Extremists push drugs in region to fund war

Militant groups including Hizbollah and ISIL are boosting production and traffic of amphetamines.

DUBAI // Extremist groups are flooding the region with amphetamines to fund their wars, using illegal laboratories capable of making more than $19 million a day in profits, a forum was told on Monday.

Seizures of Captagon, a cheaply produced psycho-stimulant used and exported by extremists fighting in Syria, have increased in the Middle East and North Africa, including the UAE.

Michelle Spahn, attache at the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dubai office, said: “The DEA assesses that Captagon serves as both a tactical and a financial resource for violent extremist organisations, such as Hizbollah and ISIL.

“The financial outlook and gain that these organisations have and the profits they are able to make off Captagon manufacturing and distribution starts with production.

“There is a recent emergence of Captagon seizures in the Middle East and Mediterranean region, specifically in the Gulf countries.”

Ms Spahn said that several labs, some of which could produce up to two million pills a days, had been dismantled.

“Syria is a top producer of Captagon and pre-existing criminal groups are involved in production – and ISIL production is emerging,” she said.

“The funds are being used by these violent extremist organisations to conduct their activities. We found labs in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and most recently the first lab found in Egypt was in 2014.”

Col Abdul Rahman Al Owais, deputy director of the anti-narcotics department at the Ministry of Interior, said that the UAE seized almost 12 million Captagon pills last year, a significant increase from 2,501 in 2011, but down from 33 million in 2014.

“In the years between 2013 and 2015, we arrested 169 people involved in Captagon activity, including users and traffickers,” Col Al Owais said. “Of those, 49 were Emiratis, 95 carried Arab passports and 25 were other nationalities, but mostly Asian.”

He said political instability and lack of monitoring in some Arab countries contributed to the increase of Captagon production.

“There is lack of proper monitoring in some countries due to the ongoing instability,” Col Al Owais said. “The UAE, though it does have recorded cases of consumption, was used mostly by drug traffickers as a transit country.”

Ms Spahn said that producing 1 kilogram of Captagon cost about US$1,680, which meant each pill cost about 29 cents to produce.

They are sold for between $3 and $33 a tablet. In explaining how profitable production was for extremists, she used an average sale price of $10 a pill.

“Some of the high-capacity Captagon labs that we’re finding can actually manufacture up to two million pills a day, or 345kg of Captagon, which equals a profit margin and gain of more than $19m a day.”

The business is very lucrative for violent and extremist organisations, she said, and very difficult to police.

“A lack of sources on Captagon production, transport and distribution within Syria – that’s one gap. How do the proceeds from the sale of Captagon get to Syria? That’s another gap,” Ms Spahn said.

The way forward is awareness, prevention and enforcement, and organisations producing the drug must be aggressively pursued, she said.

Dr Amin Al Amiri, assistant undersecretary of public health policy and licensing at the Ministry of Health, said: “Some regional governments’ lack of monitoring has allowed for pharmaceutical factories to become sources of counterfeit drugs and Captagon.”

Dr Al Amiri said international cooperation was essential in combating drug trafficking.

The Hemaya International Forum on Drug Issues began on Monday and runs until Wednesday.