The Islamic State Isn’t Behind Syria’s Amphetamine Trade, But the Regime Could Be
After a record seizure, Italian police blamed the terror group. It’s more likely the Syrian regime has a hand in production and trafficking.
On July 1, Italian police in the port of Salerno announced that they had intercepted 84 million counterfeit Captagon tablets worth 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion), deemed “the biggest seizure of amphetamines in the world.”
Scientists first produced Captagon, the brand name of the drug fenethylline, in the 1960s to treat depression and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Two decades later, the World Health Organization banned the substance due its high potential for addiction, abuse, and other adverse health effects. But counterfeit Captagon—which is sometimes just a cocktail of amphetamines with no fenethylline—remains in demand on the black market in the Middle East.
The pills intercepted in Salerno arrived on three ships from Latakia, a Syrian port, and Italian police quickly announced that the Islamic State was responsible for their production and shipment—allegedly to fund its global terrorism operations.
The incident shows how the connections between drug trafficking and war are often poorly understood. Global media outlets disseminated the information provided by the Italian police without questioning it, replicating misinformation without considering how a scattered group of Islamic State members could pull off such an operation—but the truth is, they probably didn’t.
Indeed, it is more likely that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a hand in producing Captagon, reaping a profit that it can invest into its armed campaigns against civilians and damaging the health of many Syrians who are now addicted to amphetamines after years of war.
The Syrian government has played a role in drug trafficking since as early as the as early as the 1990s. “When Syria invaded Lebanon in the ’90s there were many reports showing the Syrian military were aiding and abetting hashish and opium production in the Bekaa Valley,” said Laurent Laniel, an analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Captagon production flourished in Syria after 2013, when a crackdown in neighboring Lebanon likely forced Hezbollah to relocate its drug production operations next door. The shift came at an opportune time for the Syrian regime, as it needed money to fund its military campaign against rebel groups.
Nearly a decade into Syria’s civil war, Captagon production is still increasing at the expense of civilians. Counterfeit Captagon is relatively easy to produce. A factory space isn’t necessary, only a room big enough to fit a pill press and a few ingredients, which are easy to obtain. The informal economy of the drug trade is a “lifeline for the Assad regime,” said Caroline Rose, the co-author of a report on Captagon produced by the London School of Economics International Drug Policy Unit.
The majority of Syria’s Captagon production sites are in regime-held areas, according to Abu Ja’far, a former truck driver who worked between Homs, Rif-Dimashq, and Aleppo. “You only need some deserted homes and a few workers supervised by someone with strong connections,” Abu Ja’far, who requested the use of a pseudonym out of safety concerns, told Foreign Policy. The locations are spread throughout the suburbs of Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia, as well as in Homs, Qusayr, and Tal Kalakh, he said.