At first glance, the shipping trailers that arrived at the Italian port of Salerno appeared to contain only paper, rolled up on giant industrial spools as tall as a man. But when an investigator sliced into one of the rolls with an electric saw, he unleashed an avalanche of little beige pills.
Police found more caches inside other paper rolls, and by the time the search ended on July 1, customs agents had recovered 84 million tablets of the amphetamine Captagon. It was a record haul, worth an estimated $1.1 billion, and even more jarring was the suspect initially named by police as the likely source: the Islamic State.
Yet, within days, suspicions began to shift toward different Middle Eastern groups. Intelligence officials concluded that the drugs did originate in Syria, but in factories located in areas controlled by President Bashar al-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.
Italian police learned of the shipment because they happened to be monitoring the communications of a local crime family that was supposed to pick up the drugs, the authorities in Italy said.
Whether Hezbollah was directly involved in the Italian shipment is not yet known, but investigators say the episode fits a pattern of recent drug cases in the Middle East and Europe linked to the powerful Lebanese militia. Facing extreme financial pressures because of U.S. 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, U.S. and Middle Eastern analysts said.
Law enforcement officials have linked Hezbollah to a string of major drug seizures, in locations ranging from the empty desert along the Syria-Jordan border to urban centers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to central and southern Europe. Many of the cases involve counterfeit Captagon, a synthetic drug that Hezbollah operatives began manufacturing more than a decade ago and has gained prominence as a moneymaker as the group’s military and financial commitments have expanded, intelligence analysts say.
“They have stepped up the whole business with Captagon. There is no doubt about that,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official who closely tracks Hezbollah’s illicit enterprises. The analyst, like several other officials interviewed, requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments. “The thing is to find any way to bring money into the organization,” the official said, “and Captagon is additional income.”
In addition to last month’s historic Captagon seizure on Italy’s western coast, customs officials in several other U.S.-allied countries have confiscated multi-ton shipments of Captagon in the past year, with Hezbollah operatives identified among the suspects. In February, police in Dubai found more than five tons of Captagon tablets in hidden compartments inside reels of industrial cable. Lesser quantities of the amphetamine, along with other illicit drugs, have been seized in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece and Jordan.
In June, a report by the European law enforcement agency Europol warned that Hezbollah operatives were believed to be “trafficking diamonds and drugs” and laundering the proceeds, using European countries as a base.
The most recent drug cases suggest a collaboration among a diverse array of actors, including Syrian business executives with ties to the Assad government as well as organized crime families, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said. Coordinating the logistics — and sharing the profits — are operatives from Hezbollah, with support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the officials said. Both Shiite groups have shown a growing willingness to work with partners normally regarded as enemies, including even criminal affiliates of Sunni extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
“When it comes to making money, they [Hezbollah] don’t care about sectarian differences or religious differences,” John Fernandez, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Counter-Narcoterrorism Operations Center, said in a recent briefing on Hezbollah at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We’ve seen them working with Sunni criminals, Christian criminals — and even with Jewish crime syndicates.”
A club drug in the gulf states
Hezbollah’s forays into the illicit drug trade date back to at least the 1990s, a few years after a loose collection of armed Lebanese Shiite factions first coalesced under the “Party of God” banner to fight Israel. Some of the groups had historical ties to the illegal drug trade in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and the money earned from drugs became an early, and significant, contributor to the group’s income, current and former U.S. law enforcement officials say.
Some Hezbollah operatives eventually cultivated relationships with Latin American drug cartels, which became partners in elaborate networks for contraband smuggling and money-laundering schemes. Ultimately, Hezbollah’s leaders were compelled to make peace with an activity that most faithful Muslims view as immoral, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism official and author of a 2013 history of Hezbollah’s external operations and financial networks.
“It usually started with logistics, but over time, people became more involved with money laundering and then with the narcotics themselves,” Levitt said. “That’s how Hezbollah stumbled into this.”
Hezbollah officially denies any involvement with illicit drugs, and some U.S. and European intelligence officials believe the militia is mainly a passive beneficiary of a drug trade conducted by Lebanese operatives only loosely affiliated with the group. But FBI records show that, as early as the mid-1990s, Hezbollah’s top spiritual advisers were quietly condoning drug dealing, telling members that narcotics trafficking was “morally acceptable if the drugs are sold to Western infidels as part of a war against the enemies of Islam,” according to a declassified 1994 report.
An interactive database unveiled by Levitt on Monday includes hundreds of government documents and court records linking Hezbollah operatives to drug smuggling, money laundering and other criminal enterprises in dozens of countries around the world, while also charting terrorist attacks financed by such illicit proceeds. Some of the activity clearly is “bottom-up” — initiated by low-ranking individuals seeking personal gain — but all of it is “very much encouraged by people at the top,” Levitt said.
“At the end of the day, it is a distinction without a difference,” he said, “because Hezbollah is knowingly and wittingly accepting tens of millions of dollars from the proceeds” of the illicit drug trade.
Among the varieties of drugs associated with Hezbollah, Captagon is a relative newcomer, one that is linked to a previous episode of maximum stress for the group.
After Hezbollah suffered heavy losses in its 2006 war with Israel, Iran supplied its militant allies with pharmaceutical equipment needed to manufacture counterfeit Captagon, current and former U.S. officials say. The resulting product was a knockoff version of a stimulant that was once used legally to treat depression and other psychological disorders.
The drug, also known by its generic name fenethylline, was sold under the brand name Captagon until the early 1980s, when most countries banned it as being highly addictive. But in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah-linked factories were soon producing the counterfeit version of the drug by the ton. Then, with the start of Syria’s civil war, some manufacturing facilities moved to Syria, where they could operate without threat of interference from Lebanese or international law enforcement agencies. The new factories are located in government-controlled coastal provinces where Hezbollah maintains a heavy presence, U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence officials said.
“The production in Syria started when Hezbollah entered the war” in 2012, said the Middle Eastern official who tracks Hezbollah’s illicit enterprises. Now, the official said, “everyone is getting a commission, from the distributors to the high-level army officials who look the other way.”
The income is partially offsetting huge financial losses incurred by an organization that traditionally relied on Iranian subsidies and a mixture of legitimate and illicit business to finance its operations in Lebanon and beyond. Hezbollah’s coffers have been drained by years of open-ended military campaigns in Syria and Yemen, and the group took a massive hit this year when Tehran announced sharp cuts in financial support for its militant ally.
The crisis has prompted both Hezbollah and Iran to seek revenue through any available means: from drugs and other contraband to currency speculation and bribery schemes, said a second Middle Eastern intelligence official who also closely follows Hezbollah’s illicit operations. “Shiite criminals — known collaborators with Hezbollah — are being told, ‘If you are able, make money,’ ” the official said.
The extent of Hezbollah’s control over the Syrian Captagon factories is not publicly known. Up to now, the facilities have been “run under the protection of Hezbollah, or run by affiliates with Hezbollah turning a blind eye and getting a share of the profits,” a senior U.S. law enforcement official said.
The drug is little known in the United States, but the smugglers have found an eager market closer to home. Captagon users say the drug makes them feel euphoric and energetic, and the stimulant has become enormously popular within the club cultures of several Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the Persian Gulf states. In addition, Islamic State commanders notoriously used Captagon as a morale booster for fighters heading into battle, thus bolstering its reputation as the “jihadi drug.”
But more recently, trafficking in Captagon appears to be strictly about generating profits, officials say. While Islamic State fighters sometimes sold the drug for cash during the waning days of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, the making and marketing of Captagon is a costly and sophisticated enterprise that requires dedicated factories as well as extensive networks for moving the drug across international borders.
All the required ingredients currently exist in northwestern Syria, along with paper manufacturers who make giant paper rolls of the type used to hide the tons of Captagon discovered at Salerno, said Armand Chouet, a Paris-based imagery analyst and author of a report that analyzed the movement of the drugs from Syria to Italy’s west coast.
“This was a very large transportation and logistical operation,” Chouet said. Noting that the port of departure is heavily controlled by Iranian, Hezbollah, Russian and Syrian interests, Chouet added: “No one can play such a game in Syria without high-level approval.”