Drugs in War: What is Captagon, the 'Jihad Pill' Used by Islamic State Militants?

Captagon pills
Greek authorities present confiscated guns, money and Captagon pills after near Elefsina, Greece on March 6. Captagon, an amphetamine-based substance, was once prescribed to treat ADHD. Michalis Karagiannis/Reuters

In the past three months, investigators across Europe have intercepted thousands of Captagon pills, an amphetamine-based drug popular with the Islamic State militant group. Nicknamed “the jihadists’ drug,” Captagon keeps users awake for long periods of time, dulls pain and creates a sense of euphoria. According to one former militant who spoke to CNN in 2014, ISIS “gave us drugs, hallucinogenic pills that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die.” Given similar testimony from other fighters, experts say it seems likely that the hallucinogenic pills the militant took were Captagon.

Invented in Germany in the 1960s to treat attention and sleep disorders, and highly addictive, Captagon was banned throughout most of the world in the 1980s.

On May 10, Dutch investigators said they had discovered a drug lab the previous month that was churning out Captagon pills, and they were looking for two suspects associated with the lab. In March, Greek police confiscated more than 600,000 Captagon pills in a raid and arrested four people for allegedly manufacturing the drug.

Greek and Dutch police haven’t said the Captagon stashes they found were destined for ISIS fighters.

Captagon is one of the brand names for the drug fenethylline, a combination of amphetamine and theophylline that relaxes the muscle around the lungs and is used to treat breathing problems. A German company first synthesized fenethylline in 1961, and when it discovered the drug improved alertness, doctors began prescribing it to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Though generally without side effects, says Dr. Raj Persaud, a fellow at the London-based Royal College of Psychiatrists, overuse can cause extreme depression, tiredness, insomnia, heart palpitations and, in rare cases, blindness and heart attacks. In the 1980s, when the drug’s addictiveness became clear, the United States and the World Health Organization listed it as a controlled substance, and it is now illegal to buy and sell throughout most of the world.

Nevertheless, fenethylline remains popular in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where more Captagon is consumed than in any other country in the world. Though Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol and other drugs, many users there see Captagon as a medicinal substance. In October 2015, Lebanese authorities arrested a Saudi prince at the Beirut airport after two tons of cocaine and Captagon pills, which sell for roughly $20 per pill in Saudi Arabia, were found on a private plane.

Once manufactured in Eastern Europe, Turkey and Lebanon, according to Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs, Captagon is now predominantly made in Syria. The Syrian conflict has allowed for illicit activities to flourish, and many fighters there know the benefits of using the drug.

The use of drugs in war has a long history. The ancient Greeks, the Vikings, U.S. Civil War soldiers and the Nazis all relied on drugs—wine, mushrooms, morphine and methamphetamines, respectively—to get them through the horror of battle. “The holy grail that armies around the world have been looking for is a drug that gives people courage,” says Persaud, and Captagon comes close. “It doesn’t give you distilled courage, but it gives you a tendency to want to keep going and impaired judgment, so you don’t consider whether you’re scared or not,” he says. “You feel euphoria. You don’t feel pain. You could say it’s courage without the judgment.” For a fighter in a war so brutally waged, the benefits of that are clear.