A flood of drugs out of Syria has opened a new phase in the country’s conflict, pitting drug traffickers — with apparent support from Syrian authorities — against security forces in neighboring countries.
- Jordan’s army says it has foiled over 1,700 smuggling and infiltration attempts since 2020.
- Smugglers often engage Jordanian officers in firefights, and come equipped with machine guns, night-vision goggles, and drones.
- Images obtained by reporters showed a drug trafficker in southern Syria had himself been a member of Syrian military intelligence.
- The interrogation records of Lebanon’s “king of captagon” show conversations with a person who appears to be a senior Fourth Division official.
- The former U.S. envoy to Syria said trying to work with the Assad regime to curb Captagon flows was like “trying to contract with the arsonist to put out the fire.”
Just after dawn one day in early May, fighter jets swooped across Jordan’s northern border into Syria and fired rockets at a two-story cinder block house, flattening it and killing everyone inside.
The area, once a stronghold for rebels fighting President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, was no stranger to air strikes and bombings. But the blast’s casualty, a Syrian named Marai Al-Ramthan, was not a revolutionary fighter — he was a high-profile drug smuggler specializing in an illicit synthetic stimulant called Captagon.
Over the past decade, Syria has become a hub for producing and trafficking Captagon on an industrial scale. Relatively unknown outside the Middle East, the drug is wildly popular in parts of the region, particularly oil-rich Arab Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, where pills can fetch up to $20 apiece.
As the civil war has devastated Syria’s formal economy, Captagon production has exploded. Experts estimate the street value of Captagon sales to be anywhere from over $5 billion to more than $50 billion a year. Even the smaller figure would outstrip Syria’s annual state revenues.
Drug busts in Europe and the Middle East have meanwhile produced evidence that Syrian authorities are helping facilitate the trade. Investigative records from Lebanon show that a convicted Captagon trafficker had links to the Syrian army’s elite Fourth Division formation, led by Assad’s brother, Maher. The European Union recently sanctioned three of Assad’s cousins for involvement in the trade.
OCCRP and the BBC spent more than a year investigating the Captagon trade. They were given rare access to Jordanian and Lebanese anti-drug operations, embedding repeatedly with forces in both countries, and interviewing smugglers, security officers, military strategists, diplomats, and active and former Syrian soldiers.
Reporters also reviewed court records from drug cases in Lebanon, Jordan and Germany, including interrogation records from the 2021 arrest of Lebanon’s “king of Captagon,” Hassan Daqqou.
Together, they help chronicle Syria’s descent into what experts call a “narco-state,” where the boundaries between authorities and criminal gangs are often blurred, and showed how the flood of drugs out of Syria has opened a new, bleak phase in the country’s conflict, pitting militias and drug traffickers — often with apparent support from Syrian authorities — against security forces in neighboring countries.
“The Assad regime is waging a drug war against its regional neighbors,” Joel Rayburn, the former U.S. special envoy to Syria, said in an interview. “Jordan is having to use what tools it can to fight back.”
The Syrian government and armed forces did not respond to requests for comment. They have publicly denied any role in the production and smuggling of Captagon, which they say they are fighting against.
What is Captagon?
Captagon is the brand name for fenethylline, a drug invented in West Germany in the 1960s to treat attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, and depression.
Banned in most countries in 1986, Captagon found a second life as a recreational drug in the Middle East, particularly Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. It also became popular among fighters during Syria’s civil war.
Nowadays, the illicit pills generally stray from the original formula, and might incorporate a range of substances including caffeine, the asthma drug theophylline, or paracetamol.
Jordan’s Drug Smuggling Fight
Jordan’s border with Syria spans over 200 miles, from green stretches on the Israeli frontier to the desert areas touching Iraq.
Reporters from OCCRP and the BBC toured the high-risk area several times, riding in Jordanian military convoys in rare tours along a “buffer zone” with Syria — a smuggling region cordoned off with barbed wire, sand berms, and ditches. The desert road was freshly paved, allowing machine gun-mounted Jeeps to wind through the area.
Extensive interviews with Jordanian security officials offered a detailed picture of how the Captagon trade operated and how they were working to counter it.
A Jordanian military convoy that reporters traveled in.
Since the Assad regime and allied militias regained control over southern Syria about five years ago, the area has become the main overland transit route for Captagon traffickers sneaking the drug toward markets in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Jordan’s army says it has foiled over 1,700 smuggling and infiltration attempts since 2020.
The smugglers’ tactics have developed, too. Previously, they would arrive in smaller, unarmed groups. Over the past couple years, they have targeted four or five different entry points to distract army patrols. Taking advantage of sandstorms, fog, and rough terrain, they carry drugs in backpacks or inside tires rolled to the Jordanian side for pickup.
They engage Jordanian officers in firefights, and come equipped with machine guns, night-vision goggles, and drones. During these confrontations, Jordanian soldiers often come under fire from inside Syria.
In footage of one foiled operation taken by Jordanian security forces, a group of almost 70 men approach the border. A Jordanian military vehicle arrives, and two soldiers open fire. The men scatter back towards Syria.
Ramthan, 45, the trafficker killed along with his wife and six children in the May air strike, often recruited relatives and friends to run drugs across this border area, paying more than $10,000 per successful job, according to court records reviewed by OCCRP.
Dubbed in media reports the region’s “Escobar,” after the infamous Colombian drug baron, Ramthan was wanted in connection with 57 trafficking cases in Jordan, including some where he was convicted in absentia and others that were still outstanding at the time of his death, according to Hassan Al-Qudah, director of Jordan’s Anti-Narcotics Department.
A Drug Dealer’s Account
A man who claimed to have worked as a drug dealer from the Jordanian border town of Al-Mafraq said that weaker security since the Syrian civil war had allowed local tribes, whose members live on both sides of the border, to move more easily.
The drug dealer, who asked not to be identified to avoid legal issues, said he entered the trade for money, though he sometimes only cleared around $15 a day. He left the business when the pressure grew too high — he had been shocked to hear about two young addicts who scratched at each other’s eyes in a fit of madness, for instance.
“I left it for good, thank God,” he said. “But for the young people, people in general, it is total destruction.”
Jordan’s security forces ramped up efforts against traffickers in January of last year after smugglers ambushed an army patrol in thick fog near the town of Kom Al-Raf and killed an army captain and wounded three officers. A week after the funeral, Jordanian soldiers shot dead at least 27 smugglers as they tried to cross the border, the army said in a statement in April.
In early May this year, Jordan’s foreign minister told CNN that the country would use force inside Syria to eliminate drugs crossing into the kingdom. Days later, Ramthan was killed in the air strike.
Though Jordan has never confirmed it carried out the strike, its military sent text messages to alleged Syrian smugglers after Ramthan’s death. Surrender, they read, or soldiers would “soar like eagles to hunt you down, one criminal after another.”
Qudah estimated that there were roughly 160 drug gangs working inside Syria, making Captagon, as well as other drugs such as hashish and crystal meth.
Captagon Trade in Southern Syria
Just across the Jordanian border lie Syria’s southern Daraa and Suweida provinces, hotbeds of Captagon smuggling. Many of the smugglers implicated in Jordanian court cases operated from these two provinces, court records show.
Daqqou appears to have cultivated powerful connections. One social media post shows former Prime Minister Saad Hariri standing between him and his wife.
Until last July, the area was also home to a notorious Captagon trafficker, Raji Falhout, who is under U.S. and UK sanctions for his involvement in the drug trade.
Falhout ran a militia out of the border town of Atil, until a local militia known as the Men of Dignity attacked his headquarters, reportedly angered by the influx of drugs and crime into the area.
After a shootout, Falhout fled. When fighters searched his base they found extensive evidence of his involvement in the Captagon trade: Footage of the operation obtained by reporters shows a small machine for pressing Captagon, and bags of pills stacked on top of each other.
Images of an ID card the fighters said they found appeared to show that Falhout — whose current whereabouts are unknown — had himself been a member of Syrian military intelligence. (Syrian authorities did not respond to requests for comment on their relationship with Falhout.)
Reporters also gained access to Falhout’s personal, unlocked cell phone, which appeared to show extensive interactions with Syrian authorities. In one conversation, Falhout takes orders from the head of the Syrian intelligence branch in Suweida to organize a post-presidential election rally for Assad.
Falhout’s communications also show him appearing to organize transfers of Captagon-making equipment from Lebanon — another country which has become a major battleground in the regional conflict over the booming drug trade.
Lebanon’s ‘King of Captagon’
In April 2021, Lebanese police arrested Hassan Daqqou, 36, in connection with an ongoing investigation with two Lebanese drug smugglers. Daqqou, who holds dual Lebanese and Syrian nationality, was accused of running a drug empire out of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which runs along the Syrian border. Late last year, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
OCCRP obtained Daqqou’s interrogation records — a handwritten, 651-page tome collected by a Lebanese intelligence unit, containing transcripts of Daqqou’s tapped phone conversations with smugglers in Lebanon and Syria, as well as his communications with Syrian authorities, and other documentation.
Searching Daqqou’s house, police found nearly $2 million in cash, while another $1.1 million sat in a safe box at a construction company registered in the name of his wife.
Daqqou denied involvement in drugs, and claimed he had been working for the Fourth Division. Showing investigators an official Fourth Division ID card, he said the unit had in fact tasked him with helping track drug smuggling inside Syria.
Captagon-producing machine seized in 2018.
The Lebanese judge who imposed Daqqou’s sentence said the court concluded there was no evidence implicating Syrian officials in trafficking. But Daqqou’s interrogation record suggests otherwise.
One number, saved under the name “al-moallem” — an Arabic colloquialism roughly translating to “the boss” — was made up almost entirely of the number three. Such numbers, known in Syria as “golden numbers,” are reportedly allocated to senior officials.
Three sources told reporters the number belonged to a senior Fourth Division commander, Ghassan Bilal. Third-party phone identification databases also link the number to Bilal’s name. Bilal did not respond to attempts to contact him on his cell phone and email.
One intercepted conversation from March 2021 appears to show Daqqou discussing security clearances with “the boss.”
In another chat, Daqqou writes to the “boss” about a warehouse in the Syrian village of Al-Saboura, outside Damascus — an area under the Fourth Division’s control where they planned to store “goods” coming from Lebanon.
A few weeks before Daqqou was arrested, customs police in Malaysia announced that they had seized nearly 95 million Captagon pills hidden in industrial wheels. The shipment — with an estimated street value estimated of at least $1.2 billion — was headed for Saudi Arabia, according to a Lebanese security source.
In one conversation about three weeks before the Malaysia bust, Daqqou and another person named only in the phone as “M” appear to be talking about logistics for a shipment whose specifications appeared to match the one that was intercepted.
Then, the day of the bust, Daqqou and “M” appear to be scrambling to figure out if it was their shipment the Malaysians had seized. Lebanese investigators also found a bill for industrial wheels from the Czech Republic in one of Daqqou’s phones.
Daqqou told investigators he had only been trying to help track the shipment for a Fourth Division officer who was trying to crack down on customs evasion. He also insisted he had only spoken with Lebanese and Syrian drug traffickers because the contacts helped him monitor the industry for the Fourth Division and other Arab security agencies.
Daqqou’s attorney, Ali Musawi, said his client was a victim of a “fabricated media and political campaign” and said not a single Captagon pill was found on Daqqou or at any of his properties.
Musawi also denied Daqqou was involved in the Malaysia shipment. He said the bill for industrial wheels on Daqqou’s phone was not in Daqqou’s name or in the name of any of his companies and that it was only on his phone because he was gathering information to help Syrian and Lebanese authorities expose smuggling.
Hezbollah and Captagon
Daqqou told investigators he often worked with the political and military movement Hezbollah, regularly traveling to Syria in Hezbollah convoys.
Hezbollah has previously denied playing any role in narcotics production or trafficking, and many officials in Lebanon — where the group has enormous political and military influence — are reluctant to tie the group directly to the trade. Hezbollah’s chief spokesman Mohamed Afifi did not reply to requests for comment.
But Ashraf Rifi, former interior minister and internal security chief, said Lebanon’s lack of control over its eastern and northeastern borders had allowed Hezbollah to do what it liked.
“We know very well that part of Hezbollah’s funding comes from organized crime and drugs,” Rifi, a member of a political bloc opposed to Hezbollah, said at his heavily-guarded villa in Tripoli, Lebanon.
Daqqou was also wanted in Jordan, where a court sentenced him in absentia to 20 years in prison in November 2022. Authorities had connected him to a factory outside Amman, which was importing chemicals from China that can be used as raw materials for manufacturing Captagon and exporting them to Syria.
Amman, the capital of Jordan, outside of which Daqqou owned a factory.
The U.S. sanctioned Daqqou this year for his involvement in drug trafficking operations it said were carried out by the Fourth Division, with cover from Hezbollah.
Lebanese army officers said they are winning the fight against Captagon traffickers. But one Bekaa Valley smuggler told a different story.
Speaking by video link, the smuggler — who used the pseudonym “Ali” — said poverty in his home region around northern Baalbek, a smuggling area on Lebanon’s mountainous border with Syria, pushed many to join the Captagon trade.
“The state officials all turn a blind eye,” he said.
When smugglers had a shipment, he said, they simply went to the area’s commander in Lebanon and asked him for a day and a time to cross. The commander then told them how much they had to pay in exchange for letting the shipment through.
“If I can make a profit, then why not?” the smuggler said.
The Lebanese Army denies any involvement in Captagon trafficking. They say many soldiers have died fighting the drug trade. A spokesperson said the “army will not be affected by the lies, slanders and attempts to distort the image of the military with the aim of undermining the prestige of the military institution” by criminals and drug dealers.
Syria Promises Cooperation
On May 1, just a few days before the smuggler Ramthan was killed in the air strike, Syria’s foreign minister met Arab counterparts in Amman. At the meeting, he agreed to help end drug trafficking and work to identify who was producing and trafficking Captagon.
The meeting came after two years that saw Jordanian officials meet with Syrian security officials, showing them evidence that smugglers were being helped by border guards.
When this approach failed, Jordan instead began working to bring Syria back into the Arab League, from which it had been suspended for 12 years. Eventually, Syria rejoined the league, Assad heading for a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on May 7.
But, the former U.S. envoy to Syria, said trying to work with the Assad regime to curb Captagon flows was like “trying to contract with the arsonist to put out the fire.”
Given the Assad regime’s precarious economic position, he was also skeptical they would be willing to give up on what has proven to be a lucrative trade: “If Captagon revenues were stopped or seriously disrupted, I do not think the Assad regime could survive that,” he said.
A Syrian soldier, who often worked with the Fourth Division before defecting to Europe in 2013, agreed. He requested anonymity out of security concerns.
“If Bashar stops the narcotics for more than 20 days, the economy will collapse,” he said.
June 27, 2023 Published by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.