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Captagon, ISIS's favorite amphetamine, explained

Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

The Washington Post called it "the tiny pill fueling Syria's war and turning fighters into superhuman soldiers." The BBC said it was "the drug fueling conflict in Syria." Many other media outlets — Reuters, Voice of America, the Guardian, Time, CNN — have reported on this apparently powerful pill and its outsize presence in the Middle East, especially the civil war in Syria.

The pill is known by an old brand name, Captagon. While it's by and large a run-of-the-mill amphetamine, Captagon has drawn more attention in the past few years due to its apparent use among ISIS recruits and other Syrian fighters, many of whom reportedly pop the pill before running into battle.

Captagon won't turn anyone into the Hulk or even give him superhuman abilities. But like other drugs, it does enhance a person's ability to do dangerous things. And ISIS and Syrian fighters actually aren't alone among military forces in the use of performance-enhancing drugs — it's something the US military does, too.

Captagon is mostly a run-of-the-mill amphetamine

Generally, you should be skeptical of any media reports that describe a drug as giving someone superhuman abilities. This trope has been used to demonize drugs and their users throughout history, particularly in racist ways. But no drug that we know of is capable of turning someone into Superman or Luke Cage.

This kind of hyperbole seems to apply to media reports of Captagon, which is by and large a standard amphetamine. As Hamilton Morris, a chemist who closely studies drugs, told me, "Several reports in the media have described Captagon as 'a powerful amphetamine,' but in truth it's quite a bit less potent by weight than Adderall, which is commonly encountered on college campuses."

Captagon was commercially produced and sold until the 1980s, when it was banned due to fears of its highly addictive nature. Since then, Morris said its name has been applied to counterfeit tablets that often contain amphetamine and caffeine or, less frequently, methamphetamine and ephedrine.

"Implying the brutality of ISIS is somehow a product of amphetamine abuse is unfounded and reductionist"

These tablets, like other amphetamine-based drugs, provide a boost of energy, enhance someone's focus, let someone stay awake for longer periods of time, and produce a feeling of euphoria. But they won't cause someone to gain superhuman alertness, bravery, strength, or pain resistance — although it's possible that some sort of placebo effect could help users act out in certain ways, and psychotic episodes are a rare side-effect of amphetamines, including Adderall.

Indeed, former fighters in Syria have told media outlets that the drug helped them fight. "So the brigade leader came and told us, 'This pill gives you energy. Try it,'" one ex-fighter told BBC. "So we took it the first time. You feel physically fit. And if there were 10 people in front of you, you could catch them and kill them. You're awake all the time. You don't have any problems. You don't even think about sleeping. You don't think to leave the checkpoint. It gives you great courage and power. If the leader told you to go break into a military barracks, I will break in with a brave heart and without any feeling of fear at all — you're not even tired."

But Morris argues that Captagon is not going to explain any outrageous brutality on the part of a Syrian or ISIS soldier. "Implying the brutality of ISIS is somehow a product of amphetamine abuse is unfounded and reductionist," he said. "The same amphetamine psychosis explanation has been used for everyone from Jeffrey MacDonald to Adolf Hitler and Nazi blitzkrieg. I don't find it to be a particularly satisfying explanation."

But the different sides of Syria's civil war don't only use the drug for its soldier-enhancing abilities; it's also a source of revenue for some militant organizations in the region.

Armies in Syria's civil war also use Captagon for profit

Amphetamines like Captagon are fairly addictive — a trait that's more problematic in places like Syria where war and poverty are more likely to lead someone to use drugs for pleasure and relief. But it's also a trait that makes the drug good to sell and profit from, as several sides of the Syrian conflict — which has pitted the country's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, different rebel groups, and ISIS against each other — have apparently been doing for years.

As Colonel Ghassan Chamseddine, Lebanon's top drug enforcement official, told Time magazine, Captagon has increasingly become a major trafficked substance in the past several years. In just one month, Lebanese authorities confiscated more than $200 million of the drug. And much of that, according to Time, was credited to the conflict in Syria, where much of the drug is manufactured, making Captagon much easier to access.

But it's not just Syrians who buy the drug, which is actually popular across the Middle East. Time's Aryn Baker reported:

In terms of pure profit, it’s hard to beat amphetamines. Unlike cocaine and heroin, the base ingredients are easy, and even legal, to obtain. A pill that costs pennies to produce in Lebanon retails for up to $20 a pop in Saudi Arabia, where some 55 million Captagon tablets are seized a year — a number that even Saudi officials admit amounts to only 10% of the overall total that actually makes it into the kingdom, according to the UNODC World Drug Report and a not-yet-published E.U. assessment of drug trafficking in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone accounts for more than one-third of global amphetamines seizures a year, and three-quarters of patients treated for drug problems there are addicted to amphetamines, almost exclusively in the form of Captagon. Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE have reported similar spikes in multimillion-tablet seizures of the drug in the past two years.

It's hard to say, particularly given the chaos in Syria, who is primarily selling the drug and its components, and whether the revenues go directly into weapons and supplies for the war effort. But Time reported that it's expected both pro- and anti-Assad forces are making and selling it, including the Iranian-funded militia Hezbollah, which is fighting for the Syrian dictator in the country, and some rebel groups. And since those groups are so deeply involved in the Syrian war, experts widely believe that drug trafficking must be playing at least some role in sustaining the conflict.

Soldiers in other military forces — including the US — use drugs, too

A US Air Force plane.
The US Air Force often flies high.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For all the hubbub about how much Syrian forces use the drug to enhance their soldiers, the idea of solder-enhancing drugs is absolutely not limited to ISIS, jihadists, or the Syrian conflict. In fact, the US military is known to benefit from drugs as well.

As the New Republic's Katie Drummond explained, the Air Force in particular has used amphetamines — popularly known as "go pills" — to help pilots keep going during long missions:

For decades, the Air Force has been doling out amphetamines — dubbed "go pills" — meant to keep pilots awake and alert during long flights. Of course, the military sanction of these supplements (the Air Force relies specifically on Dexedrine, used among civilians to treat ADHD and narcolepsy) isn’t without controversy: In 2002, two Air National Guard pilots taking Dexedrine inadvertently bombed and killed four Canadian soldiers, leading to speculation that the drug had impaired their judgment.

So the same people currently bombing Syrian targets and fighters — who are reportedly on amphetamines — may be on amphetamines as well.

The drug, of course, doesn't turn Air Force pilots into super soldiers. But the fact that even trained, professional American pilots use amphetamines indicates that they have some merit in the battlefield, and it doesn't require a particularly brutal organization like ISIS to turn to the drugs for combat aid. These are, in the end, just drugs.