Written by Hafssa Fakher Elabiari


In this article, I shed light on the intricacies of an illicit industry: Captagon. I specifically explore how, despite being located in the Middle East, the Captagon industry has become a threat to human and national security beyond the region, particularly in North Africa and Europe. Thus, I answer the following questions: “Who stands behind the synthesis of Captagon?”, “What are the repercussions of Captagon’s proliferation?” and “What should the international community do to contain the threat?”. Yet, before tackling these pressing questions, I firstly provide a brief historical overview of Captagon.

Fenethylline, commercialized as Captagon, is an amphetamine-derived psychostimulant that affects the central nervous system and improves cognitive abilities (El Khoury, 2018). Captagon is principally composed of amphetamine and caffeine, and it is an internationally-recognized illegal drug (UNODC, 2021). In 1961, a German pharmaceutical company first introduced Captagon to treat health conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, and narcolepsy (Katselou et al., 2016). However, it took a few years for scientists to realize the drug’s addictive properties and its adverse effects on mental and physical health. In 1986, the legal production of Captagon stopped, and in 1971, the drug was added to the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Yet, some Central-Eastern European countries, like Bulgaria and Slovenia, continued producing Captagon and supplying it to Syria, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula, through Turkey (van Hout & Wells, 2016). In fact, anti-drug law enforcement measures in Europe helped shift the synthesis of Captagon from Europe to the Middle East (Laniel et al., 2018). The latter was an easy recipient, due to the lack of anti-narcotic law enforcement, existing conflicts, and high demand for recreational drugs. In the Middle East, the amphetamine-type drug is commercialized under the names ‘Captagon’ and ‘Abu Hilalain’ (the father of two crescents), and it is known as ‘poor man’s cocaine’ for its cheap production cost and price (Hubbard & Saad, 2021; Sallon, 2022).

Captagon is now primarily produced in Syria and Lebanon, and allegedly, to a lesser extent, in Jordan, where one facility was dismantled in 2018 (UNODC, 2021). In 2021 alone, Syria exported $5.7 billion worth of Captagon (Rose & Söderholm, 2022). Hence, Syria’s narco-state is a significant security concern for several countries in the region, but also for Europe, and in this regard, it is important to enhance our understanding.

Who is behind Captagon?

In the Middle East, the Captagon scene is nothing but complex. In fact, a myriad of state and non-state actors are involved, and the prevalence of conflicts and impunity creates fertile soil for the production and smuggling of Captagon. However, it is easier to portray the Captagon picture if one keeps in mind that the regional backers of the Assad regime are part of the Captagon network (Vohra, 2021).

In 2011, the European Union (EU), the United States, and other Western countries imposed the first batch of sanctions on the Syrian regime to disrupt its access to funds and halt its repression. For example, the EU and the US prohibited the import of Syrian petroleum products, investments in Syria by individuals or entities, and they also froze the assets of many individuals associated with the regime (“Syria Sanctions,” 2011; “Council Decision,” 2011; Alalwani & Shaar, 2021). Consequently, the sanctions strangled the economy, the oil industry, the banking and investment sectors, and imports/exports were brought to a standstill (“U.S. and European Sanctions,” 2020). In this context, and although Iran and Russia have proven to be reliable allies for Assad, their support was essential, but not sufficient. Accordingly, the regime chose narcotics to survive politically and economically (Rose & Söderholm, 2022). Former US special envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, confirms that the revenues generated from Captagon allow Assad to survive, describing its regime a cartel (Diehl et al., 2022).

To understand how the Syrian regime and its close allies benefit from Captagon, it is essential to comprehend some intricacies of the Syrian war. Between 2011 and 2018, the profits drawn from the Captagon industry benefited armed groups mainly (“The Syrian Economy at War,” 2021). Indeed, during that period, state control over some territories retracted, which allowed anti-Assad and Iranian-backed pro-Assad groups to surge into the scene, particularly in strategic zones like Aleppo and Idlib (“The Syrian Economy at War,” 2021). In 2018, however, the Assad regime started regaining control over the country’s territories and borders, and that coincided with an upsurge in Captagon exports (“The Syrian Economy at War,” 2021). In the same year, neighbouring countries and some European countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Poland seized massive shipments in which Captagon was sophistically hidden, usually disguised as edible products like fruit (“Regional Overview,” 2020; Spencer, 2021). Hence, these developments demonstrate that there is, indeed, a network of actors behind the illicit industry, and the latter is primarily composed of the Assad regime, powerful pro-Assad narco-entrepreneurs, and the Lebanese Hezbollah (Vohra, 2021).

According to a New York Times-led investigation, Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, is the main figure behind the synthesis of Captagon (Hubbard & Saad, 2021). Maher is an incredibly powerful army commander, who built a network of businessmen in various domains, from cigarettes to steel (Dagher, 2019, p. 125). He stemmed his power from controlling the army and a large portion of the business sector. Moreover, Maher is the commander of the Fourth Division, an army branch that protects the regime from major threats, and is supported by Iran and Hezbollah (Alghadawi, 2021). Interestingly, the Fourth Division’s so-called security bureau, an entity that manages illicit activities like antiquities trade, safeguards the Captagon factories and ensures the drug’s flow to Syria’s borders and Latakia port (Aldassouky, 2020; Hubbard & Saad, 2021). Indeed, Captagon factories are principally located in regime-controlled areas, such as Latakia, Homs, Daraa, Aleppo, and which are close to the Syrian-Lebanese border (Rose, 2022). In 2021 alone, Syria’s Captagon exports amounted to $5.7 billion, an amount that significantly surpasses 2020’s Captagon exports ($3.5 billion), and exceeds licit exports (Rose & Söderholm, 2022; Lister, 2022). Also, it is reported that the Fourth Division gets paid $300,000 for every container successfully shipped out of Latakia port (Diehl et al., 2022).

After Assad, Hezbollah is also a major actor in the Captagon industry and maintains strong ties with Syrian actors, notably the Fourth Division. As a matter of fact, Captagon is also produced in Lebanon, and Maher’s right hand, General Ghassan Bilal, is allegedly the linking point with Hezbollah (Hubbard & Saad, 2021). In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military actor, and it controls parts of the capital, the south, and the Bekaa Valley (Robinson, 2022). Parenthetically, there is no de facto border between the Bekaa and the Syrian city of Homs, which facilitates the traffic of people and weapons, but also of drugs (Khatib, 2022). In fact, there is solid evidence that Captagon is produced in Bekaa (Popoviciu, 2021). The Hezbollah-controlled region has a history of producing Cannabis, and the Lebanese government has failed to curb the trend (Felbab-Brown, 2022). The reasons behind the proliferation of Captagon in Lebanon are manifold. For example, the fact that Iran offers tremendous patronage to Hezbollah gives the latter significant clout in Lebanon and at the regional level. Clarifying, Hezbollah is an instrument used by the Iranian regime to expand its influence in predominantly-Arab states (Robinson, 2022). For that, Tehran provides military and financial support to the Shiite militant group . It is estimated that Tehran sends annually $700 million to Hezbollah (Robinson, 2022). The fact that Iran stands behind Hezbollah grants immunity to the non-state actor, when it comes to Captagon and other illicit activities. (Khatib, 2022). Also, the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon erodes the state power, which makes the country more vulnerable to illicit businesses. In Lebanon, the primary reason why the state fails in different sectors is the prevalence of fasad (Arabic term referring to corruption, nepotism, and clientelism), which is correlated with the spread of poverty, because it forces some people to take part in the Captagon industry, to earn a living. Also, the fasad is the same force that gives Hezbollah carte blanche when it comes to synthesizing and smuggling Captagon (Felbab-Brown, 2022)

Repercussions of Captagon

The proliferation of Captagon in the Middle East negatively impacts diplomatic and trade relations between Gulf countries and Lebanon. Customs authorities are not capable of cutting the flow of Captagon for various reasons, including the porosity of certain border (e.g., the one between Lebanon and Syria), the camouflage techniques that Captagon smugglers use (for example hiding the drug in packages, fake or real fruit), and the presence of smugglers in the destination countries. Captagon reaches Middle Eastern countries following one of three routes: directly from Lebanon (sea or airport), directly from Syria (Latakia Port), or from Lebanon through Syria via the Badia desert (“The Syrian Economy at War,” 2021; Khatib, 2022), a smuggling route connecting Syria to Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia (“Figures Close to Assad,” 2020). The Gulf region is a relevant case, because some of its countries are the primary consumers of Captagon. Among these, Saudi Arabia ranks, which makes it the “Middle East’s drug capital” (Vohra, 2021). Usually, Captagon is illegally shipped to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Islamic Port, and the authorities seize Captagon tablets on a regular basis (Keating, 2022).

Stopping imports, especially during the agony that Lebanon is going through, is only making matters worse for the Lebanese government. Moreover, it is making the Lebanese people scapegoats for Hezbollah and Assad’s Captagon network, and placing one of Lebanon’s recovery solutions in the hands of Saudi Arabia (Popoviciu, 2021).

However, it is clear that ceasing imports is not an effective strategy for Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom is only treating the symptom of a larger problem: Captagon addiction among the youth. Captagon is very common among young Saudi men, especially the wealthy ones who can afford to pay on average $20 to acquire a single tablet. On average, only 7-8 % of Saudis report using drugs like amphetamines, heroin, cannabis (Saquib, 2020), and their ages usually range between 15 and 25 (Bamofleh et al., 2017). Here, it remains difficult to have a close estimate of addiction rates, due to the fact that religious norms prohibit the consumption of drugs. To illustrate, the known rehabilitation centres are located outside Saudi Arabia, including in Jordan and Thailand (e.g., The Cabin Saudi Arabia). Of course, Saudi Arabia is not the only country that records addiction cases. Jordan, for instance, is leading a fierce fight against amphetamine smugglers. In early 2022, its army killed 27 smugglers and wounded several others, when they attempted to enter Syria (Al-Khalidi, 2022).

Captagon is a threat to human security, but it is also a threat to national security, especially in European and African countries, some of which have become regular destinations for this drug. In 2018, the Greek authorities seized $100 million worth of Captagon and Cannabis, and an investigation revealed the presence of a link between the drugs and the Assad regime in Syria (Ashour et al., 2021). In July 2020, the Italian police seized 14 tons of Captagon, the equivalent of 84 million tablets, in Salerno (Diehl et al., 2022). The drugs came from Syria, but were erroneously attributed to the so-called Islamic State. Recently, the list of Captagon destinations expanded to Africa. In January 2022, the Lebanese authorities intercepted a seven-ton tea-concealed shipment in the direction of Saudi Arabia through Togo (The National, 2022). It is difficult to state all the seizures because the list goes on to cover countries in North Africa, as well. Post-2011 Libya, for instance, has recently become a transit country for Captagon knowing that it is already used by Cannabis smugglers for its strategic position. Various factors enforce Libya as a transit country for drugs, mainly its strategic position in the Mediterranean, its instability, and the presence of warlords who benefit from the drug trade (Ahmad, 2021). Captagon is usually shipped from Latakia port to Libyan coastal cities like Benghazi and Tobruk. The smuggling takes place in products manufactured by companies close to the Assad regime (Ahmad, 2021). Hence, when drugs successfully enter Libya, a relatively small quantity flows internally, while larger quantities are smuggled to neighbouring Egypt and other Sahel countries, along with other European countries, like Italy (Ahmad, 2021). These developments highlight the amplitude of the Captagon threat in the region.

It should be noted that the Captagon network extends to Europe, particularly Germany. There are individuals who allegedly work for the Assad regime and who happen to either constantly live in Germany, or to move between the latter and other countries, like Lebanon and Turkey (Diehl et al., 2022). A common denominator between these people is the influence they had acquired in Syria by holding powerful positions and being close to the regime (Diehl et al., 2022).

Impunity beyond limits

The International community is concerned about the proliferation of Captagon, but it hasn’t taken measures to match its concerns. In 2012, Interpol applied a set of corrective measures against Syria, with regard to using Interpol’s information system (Interpol, 2021). Consequently, Damascus remained a member state, but stopped benefiting from access to intelligence that Interpol provides and the ability to arrest people overseas (Rose, 2022). In October 2021, however, Interpol lifted the measures, stating that the decision stems from its rules, rather than events happening in Syria (Interpol, 2021). In this context, Syria’s reintegration is not surprising for three reasons. First, Interpol’s executive is the Emirati General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, who was accused of torture. Al-Raisi was appointed in November 2021, one month after the cancellation of corrective measures against Syria. Yet, the appointment of Al-Raisi, amid allegations that happen to come from well-reputed sources, shows that Interpol can, sometimes, lack impartiality. Second, Syria started engaging in a process of rapprochement with the UAE. In March 2022, Assad even paid a diplomatic visit to the UAE to strengthen bilateral ties, the first official visit to an Arab country since the eruption of the war in 2011. Furthermore, Syria was invited to an Interpol anti-drugs conference, organized by the UAE, and part of Interpol’s Operation Lionfish, aiming to curb drug trafficking along various routes (Interpol, 2022). Third, Syria has become aware that international attention on Captagon might put it in a difficult position. Consequently, the regime started conducting Captagon seizures on a regular basis to conceal its blatant involvement in narcotics. It even organized a seminar on the International anti-drug day (June 26th) and claimed that it would organize anti-drug campaigns in the country to send signs of goodwill to foreign countries (Rose, 2022). However, these attempts would not work because Captagon and the Assad regime have become inseparable. Ultimately, Interpol’s move grants Syria tremendous access to intelligence, but most importantly, additional impunity. This move cancels the efforts made by several countries to curb the smuggling of Captagon. At the same time, it does no good to the Syrian people who have witnessed the whole spectrum of atrocities and contributes to the prolongation of an already long and brutal war.

To date, affected countries, be them in the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) or Europe, are deploying a lot of resources to detect and seize Captagon. While this is essential, it is not enough to solve the problem of Captagon. First, heavily-affected countries should actively launch domestic initiatives to raise people’s consciousness of the dangers associated with the consumption of Captagon. Indeed, the high demand is the main driver for such an exorbitant supply. If, for example, Kuwaiti people lower their consumption, Kuwait would no longer be an attractive destination for Captagon producers and smugglers. Of course, domestic initiatives should also normalize seeking rehabilitation treatment, away from judgment and stigma. Second, there is little cooperation among the affected countries (“Lebanon, Kuwait Agree,” 2021), and this puts enormous pressure on each country. In a typical scenario, MENA and European countries (especially southern ones) should merge their efforts for visible results. Third, the EU and the United States should cease turning a blind eye to Syria. Since February, the war in Ukraine has posed new challenges that necessitate profound attention, but disregarding Syria’s narcotics carries enormous security risks.


To conclude, Captagon is a by-product of unaccountability and the lust for power. Just like every drug industry, there are beneficiaries and victims. The Assad regime and Hezbollah have transformed Syria into a narco-state, just to generate funds (Keating, 2022). However, the amphetamine-type drug is damaging people’s health, particularly the youth. Additionally, it has tarnished commercial relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, a country on the verge of chaos. The Captagon industry is meant to stay, as long as the Assad regime is in power and his foreign backers perceive Syria as their backyard. Consequently, to stop the production of Captagon in Syria and Lebanon is, in the short term, quasi-impossible. What is possible, however, is to contain the threat that Captagon poses, which can solely be achieved through collective effort from countries and international organizations, i.e., the international community. In this regard, the international community should cease turning a blind eye on Syria and avoid making any positive gestures that might enhance Assad’s leverage internally or externally. It should also keep in mind that the war in Syria is, first and foremost, a human tragedy.


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