Captagon Crisis in Syria: Trafficking and Militancy

1.0 Introduction

In the Arab world, a profound conflict rages against a formidable foe: Captagon, an illegal and highly addictive stimulant. Also known as fenethylline, Captagon Crisis in Syria is used as a recreational drug across the Middle East and particularly in the Arabian peninsula. In just one operation in September 2023, Dubai police seized 13 tonnes of Captagon pills worth $1 Billion USD. This article dives deep into the intricacies of a multi-billion-dollar drug trade. Syria’s ruling family plays a significant role in smuggling the drug abroad. Furthermore, it reveals the alarming reality of the Syrian government’s own dependency on Captagon. Despite sanctions imposed by Britain, the United States, and the European Union on individuals suspected of involvement in the Captagon trade. While Syria’s government has yet to address these allegations, it has previously denied any association with the drug trade [source].

1.1 The “Jihadi Pill”?

“Captagon,” has recently garnered significant media attention following reports of its use by the terrorist organization ISIS to fund its activities and enhance combat capabilities. Users experience prolonged alertness and a false sense of happiness and courage, earning it the moniker “drug of terrorists.” Terrorists have been observed using Captagon to reduce fatigue during battles, aiding in their territorial conquests in Iraq and Syria. French investigators suspect that attackers involved in the Paris assaults consumed a mixture of amphetamines, caffeine, and Captagon. This substance, also known as amphetamine sulfate, shares similar stimulant and narcotic properties and is prevalent in Spain and Europe.

European authorities are worried about Captagon’s spread and fear extremist groups may exploit weak spots in European governance, especially through Greece, to establish new smuggling routes. Terrorist involvement in drug trafficking shows their readiness to use illegal ways to fund their actions. Combating this threat requires global solidarity, cooperation, and ongoing awareness campaigns to protect public health, security, and societal peace. The Al-Azhar Observatory stresses the need for joint efforts to stop drug smuggling, help addicts recover, and offer necessary medical care to reduce the threat’s impact. [source].

2.0 Captagon Abuse Crisis in Syria

2.1 Falahout

In July 2022, a pro-regime militia leader, Raji Falahout, lost control of their headquarters to a rival group in Suwayda, Syria. The rival group found bags of Captagon pills, a pill-compressing machine, and a Syrian army ID card. Falahout’s group had been in contact with a Lebanese source to get machinery for making Captagon from Lebanon to Syria in 2021. During a trial in Lebanon, connections to the Assad family in the illegal drug trade emerged. A Lebanese-Syrian businessman was convicted of smuggling Captagon, stemming from a big drug seizure in Malaysia of nearly 100 million pills headed for Saudi Arabia. This shows the extensive reach and impact of the Captagon trafficking network [source].


2.2 Maher Al Assad and Fourth Division

The Fourth Division, a respected Syrian army unit, defends the government from internal and external threats. Led by Maher al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, since 2018, it plays a vital role. However, Maher al-Assad faces controversy, accused of harshly suppressing protests and using chemical weapons against civilians, leading to Western sanctions.

The financial struggles endured by both officers and rank-and-file soldiers within the Fourth Division during the protracted Syrian conflict have been profound. With meager monthly salaries, often not exceeding $65 for soldiers, many found themselves grappling with dire economic circumstances. [source]. Facing money problems, many division members resorted to illegal activities to make more money. The idea of getting involved in illegal trading, like selling drugs, became more attractive because of their tough situation. So, officers’ vehicles were used to transport illegal goods, including weapons, extremists, and drugs, through Syria’s checkpoints quite easily.[source].

3.0 The “King of Captagon”

Financial desperation drove individuals to smuggle and collaborate with illicit actors in the Fourth Division. For instance, Hassan Daqo, a Lebanese-Syrian businessman dubbed the “King of Captagon,” was convicted in Malaysia for his role in trafficking nearly 100 million pills bound for Saudi Arabia. This highlights the vast scope of the Captagon trade, valued at $1 to $2 billion, making it one of the biggest drug busts ever [source].

During his trial, Daqo asserted that he was cooperating with the Fourth Division to combat Captagon smuggling. Upon closer examination, evidence revealed communications between Daqo and Major General Ghassan Bilal, Maher al-Assad’s deputy in the Fourth Division. These exchanges, on platforms like WhatsApp, discussed transporting “goods,” likely Captagon, and touched on security permits, suggesting deeper involvement of regime forces in drug trade. These revelations highlight the troubling mix of financial desperation, military power, and illicit activities in Syria’s corridors of power, fueling corruption and crime with widespread effects.


4.0 Captagon’s Spread Abroad

4.1 Jordan

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi highlighted the persistent and recurrent issue of drug smuggling from the Syrian border. Statistics from the Drug Control Administration reveal a significant seizure of illicit substances, including 17 million Captagon pills and 56 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine in the past year [source]. Moreover, the Minister of Internal Affairs reported a concerning rise of over a third in drug trafficking cases throughout 2022. Notably, the trafficking surge across the Jordanian-Syrian border since mid-2021 involves large quantities of hashish, methamphetamine, and Captagon.

In 2023 alone, 41,672 narcotic pills from medical preparations were confiscated [source]. Jordanian Public Security labeled eight individuals as “the most dangerous wanted persons” involved in the Captagon trade. They’re linked to international and regional gangs operating along the northeastern border, posing threats to national and regional security. With increased drIn January and February 2024, the Jordanian Air Force carried out military operations in Syria’s Daraa and Suwayda governorates, targeting suspected drug smugglers’ hideouts. However, according to Jordanian sources, civilian casualties occurred.

4.2 Iraq

The General Directorate of Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Affairs reported a significant seizure on 23 January, uncovering 100,000 Captagon pills in Anbar. This operation, described as “qualitative,” was conducted under the oversight of the Minister of Interior in collaboration with National Security. This marks another milestone in the region’s ongoing battle against drug trafficking. Notably, last September, the Directorate announced the apprehension of a drug dealer caught red-handed with 200,000 Captagon pills in Anbar. In mid-March of the previous year, the Anbar Police Command seized 2.6 million narcotic pills. Days earlier, the Border Ports Authority intercepted over three million Captagon pills at the Al-Qaim crossing on the Syria border.

Major General Ahmed Al-Zarkani confirmed a recent seizure of around 16 kilograms. Federal Minister of Interior Abdul Amir Al-Shammari mentioned drug trafficking networks from Iran and Syria in a July interview. He spoke of upcoming operations to disrupt these networks, mentioning a successful dismantling of an international smuggling network that uncovered a drug manufacturing facility in the south. [source].

Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shiaa al-Sudani accompanied by Bashar al-Assad [source]

4.3 Saudi Arabia

Drug addiction in Saudi Arabia is concerning, especially Captagon use. Efforts to stop drugs are ongoing, but much of the market remains untouched, questioning the effectiveness of current measures and local involvement in the drug trade.

On February 11, Saudi authorities stopped another big Captagon shipment at the border, highlighting the ongoing fight against drug smuggling. Despite seizing many Captagon tablets, questions remain about where these drugs come from and where they’re going. This interception reminds us of the ongoing battle against drug trafficking and the need for better collaboration and intelligence-sharing among regional players [source].

Thwarting an attempt to smuggle a quantity of Captagon pills consisting of “tomatoes and pomegranates.”[source]

4.4 Gulf States (UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman)

4.4.1 Dubai’s Operation “Storm”

On September 14, 2023, Dubai Police stopped a major Captagon smuggling operation, arresting six members. They seized 86.02 million Captagon tablets, valued at 3.87 billion dirhams. The gang hid the drugs in 651 iron-wood doors and 432 luxury furniture panels. The General Department of Narcotics Control revealed their tactics, leading to the interception and arrests.

Operation Storm began when Major General Eid Muhammad Thani Hareb received intelligence about suspicious cargo containers. Working with Dubai Customs, the anti-narcotics team found Captagon pills using X-ray machines and police dogs. Subsequent surveillance led to the arrest of gang members attempting to retrieve the containers, thus thwarting their smuggling endeavor. Further, the meticulous monitoring of the remaining containers led to additional arrests when individuals attempted to clear them through customs. Dubai Police meticulously dismantled the containers, utilizing advanced tools to extract all Captagon tablets concealed within the doors and furniture panels, ensuring the complete eradication of the narcotics [source].

General Department of Narcotics Control in Dubai Police [source]

4.4.2 Qatar’s Seizure at Hamad International Airport

On September 5, 2023, Hamad International Airport Customs stopped a drug smuggling attempt. They found 7,476 Captagon pills and 161.7 grams of crushed pills hidden in a traveler’s bag. This discovery underscored the department’s vigilant efforts to combat drug trafficking at the airport [source].

4.4.3 Oman’s Cross-Border Smuggling Network Bust

The Royal Oman Police successfully apprehended an expansive international drug smuggling network operating across land and sea borders. Collaborating with Saudi authorities, they seized over 6 million Captagon tablets concealed within various shipments and goods. These narcotics were meticulously stored in various warehouses, strategically prepared for export. The Omani News Agency detailed the precision of concealment, emphasizing the sophisticated methods employed by the smugglers to evade detection [source].

4.4.4 Kuwait’s Major Bust

In Kuwait, a significant bust occurred on Friday, February 23, 2024, as announced by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior. The Criminal Security Sector, specifically the General Department of Narcotics Control, successfully apprehended an individual in possession of a substantial quantity of illicit substances and firearms. The accused was found with 96 kilograms of hashish, 2 kilograms of a chemical substance, 15 kilograms of Captagon powder, and 20 grams of Shabu. Additionally, over a million Captagon tablets were seized along with equipment for manufacturing them. The arrest also led to the confiscation of three firearms and ammunition, highlighting the severity of the criminal activities thwarted by law enforcement [source].

4.5 Europe

Europe has emerged as a significant transit point for Captagon, directly benefiting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Smugglers are now using European routes to move Captagon pills from the Middle East to the Arabian Peninsula. This was noted in a recent report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Addiction and the German Federal Criminal Police Office. This smuggling tactic aims to evade market controls, leveraging Europe’s unsuspected role in Captagon trafficking. Valued at approximately $57 billion, the Captagon trade thrives with each pill fetching around $3 on the street. German authorities confirm the Assad regime’s involvement, emphasizing Europe’s role as a transit point rather than a primary consumer market for Captagon.

Despite this, Europe has become a favored transit hub. Authorities seized large quantities of Captagon tablets since 2018, mostly heading to the Arabian Peninsula. Amcada report data shows about 127 million tablets and 1,773 kilograms of Captagon seized in European countries, with Italy having the largest seizure in 2020. There’s evidence of Captagon production hubs in Europe, notably in the Netherlands. Authorities find production sites annually, raising concerns about the drug’s spread in the continent. [source].

5.0 Libya: A Growing Nexus for Captagon?

Libya is becoming a key hub for the North African Captagon drug trade. Recent events highlight its growing role in the illegal drug industry. Italian authorities intercepted a major smuggling attempt on February 21. They seized 14 tons of Captagon and 3 tons of hashish worth $1.2 billion, bound for Libya and Saudi Arabia. While intercepted in Italy, this incident raises concerns about Libya becoming a major center for drug trafficking in the region.

Italian authorities issued warrants for a Syrian citizen, suggesting the international nature of the operation. This interception isn’t isolated, as many similar shipments have reached Libya through sea ports or land borders.

The secret collaboration between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya creates ideal conditions for illegal activities. They use military and civilian aircraft, along with maritime routes, for deals and transportation. Companies like Al-Tair International Trading and Shipping are believed to play crucial roles in expanding the Captagon trade. They exploit maritime connections between Syria and Benghazi to target new markets, especially in southern Europe. With Libya’s deepening involvement in this illicit network, international cooperation and joint efforts are vital to address the growing threat to regional stability and security [source].

6.0 International Efforts To Combat Captagon

6.1 Syrian Regime’s Involvement

International sanctions highlight the Syrian regime’s deep involvement in the Captagon trade, exposing corruption in the country’s top ranks. Sanctions by the European Union and the United States show efforts to disrupt networks fueling the production, distribution, and financing of Captagon, a stimulant contributing to addiction and conflict in the region.

6.2 Role of Syrian Businessmen

Khaled Qaddour, a Syrian businessman close to Maher al-Assad, commander of the Fourth Division, highlights the regime’s use of illicit income to strengthen repression. Qaddour’s alleged involvement in managing profits from these activities, alongside his unwavering support for Maher al-Assad, reminds us of the regime’s pursuit of power and profit, often at the expense of its own people.

6.3 Transnational Players

Beyond the confines of Syria’s borders, individuals like Noah Zuaiter emerge as pivotal players in perpetuating the Captagon Crisis in Syria trade, underscoring the transnational dimensions of this illicit enterprise. Zuaiter, a Lebanese national with intricate connections to both the Fourth Division and Hezbollah operatives, operates within a shadowy realm of arms and drug trafficking, exploiting the nexus between criminality and conflict to advance his own interests while further entrenching the Assad regime’s stranglehold over Syria’s illicit economy.

7.0 Former Adversaries and the Captagon Crisis in Syria

In tandem with these sanctions, the indictment of Imad Abu Zureiq, a former Free Syrian Army leader turned militia commander aligned with the Syrian Military Intelligence Division, serves as a chilling reminder of the regime’s insidious manipulation of erstwhile adversaries to perpetuate its own survival. Abu Zureiq’s alleged complicity in enabling drug production and smuggling, coupled with his control over crucial border crossings, underscores the regime’s relentless pursuit of power and profit at the expense of Syria’s beleaguered populace.

Lastly, the case of Hassan Muhammad Daqo, dubbed the “Captagon King,” epitomizes the convergence of state-sponsored corruption and criminality, with Daqo’s extensive ties to both the Fourth Division and Hezbollah operatives laying bare the entrenched nature of the regime’s collusion with transnational drug trafficking networks. Daqo’s arrest and subsequent conviction on drug smuggling charges, alongside Hezbollah’s complicity in facilitating his operations, underscore the regime’s callous disregard for the rule of law and human rights, as it cynically exploits the misery of its own people to perpetuate its grip on power


Saudi Customs Officials during Captagon investigation. Photo by: Saudi Arabia Customs Office

8.0 Border Tensions and the Captagon Crisis in Syria

The recent interception of a major drug shipment on February 9 highlighted growing tensions along the Jordanian-Syrian border. The Jordanian military faces intense confrontations with drug smugglers. This increase in illegal activities raises national security concerns and prompts efforts to enhance surveillance, particularly in regions like As-Suwayda, known for smuggling.

9.0 Conclusion

The extensive Captagon trafficking network outlined here highlights the challenges of illicit drug trade in the Middle East and beyond. Key figures connected to the Syrian regime, including military personnel and militia leaders, drive this trade. The ongoing Captagon Crisis in Syria exacerbates this issue, with reports suggesting its production and distribution fuel conflict and instability. International sanctions against those involved show recognition of its role in funding repressive operations and posing security threats. Libya’s emergence as a distribution hub underscores the global impact. Collaborative international strategies are crucial to combat Captagon trafficking’s pervasive influence and its destabilizing effects.

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