The Geopolitics of Narcotics: Through the Levant’s Captagon Corridor

In this piece, John Scott explores the production, trafficking, and use of Captagon, a cheaply-made amphetamine-based stimulant drug, and why a large quantity of Captagon was stored in Warehouse 12 of the Beirut harbour customs office when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated on 4th August. This analysis follows the Captagon trail from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Lebanon, to Syria and beyond.

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“Almost any drug or intoxicant has served, in one setting or another, to facilitate the transformation of man into warrior. If there is a destructive instinct that impels men to war, it is a weak one, and often requires a great deal of help” ~ Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War

Millions across the world were gripped on the 4th of August this year, as arresting footage of a colossal explosion in the port of Beirut rippled out of the Lebanese capital into the cybersphere. Dozens of angles of the blast were recorded by sheer accident, ranging from onboard sailing ships in the harbour, to midway through bridal photoshoots, to, perhaps most shockingly, atop buildings so close to the epicentre that their archivers are unlikely to have survived.

But what none of the footage could capture was the interior of the storage facility of the Beirut harbour customs office – Warehouse 12 – where thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate were detonated. The explosive mound was not the only contents of the warehouse, however, and it has since come to light that the building, as one might expect from a customs depot, housed a variety of seized contraband. Among the illegal goods that went up in smoke that day were untold amounts of smuggled Captagon – a narcotic with a unique geopolitical story. Where did it come from? Where was it going? Who profits from it? And why Beirut?

Like all drugs, Captagon’s common name is simply a moniker. Its true chemical name is fenethylline, and it was first synthesised in 1961. This can now be considered an infamous year in global counter-narcotics, as it saw the United Nations pass its Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, bringing amphetamines under the same international framework as the better-known cocaine, cannabis and heroin, and in essence laying the groundwork for a global drug war. Before 1961, fenethylline had been prescribed by doctors alongside similar stimulants for treating depression and other conditions affecting energy levels. It is comparatively cheap, but once in the bloodstream can create the ‘buzz’ common to all amphetamines, temporarily removing inhibitions such as hunger, fatigue, and risk aversion.

For many years, Captagon was manufactured chiefly in Turkey and Bulgaria, economies that had sufficient scientific capabilities for gangs to exploit and produce the chemical, but that were also situated on the doorstep of central and western Europe – one of the world’s hungriest and profitable drug markets. However, successful counter-narcotics operations in these countries drove the production elsewhere, and Lebanon – which was undergoing its own unprecedented growth and is itself situated on the edge of a dramatically growing Middle Eastern drug market – made perfect sense.

At the time, certainly no industrial-scale illicit activity could have taken place in the country without the knowledge or direct participation of Hizballah. The Hizballah-influenced south has indeed been a key regional source of illicit drugs for many years, and at the time, the group was no newcomer to the process of illicit narcotics smuggling. Well before Captagon arrived in Lebanon in large quantities, US intelligence knew of Hizballah’s drug smuggling activities as far away as South America, and it will have been straightforward for the group to establish a sophisticated amphetamine trade in its own country. Considering Hizballah’s well-established links to narcotics operations, and the overlap between the time of the Lebanese drug boom and the estimated time of arrival of the ill-fated shipment of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s Warehouse 12, it is not unlikely that the Captagon sitting in that facility at the time of the explosion was, at some stage, Hizballah property.

Nowadays, Lebanon is no longer the real epicentre of the regional Captagon trade. The pills are now almost exclusively manufactured in pharmaceutical facilities in Syria, servicing addictions in the Gulf, as well as Lebanon, Iran and Jordan. However, many of the pills remain inside Syria and end up in the hands of militant groups there, leading to some international press outlets gleefully painting pictures of ‘meth head jihadists’. While there is little evidence of militant groups such as Islamic State (IS) actually producing Captagon in Syria, there is credible evidence that their members consume the pills. While it is unsurprising that members of such armed groups take stimulant drugs – narcotics have been a feature of warfare for millennia – the relationship between this drug abuse and the militants’ ideology is more intriguing.

Such groups do not explicitly condone the use of narcotics, and at the height of IS’s territorial expansion they were known to harshly punish ordinary drug users under their dominion. Nevertheless, they seemingly made no concerted effort to clamp down on the trade, or its consumption on the battlefield. How can any supposedly devout group that espouses any strict Islamic worldview – be it Sunni or Shi’a – tolerate drugs? In this sense, Captagon’s historic relationship with the Shi’a Islamists of Hizballah offers key insight into its more recent exploitation by the likes of IS. Somewhat ironically, the answer comes down to the politics of compromise.

Producing, trading, and consuming stimulant drugs requires a certain amount of jurisprudential gymnastics for Islamists – something that was first witnessed in the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Stimulant drugs (khamr) are rejected as sinful in the Quran, and disapproval of narcotics of all forms can be found in centuries of clerical edicts. Occasionally, however, documents issued by some jihadist clerics have been known to justify this vice in the fight towards the greater good of defeating an ‘anti-Islamic’ enemy. In the context of armed ‘struggle’ (jihad) against an invading enemy perceived as anti-Islamic – one of the very few characteristics that is shared by IS, Hizballah, and the Taliban – a stimulant drug can be a pragmatic source of revenue, or a force-multiplier on the battlefield. There are important nuances here – indeed none of these extreme Islamist groups can truly be treated as monolithic – but there is at least some evidence of drug tolerance in the pursuit of their version of jihad.

Showing no outward concern for one’s own safety in the heat of battle has its tactical advantages – it can inspire comrades, intimidate enemies, generate an aura of invincibility, and on occasion prompt daring acts that achieve tactical objectives that a savvier or more cautious fighter might take far longer to complete. However, for jihadist fighters, ostensibly fighting for a deeply emotive, even cosmic victory in the hope of reaching paradise, this desire to exude selfless – even reckless – disregard for worldly pain is amplified even further. It is therefore natural to see how a drug – specifically a cheap amphetamine such as Captagon – can be at least implicitly tolerated within such a group.

The above notwithstanding, to assert that such a drug is only used to facilitate tactical victories does nothing to address a much darker side of the jihadists’ agenda. An overwhelming stimulant that overrides human inhibition is likely to have been desirable when groups such as IS – at the height of their capabilities and geographic reach – committed their horrific hallmark atrocities. Captagon’s dangerous combination with potent additives such as ephedrine can dramatically amplify the drug’s nervous stimulation, and may have contributed to the intensity of war crimes committed by non-state groups in Syria – in this sense, it is somewhat comparable to the exploitative forced addiction of child soldiers in other conflicts. Indeed, as Lukasz Kamienski notes in his landmark study Shooting Up: “acts of savage atrocities can be explained as a result not only from extreme jihad and Islamic State’s ferocious culture, but also from drug-induced psychopathy. They are, in a word, high on two intoxicants: jihad and psychostimulants”. If this is indeed true in the case of IS and other groups’ war crimes, the narcotic factor provides another sinister insight into how these groups operate, and further incentive – if any were needed – to understand the Captagon trade in greater detail.

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a London-based political risk and intelligence consultancy.

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Cover Image: US Army, 127 bags of Captagon seized from the [[Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]] terror group before being destroyed May 31, 2018