The Mediterranean winter is beginning to settle across Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and there’s a damp chill in the air.
Three men and two women sit on pillows in an isolated, ramshackle house near the Syrian border, warming themselves by a small wood-burning stove. The oldest man, whose remaining teeth seem to be losing their fight against decay, speaks Arabic with the harsh, distinctive accent common to Shia Muslims living in rural areas of the Bekaa. One of his companions is younger, bearded, and wearing a blue wool hat. His eyes are wide, with pupils the size of dimes.
The man claims to have been a member of a militant branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (loosely affiliated with the organization in Egypt) currently active in Syria, where he took a drug called Captagon to help him fight. Although he says he doesn’t fight in the Syrian war anymore, he still takes Captagon regularly and admits to being on the drug now. He appears calm but extremely alert.
“When I take Captagon, it doesn’t matter how tired I am, I can keep walking,” the man in the blue hat says. “It doesn’t matter how cold it is — I can take off my shirt and keep going even in the rain. It even makes you want sex more.”
He gives a dark chuckle. “Some people take so much, if you shoot them, they won’t drop.”
The house is headquarters for an illegal manufacturing operation that produces Captagon, a controversial amphetamine-based substance making headlines recently as the supposed drug of choice for Islamic State militants and other fighters in Syria’s civil war. Media reports suggested that the men who carried out the ISIS terror attacks in Paris last month had taken Captagon, and that the drug accounted for what some witnesses described as a “zombielike” detachment as they went about their massacre. The two hijab-clad women, young and strikingly pretty, are Syrian workers who help manufacture the drug.
The elderly man, who oversees the Captagon production here, ascribes all sorts of powers to the drug, although he claims not to take it himself. “It gives you energy, makes you stronger, more alert,” he says, holding up a large bag of pale yellow Captagon pills that are destined for sale to ISIS fighters. “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.” He sips from his little porcelain cup of thick, black coffee. “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.”
There has been a scientific debate over whether the drug, officially known as fenethylline and once legally produced in the United States, could create the effects described by users in the Middle East — including imperviousness to pain and violent, undiscriminating bloodlust. Is Captagon fueling the Syrian civil war by creating crazed super-soldiers, as some claim, or is the drug being sensationalized by the media and mythologized by people who make, distribute, and consume it?
Evidence suggests that the real nature of the Middle East’s version of Captagon and its relationship to terrorism is both complex and troubling. While there does seem to be an element of regional mythology attached to Captagon, experts say it’s likely that stronger amphetamines are being used to make the current variants of the drug. At the doses ISIS is said to consume it, Captagon could be having powerful and dangerous effects on users — perhaps especially on violent religious fanatics.
Although the original drug stopped being produced in the 1980s, counterfeit Captagon has been turning up in large quantities across the region for some time. In October, Lebanese authorities seized two tons of Captagon pills at the Beirut airport from a Saudi prince about to board a private jet home. In 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report stating that 64 percent of amphetamine seizures worldwide occurred in the Middle East, and most of the confiscated drugs were in the form of Captagon pills.
At his headquarters in the Bekaa, the aging manufacturer describes how he produces the drug using a machine intended for making chocolate and sends it to groups fighting in Syria, as well as customers in the Gulf, via middlemen in Arsal, a nearby town known to harbor ISIS militants. The machine he’s using is in a nearby building, but he is wary of revealing its location, since Lebanese authorities have been seizing such implements as part of their campaign to stamp out the country’s Captagon trade.
“We take a chocolate machine and put a small mold in it for making sweets, about the size of a Panadol [Tylenol],” he explains. “Then we put the ingredients in and let them harden to make the pills." When making deals with middlemen, he speaks in code. "One of them will call me from Arsal and say, ‘We need 100 cases of Pepsi.’ He’s talking about 100,000 pills. I send them to the middleman, and he gives it to a daesh [ISIS] member in Arsal. They bring it into Syria, and daesh take it to fight. They use it themselves and sell it all over the Middle East. Every 200 pills costs $65 here, but it’s $20 per pill in Saudi Arabia.”
Testimony from fighters in Syria who have taken the drug indicate that they believe it makes them impervious to pain and lets them fight without consideration for their own lives or those of the people they kill. A September BBC documentary on the subject included interviews with men who claimed it helped them on the battlefield.
The man wearing the blue hat at the Bekaa workshop agrees. “The militant leaders in Syria give it out,” he says. “Fighters take 30, 40 pills sometimes. If you take too much, you can’t think of anything but killing.”
Dr. Carl Hart, associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says consuming such high levels of amphetamines would create serious health risks. “People taking tremendous amounts of these pills are going to have problems,” he explains. “For example, you'll start having heart palpitations, you might have hypertension that causes you to have a stroke — just all of these awful effects.”
According to Hart, there’s no chance the drug in its original form — that is, fenethylline — would produce the symptoms described by fighters and witnesses. “It’s an inferior amphetamine,” he says. “Captagon will work just like we take caffeine or amphetamines. It drives me crazy when they start talking about these extreme effects. It sells papers; people get interviewed. The people who think they’re feeling this way must have been told they’re taking Superman pills, so there could be a placebo effect going on.”
But does the drug known as Captagon in the Middle East today even contain fenethylline? The Captagon manufacturer in the Bekaa has no idea what fenethylline is.
“The ingredients come mostly from Turkey,” he says. “They are vitamins, amphetamines, and caffeine. We use whatever amphetamines we can get. Some people put coloring in to make the pills look a certain way.”
Dr. Richard Rawson, a psychiatry professor at UCLA, believes that, taken at high doses, stronger amphetamines could certainly produce the effects described by Captagon users and witnesses.
“Without knowing the specifics, it is hard to know exactly how powerful or potent it is,” Rawson says. “They're not making it in a laboratory with quality control. But when you take large amounts of a stimulant like an amphetamine, you're going to get some predictable effects — like you have incredible energy and improved moods for a while and an ability to stay awake for long hours. In very high doses over longer periods of time, you start to develop psychosis and symptoms of violence. You can develop hypersexuality. It’s exactly the kind of drug that you would not want to mix together with a bunch of terrorists.”
When asked about evidence that the Paris attackers might have injected the drug, Rawson is concerned. “This is unfortunate,” he says. “How people ingest amphetamine makes a lot of difference in the way that it affects them, and injection of the drug produces the most severe effects. That’s not a good development.”
Nadya Mikdashi, director of Skoun, an addiction treatment clinic in Lebanon, maintains that while Captagon may be exacerbating the violence, it’s wrong to say the drug is fueling the Syrian war.
“The use of stimulants by fighters is nothing new,” Mikdashi says. “Captagon was a popular stimulant in the region way before the collapse of Syria. Yeah, ISIS will take drugs. What do they care? If their leaders tell them this is not like alcohol, it's not against their religion, they'll do it. But Captagon is not fueling the war in Syria. Politics are fueling the war in Syria.”
Faced with the claims that his product couldn’t medically have the effects he’s describing, the Captagon-maker laughs. “Doctors are stupid,” he says. “They don’t know anything. Captagon is driving the entire war. Both sides take it. The regime, Hezbollah, and daesh are using it. The Paris killers and others who do suicide missions take a lot of it to prepare. They go blank. Their heart rate spikes. They lose all connection to their emotions and thoughts. Everything daesh does is because of this pill.”
Asked if he feels any guilt about how his Captagon is being used, the old man shakes his head.
“Shia, Sunni, Druze, Qatari, Saudi — it doesn’t matter to me who ends up with the Captagon,” he says with a toothless smile. “It’s not my concern. I need to make money. This is just business. It’s obviously wrong, but it’s not my job to worry about it.”