Also known as ISIS' "chemical courage" and the "poor man's cocaine", l, and what role did it play in the October 7th massacre? Gali Weinreb "No matter how tired you are, it makes you wake up. Your senses become very sharp. Sometimes you don’t sleep for 24 or 48 hours, depending on how many pills you take. If you shoot someone on Captagon, they don’t feel it. And if someone takes many pills, like 30 or so, they become violent and crazy, paranoid, unafraid of anything… They’ll have 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. They build up a tolerance to it, so they always need to take more."
This is how one illegal manufacturer of the drug Captagon in Syria presented his wares in a 2015 interview with New York Magazine’s "Intelligencer". Huge amounts of the stimulant, which has also earned a host of nicknames like "the terrorist drug" and "chemical courage", were found on the bodies and in the vehicles of thousands of Hamas terrorists who entered Israel on October 7.
It is unclear how accurate these descriptions are, or whether this is just a sales pitch of someone marketing fantasies to their customers, i.e., terrorist handlers. But there are those in Israel who attribute at least some of the cruel and inhuman behavior seen at the scenes of the massacre to the drug.
However, psychiatrists familiar with the effect of stimulants similar in composition to Captagon say that attributing the terrorists’ actions to drugs is false. In fact, they say, these substances are not fundamentally different from the prescription drugs and party drugs routinely used by people who would never think of going on a killing spree.
"Substances do not make people cruel," says Dr. Shaul Lev-Ran, MD, Deputy Director of Lev Hasharon Medical Center and Founder and Head of the Israel Center on Addiction. "People make other people cruel through propaganda and brainwashing. The Hamas terrorists practiced their murderous plan, knew exactly what they were going to do, and took these drugs to help them do it."
Dr. Ilan Ruslan Volkov, psychiatrist and medical director at the MindME clinic, agrees. "Social mechanisms and dehumanization are at the base, but the drug gives you another little push to pull the trigger without thinking." According to him, drugs do make it possible to control soldiers who don't really want to be there, such as the guerrilla armies in Africa, which are built on very young soldiers, some of them children; addiction to a drug that only the army can provide ensures they will not try to run away.
But there is no evidence this was the case with the Hamas terrorists. "None of them ingested even a milligram innocently," says Lev Ran. "They knew the substance would help them kill more people and commit atrocities against them, that's exactly why they took it, and unfortunately, I think they feel they have fulfilled their evil mission."
Even if drugs are not at the root of the cruelty exhibited during the Hamas massacre, they are inseparable from terrorism in the Middle East. Captagon is the most popular stimulant in the region, known among other things as "the poor man’s cocaine", and it fuels terrorism in the Arab world - both as a product consumed by the people carrying it out, and as a driver of the terrorist economy. The value of trade in the drug is estimated to be in the billions of dollars annually.
From construction workers to Gulf state elites
Fenethylline (also phenethylline and fenetylline), marketed under the trade names Captagon, Fitton, and Biocapton, is a substance first synthesized in 1961 by German chemicals company Degussa AG. It was marketed, among other things, as a treatment for depression, and for attention disorders in children. Degussa itself has a dark history: it not only produced the Zyklon B gas used by the Nazi regime in the death camps, but also received and smelted gold teeth, caps, and fillings extracted from Jews before, or after, their murder. The company still operates, but under a different name and ownership.
Fenethylline was marketed until the 1980s, and was considered healthier in terms of its effect on the heart, compared with other substances from the same family of stimulants - amphetamines - previously on the market. Over the years, it became clear the drug was highly addictive, and had other strong side effects; in 1981, it was banned in the US. Meanwhile, other drugs in the amphetamine category, such as Ritalin, became more popular as treatments for attention disorders, while more enjoyable stimulants, like cocaine, dominated the illegal drug scene in the West. But in the Arab world, Captagon remained a hit.
Today, however, a significant portion of the substances marketed on the black market as Captagon have none of the original active ingredient, but contain any stimulant or mind-altering substance the manufacturers manage to get their hands on. Captagon cannot be obtained in Israel at present, making it difficult to research. "It is probably common in the Palestinian Authority," says Lev Ran. "We haven’t found it on the street in Israel, so we’re not entirely sure what’s in the pill called Captagon today. We know that the pills contain stimulants, and may contain a mixture of several stimulant substances, but we don’t know exactly which ones."
Despite being closely connected to terrorist organizations, and its reputation in that area, Captagon has a far broader reach - used by everyone from construction workers to Gulf state elite partyers. The Saudi Arabian government, for example, estimates that a fairly large proportion of its population uses the drug. Saudi news websites run articles warning youths and young adults not to take Captagon for studying all night, or to lose weight, which are two common uses for the drug. "At higher doses, abusers can have aural and visual hallucinations, psychotic episodes or extreme dysphoria that manifests as paranoia or depression," stated Dr. Abdul Rahman bin Sultan Al-Sultan, a senior official in the Consumer Awareness Department of the Saudi Food and Drug Authority, in an article published by "Arab News." Saudi Arabia has declared the drug an epidemic and a national emergency.
The Captagon pills produced for terrorist use probably contain a different composition of substances than those sold to the recreational market. They are based on simple, cheap stimulants from the amphetamine family, whose effects include alertness, heightened senses, excessive confidence in one’s abilities, lack of inhibition, and indifference to pain. The doses taken by terrorists also differ.
The cheap amphetamine flooding the Middle East
But why did Captagon become such a significant drug in the Arab world in general, and among Arab terrorists in particular? When the drug was removed from shelves in Western countries, part of the stock was destroyed, but part found its way to the Middle East. The decision to send this shipment had a dramatic effect on the development of the drug and terror network in the Arab world from the late 1980s onwards. When stocks ran out and demand remained, local Captagon production commenced.
"Lebanon was already a country with a very weak government," says Professor Simon Perry of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Criminology, a former head of the Israel National Police (INP) Unit of International Crime Investigations, and a former INP attaché to the US and Canada at the rank of Brigadier General. "In places where governments are weak, all types of crime flourish. Lebanon at that time produced heroin and hashish for the West, and also counterfeited cigarettes, dollars, and what not." When the demand for Captagon arose, so did another opportunity.
The drug was patented, but when the product went off the market, the patent was not maintained. Therefore, the big pharmaceutical companies had no interest in chasing its counterfeiters the way they chase those of expensive prescription drugs. The terrorist organizations, for their part, saw that they were onto a good thing. Hezbollah, followed by the parties fighting in Syria, began manufacturing Captagon, and marketing it in the Arab world, and a bit beyond. Presumably, Iran gave Hezbollah the first machines to produce the substance, and also took care of the fatwas, the Muslim religious rulings, qualifying its production and trade as a medicine, not a narcotic drug.
"Amphetamines began gaining greater popularity worldwide in the nineties," says Perry, " and Captagon is apparently a very easy amphetamine to produce, and its raw materials are cheap. But the European countries didn’t need Lebanon for amphetamines. They had their own laboratories for their preferred amphetamines." On the other hand, the Arab world embraced the new product warmly.
"That’s how the substance began flowing to Jordan and the Gulf states," says Prof. Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University, who specializes in the contemporary history of Syria and Lebanon. "Then, the regime in Syria also collapsed, and the entire country became a Captagon production laboratory. The product is transported by drones and UAVs across borders. Saudi Arabia is flooded with it, Jordan is flooded with it." In 2015, even a Saudi Prince, Abdul-Mohsen bin Walid ibn Abd-Elaziz, was caught trying to smuggle large quantities of the substance into Saudi Arabia through Lebanon.
The political lever generating billions for Syria
The war on drugs is always a tussle between the government’s wish to protect its population, and the temptation of potential big money generated by this industry. According to various reports, the cost of one Captagon pill ranges from half a dollar in Syria to as much as $25 in Saudi Arabia. Estimated annual sales for the drug are in the billions of dollars, similar to the world’s biggest pharmaceuticals.
The New Lines Institute, a US-based think tank, estimated the value of Captagon retail trade in 2021 at over $5.7 billion, on the basis of large seizures alone. Official British government sources, on the other hand, put the number ten times higher, stating that, according to independent experts, the volume of illegal trade in Captagon is about $57 billion annually.
According to the same UK government statement made in March this year, 80% of the world's Captagon supply is produced in Syria.
According to the New Lines Institute, which has conducted several comprehensive studies on the subject, President Bashar al Assad’s narrative before both the world and his people is that there is no Captagon production inside Syria, only smuggling through it. However, this claim blatantly contradicts evidence of Captagon production within the country. "…high-level cooperation should not be considered as the Syrian regime has not indicated any change in behavior and is incentivized to continue industrial-level Captagon production and trafficking," the Institute wrote in May, noting that change would come from those countries suffering from the phenomenon, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"Ironically, the product is Syria's political leverage over its neighbors," says Prof. Perry. "They are trying to reach agreements with Bashar Assad, so that he will stop inundating them with Captagon." However, it is not so easy for Assad to control Captagon production, nor is it clear how much he wants to control it. "In order to be accepted by the Arab world, Assad promised to stop exporting Captagon, but this didn’t happen," says Prof. Zisser. "Clearly the manufacturers and smugglers operate under the auspices of the government. And Hezbollah has a partnership with the Syrians. Drugs go out through one channel, and missiles come in through a parallel channel. The Lebanese government is trying to cooperate with the Americans to stop it, but it’s not really working."
Captagon’s dual usage - on the one hand, a drug that finances terrorist organizations and, on the other hand, a drug fueling terrorism itself - makes this process particularly difficult to stop. Many of the world’s terrorist organizations use it, and it flows easily through the terrorist channels. It became known in the West when it was used by the ISIS terrorists who carried out the 2015 Paris attacks.
"This is the engine of terrorism and it keeps getting stronger," says Prof. Perry. "This economic enterprise helps terrorism, and thanks to the desire to continue making a living from Captagon, many parties find it convenient to let the terrorist regime continue. What can stop it? Another substance that will suddenly become more popular, giving another party the advantage in its production and distribution."
Khat fields feed the Houthi economy
Another stimulant, that plays a role like that of Captagon for the Houthis in Yemen, is an extract, or synthetic imitation, of the khat plant. Khat (also qat or gat), has been part of Yemeni culture since time immemorial, including among Yemenite Jews in Israel. Its active ingredient is cathinone, which, when chewed slowly in its natural form, is released at a low level into the bloodstream. The effects are described as hyper-sociability, enthusiasm, loss of appetite, and mild euphoria.
But the drug consumed in Yemen is more like "Hagigat" a popular, very potent cathinone extract once sold at Israeli all-night convenience stores until it was outlawed. There is also a synthetic version, which Israelis have nicknamed "Doctor," "MMC," or "Memsi"; chemical derivatives sufficiently different from cathinone that they do not fall under the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance.
Apparently, the Houthis also use a potent extract, or a synthetic version of cathinone, to get a faster, stronger high. The effect of consuming the liquid extract in concentrate is different from the effect of chewing the plant slowly. The product is consumed by soldiers, mainly for alertness, but it does not reduce their brutality, even though its reputation in drug culture is as a prosocial, "good mood" drug.
Like Captagon elsewhere, this Super Khat drives the Houthi economy. Yemen has abundant fields of khat that can be processed, and sold all over the world to feed the war machine. This situation worsens the food shortage in Yemen, as no other crops can grow in khat fields, and water is used for irrigation instead of as drinking water. About 20% of households in Yemen have someone addicted to khat, usually the family father; the Houthis are happy to recruit such people as soldiers, and pay them in khat.
An army marches on its drugs
"Stimulant drugs have always been part of the history of war," says Volkov. The original war drug was alcohol, also called "bottled courage". Alcohol did impair a soldier’s performance, but it also lowered inhibitions, and their sense of pain.
During World War I, cocaine was used among the armies. Officially, it was intended for medical pain relief purposes, but in practice it was also used as a performance enhancer. The product was not defined as a drug at the time, and the British Army distributed it freely to soldiers, but its addictive properties were soon discovered, and use of the product was declared illegal for soldiers in 1916. In the US, meanwhile, many soldiers who returned from the war developed opioid addiction, as morphine was used for pain relief by the military.
Just before World War II, the pharmaceutical world discovered synthetic amphetamines. These were probably used in abundance by all sides during the war, but especially by the Nazis. "There is a theory that amphetamines determined the outcome of the battle when the Nazis invaded France," says Volkov. "Fortifications were built to protect the borders for four or five days until reinforcements would come. But as the Germans didn't need to sleep, they shortened the timetable, circumvented the fortifications, and decided the battle." Hitler himself was also said to have been fueled by methamphetamine, an early version of crystal meth, along with opiates, steroids, and a continual cocktail of vitamins.
Towards the end of the war, the Germans tested a cocktail of cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone (a type of opioid) on concentration camp prisoners, and found that those taking the drug could walk 90 kilometers a day without stopping, although many collapsed at day’s end. The war ended before the new product, D-IX, could be widely used.
Today, stimulants are probably used by many armies in missions requiring constant alertness. For example, the Russian army apparently used stimulants in the invasion of Ukraine, to improve performance.
One can also encounter drugs in today's western armies. A 2007 survey of a US Army special operations unit found that about a quarter of soldiers took anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass, and speed recovery from injury. Similar results emerged from a US Navy investigation, after a soldier died during training in 2022. Apparently, some commanders had implicitly encouraged their soldiers to use these products.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 12, 2023.
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