The pills are disguised as legal products for shipment – things like rubber tires, steel cogwheels or industrial paper rolls. Other times, it is sofas or even plastic fruit. Almost always, though, the shipments come out of the northern port of Latakia, which has been under the Assad family’s control since the 1980s.
It is a gigantic business, even if one only looks at the value of the Captagon that has been intercepted. A conservative estimate from the Washington-based think tank New Lines Institute holds that the total value of the shipments amounted to at least $5.7 billion in 2021, several times higher than Syria’s legal exports, which added up to a paltry $860 million in 2020. And nobody knows how much of the product actually reaches its destination. Western think tanks and intelligence agencies estimate that total profits are in the two-digit billions.
Establishing an Empire
On the strength of investigative reports, witness testimony and discussions with drug investigators over the course of several months, DER SPIEGEL and the Italian daily La Repubblica have been able to paint a picture of a regime that only has limited control of its own criminal networks. Assad’s cousins, the Hezbollah and local mafia bosses have established mini empires that occasionally clash.
But when it comes to transportation, the name Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother and the commander of the Fourth Division, repeatedly comes up. The division, investigators believe, has transformed in recent years into a kind of mafia conglomerate with a military wing, guarding shipments and factories in addition to controlling ports. And cashing in. Maher’s deputy, General Ghassan Bilal, is thought to be the head of operations and the liaison to the Hezbollah.
Bashar Assad may be the country’s absolutist leader, but the loyalty of powerful warlords, business leaders and even his own relatives comes at a price. The men behind the case going on trial in Essen also worked with the Assad family, but on their own behalf, according to an informant from the Christian city of Saydnaya, from which several of the group’s leaders come. “They used to be a gang engaged in petty crime,” he says. They’re called Al-Hout, or the “Whale Gang,” he says, adding that he doesn’t know where the name comes from. Most importantly, they are Christians. “When the war broke out, Assad wanted to keep Saydnaya and the Christians on his side no matter what.” So, he gave the gang members a free hand to prey on other businessmen, like the ones who had fled from the prosperous suburbs of Damascus.
For years, the informant said, they lived off of plundering and blackmailing, but eventually, those sources of income dried up. Captagon presented itself as an excellent new source of revenues. The informant says they now produce pills at eight sites between Saydnaya and the town of Rankous, located near the Lebanese border.
Captagon is an amphetamine that is just as popular among the bored Gulf kids who party through the night as it is with terror forces and other militia in the Middle East and Africa who want to feel invincible. The lion’s share of the pills, which are referred to as “two moons” or “Lexus” on the street, is sold in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations for up to $32 a pill. According to an estimate from a team of investigative psychopharmacologists, up to 40 percent of young drug users in Saudi Arabia now take Captagon.
Where Is It Going?
In Europe, where huge amounts of the pills have been confiscated on several different occasions, Captagon isn’t nearly as popular. Italian and German drug investigators say they were rather surprised at the finds early on, wondering where they were destined for.
Investigations, though, have revealed that the detour the drugs take through Europe is part of the plan, aimed at deceiving customs officials in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Once in Europe, they are repacked and sent back southward to the Gulf. “Containers that come directly from Latakia are immediately dismantled by the Saudis, down to the last screw,” says an investigator with Italy’s Guardia di Finanza police. “But containers from Europe with machine parts and rolls of paper? They hardly ever examine those.”