There was something not quite right about the shipment of oranges, bound for the Persian Gulf, that customs inspectors at Beirut’s port examined on Dec. 29, 2021. As the inspectors searched the containers, they found plenty of real fruit — but they also found hundreds of plastic oranges. When they cracked open the plastic fruit, they found plastic bags inside, each one filled with tiny white pills. When they were done with the inspection, they had counted a total of nearly 9 million pills. Each one was an illegal stimulant known as captagon.
The Beirut orange bust wasn’t all that unusual. Nor was the creativity of the traffickers. Just a week earlier, police in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, had intercepted roughly a million captagon pills hidden in plastic lemons. Other seizures have found captagon hidden in school desks and sofas, in tomato paste and even inside live sheep. In the biggest captagon bust to date, authorities at the Italian Port of Salerno found 84 million pills inside a machinery and industrial paper shipment.
The popularity of captagon is booming in the Middle East. The size of these seizures gives some indication of the scale of the traffic, which reached an estimated value of $5.7 billion in 2021, according to a recent report from New Lines Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. Captagon today is produced primarily in Syria and Lebanon, and its main markets are in the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. It’s a cause for concern for international authorities not only because of the drug’s effects, but also because of the identity of the producers and benefactors of the traffic: Extensive reporting suggests that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is profiting from captagon and may even be directly overseeing the trade.
The story of captagon goes back more than 50 years, but its recent explosion is a direct consequence of Syria’s civil war. It may turn out that one of that conflict’s lasting and most unexpected legacies is the emergence of a new narcostate in the Middle East.
“We really ought to be trumpeting this as a serious regional security issue,” Charles Lister, senior fellow and Syria analyst at the Middle East Institute, told Grid. “It is not in our collective interests to see a kind of North Korea sitting comfortably in the heart of the Middle East exporting drugs.”
From ADHD medication — to black-market drug
Captagon was originally the brand name of fenethylline, a stimulant developed by a German pharmaceutical company in the early 1960s. It was used in Europe in the 1970s to treat a number of conditions including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and narcolepsy. Found to be highly addictive and cause serious side effects, captagon was phased out almost entirely during the 1980s, but it soon evolved into its next phase.
During the 1990s, Bulgaria emerged as a major producer of black market captagon for both the Middle East and Eastern European markets. Many of the chemists producing the drug had been employed in Bulgaria’s large state-run chemical industry but found themselves looking for work after the collapse of communism. By the mid-2000s, Bulgarian authorities managed to shut down most of the labs, and the popularity of the drug declined in Europe; much of the production moved closer to target markets in the Middle East. This, too, was a legacy of the Cold War: According to a report from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, captagon’s spread to the Middle East was “facilitated by political and technical cooperation between Bulgaria and Syria. During the cold war many Syrians went to study chemistry in Bulgaria and established contacts that would aid illicit drug trafficking and production later.”
By the late 2000s, Syria and neighboring Lebanon were the world leaders in captagon production. The traffic was turbocharged by the Syrian civil war, which broke out in 2011.
The production line
These days, “captagon” is essentially a generic term (think Kleenex or Xerox) for stimulants sold in pill form. The vast majority of the pills seized in the Middle East today contain no fenethylline, the original active ingredient sold legally in Europe decades ago.
So what is captagon, exactly? Most of the pills contain amphetamine, along with a wide variety of chemical additives, though some analyzed by European law enforcement consisted only of concentrated caffeine.
Caroline Rose, senior analyst at the New Lines institute and co-author of the group’s report on the captagon trade, told Grid that the variability of what goes into the pills “should rightly be ringing a lot of alarm bells in public health systems because we have no way to track it, we have no way to regulate it, and we have very poor recording capabilities to monitor how the drug has evolved over time.” For instance, some pills seized by Saudi authorities have contained toxic levels of zinc and nickel.
The only thing connecting today’s “captagon” to the original German product is the distinctive double crescent-moon logo stamped on many of the pills. Higher-quality captagon tablets are often sold in bags emblazoned with the logo of the Lexus car company, or occasionally and more bizarrely, a counterclockwise swastika.
The quality of the drug varies widely, as does the customer base. The cheaper varieties sell for around 50 cents a pill in Syria. The purer and stronger stuff can go for up to $25 apiece in the Gulf. This means customers could include migrant workers ahead of a long shift, or rich kids ahead of a night of partying.
Although there is some evidence of captagon being sold on the dark web, most sales and transactions are conducted in person. Captagon is relatively simple to produce, and barriers to entry are low. Labs can be small, mobile and difficult to detect.
While there have been a number of large-scale captagon busts in Europe, consumption of the drug is negligible outside the Middle East and, increasingly, parts of North Africa. Captagon’s biggest market is in Saudi Arabia. Almost half the captagon seized in the Middle East between 2015 and 2019 was in that country, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. As a 2021 Foreign Policy article noted, researchers often blame “boredom and social restrictions” for driving drug use in Saudi Arabia, “a country with few venues for recreation.”
These days, disaffected Saudi teens may be the stereotypical captagon users, but in the past, the drug has had other cultural associations. Media coverage has often linked captagon to the Islamic state, with some media reports referring to it as the “jihad drug” or suggesting that the drug was “turning fighters into superhuman soldiers.” But most researchers believe the direct links between captagon and ISIS were exaggerated in media coverage.
“This nexus was trotted out almost to make ISIS seem a little bit more nefarious,” said Matt Herbert, senior expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “The reality is that they were simply taxing and promoting all sorts of various businesses under their areas of control, including fuel smuggling and more pedestrian things like food and tobacco.” Herbert added that as ISIS’s “territorial footprint in Syria has shrunk, their ability to tax those [smuggling] routes has similarly waned.” There’s also evidence that ISIS fighters have used stimulants before committing violence, but that’s something they would have in common with countless armed groups throughout history.
In addition to ISIS, other anti-regime groups including the Free Syrian Army and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — formerly an affiliate of al-Qaeda — have been linked to the trade. But these days, they aren’t the main players.
Assad’s captagon trade — and an emerging narcostate
In recent years, some analysts say the captagon traffic has shifted from an underground trade that thrived in areas where state control was weak, to a much more robust industry condoned and facilitated by the Syrian government. According to one estimate, seizures of Syrian captagon totaled around $3.4 billion in 2020 — likely only a fraction of the overall traffic. To put that figure in perspective, Syria’s largest legal export, olive oil, was worth around $122 million a year.
“In the mid-2010s, when we saw captagon production primarily among nonstate actors and terrorist organizations, it was nowhere near this level,” said New Lines Institute’s Rose. “You’d see shipments of pills in the thousands or hundreds of thousands. Today, it’s common to see 5 or 6 million captagon pills at any particular port in the world on a weekly basis. This industrial-sized production and trafficking capability is really recent and is made possible by state complicity and state participation in the trade.”
The Middle East Institute’s Lister said that captagon is “existentially important to the regime, because it keeps a sort of mafia network of crony elites together. They have an interest in the Syrian regime remaining in place and remaining united across this criminal network.”
The involvement in the trade may go straight to the top of the Syrian power structure. According to a New York Times investigation, much of the captagon production and distribution in Syria today is “overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad,” the brother of President Bashar al-Assad, and a man who has been called the second most powerful person in the country. According to a German law enforcement investigation reported on by the magazine Der Spiegel, Maher’s unit is paid $300,000 for every container of captagon shipped out of the Port of Latakia. A number of senior businessmen and Assad relatives have been tied to the trade, as has the militant group Hezbollah, which is allied with the Assad regime and has facilitated trafficking in areas it controls, notably Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
This has injected a sectarian edge into the captagon story: From the perspective of conservative Sunni kingdoms in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular), a dangerous and addictive drug is being produced under the auspices of their Shiite and Alawite (Hezbollah and Syria) arch rivals and sold to their youth populations. Last year, Saudi Arabia imposed a ban of imports of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon in order to prevent captagon smuggling — a move that was also widely seen as an attempt to squeeze Hezbollah, which controls a significant portion of Lebanon’s territory and wields significant power in the country’s government.
Authorities in neighboring Jordan say they have raised the issue of captagon smuggling with their Syrian counterparts but seen few results; instead, the Syrian army and associated armed groups seem to be helping the smugglers. The Jordanian military recently changed its rules of engagement to allow the use of deadly force against smugglers on the Syrian border.
Somewhat surprisingly, the captagon explosion is happening at a time when relations are gradually warming between Syria and the regional governments that have long treated it as a pariah. Assad visited the UAE for talks earlier this year, and despite the carnage on the border, the Jordanian government has been pushing for regional rapprochement with Damascus as well.
Rather than a barrier to normalization, captagon may turn out to be a driver of it. As a report from the Foreign Policy Research Institute noted earlier this year, as long as Assad is the only one with the power to shut down the captagon trade, regional players have incentive to deal productively, rather than punitively, with Damascus.
Meanwhile, business is booming — and spreading. Libya has emerged as a major transit point in the indirect route captagon takes from Syria to the Gulf, and there are reports of militias in Iraq getting in on the business as well.
This, along with the ease of production, raises the question of whether Assad really does have the ability to turn off the tap, even if he wanted to. From the fall of communism in Eastern Europe to the collapse of Syria, the captagon business has often moved with shifting political winds. It may not have made its last move.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.