Syria – the emerging narcopolis

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

In recent years, enforcement agencies in Greece, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and elsewhere have seized hundreds of millions of pills, of a drug called Captagon, most of them originating from one government-controlled port in Syria, some in hauls whose street value exceed more than $1 billion.

33 million Captagon pills were seized in Piraeus, Greece, on June 26, 2019. Italian law enforcement officers seized 14 tons of Captagon, about 84 million pills, at the port of Salerno in the year 2020,  hidden in huge rolls of paper and metal gears. 35 million Captagon pills were seized in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 13, 2020. Malaysia reported a seizure of 95 million Captagon pills seized at Port Klang, Malaysia, on March 24 2021, sealed inside rubber trolley wheels. It is estimated that around 250 million Captagon pills have been seized during 2020-21. These seizures might represent only a fraction of the drugs shipped, drug experts say. But they provide a window into the vast scope of the new drug trade, and the newest player in the market – Syria.

Captagon manufacture in Syria is a multibillion-dollar industry comprising workshops that manufacture the drugs, packaging industry that readies the contraband for export and a well-oiled smuggling network that extends its operations into different countries in West Asia, Europe and parts of South East Asia. Clandestine manufacture of Captagon is suspected in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which is a hub of hashish production and a stronghold of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group. Users in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries use it recreationally to get an energy boost, banish fear and as a party-drug for sexual stimulation.

While the pharmaceutical Captagon contains the Amphetamine – Fenethylline, the illicit version sold in the grey market is a mix of Amphetamines, Caffeine and various fillers. When the Syrian war broke out, smugglers sold the drug to fighters on all sides, who took it to bolster their courage in battle.

Simultaneously it also gained popularity as a preferred entertainment medication amongst upscale young people in the Middle East. This “brand-new age” Captagon, creates irreversible adjustments in brain circuitry that govern impulse control and also judgment, removing an individual’s capability to reason or believe reasonably.

Captagon was touted by the media as “The Amphetamine Fuelling Syria’s War” or “The Jihadists’ Drug”.  Captagon remains in the family of medications called amphetamines. These medications are human-made but are chemically associated with all-natural neurotransmitters like dopamine and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). When a person takes Captagon, their metabolic rate breaks the medication down to amphetamine itself, as well as to theophylline, a molecule that naturally takes place in percentages in tea which additionally has heart stimulating activity.

Amphetamine stimulates the central nerves, enhancing performance, enhancing focus as well as physical efficiency, and also offering a feeling of health, and not to really feel weary or hungry. But, three to six months of consumption of Captagon, reportedly destroys millions of brain cells.

Captagon pills and sex are closely related. Many traders promote Captagon pills as a powerful sexual stimulant that helps to reach heightened orgasm during intercourse. It helps not to feel tired so it prolongs the period of intimacy. In the sexual enslavement of thousands of Yazidi girls, Captagon was used extensively by the ISIS terrorists, to brutalise and violently rape young Yazidi girls.

Captagon’s reputation multiplied by leaps and bounds after media reports that it was responsible for fuelling the Syrian civil war by creating crazed super-soldiers who did not need to sleep for up to 48 hours, become violent, crazy, paranoid, and unafraid of anything. They lose any feeling or empathy and kill without mercy, including imperviousness to pain and violence, and craze for indiscriminating bloodlust.

The Syrian Army’s Fourth Armoured Division, an elite unit is suspected to be supervising the production and distribution of Captagon. The finished pills are hidden in false bottoms in shipping containers; packages of milk, tea and soap; and shipments of grapes, oranges or pomegranates. Then they are smuggled overland to Jordan and Lebanon, where some leave via Beirut’s air and seaports. The largest portion leave Syria from the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

Since 2015, drug enforcement agencies have found Captagon in the private jet of a Saudi prince, hidden in oil filters for trucks and machines for making tiles, mixed in with shipments of grapes and oranges, and stuffed inside plastic potatoes hidden in a shipment of real potatoes. Smugglers have buried the drugs with coffee and spices to confuse sniffer dogs and sealed them inside of lead bars and giant rocks to block scanners. Captagon has been seized in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, in the ports of Egypt, Greece and Italy, in an airport in France and as far away as Germany, Romania and Malaysia.

Saudi Arabia, the largest market, for Captagon, detected the drug in packets of tea and sewn into the linings of clothes. After the Saudi authorities discovered more than five million pills hidden inside hollowed out pomegranates shipped from Beirut, they banned produce from Lebanon. In 2017, Anti-narcotics forces in Madinah, Saudi Arabia, foiled the smuggling of 644,000 Captagon pills. The drug consignment, which was coming from Tabuk and heading for Jeddah, was intercepted in Madinah and the alleged smuggler arrested.

Recently, in November 2021, Turkish Customs teams confiscated more than a ton of Captagon drug pills at the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun in southern Turkey. It was reported to be the biggest seizure of its kind with a total of 1,072 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of Captagon drugs, more than 6.2 million pills. The contraband, worth over $37 million, was found hidden in 17 containers brought to the port for transit to the United Arab Emirates. The 17 containers were filled with stones typically used for decoration purposes. Narcotics detection dogs inspecting the cargo reacted to the stones and aroused the suspicions of Customs officials. Stones that were suspected of containing drugs were broken and were found to have hidden transparent packages filled with narcotics pills. Customs Officials took several samples from different containers and stones, analysed them with handheld material identification devices.

The handheld integrated Raman and FTIR spectroscopy instruments that were used are capable of identifying more than 14,500 individual substances, solids and liquids from narcotics to explosives and chemical warfare agents to industrial chemicals and precursors. The Raman technology enables a user to conduct non-contact and non-destructive analysis of samples in transparent and translucent containers without the need to open them and manipulate each sample, thus increasing user safety. Conversely, although FTIR spectroscopy requires direct contact analysis, it is more efficient and safer when identifying dark-coloured substances such as black tar heroin. It also has fewer chemical limitations and performs better on substances that suffer from very high levels of fluorescence, which sometimes obscures Raman spectra. Both technologies were used to complement each other as well as confirm results obtained by each other.

In India also, Captagon seizure was effected on September 3, 2016, by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in Hyderabad. They recovered 230 kg of Amphetamine. It was one of the biggest drug busts of Hyderabad. The drug was supposed to be smuggled via Chennai port or Rajiv Gandhi International Airport to Southeast Asia. From there, it would find its way to Syria, for use by ISIS fighters.

In the light of the new evidence identifying Syria as a major production and distribution hub of Captagon, India needs to maintain high degree of vigil on the Western maritime border as also on the sensitive Kashmir border with Pakistan.


The author Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics), is

  • Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, and Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India
  • Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA.
  • Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA 
  • Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.
  • AOTS Scholar, Japan

Dr G Shreekumar Menon can be contacted at shreemenon48@gmail.com

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