Abu Hassan puts down his Kalashnikov and reaches into a pocket on his bodywarmer to hand me a small white pill. “Here,” he says in Arabic, “a gift. This’ll keep you awake for forty-eight hours.” He grins and adds in English: “Good sex!” The pill is Captagon, an amphetamine known as “the poor man’s coke.” It can make the user feel invincible and was taken by fighters on all sides in Syria’s civil war; ISIS were said to be big fans of “Captain Courage.” It has now spread across the Middle East. You might find Captagon fueling a party in Riyadh or keeping a Baghdad taxi driver awake through a double shift. It is, of course, illegal. And horribly addictive. It is said to be by far Syria’s biggest export, providing more than 90 percent of the country’s foreign currency. The Assad regime may be the world’s biggest narco state.
Abu Hassan was introduced to me as the boss of a Lebanese Captagon gang. We met through a relative of his — the only reason Abu Hassan is talking to me. He’s not the biggest Captagon producer in Lebanon, he says, but not the smallest either. He isn’t what you’d imagine a Lebanese drug lord might look like — no bling, no flash car. He is small and scruffy, in his fifties, with gray stubble and a weathered, chestnut-colored face; he drives an ancient Mercedes. More in keeping with expectations, there are four or five bodyguards. One, wearing combat webbing stuffed with ammunition and grenades, sits with us while we talk. The mountains that are the border with Syria loom in the distance. Abu Hassan explains how the Assad regime makes money from him.
It starts with a call from a middleman in Syria, placing an order for a dealer in Iraq, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Then they hurry to get the ingredients, what he calls “Chinese salts” and benzene. These are legal chemicals shipped through the port of Beirut and they cost little. His men mix them up in a vat and stamp out the pills with a machine. Before it was banned, Captagon was a drug for narcolepsy and attention deficit disorder. The body breaks it down to amphetamine and another stimulant found in small amounts in tea. A lot of what is sold as Captagon in the Middle East is simply amphetamine. Abu Hassan doesn’t know the chemical formula for what he makes. But he says with pride that every batch gets some extra kick from five kilos of methamphetamine, or crystal meth (a drug that makes addicts’ teeth and hair fall out). They put eight kilos in the batch for the pill he gave me, “so it’s good stuff.”
The smallest order he ever got through the Syrian middleman was for three boxes, the biggest for 300. He holds his hands apart to show something the size of a large shoebox and says that each one would hold about 10,000 pills. He sells the pills for $1-2 each but then has to “pay for the road” through Syria. It costs $2 a pill to move a shipment across the border, then another $2 to move a little way up the road to the city of Homs, and so on through all the regime’s checkpoints. The pills could pass through “a dozen hands” on their way to the dealers and their customers across the Middle East, the price going up at each stage. In Riyadh, each pill fetches $24, or more. A box sold for $20,000 ends up being worth a quarter of a million.
Much of this money goes, he says, to the Syrian mukhabarat, or secret police; “the intelligence”; and the army’s 4th Division, led by President Assad’s brother, Maher. There is also a big businessman who controls a number of checkpoints because he is used by the regime to oversee aid convoys. “Everyone takes their cut.” Even the smallest shipment means half a million dollars for the people who run the Syrian regime; a hundred boxes will put $10 million into their hands. “And let’s say a hundred guys like me are moving product through Syria. That’s the whole state budget, right there.”
It works the same way in Lebanon. He says he has to pay off the local police, the mukhabarat, the intelligence services, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that is controlled by Iran and which has fought for the Syrian regime. We are meeting in Hezbollah territory, in the Beqaa valley. The towns along the highway through the Beqaa are dotted with Hezbollah flags, a fist clutching a Kalashnikov on a yellow background. Posters of clerics and martyrs from the fight in Syria are tacked to lampposts. The organization’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, calls the claim that they smuggle drugs “fake news.” This would be against Islam, he says: they wouldn’t even sell drugs to their enemies. Abu Hassan smiles at this. He knows that Hezbollah doesn’t need to be in the Captagon business to profit from it.
The Assad regime’s involvement in Captagon is much, much bigger than just extorting smugglers such as Abu Hassan. Like him, the US government identifies Maher al-Assad as the “kingpin” — but behind manufacturing as well as smuggling. I was told about a meeting in Washington, DC where an official laid out the intelligence. There were Captagon factories everywhere: two in the province of Homs and one in Hama, in the heart of the country, and several in Tartous and Latakia along the coast. A paper factory in the northern city of Aleppo had also been converted to Captagon production. That last claim isn’t a surprise. Two years ago, Italian police in the port of Salerno seized three container ships from Syria. They found almost fifteen tons of Captagon hidden in large paper cylinders. The street value was more than a billion dollars, making it the largest amphetamine bust in history.
Charles Lister, of the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, says there is no doubt Captagon is being produced “at industrial scale” in Syria. The figures are astonishing. Last year, $5.5-6 billion worth of Syrian Captagon was seized abroad. The total value of Syria’s legal exports is $800 million. But Lister says the Captagon trade is at least five times what was seized, if not ten to twenty times bigger, given how easy it is to smuggle across borders in the Middle East. His most conservative estimate, then, is of exports worth $25-30 billion. By comparison, the total value of drugs exported to the US by the Mexican cartels is thought to be $5-7.5 billion a year. Lister says: “There is only one revenue stream that matters to the regime right now. And that is drugs.”
There are no scruples about the human cost. This is a regime that murdered tens of thousands of its own people to stay in power. These crimes have put Syria under suffocating international sanctions, which, as one observer put it to me, punish ordinary people for failing to overthrow their government. Some argue, therefore, for more targeted action. But people like Maher al-Assad are already under sanction and — the real problem — the more the Syrian regime is isolated, the more it will have to rely on its illegal source of income, Captagon.
Others argue to bring Syria back into the international community, bribing the regime to go straight. But that would let the Assads and their allies escape justice. And this is easy money for the regime. The drugs are cheap to make and the market keeps growing, especially now that it is moving into Europe. As Lister says, from their point of view, it would be “crazy” to get out of the Captagon business.
He wants to “encourage the region itself to come together to combat this.” Saudi Arabia has shown what this might look like. The Saudis banned imports of all Lebanese fruit and vegetables after eight million Captagon pills were found in a shipment of hollowed-out pomegranates. This has unfairly hit all Lebanese farmers, but is having an effect. Abu Hassan tells me he has had to shut down his pill press because of the risk of government raids. He and his bodyguards keep eyeing the road nervously as we speak. “We pay for protection but that doesn’t mean we can sleep comfortably.”
Abu Hassan tells me the story of his life: joining a Palestinian militia to fight the Israelis, then the Shiite Amal militia to fight in the civil war, then moving into hashish farming, now Captagon. Five years ago, his nephew was among a group of Lebanese soldiers kidnapped and killed by ISIS in the nearby Sunni town of Arsal. So Abu Hassan kidnapped the nephew of the man he held responsible. He made the young man lie on the grave of his dead relative and shot him. Then he called the man in Arsal and said: “Come get the body of your dog.” War breeds men like Abu Hassan. The Syrian war has made many more of them — the Captagon trade will not be easy to stamp out.