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Captagon: Assad’s Deadly Drug of Choice Expands to Israel

Over 127 plastic bags filled with an addictive drug called Captagon lie ready for destruction after being seized by U.S. and Coalition partners in Southern Syria, May 31, 2018. Captagon is commonly known and used by ISIS terrorists, and informally referred to as the “jihadists’ drug”. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Brown)

Published on 2/10/2023 – Israel’s Ministry of Defense thwarted an attempt to smuggle thousands of captagon tablets into the Gaza Strip last week. The news was overshadowed by soaring tensions, amidst continued unrest in the West Bank and the firing of rockets out of the Hamas controlled-Gaza Strip.

The pills, hidden inside a shipment of office refrigerators, were en route from the West Bank when they were seized by Israeli security forces at the Tarqumiyah border crossing. Israel’s exposure to the captagon trade can no longer be ignored.

What is Captagon? 

Captagon, known colloquially as the “poor man’s cocaine,” is an amphetamine-type stimulant illicitly produced in the Levant. While it is primarily trafficked in Jordan and the Gulf states, the captagon trade has started to spill beyond its traditional borders. Captagon is slowly but surely evolving into a broader regional problem that merits a coordinated intervention. The drug bust in Israel this week validates this changing reality.

Originally, “Captagon” was the brand name for a legal drug containing fenethylline and prescribed to treat conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy, and depression. Fenethylline, however, was made widely illegal in the 1980s, forcing captagon production underground. Since then, counterfeit captagon production has proliferated; today’s highly addictive pills bear little, if any, chemical resemblance to their predecessors.

Today, the captagon industry is concentrated in Syria and Lebanon, where civil war, financial collapse, and the crippling effects of US and European sanctions left Iranian proxies strapped for cash. In search of new revenue streams, the Bashar al-Assad regime and Hezbollah resorted to captagon production and sales. And it proved to be a financial boon.

Regional seizure data from 2021 valued the captagon trade at over $5.7 billion, eclipsing the total value of Syria’s legal exports combined. The profits are pumped straight into the coffers of Assad and his cronies, providing a financial lifeline to an otherwise economically moribund regime. According to the former US special envoy for Syria, “the Assad regime would not survive the loss of the Captagon revenues.”

From its production centers in Syria and Lebanon, captagon is primarily trafficked overland through Jordan onward to the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia is widely considered to be the largest consumer market.

In Jordan, the growing scale and sophistication of overland smuggling operations poses a serious security risk and may even portend a burgeoning public health crisis. Last year, Jordanian officials intercepted over 54 million captagon pills; by April, they had seized more pills than in all of 2021 combined. The uptick in smuggling operations prompted Jordanian officials to institute a “shoot-to-kill” policy along the Syrian border; one skirmish left 27 smugglers dead.

Alarmingly, the consumer market for captagon in Jordan is expanding. “We used to be a proud that Jordan was a transit country,’ lamented the Secretary General of Jordan’s Economic and Social Council, “but now it is a host country.” Jordanian youth are consuming the addictive pill, which fetches a lower price than elsewhere in the Gulf. The decision to sell there appears to be a strategic one on the part of Iran’s allies, given how much more the pill can fetch in the Gulf, where high unemployment and swaths of disenchanted youth fuel demand.

The United States took legislative action in December when Congress passed the Captagon Act, which requires the government to develop an inter-agency strategy to “deny, degrade and dismantle” the Levantine captagon trade. Still, more can be done.

As Assad, Hezbollah, and their Iranian benefactors fill their coffers with captagon revenue, Jordan and the Gulf states are looking to bring the Syrian regime back into the regional fold. In early January, the Emirati foreign minister paid a visit to his Syrian counterpart in Damascus. The meeting came less than a year after Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, became the first leader to host Assad since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Jordan has also made overtures to the Syrian regime, as evidenced by a phone call between King Abdullah and Assad in October 2021.

A Mistake in Policy

Rather than normalizing with the region’s biggest drug pusher, Washington should make clear that regional cooperation in countering narcotics is a better approach. The administration can leverage the structures of the Abraham Accords to develop a regional strategy for combatting the captagon trade and expand the partnership between Israel and the Gulf. This could include establishing processes for law enforcement to exchange information outside of INTERPOL, which Syria rejoined in 2021. Jordan’s International Police Training Center can house a multilateral interdiction center to help provide real-time information on smuggling operations.

The shared threat of captagon also gives Israel and Jordan reason to jumpstart their often cold and tenuous peace. And, as policymakers anticipate bringing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords, Washington should remind the region that Jerusalem and Riyadh both care deeply about the stability of Jordan, which the Assad-linked narcotics trade threatens to undermine.

Finally, the Biden administration should take additional action to punish the Assad regime for its role in the production and trafficking of captagon. The White House excluded Syria from its list of major illicit drug producing countries for 2023, and the State Department failed to account for captagon in its congressionally mandated report on Bashar al-Assad’s wealth. The drug bust in Israel is a wakeup call that Assad’s captagon tentacles are spreading their reach. It’s time for the Biden administration to crack down.

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at FDD focusing on Lebanon, Jordan, and geopolitics of the Levant. Prior to joining FDD, she worked on Middle Eastern affairs at the Hudson Institute and was a summer fellow with the Tikvah Fund. Natalie holds a B.A. in political science with minors in Middle Eastern studies and history from Duke University.

Written By

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at FDD focusing on Lebanon, Jordan, and geopolitics of the Levant. Prior to joining FDD, she worked on Middle Eastern affairs at the Hudson Institute and was a summer fellow with the Tikvah Fund. Natalie holds a B.A. in political science with minors in Middle Eastern studies and history from Duke University.