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On Syria’s ruins, a drug empire flourishes

Built on the ashes of 10 years of war in Syria, an illegal drug industry run by powerful associates and relatives of President Bashar Assad has grown into a multibillion-dollar operation, eclipsing Syria’s legal exports and turning the country into the world’s newest narco-state.

Its flagship product is captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Its operations stretch across Syria, including workshops that manufacture the pills, packing plants where they are concealed for export and smuggling networks to spirit them to markets abroad.

An investigation by the New York Times found that much of the production and distribution is overseen by the 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian army, an elite unit commanded by Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother and one of Syria’s most powerful men.

Major players also include businessmen with close ties to the government, the Lebanese militant group Hizbullah and other members of the president’s extended family, whose last name ensures protection for illegal activities, according to the Times investigation, which is based on information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade and current and former United States officials.

The drug trade emerged in the ruins of a decade of war, which shattered Syria’s economy, reduced most of its people to poverty and left members of Syria’s military, political and business elite looking for new ways to earn hard currency and circumvent US economic sanctions.

Illicit speed is now the country’s most valuable export, far surpassing its legal products, according to a database compiled by the New York Times of global captagon busts. In recent years, authorities in Greece, Italy, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have seized hundreds of millions of pills, most of them originating from one government-controlled port in Syria, some in hauls whose street value could exceed $1 billion, according to law enforcement officials.

Officials in Italy found 84 million pills hidden in huge rolls of paper and metal gears last year. Malaysian officials discovered more than 94 million pills sealed inside rubber trolley wheels in March.

These seizures probably represent only a fraction of the drugs shipped, drug experts say. But they provide a window into the scope of the trade, suggesting that the industry has exploded in recent years.

More than 250 million captagon pills have been seized across the globe so far this year, more than 18 times the amount captured just four years ago. Even more concerning to governments in the region, the Syrian network built to smuggle captagon has begun to move more dangerous drugs, such as crystal meth, regional security officials say. The biggest obstacle in combating the trade, officials said, is that it has the backing of a state that has little reason to help shut it down.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows bags containing the banned stimulant captagon that were seized by authorities on a shipment destined for Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Sana/AFP via Getty Images

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows bags containing the banned stimulant captagon that were seized by authorities on a shipment destined for Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Sana/AFP via Getty Images

“The idea of going to the Syrian government to ask about cooperation is just absurd,” said Joel Rayburn, the US special envoy for Syria during the Trump administration. “It is literally the Syrian government that is exporting the drugs. It is not like they are looking the other way while drug cartels do their thing. They are the drug cartel.”

The rise of a narco-state

Captagon was originally manufactured by a German pharmaceutical company as a stimulant to treat attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy. In the 1980s, users in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states started taking it recreationally to get an energy boost, banish fear and stay awake to study for exams, work, party or drive long distances.

Its white pills were stamped with two crescents, giving it the Arabic nickname “abu hilalain”, or “the one with two moons”. After it was found to be addictive, it was banned internationally in the late 1980s. But to continue feeding the gulf market, illicit captagon production took off, including in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a hub of hashish production and a stronghold of Hizbullah, an Iran-backed militant group that is now part of Lebanon’s government.

Although the pharmaceutical Captagon contained the amphetamine fenethylline, the illicit version sold today, often referred to as “captagon” with a lowercase c, usually contains a mix of amphetamines, caffeine and various fillers. Cheap versions retail for less than a dollar a pill in Syria, while higher-quality pills can sell for $14 (€12.40) or more apiece in Saudi Arabia.

After the Syrian war broke out, smugglers took advantage of the chaos to sell the drug to fighters on all sides, who took it to bolster their courage in battle. Enterprising Syrians, working with local pharmacists and machinery from disused pharmaceutical factories, began making it.

Syria had the needed components: experts to mix drugs, factories to make products to conceal the pills, access to Mediterranean shipping lanes and established smuggling routes to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. As the war dragged on, the country’s economy fell apart and a growing number of Assad’s associates were targeted with international sanctions. Some of them invested in captagon, and a state-linked cartel developed, bringing together military officers, militia leaders, traders whose businesses had boomed during the war and relatives of Assad’s.

Captagon labs are scattered across government-held parts of Syria, according to Syrians in areas where the drugs are produced – in territory controlled by Hizbullah near the Lebanese border; outside the capital, Damascus; and around the Mediterranean port city of Latakia.

Many of the factories are small, in metal hangars or empty villas, where workers combine the chemicals with mixers and press them into pills with simple machines, according to two Syrians who have visited them. Soldiers guard some facilities. Others bear signs declaring them closed military zones.

The finished pills are hidden in false bottoms in shipping containers; packages of milk, tea and soap; and shipments of grapes, oranges or pomegranates. Then they are smuggled overland to Jordan and Lebanon, where some leave via Beirut’s air and seaports. The largest portion leave Syria from the port of Latakia.

The security bureau of the 4th Division, headed by Maj Gen Ghassan Bilal, provides much of the network’s nervous system. According to regional security officials and a former Syrian military officer, the bureau’s troops protect many of the factories and ease the movement of drugs to Syria’s borders and the port.

“The division’s presence in the region is dangerous,” said Col Hassan Alqudah, head of the narcotics department for Jordan’s Public Security Directorate. “Captagon factories are present in the 4th Division’s areas of control and under their protection.”

Maher Assad and Bilal could not be reached for comment. Officials from the Syrian information ministry and its diplomatic mission in Vienna did not respond to requests for comment. The leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, has denied that his group has anything to do with captagon.

Other prominent Syrians participate in the business. A key player near Damascus is Amer Khiti, a businessman whose rise is emblematic of Syria’s new wartime business class, according to former US officials and Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade.

Originally a modest livestock trader, Khiti became a smuggler during the war, spiriting food and other goods between Damascus and the rebel-held suburbs with the support of the state, according to Sami Adel, an activist from Khiti’s hometown who has tracked his career.

As the rebels were routed from the suburbs, he bought up real estate there and invested in packaging facilities that are used for smuggling. Another wartime rags-to-riches figure is Khodr Taha, a one-time poultry merchant who oversees 4th Division checkpoints across the country, where he facilitates the movement of captagon, according to regional security officials and Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade.

Khiti did not respond to requests for comment and efforts to reach Taha through companies he owns were unsuccessful.

Both men gave back to the government by spending lavishly on banquets, billboards, rallies and concerts in support of Assad’s presidential bid this year. Khiti also paid to refurbish a military conscription centre and other government buildings that had been damaged in the war, and last year won a seat in Syria’s rubber-stamp parliament.

In May, Assad awarded Taha the Order of Merit “in recognition of his prominent services in economics and financial management during a time of war”. The United States has imposed sanctions on Bashar and Maher Assad, Bilal, Khiti and Taha. It called Taha an intermediary for the 4th Division whose businesses “generate revenue for the regime and its supporters”.

Captagon is still produced in and smuggled through Lebanon. Nouh Zaiter, a Lebanese drug lord who now lives mostly in Syria, links the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the business, according to regional security officials and Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade.

A tall, long-haired Bekaa Valley native, Zaiter was sentenced in absentia to life in prison with hard labour by a Lebanese military court this year for drug crimes. Reached by phone, Zaiter said his business was hashish and denied that he had ever been involved with captagon.

“I have not and will never send such poisons to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else,” he said. “Even my worst enemy, I won’t provide him with captagon.”

Captagon has probably become Syria’s most important source of foreign currency, according to Jihad Yazigi, editor of The Syria Report, a publication that tracks Syria’s economy.

“That does not mean that the revenues earned are going back into the economy,” he said. “They are mostly being invested in the bank accounts of smugglers and warlords.”

A booming business

So little is known about captagon outside of the Middle East that law enforcement agencies in other regions don’t always recognise the drug when they find it. And the smugglers employ ever-changing methods to hide the drugs and transport them via circuitous routes to conceal their origin.

Since 2015, authorities have found captagon in the private jet of a Saudi prince, hidden in oil filters for trucks and machines for making tiles, mixed in with shipments of grapes and oranges, and stuffed inside plastic potatoes hidden in a shipment of real potatoes. Smugglers have buried the drugs with coffee and spices to confuse sniffer dogs and sealed them inside of lead bars and giant rocks to block scanners.

A close-up of the banned stimulant captagon. Photograph: Sana/AFP via Getty Images

A close-up of the banned stimulant captagon. Photograph: Sana/AFP via Getty Images

The drugs have been seized in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, in the ports of Egypt, Greece and Italy, in an airport in France and as far away as Germany, Romania and Malaysia. Most of those countries are not significant markets for the drug but are merely decoy stops en route to the gulf.

Saudi Arabia, the largest market, has announced as many as six busts per month, with the drugs found in packets of tea and sewn into the linings of clothes. In May, after Saudi authorities discovered more than 5 million pills hidden inside hollowed out pomegranates shipped from Beirut, they banned produce from Lebanon, a major blow to local farmers.

According to the Times’s database, the number of pills seized has increased every year since 2017. The street value of the drugs seized has outstripped the value of Syria’s legal exports, mostly agricultural products, every year since 2019.

Last year, global captagon seizures had a street value of about $2.9 billion, more than triple Syria’s legal exports of $860 million. Law enforcement agencies have struggled to catch the smugglers, not least because Syrian authorities offer little, if any, information about shipments that originated in their country.

The name of shippers listed on manifests are usually fake and searches for the intended recipients often lead to mazes of shell companies. The Italian seizure of 84 million pills in Salerno last year, the largest captagon bust ever at the time, had come from Latakia. Shipping documents listed the sender as Basil al-Shagri Bin Jamal, but Italian authorities were unable to find him.

The listed recipient was GPS Global Aviation Supplier, a company registered in Lugano, Switzerland, that appears to have no office. Phone calls, text messages and emails to the company received no response, and the wealth management firm that the company listed as its mailing address, SMC Family Office SA, declined to comment.

Greek investigators have hit similar roadblocks. In June 2019, workers in Piraeus found 4.5 tonnes of captagon, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, inside sheets of fibreboard on their way to China. The fibreboard was branded as Quick Click, a company with no online profile, if it exists at all.

Official documents said the goods were bound for a Chinese company, Shenzhen Xiang Sheng Li Trade Co Ltd. Messages sent to an email address associated with the company received no response.

The documents also listed a customs broker using the name Trista at Seehog, a Chinese logistics firm. When reached by phone, she denied knowing anything about the shipment and refused to answer questions. “You are not the police,” she said and hung up.

There was one more clue in the documents: The sender was Mohammed Amer al-Dakak, with a Syrian phone number. When entered into WhatsApp, the phone number showed a photo of Maher Assad, commander of Syria’s 4th Armoured Division, suggesting the number belonged to, at least, one of his fans.

A man who answered that number said he was not al-Dakak. He said that he had acquired the phone number recently. Loukas Danabasis, head of the narcotics unit of Greece’s financial crime squad, said the smugglers’ tactics made solving such cases “difficult and sometimes impossible.”

Spilling into Jordan

Although officials in Europe struggle to identify smugglers, Jordan, one of the United States’d closest partners in the Middle East, sits on the front lines of a regional drug war. “Jordan is the gateway to the gulf,” Brig Gen Ahmad al-Sarhan, commander of an army unit along Jordan’s border with Syria, said during a visit to the area.

Overlooking a deep valley with views of Syria, al-Sarhan and his men detailed Syrian smugglers’ tricks to bring drugs into Jordan: They launch crossing attempts at multiple spots. They attach drugs to drones and fly them across. They load drugs onto donkeys trained to cross by themselves.

Sometimes the smugglers stop by Syrian army posts before approaching the border. “There is clear involvement,” al-Sarhan said.

The drug trade worries Jordanian officials for many reasons. The quantities are increasing. The number of captagon pills seized in Jordan this year is nearly double the amount seized in 2020, according to Alqudah, head of the narcotics department. Although Jordan was originally just a pathway to Saudi Arabia, as much as one-fifth of the drugs smuggled in from Syria are now consumed in Jordan, he estimated. The increased supply has lowered the price, making it easy for students to become addicted.

Even more worrying, he said, is the growing quantity of crystal meth entering Jordan from Syria, which poses a greater threat. As of October, Jordan had seized 60kg of it this year, up from 20kg the year before.

“We are now in a dangerous stage because we can’t go back,” said Dr Morad al-Ayasrah, a Jordanian psychiatrist who treats drug addicts. “We are going forward and the drugs are increasing.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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