A Saudi customs officer opens imported pomegranates hiding Captagon pills, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (AP)

A major drug bust in the Mediterranean has highlighted connections between Syria’s Assad regime and trade in illegal narcotics.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project documents the path from Syria to Greece, where Greek authorities intercepted a freighter with more than $100 million of cannabis and the amphetamine-like Captagon.

The Noka left Latakia in western Syria, a port under regime control, on December 2, 2018. It was bound for eastern Libya with the drugs stashed in double-bottom shipping containers amid a declared cargo of spices and coffee.

Just past Cyprus, the Noka switched off its automatic identification system, a device that announces its position to other ships and is used to avoid collisions. But as it passed the island of Crete, the ship was followed and boarded by Greece’s Hellenic Coast Guard, aided by aircraft from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. The drugs were seized and the crew of 11 arrested. At the time, the seizure was Greece’s largest of Captagon.

Captagon is the brand name of fenethylline hydrochloride, initially produced a treatment for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, and depression. It was banned in the 1980s, but has been prevalent in Gulf States. After Syria’s 2011 uprising, the drug has been used widely by fighters.

In recent years, shipments of Captagon from Latakia have been seized at Libyan, Italian, Greek, and Romanian ports. In June 2020, more than 14 tons of Captagon — worth an estimated 1 billion Euros — were discovered in a shipment at the Italian port Salerno.

A Libyan court has sentenced Mahmud Abdulilah Dajj, who is now in Syria, to death in connection with the Noka shipment and other cases. Dajj is accused of leading a gang moving the drugs.

OCCRP had previously linked drug shipments, including the Salerno case, to Bashar al-Assad’s counsin Samer Kamal Assad. Citing sources, the outlet said Samer Kamal Assad has factories near Latakia and in the Upper Qalamoun Mountains on the border with Lebanon.

In a report in late April, the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research assessed:

Syria is a narco-state….In 2020, Captagon exports from Syria reached a market value of at least $3.46bn [£2.5bn]….

Although Captagon trafficking was once among the funding streams utilised by anti-state armed groups, consolidation of territorial control has enabled the Assad regime and its key regional allies to cement their role as the prime beneficiaries of the Syrian narcotics trade.

The Businessman and The Regime

The owner of the Noka, Taher al-Kayali, is linked to Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Mudar, whose company runs a marina and tourism complex in Latakia. Kayali runs a café inside the complex.

Kayali fled to Latakia from Turin to avoid prison. While in Italy, he was convicted in 2010 of criminal association and receiving and selling stolen goods. He was pardoned, but in 2013 was convicted of stealing and smuggling luxury yachts. In January 2015, the businessman was sentenced in absentia to 6 1/2 years behind bars.

In e-mails to the OCCRP, Kayali claimed he rented out the Noka, which was intercepted on its second trip from Latakia to Benghazi, Libya. He said he “fully cooperated with the Greek authorities”, suffering “heavy losses”, and noted that the crew was released.

“God willing, the ship will return to its motherland as the crew did a while back. As for the goods, we informed the owners to take them and to have them shipped to wherever they like,” Kayali declared.

A local journalist told OCCRP that “nothing leaves the area” without the approval of regime troops under Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, the commander of the Republican Guard and elite Fourth Armored Division. An exiled merchant and three other Latakia businessmen confirm that anyone shipping from the port must pay a substantial cut from proceeds in return for access to networks and protection.

Kayali said Mudar al-Assad is a “friend I am honored to have”, but denied business links. He said he would consider it “an honor” to one day meet Maher al-Assad.

Mudar al-Assad refused any comment to the OCCRP.