Breaking the Myth of Captagon, the 'Jihadi Pill' Made Famous by ISIS

A customs officer displays Captagon pills before their incineration in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2007. The pill has attracted attention for its alleged links to jihadis. Reuters/Nikolay Doychinov

Have you heard that jihadis carrying out attacks in Europe and North Africa are supposedly jacking themselves up on a special amphetamine known as Captagon, a "magic" stimulant that leaves them feeling euphoric and fearless before an assault? Turns out this is an urban legend, a myth, according to a new report from a top expert on illicit drugs.

Published by Laurent Laniel of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in France last week, a French-language paper attempts to dispel the widely reported belief that those inspired and directed by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) are turning to the black market drug.

When an ISIS cell launched a suicide bombing and shooting attack in Paris on November 13, 2015, witnesses described "zombie-like" killers, and allegations about their use of Captagon were widely circulated. But a toxicology report revealed that none of the attackers had consumed drugs. Investigators found only faint traces of cannabis and alcohol in the blood of two attackers—so small, in fact, they could not have used them on the day of the attack.

Fenethylline is the main ingredient of Captagon, a psychostimulant. It once was used to treat depression and narcolepsy but has been outlawed in most countries for decades on the word of the World Health Organization. Yet its trade is still rife in the Middle East.

Since 2008, 50 percent of the world's amphetamine seizures took place in the Arabian Peninsula—and ISIS may be involved in that business, like the Taliban has done with opium—to drive revenue. Syria and Lebanon were the top countries for amphetamine seizures in 2016, the trade being partly fueled by the Syrian conflict.

But no attacker linked to ISIS in Europe has been found to have taken the amphetamine-filled Captagon immediately before striking. Elsewhere, evidence of drug taking before an attack was found in only one case: the June 2015 beach massacre in the Tunisian resort of Sousse, when student Seifeddine Rezgui killed 38 people with an automatic rifle.

A report about the attack said he had ingested an unidentified drug before his assault. The report said the substance had the main effects of giving "the feeling of exhaustion, aggression and extreme anger that leads to murders being committed. Another effect of these drugs is that they enhance physical and mental performance."

The disclosed effects give the impression that Rezgui had taken a stimulant such as amphetamines or speed, but he may have thought he was taking Captagon. This is the only known case of the drug potentially being used before an ISIS-inspired or -directed attack outside of Iraq and Syria.

So the thought that its fighters turn to the pill—which costs between $5 and $20—before acting is incorrect, according to Laniel. He says in his report that labeling the drug as being linked to jihadis is "sensationalism that sells," and, based on a lack of reliable data, it is an irrational reaction to an "incomprehensible enemy."

In short, Laniel believes the media would like to believe that jihadis are taking this drug, as it offers a sense of understanding as to why people commit such deadly acts. He says ISIS and its strict ultraconservative brand of Islam forbid the use of drugs and therefore the use of Captagon would not be encouraged. But even though it is also forbidden in more moderate forms of Islam, many in the Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries, particularly Saudi Arabia—the region's most conservative country—have engaged in amphetamine use.

Tunisia Beach Attack
Flowers at the beach next to the Imperial Marhaba Hotel where 38 people were killed in the attack in Sousse, Tunisia, on June 27, 2015. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Another matter, Laniel points out, is that the small white tablet is not the "magic potion" it is reported to be. He says that most so-called Captagon is just a "street name" for amphetamine or speed and that Captagon has for years ceased to contain fenethylline, which made it unique to other amphetamines.

First-time drug users will believe "Captagon" is all-powerful, experts say, but those with experience taking drugs or drinking would view the drug, in regular doses, as relatively tame compared with other narcotics.

Amphetamines boost energy, allowing users to stay awake for longer periods and increasing the belief that one has a greater pain threshold. Jihadis would not need a "magic" Captagon pill to achieve these effects, but this labeling has seemingly increased its attractiveness.

In May, Dutch police discovered a drugs laboratory filled with fake Captagon tablets, usually amphetamine laced with diluting fillers like caffeine or other substances. Similarly, in March Greek police busted a crime ring producing fake Captagon tablets, seizing more than half a million capsules.

Other experts have shared Laniel's point of view. Richard Rawson, former co-director of UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, told Live Science after the Paris attacks—when news coverage linked Captagon to ISIS—that "no one's actually [tested] the stuff that's being sold or manufactured. My suspicion is that it could likely be meth[amphetamine] that's sold under the name Captagon."

Thus, the drug must stop being held up as a reason for jihadi attacks, Laniel says. The causes should be investigated in detail and be identified based on solid evidence, so we can truly find out why gunmen and suicide bombers take up arms.

Until then, experts and the media may continue to jostle over the "jihadi pill," and over what Laniel says is "the difficulty of Western societies to think of the enemy." Many have the inability to "resolve to believe that men, even if they were fanatical, can thus sacrifice their own lives for a cause," he says.