Captagon’s Chilling Connection – From Hamas Militants to Iranian-Backed Militias via Syria’s Assad Regime

Captagon is hardly recognised beyond the Middle East. A synthetic substance that enjoys immense popularity in Arab nations has emerged as a true saviour for Syria in the last decade, a country that has been plunged into severe isolation.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

Following the October 7 attack in Israel, reports emerged confirming the use of the illegal drug Captagon by certain Hamas militants, potentially contributing to their violent behaviour. Yet, the repercussions of Captagon extend far beyond supporting terrorists, as it has now become a crucial instrument in bolstering the influence of the Syrian regime and a lucrative source of funding for Iranian-backed militias involved in targeting US troops.

Captagon is an illegal synthetic drug that combines amphetamines and theophylline. It is known for its stimulant effects, increasing users’ energy and alertness. Created to treat conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, it has become a recreational drug. Notably, it gained attention due to its reported use by some militants to enhance combat performance.

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that disrupts sleep regulation. It leads to unexpected and uncontrollable episodes of extreme sleepiness during the day. Narcoleptics may also experience cataplexy. (Sudden loss of muscle stiffness or muscle weakness), sleep paralysis, and hallucinations.

Commonly found as small white pills, the highly addictive drug Captagon is illicitly distributed across the Middle East and beyond. Its manufacturing is directly tied to the Syrian armed forces and the family of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president associated with dictatorship and war crimes. Assad himself plays a role in the drug trade, profiting billions of dollars each year through the global exportation of these drugs. The Syrian regime has established a distribution network in collaboration with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Italian mafia to facilitate the transportation of Captagon into Europe.

The issue of Captagon has sparked concern among Arab Gulf states, prompting them to take steps to enhance their relationship with Assad in the hopes that he will cease exporting the drug to their countries. Unfortunately, Assad has exploited this influence to increase Captagon’s exports. Notably, the intermediaries involved in transporting the drugs to the Gulf states are the same militias supported by Iran, which have been implicated in numerous attacks on American troops. These attacks have resulted in injuries sustained by at least 56 American soldiers, according to the Pentagon’s reports.

As per the statement of Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), the illicit drug Captagon is playing a role in financing acts of terrorism, providing funds that enable terrorist organisations to strengthen their influence and carry out acts of violence, as evident in incidents that have occurred in Israel.

Authorities in Israel have regularly intercepted substantial shipments of Captagon that were destined for Gaza. This operation involves militias supported by Iran, operating in Syria and Iraq, who play a crucial role in supervising the borders between Syria and Iraq as well as Syria and Jordan. The revenue generated from the resale of these drugs further supports these militias in obtaining weapons and expanding their territorial control. Additionally, Assad benefits from a portion of the profits, strengthening his political position and offering a safeguard against international sanctions.

As stated in a report by the New Lines Institute in the previous year, the Syrian government capitalises on weaknesses in governance in different countries, most notably in North Africa and Southern Europe. Collaboration with non-state actors and criminal groups enables them to generate financial resources that benefit state and non-state entities such as the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and militias associated with the state. As the report emphasises, this illicit trade has had damaging consequences, exacerbating destabilising activities, encouraging corruption, and reinforcing authoritarian practices.

In March, there was a coordinated effort by the United States and Britain to enforce sanctions against significant figures involved in the Captagon trade. These measures targeted individuals from both Syria and Lebanon, including two cousins of Assad. Following this, in June, the State Department published a report revealing evidence of collaboration between elements of the Syrian regime and individuals affiliated with Lebanese Hezbollah in the manufacturing of Captagon. In tackling the Captagon issue, the State Department’s strategy primarily addresses the criminal distribution network beyond Syria.

Further measures are deemed imperative, with recent developments in the form of the bipartisan legislation known as the Illicit Captagon Trafficking Suppression Act, which received unanimous approval from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Representatives Hill and Moskowitz, a Democrat from Florida, jointly sponsored this bill. Its objective is to facilitate broader sanctions against individuals engaged in the worldwide Captagon trade, specifically highlighting the need for increased scrutiny of additional Syrian regime officials involved in the illicit activities.

More actions are necessary, and this week { Week 45 }, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed a bipartisan bill named the Illicit Captagon Trafficking Suppression Act. Representative Hill, along with Florida Democrat Jared Moskowitz, co-sponsored the legislation. The bill seeks to enable broader sanctions against individuals involved in the global Captagon trade, explicitly identifying additional Syrian regime officials for scrutiny.

Representative Hill has long been a vocal proponent of enhanced cooperation between the United States and countries in the region to tackle the Captagon problem. He has actively reached out to governments in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey to address this matter. During our discussion, he underscored the importance of the Biden administration allocating additional intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic resources to effectively combat the substantial profits that Iran, Syria, and militias are reaping from the illicit Captagon trade, which amounts to billions of dollars.

Hill stressed the significance of their objective, stating, “We aim to cut off the financial backing.” By enacting this legislation, he clarified, it would serve as a diplomatic signal, underscoring the United States’ willingness to apply pressure on the Assad regime to align with the common goal shared by Arab states: bringing an end to the illicit drug trade within their region.

The Assad regime has undergone a disturbing transformation, resembling more of a mafia-like entity than a legitimate government, which necessitates appropriate treatment by the international community. It is crucial to take proactive measures to prevent Syria from using the drug trafficking trade as a means to finance and exacerbate violence in the region. Failure to address these issues will only result in the escalation of both drug-related problems and terrorism.


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