A new drug of choice in the Gulf — analysis
Captured by Captagon
A dangerous arrival in a dangerous region
Jul 18th 2017
THE traditional way is not always the most successful. Saudi Arabian border guards this month arrested a Sudanese man accused of smuggling more than half a million drug tablets into the kingdom from Jordan on the back of a camel. Just as tastes in food and drink vary from region to region, so do preferences for drugs. The one the Sudanese man was allegedly trafficking, known as Captagon, is the Arabian peninsula’s most popular narcotic. True Captagon (generic name: fenethylline) was produced as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. America banned it in 1981 after its addictive and other pernicious characteristics became clear. Most other countries have followed suit.
The pills flooding into Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sometimes have a fenethylline base. But many are simply ‘uppers’, or amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), and some of what is sold under the poetic street name of Abu Hilalain (Father of the Two Crescent Moons: an allusion to the entwining Cs on each pill) contains little but concentrated caffeine.
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The market is huge. According to the UN’s latest World Drugs Report, in 2015 the Saudi authorities seized more than 11 tonnes of ATS, excluding Ecstasy. That was lower than the figure for 2014, but still almost a third as much as in America, with a population ten times greater. Elsewhere in the region, demand appears to be soaring. In March, the director-general of the UAE’s Anti-Narcotics Department, Colonel Saeed al-Suwaidi, said seizures of Captagon, real and fake, and crystal meth, had almost quadrupled last year.
Identifying the origin of synthetic drugs is difficult: unlike plant-based ones, they seldom have unique properties. And pseudo-Captagon often travels to the Gulf by tortuous routes: French customs officials who this year seized 750,000 pills smuggled in from Lebanon found they were to have been shipped to Saudi Arabia via the Czech Republic and Turkey. Fake Captagon is known to be produced in south-eastern Europe. War-torn Syria has also become a major source. Rival combatants have profited from “taxing” manufacturers and traffickers. But an investigation by the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University in 2015 concluded that the only faction systematically involved in producing the drug was Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia. Rogue members of the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army were also manufacturing it, but neither of the most extreme jihadist factions, Islamic State (IS) or Jabhat al-Nusrah (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), was found to be profiting from Captagon, ersatz or otherwise. Indeed, IS has executed alleged drug traffickers and destroyed narcotics-manufacturing plants.
One of the reputed effects of real Captagon is to reduce compassion and there has been recurrent speculation that IS feeds genuine Captagon to its militants. A captured teenage IS fighter told CNN in 2014 he had been given pills “that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die.” Captagon came under particular suspicion after the Paris attacks of 2015. Several eyewitnesses commented on the emotionless stares and zombie-like movements of the killers. But toxicological examinations reportedly found no evidence they had taken drugs beforehand. A study for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime last year concluded that the only drug that could be firmly linked to IS was Tramadol, a synthetic opiate useful as combat medicine.
The Koran deplores “intoxicants”. So why are so many inhabitants of some of the Middle East’s most God-fearing states getting high on Captagon? Users include party-goers, slimmers who take the drug as an appetite suppressant and others such as students and lorry and taxi drivers who want to stay awake for long periods. Justin Thomas, a Briton who lectures on psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, says many users believe (or pretend to themselves) that it is a medication, a myth reinforced by some producers, who market the drug in blister packs. “This pseudo-medical veneer protects the user from feeling they are involved in an activity that is haram (forbidden by the Koran),” he says.