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The Jihad Pill
The Drug Used in the Hamas Terror Attack
I have written books about drugs, illegal (Warlords of Crime) and legal (Pharma). I have also written books about Islamist terrorism (Why America Slept and Secrets of the Kingdom). It is why I was not surprised when news broke the other day that the Israelis had discovered Captagon pills in the pockets of dead Hamas terrorists from the October 7 attack. It was the same drug found in the gunmen and suicide bombers who massacred 90 people in Paris in the 2015 Bataclan theater attack.
Most people have likely never heard of Captagon. Dubbed the “cocaine for the poor,” it is a cheaply manufactured synthetic amphetamine-like stimulant that is at the heart of a enormous illegal market run by criminal syndicates, Islamist gangs, and Syrian and Lebanese government officials. An investigation two years ago by The New York Times concluded that the production of illegal Captagon controlled by “powerful associates and relatives of President Bashar al-Assad has grown into a multibillion-dollar operation, eclipsing Syria’s legal exports and turning the country into the world’s newest narcostate.”
Syria’s Captagon shipments were an estimated $3.5 billion in 2020, five times greater than all its legal exports.
The Times also identified the Lebanese-based and Iranian backed militant group, Hezbollah, as a “major player.”
The drug’s active ingredient, fenethylline, was one of the stimulants the British and Americans experimented with in World War II to boost confidence and aggression, and enhance the morale of soldiers. As I reported in Pharma, “The Air Force bought millions of Smith Kline’s Benzedrine pills [pure amphetamine] and distributed them to bomber and fighter pilots.” The Nazis dispensed amphetamines as an extensive part of their military strategy. Frontline German troops and those involved in the mass execution of civilians were often amped up on a steady supply of speed.
The legal version of Captagon goes back to 1961 when a German chemical company, Chemiewerk Homburg, patented the drug under that trademarked name and introduced it to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. It took twenty years before the abuse and diversion of Captagon forced the U.S. to ban it as a controlled substance without any accepted medical use. By the mid-80s it was outlawed in most countries because of its addictiveness.
That is when criminal syndicates, originally in Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia, began manufacturing illegal versions. By the early 1990s, enormous labs in Syria, Iran, and Turkey were turning out hundreds of millions of counterfeit pills that flooded the Middle East and Southern Europe. Those pills did not just consist of fenethylline, but were often mixed with potent levels of methamphetamine, and a laundry list of adulterants, from anesthetics to caffeine to quinine.
Captagon reached an unprecedented notoriety when it became a mainstay of ISIS in 2014. That is when ISIS captured a pharmaceutical plant in Aleppo that produced Captagon. The precursor chemicals came into Syria across the Turkish and Lebanese borders.
ISIS boasted that the “jihad pill” suppressed pain, induced euphoria, and allowed its fighters to be awake and alert for long battles. Not only did ISIS use it in combat and terror, but it sold Captagon to supplement its income from oil and gas extortion and the “taxes” it collected in occupied territories. ISIS recruits in European countries trafficked in the drug to “micro-finance the Caliphate.” In Saudi Arabia, the pills were stamped with two crescents, and known by the Arabic nickname “abu hilalain," the “one with two moons.” Saudi demand reached an estimated 600 million pills a year, a street value between $9 billion and $12 billion dollars.
In 2020, Italian authorities made the biggest illegal amphetamine seizure in history, 14 tons of Captagon on container ships in the port of Salerno. The ISIS-manufactured shipment, valued at $1.6 billion, was on its way to Europe with the help of the Italian mafia.
A Lebanese Captagon manufacturer told a reporter in 2016 that ISIS terrorists who took Captagon had “a thirst for fighting and killing and will shoot at whatever they see. They lose any feeling or empathy for the people in front of them and can kill them without caring at all. They forget about their mother, father, and their families.”
That might have been the selling point for the traffickers who wanted to brand Captagon as a miracle drug for controlling fear in carrying out terror operations.
Captagon, however, does not explain the medieval savagery that Hamas deployed in Israel on October 7. Captagon does not suddenly convert ordinary people into monsters who decapitate babies, torture families before burning them alive, and rape grandmothers, mothers, and children with a ferocity that medical examiners were left speechless. That depraved heartlessness needs no stimulant.
The question is why Captagon is still treated worldwide as only a drug enforcement problem? If the makers of the illegal supply are narcostates and the users are ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terror groups, why has it not been elevated to the attention of anti-terrorism squads? Facing enhanced prosecutions and life in prison for assisting terror groups might make criminal syndicates such as Calabria’s Ndrangheta and the Naples’ Camorra, decide the drug is too risky to traffic.
It is time to elevate the international effort to break up the Captagon empire.
It has been the Jihad pill for too long.