By Nicole Robinson*
On Feb. 16, a raid in a remote border town sparked an intense gun fight that left three security personnel and three drug traffickers dead. It may sound like a familiar story, but there are a couple of twists.
First, this did not happen along the U.S.-Mexico border. Rather, the raid took place at Haour Taala, a remote Lebanese village near the Syrian border. Second, the drug involved wasn’t cocaine or fentanyl. It was captagon, the drug of choice for smugglers in the Middle East.
A psychostimulant once used by Islamic State fighters to stay alert, Captagon has become the most in-demand narcotic in the region. Police there intercept millions of pills every week. Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been the most active in trying to combat the drug trade, but the market for Captagon continues to grow—and the drug trafficking is funding some of America’s greatest enemies in the region.
The $10 billion Captagon trade bankrolls Bashar al Assad’s dictatorship in Syria and provides substantial resources to Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s main proxy, to fund terror across the region. As Captagon has expanded to new markets, so too have the groups involved in trafficking the substance. In Iraq, militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are trafficking Captagon across Iraq’s porous border with Syria.
The PMF brings together some 67 different armed factions, most of which have ideological and material ties to Iran. Although officially integrated into the Iraqi Armed Forces in 2016, the PMF are considered an “independent military formation,” which means that they receive funds from the Iraqi defense budget but are excluded from the control or oversight of the Iraqi Defense Ministry. This status has allowed PMF members to provide cover for Captagon drug smugglers along the Syrian-Iraqi border while they are funded by the government in Baghdad.
According to Iraq’s minister of the interior, Iranian-backed groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah use PMF identity cards and PMF-marked trucks to evade detection through official border crossings into Syria. Their involvement in the trade has made Iraq a major market for Captagon.
Between January and August 2022, Iraqi counter-drug forces seized more than 14 million Captagon pills. In December, Jordanian authorities intercepted another 6 million pills at the Iraqi border. As Saudi Arabia and Jordan have tightened their border controls, smuggling across the porous Syrian-Iraqi border has increased.
Complicity and corruption at the highest levels of the Iraqi government have complicated efforts by Iraqi counter-narcotic authorities to stem the flow of drugs into the country. In 2018, Jawad Louay al-Yasseri, the son of the man who was at that time governor of Najaf province, was convicted of trafficking over 5.6 kilograms of cannabis and 7,000 Captagon pills. Four years later in 2022, Al-Yasseri and the other two individuals involved were quietly granted a presidential pardon following a request by then Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Khadimi.
The decision caused an outcry among journalists and members of parliament who alleged a back-door deal between the president, the prime minister, and Yasseri’s father, who stepped down from his post a day before the pardon was granted. A month later, the pardon was rescinded for further investigation.
Al-Yasseri’s father is not the first to provide political cover to those trafficking Captagon and other drugs into Iraq. Widespread corruption, weak rule of law, porous borders, and ongoing Iranian interference create a perfect environment for drug smuggling. Iraq’s new government, led by Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, has been active addressing the country’s drug problem, but he is likely facing pressure within his own Shia coalition to look the other way.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of the most violent militias groups within the Shia coalition, is known to traffic in Captagon. Such tensions within the government undermines the effectiveness of Iraq’s counter narcotics institutions.
Since the 1970s, the United States has been fighting its own war on drugs along the U.S.-Mexico border. It has learned the hard lesson that as the drug trade becomes more lucrative, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop.
The same holds true in the Middle East. Flush with cash, drug cartels tied to the Syrian regime and Iran will buy off more and more politicians, security forces, and other figures to secure drug routes and areas of control. Competition between different cartels to control the drug trade will lead to violence, leaving the Iraqi state and its people caught in the crossfire.
The drug war is just beginning in the Middle East. But already, Iraq is poised to become the next narco-state, with Iran the winner.
*Nicole is a senior research associate in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
This article is part of an agreement between El American and The Heritage Foundation.