In the past three months investigators across Europe have intercepted thousands of pills of the Islamic State militant group’s (ISIS) favorite drug, Captagon. Nicknamed “jihad pills” or “the jihadists’ drug,” Captagon is a banned amphetamine-based substance that keeps users awake for long periods of time, dulls pain and creates a sense of euphoria.
On Wednesday, Dutch investigators said they stumbled upon a drugs lab churning out the pills in April. The investigators, who are still looking for two suspects they believe are associated with the facility, announced their find two months after Greek police arrested four people who were manufacturing the drug. During the raid, Greek officials confiscated 650,000 Captagon pills.
Captagon is one of the brand names for the drug fenethylline—other names include Biocapton and Fitton. It is a combination of amphetamine and theophylline, which relaxes muscle around the lungs and is used to treat breathing problems.
Though Greek and Dutch police haven’t said whether they believe the Captagon stashes they found were destined for ISIS fighters clinging to the last chunks of their caliphate, several returning jihadis have talked drug use by the group. According to one former ISIS fighter talking to CNN in 2014: “[ISIS] gave us drugs, hallucinogenic pills that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die” It seems likely, given testimony from other fighters, that these pills were Captagon.
The drug started as an alternative to amphetamines. A German company first synthesized fenethylline in 1961 and when they discovered it improved alertness doctors began prescribing it to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (then called “hyperkinetic reaction of childhood”). Students began using it to stay awake during study sessions and dieters began taking it to suppress their appetite.
However, in the 1980s many countries outlawed the drug on account of its addictive qualities, similar to its amphetamine relation. In 1981 the U.S. listed it as a schedule 1 controlled substance meaning that it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In 1986, the World Health Organization similarly listed it as a controlled substance.
Despite fenethylline’s fall from grace, it remains popular in the Middle East, notably in the deeply conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Though Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol and other drugs, many users see Captagon as an acceptable medical drug.)
Speaking to Newsweek , Dr. Raj Persaud, a fellow at the London-based Royal College of Psychiatrists, pointed out that 40 percent of Saudi drug users take Captagon, making the kingdom the biggest consumer of the substance. In October 2015, a Saudi prince was arrested after two tons of the pills were found aboard his private plane. (One pill of Captagon sells for around $20 in Saudi Arabia).
According to Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs, Captagon was historically manufactured in Eastern Europe, Turkey and Lebanon. Now, however, it’s predominantly made in Syria.
The reasons for this vary. The Syrian civil war has allowed for illicit activities to flourish while the various armed factions are always looking to make a quick buck. And then there’s the fact that many of the fighters need their regular supply of the drug on hand.
“The holy grail that armies around the world have been looking for is a drug that gives people courage,” says Persaud. 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 war.
Captagon, Persaud says, comes close to being the so-called holy grail. “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.”
Whether the drugs discovered in Europe were destined for fighters or Saudis, , Persaud has a note of caution for Captagon’s users. “Though generally speaking it’s a drug without side effects, overuse of Captagon can cause extreme depression, tiredness, insomnia and heart palpitations,” he says. “In rare cases it has caused blindness and heart attacks.”
With the immediate transformation it can have on people who take it, it’s easy to understand how Captagon would become the drug of choice in any war zone, but particularly one as brutally waged as ISIS.