A bitter pill to swallow: connections between Captagon, Syria, and the Gulf.

AuthorKravitz, Max
PositionSECURITY - Report

Indiscriminate killing, chemical warfare, the rise of extremists, and the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II make it easy to overlook important details of the Syrian conflict. The destabilization of Syria has created an environment uniquely suited for cultivating illicit economies, particularly the production and transportation of illegal drugs such as Captagon. Little known outside of the Middle East until 2014, Captagon production in Syria adds a new dimension to a conflict that already has numerous competing forces. Hezbollah, a known supporter of the Assad regime and ally of Iran, is most likely the major producer of Captagon within Syria. Meanwhile, the most prolific consumers of Captagon are in the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. While the Gulf states' governments are supporting the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, their populations are financially supporting the Hezbollah and Assad. This article defines Captagon, uncovers its journey to Syria, and unpacks the evidence indicating Hezbollah's involvement in the Captagon trade. Nations of the Gulf need to bolster their partnerships with Western allies to put an end to illegal drug financing through acknowledgement, education, and increased enforcement.


Areas of conflict are a boon to the illicit economy, from human trafficking to drug smuggling. Globalization has brought about a fundamental change in the international system, including the erosion of territorial borders and the continued internationalization of non-state actors. Along with this, intrastate warfare dramatically undermines state capacity to regulate criminal activity, empowering transnational organized crime. The ongoing crisis in Syria is no different. Amid a death toll of more than 250,000, a widespread humanitarian crisis, and the increasing power of extremist ideologies, illicit trade networks play a significant role in fueling the conflict--a fact receiving greater attention from the international media. While the focus has been on the smuggling of oil, antiquities, and people, the narcotics trade is often left out of the equation. This trade centers around one of the most favored drugs in the Middle East, albeit one relatively unknown outside the region: Captagon, an illegal amphetamine stimulant sometimes referred to in Arabic as Abu Hilalain. It is in high demand in the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, where its in expensive yet powerful high overshadows its highly addictive quality, for which it has been banned in most of the world. Historically, hubs of Captagon production have been centered in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Lebanon. As of now, Captagon is produced almost exclusively in Syria.

2013 was a significant year in the Captagon trade, as patterns of confiscations led many to conclude that Syria was the new Captagon capital of the world. Because of this, many have associated the drug's boom with the conflict. Indeed, there has been a substantial decrease in Captagon confiscations in former centers of production, such as Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. International counterdrug agencies have noticed these trends, identifying Syria as the major production point for this substance. The beneficiaries of this shift in production remain unknown. Although a recent documentary by Radwan Mortada connected secular Syrian rebels to Captagon's spread, his research uncovers only a small part of this large and growing illicit trade. (1) Evidence strongly indicates that Hezbollah and their associated Syrian military connections are responsible for the increase in Syria's Captagon production and distribution. This evidence includes: (1) primary sourced information, (2) the timing of Captagon seizures, (3) the geographic history of the drug's production, and (4) the various actors in Syria's conflict.


Captagon was the popular brand name for an amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) called fenethylline. West German pharmaceutical company Degussa AG introduced fenethylline in 1961, with the brand name of "Captagon," as a treatment for children diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Thereafter, medical prescription usage became prevalent across the world. In 1981, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with many other countries, banned the drug because of studies suggesting fenethylline's high potential for addiction, abuse, and adverse health effects. (2) Although the ban on fenethylline ended the official Captagon brand, the name stuck as a slang in black market drug circles. Captagon's popularity as a recreational drug remains limited to the Middle East, where it is known as al-Kabtagon and Abu Hilalain, Arabic for "father of the two crescent moons." The latter Arabic slang derives from the two letter C's resembling crescent moons found on each round, off-white Captagon pill. (3)

Like most ATS substances, Captagon is inexpensive and easy to produce using mostly common ingredients such as pseudo-ephedrine. Like other amphetamines, its use increases energy and euphoria while decreasing the need for sleep and lowering inhibitions. In cases of overdose, it causes psychosis, paranoia, violent aggression, and possibly death. (4) Rumors persist across the international media that many Syrian fighters are using the drug to fight for longer periods of time with increased energy and a decreased fear of death. (5)

It is important to note that Captagon today refers to the drug's appearance, not its true chemical composition. Pills marketed as Captagon can contain almost any chemical compound. According to Turkish anti-drug officials, seizure records in many Middle Eastern countries count all ATS in powder or liquid form as "amphetamines," regardless of whether it proves to be fenethylline. Alternatively, all drugs found in round, off-white pills with two letter C's on them are counted as Captagon (even if later shown to be methamphetamines or other non-fenethylline substances).

A Jordanian study in 2004 analyzed 124 samples of seized Captagon and determined that there was no fenethylline present in any of the samples. (6) One Turkish National Police official insisted that black market Captagon is just as often counterfeit as it is real fenethylline, but it is always produced to resemble the original pharmaceutical drug to meet black market demand.

In addition, many black market Captagon pills are drug cocktails marketed for different effects, sometimes containing mixtures of Viagra or heroin in addition to their amphetamine stimulant. (7) The formula can affect the street price. For instance, a new, cheaper brand of black market Captagon called farawla (Arabic for "strawberry," and exclusively from Syria) is about $7 per pill, whereas a more typical Captagon pill might fetch $10 to $25 per pill. (8)


Captagon, as an illicit substance, has always had relatively definite geographic boundaries; the centralization of its production in Syria is only the most recent development in its...

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