Syria’s Breaking Bad: Are Amphetamines Funding the War?

A spike in the trafficking of the illegal drug Captagon, popular in the Middle East, is connected to Syria's brutal civil war

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Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images

Captagon pills are displayed along with a cup of cocaine at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces

Fifteen days into his job as Lebanon’s top drug-enforcement official, Colonel Ghassan Chams Eddine got a tip-off that something big was going down at the Beirut shipping port this summer. How big? Nearly 5.5 million tablets of a locally produced amphetamine expertly hidden inside an industrial water heater destined for Dubai. His men had to use acetylene torches to remove the white tablets, each embossed with an off-kilter yin-yang symbol and packed into 1,000-piece units in heat-sealed plastic bags. “The boiler was made in Syria, and the way the tablets were hidden, it was clear that they hadn’t been just stuffed inside,” says Chams Eddine. “That unit was formed around the drugs, at the factory.”

A week later, on Aug. 21, Chams Eddine got another tip-off. Six Syrian-made cargo trucks destined for Saudi Arabia from Lebanon were stopped just as they were about to cross the border. Each of the containers’ steel reinforcing ribs concealed a cleverly designed drawer packed with loose pills — 6 million of them in total. A few days later, a Syrian was caught at Beirut’s international airport with 11,000 tablets hidden in pastries. Then two more Syrians destined for Saudi Arabia were stopped at the airport with 8 kg of the stuff in their luggage.

In one month, Lebanese authorities confiscated more than $200 million worth of a potent amphetamine that is almost entirely unheard of in the West. But in the Persian Gulf, Captagon, as the amphetamine is known, is the most sought-after drug on the street, and the conflict in Syria, with its attendant lawlessness, is making it even easier to obtain.

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As the war drags on, it is all the more likely that Captagon will take on a significant role funding warring parties in the conflict. The captured cargo trucks were owned by a Sunni Syrian clan long linked to the drug trade that fled the besieged city of Homs last year to set up shop in Lebanon, says Chams Eddine, who suspects that the proceeds may have been used in part to fund anti–Bashar Assad rebels. “They run two or three operations like that, and they can easily get $300 million. That would buy a lot of guns.”

But it’s not just Syrian Sunnis who are involved. Hizballah, the Iranian-funded and Lebanon-based militia that is fighting in Syria on behalf of President Assad, also has a hand in the trade, according to former U.S. Treasury official Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute and author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. “Hizballah has a long history of dabbling in the drug trade to help with funding, and Captagon, with its high profit margins, is to them just another business opportunity,” Levitt says. It’s not yet clear if Captagon finances the war effort directly, he adds, but profits from the trade, like Hizballah’s other criminal activities, help fund the organization, freeing up capacity for efforts elsewhere. A Hizballah security official tells TIME that the organization does not engage in drug trafficking, as the practice is considered sinful in Islam. However, he admits, Hizballah has worked with drug mafias for what he called security operations. “It was never to benefit or fund Hizballah, it was more to collect information. After all, the end justifies the means.”

Captagon is the trade name for fenetylline, a synthetic stimulant used in the early treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder before it was banned in most countries in 1986. The counterfeit versions available today contain amphetamine derivatives that are easier and cheaper to produce. Though Captagon was manufactured and trafficked in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s, it didn’t really take off in the Middle East until 2006, when local authorities started reporting a worrying uptick in amphetamine seizures, most of them in the form of Captagon pills. A year later, Lebanese authorities reported that they had discovered a factory manufacturing counterfeit Captagon, according to a U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) survey. The machinery was reportedly donated to Hizballah members by their Iranian backers in order to provide increased revenue streams for the organization in the wake of the Israel-Hizballah war of 2006, according to an August 2013 report in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism that examines Hizballah’s role in the counterfeit-pharmaceutical industry. In the spring of 2012, Lebanese officials busted a vast Captagon manufacturing and smuggling ring run by prominent members of Hizballah. At least 10 machines, capable of producing tens of thousands of pills a day, were confiscated and destroyed, but it is assumed that many more are still in operation.

Hizballah probably needs them, says Levitt. Sanctions against the terrorist group’s financial backer, Iran, have taken their toll. At least twice, he says, Iran has had to cut back regular funding by a third. “That hurts. Imagine if your bosses said, ‘We have to cut back your salary by 30%, and we don’t know for how long.’” It’s one thing to be told that rocket deliveries will stop, he adds, but if you can’t pay your bills, it becomes an existential crisis. “So for Hizballah you had this conscious decision to increase criminal activity in order to diversify the resource base,” he says. The HIzballah security official denies that the organization uses drugs to fundraise, but admits that some supporters, particularly in the Bekaa Valley region of Lebanon, a Hizballah stronghold where the production is centered, work in the business. Going after them would be detrimental to the Hizballah cause, he says. “People accuse Hizballah of standing behind drug factories because we cannot go and fight with the clans of Bekaa. We reject their actions but at the same time there is no replacement for them.”

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In terms of pure profit, it’s hard to beat amphetamines. Unlike cocaine and heroin, the base ingredients are easy, and even legal, to obtain. A pill that costs pennies to produce in Lebanon retails for up to $20 a pop in Saudi Arabia, where some 55 million Captagon tablets are seized a year — a number that even Saudi officials admit amounts to only 10% of the overall total that actually makes it into the kingdom, according to the UNODC World Drug Report and a not-yet-published E.U. assessment of drug trafficking in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone accounts for more than one-third of global amphetamines seizures a year, and three-quarters of patients treated for drug problems there are addicted to amphetamines, almost exclusively in the form of Captagon. Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE have reported similar spikes in multimillion-tablet seizures of the drug in the past two years.

On Sept. 17, Saudi Arabia executed a Syrian man convicted of smuggling Captagon into the kingdom; another was hanged for the same crime in March 2012. Most smugglers caught trafficking the drug in Lebanon are also Syrian, says Lebanese drug-enforcement official Chams Eddine. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Syrians have taken over the drug business. At least not yet. With the war producing some 2 million refugees, and another 5 million internally displaced, desperation is driving more Syrians to take up smuggling on behalf of Lebanese cartels. But as lawlessness grows in Syria, so too does that country’s manufacturing capabilities.

As war raged in the city of Homs last December, some 180,000 pills were confiscated by the government in a suspected factory. “I have seen more Syrians who are getting involved in the past year in the business,” Abu Ali Zaiter, one of Lebanon’s biggest (and most wanted) drug dealers, tells TIME over the phone. His name is well known to the authorities, but in order to avoid antagonizing them by speaking openly to the media, he requested to go by his equally well-known nickname. Captagon labs are multiplying in Syria, he says, but for the moment they are still selling to big-time dealers like him, who know the ins and outs of international drug trafficking. “Maybe 10 years from now, if the war continues, they will compete with us in the international market, but till now it’s a new business and very limited.”

Not all elements involved in the war are so sanguine about the opportunities presented by continued conflict. Omar Atrash, the former head of the Lebanese branch of Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria, boasted to TIME that he had personally overseen the destruction of two Syrian Captagon factories near the border. The factories were in Qalamoun, an area “liberated” by the rebels more than a year ago, he said, and “since then there is a complete absence of the state, and many villages thought once the regime is gone they can do all kinds of illegal activities.” According to al-Nusra’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, drugs are forbidden. So Atrash led the charge to destroy the factories, as well as several marijuana fields. He admitted, however, that continuing the fight against narcotics had been counterproductive. Not only would the complete eradication of all drug facilities in the area suck manpower from the front lines, it also risked alienating the very residents they were trying to win over. “Nusra clashed several times with villagers because they tried to end this phenomenon,” he said in an in-person interview conducted just days before his death, earlier this month, by a rocket in Syria. It is not clear where the rocket came from.

Drugs, of course, are not new to the region. During its own civil war, Lebanon was at the center of an international drug trade that processed coca from South America and opium from Afghanistan into cocaine and heroin destined for the European market. Almost every warring party was involved in one way or another, the better to fund their war efforts. Surely Syrians on all sides of that conflict have taken note.  

— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Arsal, Lebanon

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