It’s called many names. The jihadi drug, Captain Courage, the Poor Man’s Cocaine. But were Hamas terrorists high on the synthetic stimulant Captagon when they attacked Israel on Oct. 7, brutally killing more than 1,400 people and kidnapping at least 220 more?
Two Israeli security officials with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed to USA TODAY that the methamphetamine-like substance was found on at least some Hamas members killed during or after the stunning raids on Israel, bolstering an Oct. 19 report bythat was not based on official sources.
Officially, the Israeli military declined to confirm or deny the use of Captagon by Hamas. “We can’t comment on this matter,” a spokesperson told USA TODAY.
But the Israeli security officials said small bags of the drug, which can come in the form of a tablet or cocaine-like powder, were found along with bullets stashed in the pockets of clothes and tactical gear worn by some of the militants who stormed two dozen communities along Israel’s southern border with the Gaza Strip. One of the officials said small bottles of liquid containing a white fluid with traces of Captagon also were found on the bodies of the attackers.
‘A false sense of hope’:
And they said the highly addictive amphetamine used throughout the Middle East, including by young people at rave parties, also was found on some of the Hamas members who were captured by Israeli army and police responding to the attacks. That could help authorities determine what role, if any, the drug played in the attack. The surprise raid is considered the deadliest in Israel’s 75-year history, and it has sparked an escalating war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
The security officials talked to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the issue publicly.
For years, Captagon has been a staple among Islamic State fighters, especially in Iraq and Syria, because it gives them almost superhuman powers − including the ability to stay awake, calm and focused for days on end without food, said Carmit Valensi, a narcoterrorism expert and former senior adviser in Israel’s Intelligence corps.
‘It also helped them to eliminate fear and hunger, which is very important when you are conducting a long fight,” said Valensi, who was also a counterterrorism analyst at the Israeli military’s Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies and is now at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The Israeli security officials said in interviews that Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, has discovered Captagon as an organization as well.
“We know Hamas uses this drug,” one of the officials said. “It’s not new to us.”
Valensi said the use of Captagon could help explain the viciousness of the attacks and why Israeli men, women and children were tortured, burned, blown to bits and, in at least some cases, raped and decapitated.
“It’s still early and we are still trying to validate this information,” Valensi said. “But I have to say personally that it makes sense that the terrorists were acting under the influence of these drugs. Otherwise, for me as a human being, it’s really hard to explain the brutality, the level of cruelty that they demonstrated, and the long duration of this operation led by those terrorists and the atrocities that they committed there.”
A drug for narcolepsy, depression − and terrorism
Captagon is the former trade name for fenethylline, a derivative of amphetamine with similar stimulant effects. It was initially synthesized by a German chemistry firm in 1961 and used in Europe for more than two decades to treat hyperactivity disorders in children, narcolepsy and depression, according to studies shared by the U.S. National Institutes of Health,.
When its addictive properties were found to outweigh its benefits, Captagon was phased out as a pharmaceutical product in the 1980s under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act and the World Health Organization.
But by 2016, black-market manufacturing of the drug was soaring in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, in part because it was so easy to make, according to that report, which was published in the. “Unlike other drugs of abuse, the clandestine synthesis of fenethylline is simple,” the report said, “using inexpensive laboratory instrumentation and raw materials legal to obtain.”
Millions of black-market Captagon tablets were seized every year by 2016, representing one-third of the global amphetamines seizures, the report said. And in recent years, it has become a multibillion-dollar-a-year black-market drug that’s widely used recreationally and by day laborers throughout the Middle East.
About 80% of the world’s supply of Captagon is now produced in Syria, according to a recent assessment by the British government, which has described its production and distribution as a “financial lifeline” for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Britain’s foreign ministry says most Captagon is made by Syrian factions linked to Assad’s inner circle and by Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanon-based militant group backed by Iran. Hezbollah militias in Lebanon have been exchanging fire with Israel on its northern border as Israel has moved deeper into the Gaza Strip to weed out Hamas militants.
Black-market Captagon, which can contain a wide range of other substances including amphetamine and caffeine, is not widely produced or available in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department.
But its use by forces attacking U.S. troops in the Middle East has sparked concern at the highest levels of the U.S. government since it
According to alast June, the U.S. government has developed an inter-agency strategy for disrupting the global Captagon trafficking networks.
The unclassified version of that strategy says that the Syrian Captagon trafficking network operates across 17 countries, ranging from Italy to Malaysia, including those involved in supplying precursors, production, transit and distribution to users. “Entities with known or suspected links to officials in Syria’s Assad regime, such as Hezbollah, are producing Captagon and counterfeit tablets purporting to be Captagon, in Syria and Lebanon,” the strategy says.
From there, large quantities of Captagon pills are shipped from Syrian ports such as Latakia or smuggled across the Jordanian and Iraqi borders by drug traffickers who are backed by armed groups and local tribal networks, the U.S. inter-agency strategy says. And while consumer markets in the Arabian Peninsula are the primary destination for Captagon pills, increasing amounts are now consumed in what were once purely transit countries, including Jordan and Iraq.
Fueling the rise of ISIS
The rise of the Islamic State, the U.S.-designated terrorist group also known as ISIS, was fueled by the abuse of Captagon, which boosted the fervor of its fighters and enabled them to go into battle without.
Ann Speckhard, director of the(ICSVE), interviewed many Islamic State fighters and said the drug gave them a sense of invincibility while allowing them to ignore the stresses, the hardship − and the physical pain − of battle.
“One guy who was pretty high up in ISIS said that when he went into battle, he was scared and that the other guys handed him a pill, and he went right up to the front line” of the Syrian war, Speckhard told USA TODAY.
“He said he didn’t know what it was, but it kept him up for two days and made him completely fearless and super-aggressive,” Speckhard said. “Later, he understood that it was Captagon that they had given him and that it was something that they were routinely giving to the fighters when they went into battle.”
Speckhard, who has also interviewed Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, said the atrocities committed by the group Oct. 7 were not part of its usual tradecraft.
“I was certainly surprised at the beheadings,” Speckhard said. “To me that’s not Hamas. And that was not their M.O. when I interviewed them.”
The latest in a long line of drug-taking attackers
The Islamic State and Hamas are not the first terrorist groups to use drugs to further their cause, or to steel their attackers for battle.
Tracy Walder, a former CIA counterterrorism operations officer and FBI agent, said she frequently encountered Taliban and even al-Qaida fighters stoned on opium, a narcotic, in Afghanistan in the years after the 9/11.
“And so the idea of terrorists using these things prior to attack to either sustain them or increase the brutality has definitely been founded,” said Walder, author of the CIA memoir “The Unexpected Spy.” “And then obviously you become addicted to it. It’s just a vicious cycle. And particularly among the lower-level fighters, it’s incredibly common.”
“It’s no different than if you look at some folks in our military, who engage in drug use and alcohol use to numb themselves from what they have to do,” Walder said. “And then they became addicted to it too.”
Despite those dangers, conventional militaries − including those of the United States and Britain − have even used amphetamines to help keep troops awake and alert.
According to one study published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, amphetamine was thoroughly tested by leading scientists during World War II for its effects in boosting or maintaining physical and mental performance, but the results were inconclusive.
“The grounds on which amphetamine was actually adopted by both British and American militaries had less to do with the science of fatigue than with the drug’s mood-altering effects, as judged by military men,” the study said. “It increased confidence and aggression, and elevated ‘morale.'”
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