New U.S. Sanctions Target Syrian Captagon Traffickers

Published: 28 March 2024

Captagon Syria USArmyDeadly Captagon pills seized by U.S. and Coalition partners in Southern Syria in May 2018. (Photo: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, License)

By Zdravko Ljubas

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on 11 individuals and entities for aiding financial crimes, drug trafficking, and the exploitation of Syrian resources by the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) highlighted Syria’s status as the leading producer and exporter of Captagon, a potent stimulant widely consumed across the Middle East and Europe.

The illicit Captagon trade has become a significant revenue source for the Assad regime, the Syrian armed forces, and paramilitary groups. Further, exploiting extractive industries with foreign assistance strengthens regime profits and Syrian money service businesses play a pivotal role in evading sanctions and facilitating financial transactions on behalf of the regime, according to OFAC.

“The Assad regime continues to employ a variety of schemes to evade sanctions and sustain its longstanding campaign of repression against its own citizens, including trafficking in illegal drugs, exploiting currency exchanges, and leveraging seemingly legitimate businesses,” Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson stated.

OFAC imposed the latest sanctions in line with Executive Order 13582 from August 2011, aimed at “blocking property of the government of Syria and prohibiting certain actions with respect to Syria.”

Moreover, the targeted individuals have also been designated under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, known as the Caesar Act, invoking secondary sanctions against those knowingly providing substantial support to the Syrian government.

The list includes two Syrian nationals, Taher al-Kayali and Mahmoud Abulilah Al-Dj, both allegedly involved in trafficking Captagon and mentioned in OCCRP’s 2021 investigation.

Al-Kayali, as stated by OFAC, owns and operates Syria-based Neptunus LLC, a company utilized for acquiring vessels used for smuggling Captagon and hashish, recognized as funding sources for the Assad regime.

One significant instance was the purchase of the cargo ship Noka, intercepted in 2018 by Greek authorities while transporting over US$100 million worth of Captagon and hashish from the Syrian port of Latakia to eastern Libya. Larger shipments of Captagon were later seized in Italy in the summer of 2020, as well as in Romania. Both were traced back to Latakia, as reported by OCCRP.

Nearly a year ago, both U.S. and U.K. authorities also imposed sanctions against Al-Kayali for his alleged involvement in Captagon trafficking.

Al-Dj, as outlined in OFAC’s statement, spearheaded operations involving numerous Captagon shipments, including the one on the intercepted Noka as well as three other seized in Libya.

Reportedly, he used his Syria-based firm, the Al-Ta’ir Company, to handle cargo linked to Captagon shipments and set up a lucrative smuggling route from Latakia to Benghazi, yielding hefty profits for Captagon traffickers. After facing drug smuggling charges in Libya and legal scrutiny over human trafficking and drug offenses against Al-Ta’ir, Al-Dj allegedly established another company, FreeBird Travel and Tourism.

According to OFAC, he also serves as the exclusive agent for designated Syrian airline Cham Wings in Libya.

The Captagon-related designations were closely coordinated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to OFAC.

The U.S. administration has also taken action against individuals and entities suspected of skirting existing sanctions against the Syrian regime, allegedly facilitating millions in illicit transactions, foreign currency transfers, and sanctions evasion schemes to bolster the Syrian government’s coffers.