January 25, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Drug of War
On January 24, Jordanian security officials killed 12 suspected smugglers trying to cross the border from Syria. After a firefight, officials seized 2 million pills of the amphetamine commonly known as ‘Captagon.' The drug plays a doubly destructive role in the war in Syria as well as in the wider region. The sale of the drug across Middle Eastern countries helps fund criminal networks in Syria affiliated with both the regime and the rebels. The use of the drug among rebel fighters helps fuel the fighting, but this is only the latest chapter in the longstanding role of amphetamines as the drug of choice in war.
The seizure at the Jordanian border was notable for its violence, but not for the quantity of pills that were found. Last October, Lebanese officials arrested several Saudi nationals and seized two tons of Captagon in the largest ever drug seizure at Beirut's airport. In 2014, Lebanese officials seized 15 million pills of the same drug. Also in 2014, officials in Dubai seized 17 million pills, again of Captagon. Some of the drugs are produced in Lebanon, but the majority are made in Syria, where the combination of a once-thriving pharmaceutical industry, growing regional demand, and the near-complete collapse of the state economy has turned the war-torn country into a haven for drug manufacturers.
The widespread and systemic use of amphetamines in Syria by rebels and extremists—and presumably by regime forces as well—continues a decades-long trend of amphetamine usage in war. Captagon is the brand name of the drug Fenethylline, developed in the 1960s. Long before that, soldiers and airmen in World War II were using massive amounts of amphetamines to either stay awake during long missions or to dull their aftermaths. U.S. and UK soldiers and airmen used benzedrine, developed by a Japanese scientist in 1919. German soldiers relied on an amphetamine called Pervitin. Billions of pills were given to combatants on all sides during the war. U.S. troops also consumed huge amounts of amphetamines throughout the Vietnam War. These drugs keep soldiers awake but significantly impair judgment. Modern variants, such as Adderall, seek to heighten awareness and wakefulness without the attendant risks to health, motor control, and judgment.
The manufacture and sale of Captagon in Syria helps fund not just criminal networks but reportedly groups such as al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the so-called Islamic State. While the anti-Islamic State coalition has been targeting the group’s money collection sites and hurting its ability to refine and sell oil, the sale of amphetamines under the Captagon name continues to fill the group’s coffers. The drugs' supply and demand strongly favors the suppliers; the precursor chemicals are in abundance, the drugs are relatively easy to manufacture, and the demand comes not just from the Gulf, but from fighters across Syria.
The drugs do not themselves sustain the war, but they do help its fighters keep fighting. The reality of war manages to be both more horrific and mundane than the stylized version sold by all sides, and by the Islamic State in particular. As the war drags on and the fighting intensifies in the lead-up to peace talks, the use of amphetamines will increase. The addictive and destructive effects of these drugs mark yet another challenge for Syria and the international community to contend with whenever the fighting does subside.
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