hidden in containers of tomato paste marked "made in Syria" that was discovered by Saudi authorities at the kingdom's Al Haditha port in July 2021.
Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, said the Syrian drug trade has been tolerated because the weakened state is unable to clamp down on the trade while also dealing with raging conflicts.
"That is not necessarily to say that the very tip of the Syrian pyramid — Bashar Al Assad and his closest circle — benefit directly from the trade. But lower rungs in their own security sector are assuredly corrupt. A weak structure like Assad’s cannot fight that. It has no option but to let parts of its own state structure derive profits from drug trafficking schemes," said Mr Harchaoui.
How big is the Middle East’s Captagon problem?
Relatively little data is available on the scale of the Middle East’s Captagon consumption, but the region accounted for half of all global amphetamine seizures in 2019, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drugs Report for 2021.
What is clear, however, is that most of the Captagon consumed in the region is produced in the region, “in particular in Lebanon and Syria”, said Thomas Pietschmann, UNODC senior drug research officer.
Captagon requires a chemical known as P2P for its production, he told The National. He said that the UNODC has worked with authorities in the region to restrict imports of P2P for non-medical purposes.
“The bad news is that traffickers have become intelligent and more sophisticated. Instead of using P2P, they import pre-cursors to produce P2P and then produce the Captagon,” Dr Pietschmann said.
Saudi Arabia has so far reported the highest number of interceptions of incoming Captagon pills, leading experts to believe that it is the Middle East’s largest market for the drug.
Despite a crackdown, smugglers continue to find ways to get large quantities of pills into the kingdom.
"Smugglers in the Middle East are very sophisticated and becoming smarter," Dr Pietschmann said.
Shipments are now being sent to Europe from Lebanon and Syria, then on to Saudi Arabia so as not to arouse suspicion, Dr Pietschmann said. "This is something we never thought would happen."
The high risks associated with Captagon smuggling also extend to the users, who can never be sure of what the pills contain.
“You don’t know what’s inside,” Dr Pietschmann said. “It is mixed with all kinds of substances.”
Sample testing has found that most pills sold as Captagon contain other amphetamine derivatives that are easier to produce, as well as additives such as caffeine, quinine and paracetamol.
Discrepancies in the quantity of amphetamine and stimulants in the individual pills mean Captagon can act as a gateway drug to harder, more addictive substances, such as methamphetamine.
“This can have devastating results. This is what we are really afraid of,” Dr Pietschmann said.
Researchers generally depend on official government releases for information, which do not always give a complete picture, particularly in socially conservative countries where Captagon is popular and drug abuse is taboo.
This makes the scale of the problem harder to understand, Mr Laniel said.
“There needs to be more information generated. We need to stop treating it as a taboo,” he said. “It’s a problem of health and crime and we need to talk honestly about it and try to produce better information to understand what’s going on.”