Investigators in Italy are drawing connections between an Italian businessman and the Assad regime after 84 million Captagon pills were found in containers shipped to the company of the Italian citizen in 2020, according to a new report by the Italian Domani newspaper and the French Mediapart newspaper.
The story begins in 2020, when Italian authorities announced that they had seized about 14 tonnes (15.4 US tons) of the amphetamine Captagon arriving from Syria – about 84 million pills, worth around $1 billion – $12 per pill – in what they described as the world’s single largest operation of its kind.
While the authorities originally though ISIS was behind the shipment, the BBC and The Washington Post both reported that the authorities later reached the conclusion that entities linked to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Hezbollah terrorist movement had shipped the amphetamines. Hezbollah has denied the claims.
Used in the 1960s to treat depression and the sleep disorder narcolepsy that affects sleep-wake cycles, Captagon is one of several brand names for fenethylline hydrochloride, a drug compound belonging to a family of amphetamines that can inhibit fear and ward off tiredness.
The amphetamine is popular in the Middle East, and widespread in war-torn areas such as Syria, where conflict has fueled demand and created opportunities for producers.
Syria has been identified as one of the main sources of Captagon in the world, with some estimates placing the annual profits of the drug's trade for Syria as many times more the country's total formal annual exports.
The drugs arrived in Italy addressed to GPS SA, Global Aviation Supplier, a Swiss company owned by Italian citizen Alberto Eros Amato, 47, according to Domani. The shipment was traced back to the port of Latakia, a port controlled by the Assad regime.
In February, Amato was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the drug smuggling, although his lawyer announced that he would appeal the ruling.
According to the Italian report, Amato admitting during one of his interrogations that he had met a Syrian man of interest to investigators.
"The investigations have made it possible to identify some figures in Syria at the center of everything and we are concentrating on these," a source involved in the investigation told Domani. The report added that the prosecutor's office in Salerno, the Italian port where the Captagon arrived, had been contacted to share the information it had collected so far in order to help authorities in other countries construct a picture of Syrian drug trafficking.
The investigators used wiretapping and bank investigations in order to reconstruct in detail the method used by the group under investigation, according to the report. The payments for the drugs passed between Amato's company and the company of another customs agent from Salerno.
Police also linked Amato to Italy's criminal and mafia circles.
Who is Taher Al-Kayali?
One of the main suspects in the case is a Syrian man named Taher Al-Kayali, who has been linked to other Captagon shipments which originated in Latakia as well as the smuggling of stolen luxury cars. Investigators told Domani that Kayali is the real focus in the case.
"Good morning Boss! I am at the port waiting for your containers," read a message by Amato to Kayali on August 17, 2018, according to the report. The two talked not just about Captagon, but also tramadol, marijuana and ecstasy.
While Amato confirmed that he had been in communication with Kayali, he has denied that he was aware of the content of the shipments. Their first smuggling act took place in October 2019, when Kayali sent Amato four shipments of a number of different products that were intended for other Arab counties, including one shipment to Libya.
In 2018, a cargo ship belonging to Kayali was seized by Greek authorities on its way to Libya from Latakia and was found to be carrying $100 million worth of hashish and Captagon.
In June of last year, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and IrpiMedia reported that Kayali has ties to Mudar al-Assad, a cousin of the Syrian president. Kayali lived in Turin, Italy until relocating to Latakia in 2015.
Court documents from a trial in Benghazi, Libya also revealed details about a Syria-to-Libya gang which had allegedly been set to receive the shipment.
Kayali denied any role in the drug trade and claimed that he had fully cooperated with Greek authorities on the case, according to OCCRP. The Syrian citizen also denied that he had any business ties with Mudar al-Assad.
In response to questions by Domani, Kayali reiterated that he has "nothing to do with drug trafficking" and warned that he would "follow [his] lawyer's suggestions and is ready to file a libel suit."
"Usually I transport weed and ecstasy. Tramadol I know there is, I know how much it costs, but I've never asked to send."Taher Al-Kayali
Drugs were directed through Italy to Hatar's government in Libya
The Domani report stressed that while the wiretapping conducted on conversations between Amato and Kayali helped police collect new insights, it is difficult to fully conduct an investigation due to the countries in question (Syria and Libya) being uncooperative.
In another conversation intercepted between Kayali and Amato from 2019, the two discussed the possibility of smuggling tramadol to Libya due to requests by members of General Khalifa Haftar's government to Amato.
"Usually I transport weed and ecstasy," Kayali told Amato. "Tramadol I know there is, I know how much it costs, but I've never asked to send."
"As you know, here I am allowed to bring the goods from the Lebanese and have them come out and then transport them to Libya ...However, in Libya there are merchants who also charge to let people enter and then pass through Egypt ... if Haftar wants to increase the income of money, you can use his permission and work better ...So nothing enters the market, neither Syrian nor Libyan ... and then you have to understand that Haftar commands east Libya and politically is on our side (our government) ... Instead Tripoli is Syria's enemy number 1 and it was they who sent ISIS to our country," said Kayali, detailing the smuggling system between Syria and Libya, according to Domani.
Investigators also found links between Amato and Ali Ahmed Beinein, a Libyan suspected of being close with the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his children. Beinein has also been linked to flows of funds from Italy to a number of accounts in the UK, Libya, Malta and Russia. Investigators have been unable to link Beinein to the drug trafficking conducted by Amato.
The report by Domani and Mediapart is the latest of many to link the Captagon trade to the Assad regime.
In June, Der Spiegel published a report detailing the links between the Captagon trade and three Syrians and an Algerian being tried in Germany. The investigators in that case found proof that the Fourth Army Division, headed by Masher, the brother of the Syrian president, was earning money from the drug shipments through the Assad-controlled Latakia port.
According to Der Spiegel, Maher's deputy, General Ghassan Bilal, is thought to be the head of operations and a liaison to Hezbollah for the drug trade. A businessman, a former Syrian drug investigator, a regime militia commander and a watchman have all confirmed to Der Spiegel that Hezbollah runs a Captagon factory in Latakia.