"Jihad drug" conquers former Daesh stronghold in central Iraq

Captagon has become a way of escaping from reality

AP/KHALID MOHAMMED  -   Archive image of Iraqi demonstrators

The Daesh terrorist group was expelled in 2015 from the city of Ramadi, in Iraq's central desert and crossed by the Euphrates River, but the radicals have left a poisoned legacy for its population: captagon, known as "the drug of jihad".

This amphetamine, which suppresses the sensation of fear and fatigue, was widely used by Daesh fighters during the fighting in Iraq and Syria, where they conquered entire regions in 2014 and were not defeated until 2017 in the former and 2019 in the latter.

It is now mostly produced in Syria and enters Iraq through the long and porous border between the two countries, with Al-Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, as its main transit point.

Captain Said of the Ramadi police shows images from his phone of the latest seizure of the substance: hundreds of yellow pills hidden in the tyres of a truck and inside a barrel of petrol, ready to be distributed and sold for consumption.

The security forces conduct daily patrols, as well as drug raids and visits to Ramadi's industrial district, where the captain also distributes leaflets to raise awareness among mechanics and customers.

"We started our tour here because we caught two 'pushers'. We also give people our contact details and tell them to call us if they have any information or if they notice anything suspicious," he tells EFE during one of these patrols.

AP/KHALID MOHAMMED - The Iraqi riot police
From transit to consumption

Al-Anbar was one of the main points of entry of captagon into Iraq, but little by little it began to be consumed by its population, battered by decades of war and neglect by the central government, thus resorting to this narcotic to cope with their harsh situation.

Faced with a lack of basic services such as electricity and growing unemployment, what is known as the "jihadists' drug" has become a way to escape from reality and stay awake for days at an affordable price of less than three dollars.

Ahmed, a 23-year-old codename, graduated in computer science from Ramadi University and speaks fluent English, but is forced to work small jobs during the day and night, with little sleep, in order to survive. The captagon allows him to cope with these schedules.

"For us, everything is bad here. The living conditions, the work, the security... We don't feel safe (...) And if you ever find a job, you will work too many hours without being paid well," he whispers to EFE as he puts one cigarette after another to his lips.

AFP/ASAAD NIAZI - Demonstrations in Iraq
Trafficking as the only way out

Captagon has also attracted many who began trafficking the substance to support themselves and face harsh prison sentences.

Handcuffed in a Ramadi police station, Abdallah, the codename of one trafficker, was arrested in late August near Al-Qaim on the Iraqi-Syrian border and has been detained awaiting trial ever since.

He admits in an interview with EFE that he knew the risks and consequences of trafficking: "I know that I now face life in prison. I made a mistake and I accept the consequences. But I had no choice. I couldn't find a job and that's all I could find to do".

Captain Said reveals that he was arrested for possession of 150,000 captagon pills, which is punishable by life imprisonment. The same sentence applies to users.

According to a report this year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in 2019 Saudi Arabia seized 146 million amphetamines and Jordan 23 million, most of them produced in Syria and Jordan, which share a border with each other and with Iraq. In Iraq, 600,000 pills were intercepted.

AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE - Iraqi-Syrian border area

But beyond persecution, some activists in Ramadi seek to remove the stigma surrounding those who were forced into dealing or using out of desperation, and who are now marginalised in this conservative Muslim community in the middle of the desert.

"What we want to achieve with our campaign is that users are not treated as criminals. Rather, we want them to have access to medical treatment to help them detox", explains a member of Peace for Ramadi, Nuriddin al-Hamdani.

The 28-year-old activist regrets that in Ramadi "anyone in possession of drugs is considered a criminal", an approach that does not help the rehabilitation of addicts or their reintegration.

So far, the provincial authorities have ignored requests to build a detoxification centre and continue to transfer drug users and dealers to prison, based on the strict penal code and also on the rejection of society.