Drugs have long been a profitable complement to war, and that’s especially true when stateless or internationally illegitimate nations are concerned. Funding a war requires resources, and the necessity of relying on drug trafficking to fund an army can be seen everywhere from FARC’s leveraging of Colombian cocaine to Afghan rebels creating a lucrative revenue stream out of poppy that could be manufactured into opium. It should come as little surprise that the war in Syria is largely funded by drug trafficking, but the drug in question may not be known to the average person. The herbal incense known as Captagon isn’t a household name, but it’s a major funding source for ISIS.
Captagon isn’t a new drug by any means. First introduced in 1961, the drug is the most popular brand name for fenethylline hydrochloride. First introduced as a psychostimulant that could be used to treat hyperactive children, Captagon was once seen as less prone to abuse than amphetamines, and the unique molecular structure of this herbal incense meant that it could be used by patients with cardiovascular conditions, without risk of increasing their blood pressure.
Captagon would remain on the market for nearly twenty years before finally being classified as a controlled substance in the United States in 1981. By 1986, the drug was deemed illegal in most countries. But despite it being largely out of usage in the west for decades, it’s become the most popular narcotic in the Middle East.
Captagon has become the drug of choice for many younger and wealthier residents throughout the Middle East, but it’s earned much of its reputation as the drug of choice of ISIS militants. Captagon has been widely touted as being able to purge the sense of anxiety, create a higher sense of clarity, and invoke a feeling of euphoria in its users. To many, Captagon is seen as a wonder drug, and that’s a legend that spread largely in the wake of the suicide attack of Paris in late 2015.
Some who witnessed the attacks claimed that the killers were “zombie-like” in behavior, and the legend quickly spread that Captagon was to blame. But it’s a myth that’s largely unfounded. Autopsies revealed that both attackers merely had mild traces of alcohol and cannabis in their blood. And other rumors that potential terrorists and ISIS soldiers are taking the drug as a way to become unstoppable killers are similarly dubious.
There’s only one recorded case of an ISIS-related attack in which the assailant was found to be on Captagon: the June 2015 shooting at the Tunisian resort of Sousse. As is often the case, the reputation of the drug has outpaced its actual efficacy, perhaps promoted as a means for justifying the seemingly irrational attacks of ISIS.
But while Captagon isn’t the wonder drug that some might make it out to be, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a danger. It’s a drug that still has similar effects to amphetamines, and that means that it allows ISIS fighters in Syria to keep fighting well beyond when their bodies tell them to stop. And the popularity of Captagon throughout the region means that it’s a potentially powerful source of financing for the upstart group of jihadists.
Half of the amphetamine seizures in the world take place in the Middle East, and Syria is one of the three top countries where these seizures take place. While Captagon might provide ISIS with the physical energy they need to keep fighting past their natural limits, it may also offer ISIS with the financial strength they need to sustain a costly and futile war.