Drug haul worth €1 billion seized in Italy linked to Assad regime in Syria

Evidence points to involvement of Damascus in smuggling of world’s largest shipment of Captagon

epa08519910 A screen grab made from an undated handout video made available by the Naples branch of the Italian Guardia di Finanza (GdF) law enforcement agency shows a world record seizure of a 14-ton haul of amphetamines, in the form of around 84 million tablets bearing the 'captagon' symbol and reportedly produced in war-torn Syria by the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) militant group, hidden in three containers found in the port of Salerno, just south of Naples, southern Italy (issued 01 July 2020). According to police, the value of the drug, which was found in three suspected containers containing paper cylinders for industrial use and machinery arriving at the port of Salerno, has been estimated at over one billion euro.  EPA/GUARDIA DI FINANZA HANDOUT -- BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE -- HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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A drug haul worth more than Dh4 billion seized in the Italian port city of Naples has been linked to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Authorities in Italy earlier said the shipment of Captagon, said to be the world’s largest, had been made by ISIS to fund terrorism.

Previous hauls of the amphetamine derivative discovered in Greece, Italy and elsewhere were linked to the terrorist group. But tell-tale signs from the raid – and the quantity found – point to the involvement of the Assad regime, reported The Sunday Times.

A Syrian businessman with knowledge of the country’s paper industry told the British newspaper the 84 million tablets of Captagon had been hidden inside paper rolls that would have required industrial machinery to make, equipment to which ISIS did not have access.

Record amphetamines seizure in Italy

Record amphetamines seizure in Italy

The German publication Der Spiegel reported the pills were made in an area south of Syria's principal port, Latakia, in a factory owned by President Assad's uncle. They were then packaged in Aleppo in a paper plant in the city.

The factory has denied any involvement with the shipment found in Italy. A representative said it had opened too recently to become part of a drug smuggling plot.

But a promotional video for the plant shows it manufactures the same type of cylinders as those discovered in Naples.

Police in Italy conceded that ISIS could have been involved in the smuggling operation but the pills made elsewhere. It is unclear whether ISIS itself ever produced the substance.

Captagon, a street name for the drug fenethylline, has long been popular in the Middle East. It creates euphoria and suppresses tiredness, and has been used by ISIS fighters on the battlefield.

Captagon was found in the bodies of the attackers who killed 130 people in the French capital in November 2015. ISIS-affiliated groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria have also used the stimulant.

The shipment seized in Naples last week is not the first drug haul to have originated in Latakia. Captagon and other drugs have been intercepted across the Middle East and Mediterranean, often after departing the Syrian port.

Last year Greek authorities seized 60 pallets filled with Captagon pills in Piraeus after a tip-off from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Greek press reported that documents seized by narcotics agents showed the cargo had been loaded in Latakia.

Previous drug busts of substances including the opiate tramadol have uncovered an intricate web stretching around the globe that links extremism with drug smugglers and other organised crime.

Authorities in Italy and the size of the haul have indicated the involvement of the Camorra organised crime syndicate, which operates a vast criminal enterprise in Naples and surrounding Campania.

The Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, one of the Assad regime’s closest allies, has been deeply implanted within the global drug-smuggling network for decades and analysts have questioned whether the armed group had invested in Captagon.

Iran, a close backer of both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, also leased part of Latakia in 2019.

The Assad family itself has been implicated in drugs smuggling in the past. In April, in Egypt, officials uncovered hashish secreted in milk cartons produced by a business owned by Rami Makhlouf, one of Mr Assad’s cousins. The billionaire and the Syrian president have subsequently had a public parting of ways.

Captagon has been manufactured in the Middle East for decades. Syrian chemists, training in Bulgaria during the Cold War, produced the drug for export. They returned from the Soviet state and used their expertise in Aleppo and Damascus.