The Captagon, the ‘poor man’s drug’ or ‘of the jihadists’, continues its unstoppable advance throughout the Middle East. Composed mainly of phenytilin – a synthetic drug from the amphetamine family – Captagon is increasingly common among young people in the Gulf countries, just as it was a stimulant. common in the ranks of Islamic State fighters in recent years. And, above all, the highly addictive substance is a lucrative business that the autocratic regime of Bashar al Assad takes advantage of, which partly explains its progressive rehabilitation on the Middle East scene in recent times.
The governments of the region, from Jordan to Saudi Arabia to Iraq, have been working hard in recent months to put a stop to the spread of the substance, which has translated into a trickle of operations in the most unexpected places and situations. The Captagon has traveled hidden in baklava boxes, hummus tubs, goat horns or fruit crates.
And in recent years, Syria has become the regional production center for this drug – also Lebanon, although to a lesser extent – which began to be manufactured in the 60s of the last century in Europe, mainly in Germany, to its commercialization as an antidepressant or in treatments against hyperactivity and narcolepsy. Two decades later, Captagon was withdrawn from the market, at which point its illegal production began in Eastern Europe, with Bulgaria at the helm, and the Arab world.
The new version of Captagon, to which caffeine is added, was common among fighters of the Islamic State and other armed factions in Syria and Iraq thanks to its properties in increasing concentration and reducing the perception of pain. This also earned it the title of the ‘drug of jihadists’.
But the main public health problem is its recreational use among the young population of Middle Eastern countries, where each tablet can be purchased at a price of about $20. The spread of the substance goes beyond the region and is already common in northern Europe, Africa and Central Asia. According to the think tank The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, the Captagón generated a turnover of 3.5 billion dollars in 2020 and around 5.7 billion the next year.
Last March, British authorities made public the estimate that the Syrian regime obtains annual revenues of around $57 billion thanks to Captagon, making the substance one of its main exports. The Western foreign ministries, from the EU to the United States through the United Kingdom itself, are convinced that the brother of the Syrian president and head of the Fourth Division of the Army Maher el Assd is a key player in the trafficking of the narcotic substance.
But not only has the ‘drug of the poor’ been a lucrative business for the Assad coffers, it has also played a fundamental role in the rehabilitation of the dictatorship at the regional level – in May it returned to the Arab League after twelve years of suspension and isolation.
As revealed on the occasion of the last summit of the Arab League by the authorities of the Hashemite monarchy, the dictatorship of the Assad clan promised to combat the trafficking of Captagon on its borders with Iraq and Jordan. On May 8, a bombardment by Jordanian forces killed one of the main traffickers in the captagon on Syrian soil, Marai al-Ramthan.
The regime trusts that a certain involvement in reducing regional flows of the substance – specialists doubt that the Syrian dictatorship will completely renounce such huge benefits – will have as a counterpart financial support from the petro-monarchies of the Gulf. in the reconstruction of the country.
However, in an interview with Sky News Arabia just a few days ago, the Syrian president, who revealed secret contacts with the Biden Administration, assured that it was “illogical” to link his government to the trafficking of the Captagon.
In neighboring Lebanon, mobile laboratories of the substance are moving along the Bekaa Valley and the border with Syria thanks to the support of the pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian Hezbollah militia. On April 14, the Lebanese authorities reported the seizure of ten million Captagon pills – and the arrest of four individuals – who were going to travel to Senegal to enter the Saudi Arabian market from there. Not surprisingly, in 2021, the Saudi authorities banned imports of fruit and vegetables from the country of cedars to try to stop the trafficking of the substance.
In recent years the trickle of operations has been continuous. Last February, the United Arab Emirates authorities arrested an individual at the Abu Dhabi airport who was transporting 4.5 million pills of the drug hidden in pea cans. Another Emirati airport, in this case Dubai, witnessed the interception of 5.7 million captagon tablets in May 2019.
In August 2022, the Saudi authorities seized 4.6 million pills that were hidden in a ship with flour. In February last year, the Jordanian authorities reported killing 30 smugglers and the upcoming seizure of 16 million captagon pills from Syria. This same week, the Saudi authorities reported having intercepted 2.2 million Captagon pills in Jeddah port hidden in boxes of baklava, one of the region’s most popular sweets.