Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection

Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection
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Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection
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Updated 07 July 2021

Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection

Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection
  • Authorities struggle to deal with narco-trafficking originating in Bekaa Valley and Syria
  • Economic crisis, Syria’s war and political elite’s docility blamed for lost battle against drugs

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces say they have launched dozens of operations in recent months in search of laboratories manufacturing Captagon pills, while closely monitoring coastal and land borders with Syria in an effort to identify smuggling routes.

The country’s fight against drugs, though, is an uphill battle amid multiple overlapping crises, notably its economic collapse and political paralysis.

And the elephant in the room is Hezbollah: Many suspect the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group facilitates the illicit drug trade to finance its operations while maintaining plausible deniability.

Captagon is an amphetamine, and one of the most commonly used drugs on Middle East battlefields.

Combatants addicted to the narcotic say it helps them stay awake for days and numbs their senses, giving them stamina for long battles and allowing them to kill with abandon.

Owing to its ability to make users energetic and happy, Captagon is known to have also become a popular recreational drug in the wider region.

Since Saudi Arabia’s customs authorities thwarted an attempt in April to smuggle more than five million Captagon pills from Lebanon into the Kingdom, hidden inside a shipment of pomegranates, officials say criminal syndicates have become even more “brazen.”

It was after this consignment of Captagon was discovered that Saudi Arabia suspended shipments of Lebanese fruit and vegetables entering the Kingdom or transiting through its territory.




Saudi Arabia’s customs authorities thwarted an attempt in April to smuggle more than five million Captagon pills from Lebanon into the Kingdom, hidden inside a shipment of pomegranates. (SPA)

At the time, Lebanese authorities said “the drug-stuffed shipment entered Lebanon from Syria and was repackaged in an area of the Bekaa Valley before being shipped to the port of Jeddah.”

Two Syrian brothers were arrested in Lebanon soon after the discovery, accused of repackaging the shipment at an abandoned warehouse in Bekaa. But even this major bust was not enough to put the smugglers out of business.

On June 15, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) thwarted another attempt to smuggle 37.2 kg of Captagon pills into Saudi Arabia via Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, hidden inside a consignment of electric water pumps.

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Three people were arrested, including the alleged ringleader, a stateless person with a history of drug smuggling, along with a Syrian and a Lebanese.

The trio reportedly confessed to setting up a smuggling network and claimed they had received the shipment from Syria before transporting it to Beirut.

The ISF’s best efforts, though, were not enough. Saudi authorities at the port of Jeddah announced another major drug bust on June 26, seizing an estimated 14 million Captagon pills hidden inside iron plates sent from Lebanon.




Saudi officials say criminal syndicates have become even more “brazen” in their attempts to smuggle drugs. (SPA/File Photo)

Mohammed Al-Nujaidi, spokesperson for the Kingdom’s General Directorate of Narcotics Control, confirmed the arrest of a Saudi citizen in the Riyadh area in connection with the shipment.

On June 29, Lebanese authorities seized another haul of Captagon pills also destined for Saudi Arabia. In a statement, the ISF said 17.4 kg, the equivalent of 100,000 pills, were seized. “They were expertly hidden inside medical equipment sterilization machines,” the statement added. Two Lebanese and one Syrian national were reportedly arrested.

In July 2020, Italian police and customs agents at the port of Salerno found 84 million Captagon tablets in shipping trailers that appeared to contain only paper rolls.

Intelligence officials concluded the drugs, worth an estimated $1.1 billion, originated in factories located in parts of Syria controlled by President Bashar Assad’s government.

“The amphetamines departed Syria from Latakia, a coastal city with dedicated Iranian port facilities and a known hub for smuggling operations by Tehran’s ally, Hezbollah,” the Washington Post said.




In July 2020, Italian police and customs agents at the port of Salerno found 84 million Captagon tablets in shipping trailers that appeared to contain only paper rolls. (AFP/Guardia di Finanza Handout/File Photo)

Hezbollah strenuously denies the charge that it is involved in drug trafficking, but the Post report quoted US and Middle East analysts as saying: “Facing extreme financial pressures because of US sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and Lebanon’s economic collapse, Hezbollah appears to be growing increasingly reliant on criminal enterprises, including drug smuggling, to finance its operations.”

Hatem Madi, a former Lebanese public prosecutor, told Arab News: “The Captagon pill trade became active because it is easier to smuggle, and faster.

“It is subject to supply and demand. There is no doubt that the war in Syria has left the door open for smugglers and drug traffickers.”

Indeed, Lebanon has become a major conduit for smuggling of Captagon pills manufactured in Syria. Even before the country’s descent into civil war in 2011, its territory was used by Lebanese militias to cultivate and smuggle marijuana, generating millions of dollars.

“Captagon is manufactured in Syria, especially in the regions of Homs and Aleppo,” Brig. Gen. Anwar Yahya, a former head of Lebanon’s judicial police, told Arab News.

“In light of the events taking place in Syria, some of the factories have relocated to the villages found between Lebanon and Syria on the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range and in the areas of Qusair and Tufail.”




The Italian-seized drugs, in the form of 84 million Captagon tablets, were worth about €1 billion, police said in a statement, describing the operation as "the biggest seizure of amphetamines in the world." (AFP/Guardia di Finanza Handout/File Photo)

Western intelligence analysts claim Hezbollah operatives began manufacturing Captagon more than a decade ago but the drug began to gain prominence in tandem with the militia’s expanding commitments in Middle East conflicts.

“Is Hezbollah involved in manufacturing Captagon pills? This issue requires a judicial or security source,” Yahya told Arab News.

“However, the judiciary in Lebanon is silent. Is it out of fear or is the judiciary hiding something? I have no idea, but we are aware of the investigations and know who is involved.”

What is beyond doubt is that the Bekaa Valley, bordering Syria, is a Hezbollah hotbed. It has training camps in the region’s highlands and controls its own border crossings with Syria, where it has intervened in support of the Assad regime.

The most prominent person to be arrested by Lebanese authorities in Bekaa in connection with Captagon is Hassan Daqou. Dubbed the “King of Captagon,” Daqou had several business interests in Tufail, a town that overlaps the border with Syria and is controlled by Hezbollah.

However, following a local land dispute, Daqou was turned over to the Lebanese army, accused of establishing a Captagon laboratory in the area and overseeing a smuggling network sending pills to Greece and Saudi Arabia.

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“Daqou has ties with Hezbollah and the Fourth Division, which is headed by Maher Assad, the Syrian president’s brother,” Mohammed Al-Hujairi, a Future Movement MP, told Arab News.

Since the beginning of 2020, counterfeit Captagon and other illicit drugs have been seized in Egypt, Greece and Jordan besides Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Italy. Western law enforcement officials have specifically linked Hezbollah to drug seizures from the Syria-Jordan border to central and southern Europe.

But what interest might Hezbollah have in the production and trafficking of drugs?

“There are unusual smugglers that have a political or ideological background,” Ashraf Rifi, a former ISF director general who later served as Lebanon’s justice minister, told Arab News. “They do not work according to profit or loss considerations. Instead, they have political goals, namely targeting the opponent’s society.”

US and European drug agencies are convinced that Hezbollah profits from the drug trade. Europol issued a report in 2020 cautioning that Hezbollah members were using European cities as a base for trading in “drugs and diamonds” and to launder the profits. In 2018, the US State Department named Hezbollah among the top five global criminal organizations.




Captagon pills are displayed along with a cup of cocaine at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Anti-Narcotics Division in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)

Whether or not the drugs trade has been weaponized, it is certainly consuming a lot of the Lebanese government’s time and resources. According to one security source, measures taken by the security forces in recent years have led to the arrest of over 15,000 people.

Rifi said there had been seizures “unprecedented in the history of Interpol in regards to the quantities of narcotics being smuggled and the level of brazenness when it comes to smuggling and targeting.

“There is a partnership between Hezbollah and the Syrian side in terms of manufacturing and smuggling, while smuggling may also be undertaken unilaterally by one of the sides,” he said.

“The efforts aimed at countering drug smuggling from Lebanon require a wise administration. A corrupt administration that is subservient to Hezbollah makes a show of addressing the problem, but it does not actually defend the people or the interests of the country,” Rifi added.

Yahya believes Lebanon’s counternarcotics unit, a badly under-resourced and poorly utilized force, is fighting with one hand tied behind its back.




A string of major drug busts in Syria and Lebanon has drawn new attention to the trade in captagon, an illegal substance that has flourished in the chaos of Syria's war. (AFP/File Photo)

“Unfortunately, the judicial police anti-drug office, which has files that date back dozens of years and include photos and fingerprints of the people and networks involved, is being sidelined,” he told Arab News.

“Instead, we see that the bodies handling these cases are the ISF Information Division, the customs, the army or people that have no jurisdiction over such issues.”

Yahya wants Lebanese authorities to tighten control along the borders, at the airport and seaports; equip border control personnel with scanners; activate the work of the anti-drug office and provide it with the necessary tools and staff.

More broadly, Lebanon must address its economic collapse and its ability to support its security personnel, who need to provide for their families.

“The delay in the government’s formation,” he said, “is a major, and possibly the main, obstacle standing in the way of activating the security apparatus and the role of the army.”


Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO

Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO
Updated 01 December 2021

Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO

Vaccine coverage below 10 percent in seven eastern Mediterranean nations — WHO
  • Low-income countries, mostly in Africa, have received only 0.6% of the world's vaccines
  • "The longer that these inequities persist, the greater the chance of more variants,” said WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean

CAIRO: An official at the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office said on Wednesday seven countries in the region have not yet reached a threshold of 10 percent vaccination coverage.
These countries represent a high-risk setting for the emergence of further variants, Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said at a news briefing in Cairo.
Low-income countries, mostly in Africa, have received only 0.6 percent of the world’s vaccines, while G20 countries have received more than 80 percent, Al-Mandhari said.
“The longer that these inequities persist, the greater the chance of more variants,” said Al-Mandhari. “Indeed, no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
So far, 24 countries may have reported cases of the new Omicron variant, said Abdinasir Abubakr, infection hazards prevention manager for the region.
Early Omicron cases suggest mild symptoms, added Richard Brennen, WHO regional emergency director in the region.
In terms of the response to the variant, he warned of complacency and COVID-19 fatigue and encouraged social-distancing measures.
However, he said social and travel curbs require risk assessment before implementation.
“While we understand that some countries locked down international travel, this has to be done on evidence and strong analysis,” said Brennen.
As of Nov. 29, over 16.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 309,500 deaths were reported across the Eastern Mediterranean region.


IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant

IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant
Updated 1 min 30 sec ago

IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant

IAEA plans to step up inspections at Iran's Fordow plant

VIENNA: The UN nuclear watchdog plans to increase the frequency of its inspections at Iran's Fordow plant after Iran started producing enriched uranium with more advanced machines there, the watchdog said in a report to member states on Wednesday seen by Reuters.
"The Agency has decided and Iran has agreed to increase the frequency of verification activities at FFEP and will continue consultations with Iran on practical arrangements to facilitate implementation of these activities," the International Atomic Energy Agency report said, referring to the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.


Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens

Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens
Updated 01 December 2021

Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens

Egypt removes access to government services for unvaccinated citizens
  • The move is the latest in a slew of preventive measures introduced by Egypt to contain the spread of COVID-19
  • Once vaccinated, citizens will be able to get a vaccination certificate that will allow them to enter government facilities

CAIRO: Egyptian citizens who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 will from Wednesday be denied access to all government services and buildings unless they can provide evidence of a negative PCR test.

The decision was taken by the Supreme Committee for Coronavirus Crisis Management, which said the rule would apply to the provision of government services in all governorates and ministries.

The Ministry of Local Development instructed governors to implement the committee’s decision and refuse entry to government departments for anyone who is unable to provide evidence that they have been fully vaccinated or submit a negative PCR test result.

The move is the latest in a slew of preventive measures introduced by Egypt to contain the spread of COVID-19 in places of work and study.

The Ministry of Health and Population said it had made vaccines available to all citizens and that they should get vaccinated to avoid being disadvantaged by the new ruling.

It added that people who had not yet had their jabs should visit one of the many vaccination facilities located at medical centers, subway and railway stations, or the mobile units that travel throughout villages and towns.

Once vaccinated, citizens will be able to get a vaccination certificate that will allow them to enter government facilities, the health ministry said.

Egypt implemented a rule on Nov. 15 that prevents unvaccinated government employees from entering their place of work.


Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence

Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence
Updated 01 December 2021

Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence

Muslim Council of Elders resumes Dialogue of East and West to promote coexistence
  • The council will hold its next regular meeting in Manama, which will coincide with the Dialogue of East and West for Human Fraternity 2022 conference
  • The Muslim Council of Elders is headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb

CAIRO: The Muslim Council of Elders has decided to hold the next round of the Dialogue of East and West in Bahrain after postponing it in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

The council is an independent international body based in Abu Dhabi and aimed at promoting peace, dialogue and tolerance. It is headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and its membership includes an elite group of Muslim scholars.

The council will hold its next regular meeting in the Bahraini capital, Manama, which will coincide with the Dialogue of East and West for Human Fraternity 2022 conference.

The imam expressed his appreciation to Bahrain’s people and the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa for hosting the new edition of the dialogue.

He noted that the dialogue comes within the framework of strengthening relations between religious and cultural institutions in Islamic countries and their counterparts in Western societies, establishing common ground based on shared values and promoting coexistence.

Sheikh Abdul Rahman bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Khalifa, chairman of the Bahraini Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and a member of the Muslim Council of Elders, expressed Bahrain’s excitement to host the meeting and the new edition of the dialogue.

Sultan Al-Romaithi, secretary-general of the council, said that arrangements for the dialogue are now being finalized and that the new edition will witness positive interactions between Western and Eastern scholars and intellectuals.

He explained that the council is in the process of nominating youths to participate in the dialogue who have the capabilities to become future leaders and ambassadors for the Muslim Council of Elders.

The council was founded on July 13, 2014 to spread a culture of peace in Muslim societies, reject violence and extremism, and confront hate speech.


Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns

Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns
Updated 01 December 2021

Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns

Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns
  • One in three displaced Syrians know someone who has become ill or died because of the cold
  • People will be forced to choose between food and fuel during the winter months, says charity head

LONDON: The majority of displaced Syrians face a bitter winter with inadequate shelter and not enough food, a humanitarian organization working in Syria and Lebanon has warned.

Syria Relief said that the already brutal winter is exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis, which has sent prices of fuel and food skyrocketing.

Only 29 percent of internally displaced people (IDP) in Northern Syria believe that their current accommodation adequately protects them from winter conditions, according to a survey conducted by Syria Relief, which provides lifesaving aid and humanitarian interventions in the war-torn country.

The number is higher, at 52 percent, for Syrian refugees living in informal settlements in Lebanon, according to Syria Relief’s survey of over 1,000 people across Aleppo, Idlib, and Lebanon.

Around one in three respondents in Syria and Lebanon know someone who has either died or developed health conditions due to the cold.

Syria Relief Chief Executive Othman Moqbel told Arab News: “All of us, working on the ground, are very worried about this winter.”

He said: “There is the common misconception that Syria and Lebanon are hot, but in the winter months, especially high up in the mountains where there are many refugee and IDP camps, the temperatures regularly plummet to freezing temperatures. Winter is one of the greatest threats to a Syrian IDP or refugee living in a tent, as temperatures can drop as low as -10 C.”

Syria’s collapsing economy, worsening every year, makes the upcoming winter the toughest yet, Moqbel said.

“Last winter it was estimated by the UN that 80 percent of Syrians lived in poverty. Now, it is estimated at 90 percent. There are 13.4 million Syrians who depend on humanitarian aid to survive.

“To simply survive, millions of Syrians need fuel to keep the stoves they use for warmth fired up. But it’s expensive and the economic situation means fuel is harder than ever to find for many families.

“To afford the fuel they need to stop them freezing to death, most families living in tents have to make sacrifices. Maybe they will go without food, maybe one of their children will go without food, maybe all of them will have to go without food for a few days.”

Moqbel explained that Western countries, such as the UK, could take action that would alleviate the suffering of these Syrians.

“We would like to see the UK in particular not cutting its aid budget and instead ensuring that more money is spent on displaced Syrians who are already some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”