A Saudi customs officer opens imported pomegranates hiding Captagon pills, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (AP)
UPDATE, FEB 8:
Jordan’s Foreign Ayman Safadi has warned of “the mounting threat of drug smuggling from the Syrian territory to the kingdom”.
Safadi expressed the concern to the UN envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, in a Sunday meeting in Amman.
But despite extensive evidence of the Assad regime’s involvement in smuggling, Safadi said Jordan will continue efforts to engage with Damascus, breaking the regime’s isolation amid the 11-year Syrian conflict.
Over the weekend, Saudi Arabian and Jordanian authorities announced the interception of another 2.5 million Captagon pills, with an estimated value of about $32.5 million.
About $200 million of Captagon has been seized so far in 2022.
UPDATE, JAN 28:
Jordan’s army says its troops killed at least 27 armed drug smugglers on Thursday and wounded others as they crossed the border from Syria.
The army said the men were intercepted with a large quantity of amphetamines during a snowstorm. Other smugglers fled back into Syria.
“We will strike with an iron fist…those who dare think of tampering with our national security,” the army said in its statement.
Local Syrian sources said the clash was in an area northeast of the Jordanian city of Mafraq.
Jordanian officials say pro-Assad militia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime, are behind the surge in smuggling. They say they have raised concerns with regime authorities and with Russia.
UPDATE, FEB 19:
The UK’s Channel 4 broadcasts an investgative report of the Assad regime and Syria’s trade in illegal drugs, with footage of a Captagon factory on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
On Sunday, a Jordanian army officer was killed and three troops injured when drug smugglers, trying to enter the country from Syriam fired at an outpost.
The Jordanian military pledged to “respond with all strength and resolve”.
UPDATE, DEC 7:
The New York Times posts further information about the Assad regime’s links with the surge in Syria’s illegal drug trade.
The Times corroborates the accounts of residents about the control of production and distribution by the regime army’s 4th Armored Division, commanded by Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher. It names leaders in the trade including businessmen tied to the regime, mebers of Assad’s extended family, and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, an essential regime ally.
The Times investigation developed information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade, and current and former US officials.
Law enforcement personnel cite seizures of hundreds of millions of pills, most shipped from a regime-controlled port in Latakia, worth more than $1 billion. They include confiscation in Italy of 84 million pills hidden in huge rolls of paper and metal gears, and the find by Malaysian officials or more than 94 million pills sealed inside rubber trolley wheels.
More than 250 million captagon pills have been seized worldwide this year, more than 18 times the amount of 2017. The Syrian network has also begun shipments of crystal meth.
Regional security officials and a former regime military officer say the 4th Division’s troops protect many captgon factories and ensure the movement of drugs to borders and the Latakia port.
Col. Hassan Alqudah, the head of the narcotics department for Jordan’s Public Security Directorate, says, “The division’s presence in the region is dangerous. Captagon factories are present in the 4th Division’s areas of control and under their protection.”
Leading businessmen in the trade include Amer Khiti, a livestock trader who became a state-supported smuggler during Syria’s 129-month conflict, and Khodr Taher, a former poultry merchant who now oversees 4th Division checkpoints across Syria.
Both men promoted Assad during the 2021 staged Presidential election with billboards, banquets, rallies, and concerts. Khiti has refurbished a military conscription center and regime buildings and was placed in a Parliamentary seat last year. Taher was awarded the Order of Merit by Assad in May “in recognition of his prominent services in economics and financial management during a time of war”.
The US has sanctioned both Khiti and Taher as well as Maj. Gen. Ghassan Bilal, the head of the 4th Division’s security bureau.
ORIGINAL ENTRY, JUNE 21: 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.