When French special forces officers raided the hotel room of wanted ISIS terrorist Salah Abdelsalam in the Paris suburb of Alfortville last week, they found pizza boxes, syringes, test tubes and an amphetamine known as Captagon – a favorite among jihadi terrorists in the Middle East. The more Islamic State expands its actions, the more evidence there is that its fighters are operating under the influence of stimulants that help them overcome fear and fatigue.
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ISIS is far from the first murderous group to drug its fighters before battle, though. The Persian Hashashin did it way back in the 11th century, as did Japanese kamikaze pilots, African militias, Chechen fighters and Nazi soldiers.
Captagon (the trademark name for fenethylline) is a synthetic stimulant that is simple to manufacture and very cheap: one pill costs between $5 and $20. It was used in the 1960s for the treatment of attention deficit disorder in children, but was banned by most countries in the 1980s due to its high risk of addiction. The drug causes feelings of euphoria, extreme energy and reduces the need for sleep and food.
Hezbollah discovered the strong effect of the pill on its fighters and began to manufacture it commercially to bankroll its operations. For years, Lebanon was the world’s biggest producer of the drug, including cheap imitations: At its height, drugs were believed to have yielded Hezbollah an annual income of $6 billion, three times the amount that Iran gives the organization.
Islamic State also saw the potential and started its own production line. Syria has now taken over from Lebanon’s Bekaa as the main source of Captagon. ISIS fighters take it regularly, and those who have been captured or interviewed have talked about its effects, stating that they take it before battles and beheadings.
Two ISIS fighters caught in Turkey told the local newspaper Rudaw, “When we went into battle, we took the pills that made us euphoric.” Ali Daud, 23, told the newspaper: “It makes us feel big, strong, as if looking at the battle from above. You think the tanks are little birds that you can destroy with your sword. We took the drug only when we went into battle, for maximum effect.”
Drugs were an inseparable part of warfare in the 20th century, and not just in the Middle East. For example, Adolf Hitler realized early on the value of giving soldiers stimulants – especially the drug Pervitin, which was relatively common in prewar German society. The German army soon began testing the drug and making tactical use of it during World War II.
The Nazis’ first operational testing of drugs on soldiers was during the 1939 conquest of Poland. The pills were a methamphetamine better known today as crystal meth, given to soldiers who then reported that they were able to fight for days without feeling tired. The experiment was so successful that in the spring of 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, 35 million crystal meth and cocaine pills were distributed to the soldiers of the Wehrmacht. The Nazis also used Ya-ba, a drug in pill form that combined methamphetamine and caffeine, and which is still fairly common in East Asia (the name means “crazy medicine” in Thai).
In a letter discovered after the war, a Nazi doctor wrote, “I decided to give them Pervitin because they lay in the snow and were asking to die. A half hour later, they got up and reported feeling good. They began to march in straight columns and their spirit revived.” According to an American intelligence report published in recent years, Hitler himself was addicted to 74 different drugs, including crystal meth.
Methamphetamine, which was developed in Japan in 1919, was also given in large quantities to kamikaze pilots before they set out on their suicide missions against American ships.
In 1983, former Peruvian President Fernando Belaúnde Terry coined the term “narco-terrorism,” to describe terror attacks on Peruvian police officers who were fighting drug cartels. Today, though, the term refers to groups dealing in drugs to finance their operations, encourage enlistment and a fighting spirit.
The Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, financed most of its actions with drug money. Beginning in the 1990s, Afghanistan became a key grower and exporter of opium and cannabis – in 2000, an estimated 70 percent of the world’s opium came from Afghanistan. Taliban fighters themselves did not take opium and heroin, but mainly cannabis.
In Africa, meanwhile, child soldiers being kept in camps were given amphetamines and hallucinogens, which allowed the guerilla forces to maintain complete control over them.
Even in Gaza, a 2003 case was documented in which children under the influence of drugs were allegedly dispatched to attack Israelis: Two Gazan boys, ages 10 and 12, approached a synagogue in the Netzarim community in Gush Katif, armed with knives and looking to stab worshippers. The two were caught by soldiers before they could harm anyone and said they were under the influence of drugs. In Israel, it was said that this was a test of the boys’ courage set by Hamas operatives.
And in 2008, remains of ecstasy and cannabis were found on the body of Ghassan Abu Tir, an adult from East Jerusalem who carried out a bulldozer-ramming attack near Liberty Bell Park in Jerusalem, injuring 24 people before he was shot to death.