Don’t fight sober

Mike Jay

  • Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare by Łukasz Kamieński
    Hurst, 381 pp, £25.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 84904 551 3
  • Blitzed: Drugs In Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler
    Allen Lane, 360 pp, £20.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 25699 2

In October 2013 a Time magazine article entitled ‘Syria’s Breaking Bad’ alerted Western media to the prevalence across the region of a little-known stimulant drug, Captagon. Lebanese police had found five million locally produced tablets, embossed with a roughly stamped yin-yang symbol, sealed inside a Syrian-made water heater in transit to Dubai. In October 2015 Captagon made global headlines when the Saudi prince Abdel Mohsen was intercepted at Beirut airport with 32 shrink-wrapped boxes and eight leather suitcases containing two tons of top-grade pills, valued at £190 million. By this time rumours abounded on all sides in the Syrian war that Captagon was fuelling a grim cult of battlefield atrocities. An investigation by Vanity Fair in France last April uncovered a trail of testimonies and video images of pumped-up soldiers and ‘zombies roaming, all smiles, across fields of ruins and severed heads’. Caches of pills in ports and abandoned villages supplied the evidence.

On 13 November 2015, when terrorists massacred ninety people at the Bataclan in Paris, Captagon was immediately suspected. To Professor Jean-Pol Tassin, an addiction specialist at Inserm, the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, the killers’ ‘empty expressions, their determination, their mechanical movements’ all suggested that an amphetamine-type stimulant was involved. Dozens of articles profiled ‘la drogue des djihadistes’, explaining that Captagon replaced fear, doubt and fellow feeling with superhuman confidence, an implacable sense of mission and visions of imminent awakening in paradise. Yet two months later, when the forensic reports on the assailants were released, it was clear that no trace of Captagon had been found. Asked about his snap judgment, Tassin was philosophical: ‘It’s true, it was reassuring to think they had taken drugs, that they weren’t fully conscious of the massacre they were committing. No doubt that’s why one subscribes so rapidly to such theories.’

Like many of the stimulants to which it is closely related, Captagon has made a gradual transition from pharmaceutical miracle to social menace. It’s a brand name for fenethylline, a compound synthesised in Germany in the early 1960s and originally marketed as a treatment for hyperactivity, narcolepsy and depression. Fenethylline is broken down by the body to produce amphetamine and theophylline, a caffeine-like stimulant, and because it is metabolised more slowly than pure amphetamine it was presented as a safer alternative to it, with milder effects on blood pressure and lower potential for abuse. The brand name Captagon was arrived at by combining ‘captain’ and ‘pentagon’, words chosen for their association with potency and their transcendence of language barriers. In the 1970s it circulated among Left Bank intellectuals, including Sartre and Bernard-Henri Lévy, as an aid to productive writing. In 1981 it was listed as a controlled substance in the US and in 1986, after it was scheduled under the WHO Convention on Psychotropic Substances, it was removed from prescription sale. After 1989 its manufacture shifted to the former Soviet bloc, Bulgaria in particular, where it was produced illicitly in the form of multicoloured pills, the fenethylline often combined with or replaced by other amphetamines.

Captagon (or whatever was now in the pills) was popular with Eastern European youths but its most lucrative market turned out to be the Gulf states, where, as with similar drugs in many other times and places, it found an overlapping set of cultural niches. Young Saudis adopted it as a recreational substitute for alcohol: energising and euphoric, and easy to take in public without tell-tale signs of intoxication. Other demographics used it as an aid to weight loss, a remedy for depression or an aphrodisiac reputedly superior to Viagra. Pills were commonly embossed with two crossed Cs, echoing the crescent moon of Islam. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, production shifted to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, typically in mobile laboratories with chemical precursors sourced online from India and China. In September 2011 the Saudi Ministry of the Interior announced that it had shot down a drone loaded with 700,000 pills, a quantity which it estimated was by then being consumed in the kingdom daily.

By 2014 it was clear that Captagon had become a significant source of funding for all sides in Syria’s civil war. It was less clear how extensively it was being used in combat, particularly by the jihadi forces. When Islamic State militants took control of areas of Aleppo province in August 2014 it was rumoured that a number of drug labs fell into their hands, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime subsequently identified IS as traffickers. But the rumours of drug-fuelled militias proved hard to substantiate. Marc Trévidic, a terrorism expert and former high court magistrate in Paris, interviewed dozens of returning jihadists who insisted that drugs were strictly forbidden: this was, after all, a regime which handed down public lashings merely for smoking cigarettes. They dismissed the stories of zombie killers on the battlefield as lurid fabrications of the Syrian state media designed to discredit their motives. ‘Even my mother thinks I’m on Captagon!’ one jihadi lamented on Twitter. But other eyewitnesses maintained that Captagon was widely available to jihadi fighters, connived at because it kept them awake during shifts and night operations. Among themselves they referred to the pill euphemistically as farawla, ‘a strawberry’.

The unreliable narratives that always build up around illicit drugs are compounded by the fog of war. Exaggeration, doubletalk and disinformation bend reality into mythic shapes. The image of the Captagon-crazed jihadi is reminiscent of the Assassins, whose story was imported to Europe by Marco Polo: they were said to have been brainwashed with a dose of hashish and persuaded by their fanatical leader that suicide missions would be rewarded with an eternity in paradise. Recent scholarship has established that ‘assassins’ (or ‘hashishin’) was a pejorative term applied to them by their enemies: in fact they were a strictly ascetic order whose adherents abstained from all drugs including alcohol. The appeal of the myth is obvious: if the drugs made them do it, their motives require no further investigation. Asked after the Bataclan attacks whether the killers had been on drugs, Montasser Alde’emeh, a Belgian-Palestinian expert on radicalisation, turned the question succinctly on its head: ‘Unfortunately, they don’t need it. Their ideology is their Captagon!’

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