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This is Your Jihad on Drugs

Cache of weapons and drugs in Daykundi province, courtesy ResoluteSupportMedia/flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 7 March 2016.

Santa Claus is commonly imagined as a jolly, benevolent figure who delivers presents to deserving children all over the world. However, another version of Santa Claus exists in the organized crime underworld of Belgium where a Moroccan named Khalid Zerkani is commonly known as “Papa Noel.” Before his arrest, Zerkani would routinely handout money and presents to at-risk youth in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, luring them into his organization. Unlike ordinary organized crime groups that engage in illegal activities for personal enrichment, Zerkani’s group used its criminal proceeds to finance trips of recruits from Europe to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). One notorious recruit of Zerkani’s was Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the ringleader of the Paris terrorist attacks.

The link between crime, radicalism, and ISIL has only recently come into greater focus. Oil smuggling, extortion, and sex trafficking in ISIL-controlled territory are well-known, yet other crimes like drug production, trafficking, and consumption are not. It is important to better understand drug use and the drugs trade because both are helping ISIL commit atrocities and wage its campaign of terror. Viewing ISIL and other jihadist groups as mere collections of drug-crazed fanatics, however, would be a caricature. Organizations like ISIL use drugs for tactical, operational, and strategic reasons that are historically consistent with the behavior of other violent groups in the past. It is worth considering drug consumption within ISIL and other jihadist groups as we consider how to fight them.

ISIL and other jihadist groups have not been deterred by Islam’s theological proscription against drug use and intoxication. They are able to rationalize their use of drugs as doing what is necessary to defeat their enemies. In fact, members of jihadist groups from West Africa to the Hindu Kush consume a wide range of narcotics as a way to enable their violent operations. Jihadi suicide bombers, for example, have been known to consume drugs as varied as heroin, meth, and Ritalin to steady themselves before detonating their devices. In Mali, jihadist fighters have taken advantage of cocaine being trafficked through their territory bound for European markets. Not only do they earn profits from “taxing” shipments as they transit through areas they control, they have used cocaine while committing atrocities. Drug consumption by jihadists is not a new phenomenon. During the Soviet–Afghan War, Afghan soldiers and the mujahedin routinely used hashish before and after violent engagements. When fighters ingest drugs to meet religiously inspired goals, they are imbued with not only courage but also a sense of righteousness. For them, drug use is not immoral, but sacred because it helps an individual link the earthly with the divine. This clear divide between drug consumption to enable religious goals and recreational drug use for pleasure is evident with ISIL’s execution of casual drug users and addicts who live in territory under the group’s control.

ISIL’s Drugged Jihad

The drug of choice for ISIL members is an amphetamine known as Captagon. Invented in the 1960s, Captagon (also known as Fenethylline) was originally used to treat hyperactivity but it was later heavily restricted and became illegal in many countries after 1986 due to the side effects of emotional detachment and sleeplessness, side effects which its consumers in ISIL relish. A Lebanese Captagon manufacturer who supplies drugs for various groups fighting in Syria says that those who consume the drug “have a thirst for fighting and killing and will shoot at whatever they see. They lose any feeling or empathy for the people in front of them and can kill them without caring at all. They forget about their mother, father, and their families.” Drug use and drug trafficking are not new in the region where ISIL and other jihadist groups currently operate. In fact, the manufacturing base for Captagon — and its trafficking routes in the Bekaa Valley, northern Syria, and southern Turkey — existed long before the Syrian civil war and the emergence of ISIL. In 2014, ISIL captured a pharmaceutical plant in Aleppo that produced Captagon. The drug is cheap and easy to make. Many of its precursor chemicals come into Syria across the Lebanese and Turkish borders.

ISIL has been able to produce and distribute Captagon and other amphetamine-like drugs, and to control longstanding drug transit routes in the region, earning money for its cause and dispensing drugs to members of its ranks.

For ISIL, the encouragement of drug use in its ranks appears to go as far back as the days of the group’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Numerous U.S. military commanders claimed to have fought drugged insurgent fighters from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group. Hideouts used by Zarqawi’s fighters were frequently found littered with drug paraphernalia. As with AQI, ISIL has supplemented its ranks with criminals and former prison inmates who have links to the drug trade. In addition, Syrian President Bashar Assad released many drug criminals who he hoped would fight for the regime, but ended up defecting to ISIL. The group’s membership is also filled with Sunni ex-convicts who were freed from prisons when ISIL captured Iraqi towns and cities.

The Setting and Set of Drug Use in War

ISIL’s “Captagon Caliphate” is consistent with what Mary Midgley in her book Beast and Man argues is a universal human drive to seek intoxication, whether during war or in peacetime. Indeed, as Paul Gahlinger argues, the many reasons individuals use drugs in times of peace are the same as the reasons for using them in an atmosphere of organized violence: to numb the body, for recreation, to fit in with a social group, for social functioning, for mind expansion, to connect with the divine, to improve performance, to change the body, and for self-medication. These reasons are a combination of what sociologists have labeled the “setting and set” — the physical and social environment in which the drug is taken is considered the “setting” while the intended effects on the consumer are known as the “set.” When placed together in the context of ISIL, the set is the individual’s violent capacity and tolerance for violence and the setting is the violent expansion, consolidation, and protection of their self-proclaimed state and theocratic ideology.

Setting and set often reinforce each other during war, which appears to be happening with ISIL. Drugged members of ISIL overlook the risk of losing mental clarity in battlefield decision-making. From the outside, mental clarity would seem more advantageous than being strung out. However, much like drug use in peacetime, “gains generally loom larger than risks [because] gains tend to be immediate.” In other words, feeling intoxicated in the moment wards off feelings of jeopardy, danger, and consequence. The atmosphere of organized violence often mitigates an individual’s fears and concerns — the gain of cheating death outweighs the possibility of impairment, illness, or injury.

ISIL territory generates a rich atmosphere for its members to consume drugs. The group has undermined government institutions and civil society that would typically provide social constraints on drug abuse. As these constraints have been eroded, the setting and set that lead an individual to use drugs have intensified. An individual fighter is under more pressure to follow his peers and encourage a friend to use a drug when traditional constraints are removed and when an individual must demonstrate his bravery and honor. Drug use allows an individual to “prove himself” to his comrades and eases his transition into the context of hostility and organized violence. The consumption of drugs, therefore, aids in fostering small group cohesion as individuals experience and survive danger with their fellow comrades.

In such an atmosphere, jihadist fighters are just as likely to be susceptible to common reactions to violence as members of professional militaries. They will experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and many of them will self-medicate to cope with attacks and their commission of atrocities. ISIL came to prominence with its video campaign of beheading Western journalists and aid workers; it burned a Jordanian pilot alive and continues to commit atrocities such as crucifixions and rape. Al Nusra has beheaded and crucified enemy fighters; Boko Haram has beheaded villagers, accused spies, and a Nigerian air force officer.

For ISIL and other jihadist groups, drug use has clear operational and strategic benefits. Drug consumption helps these groups enhance their fearsome reputations as they commit atrocities to support their ideology, instill fear among people and draw others to their cause. The captured Iraqi community of Yazidis suffered what John Mueller in his book Remnants of War describes as “carnival” where militant groups seize a town, then celebrate by consuming drugs and following up with orgies of rape, torture, and murder of local residents. Female Yazidi survivors testified to the United Nations about drug-intoxicated ISIL fighters raping women and girls while massacring other residents as the group entered their town and consolidated its power.

Included in these groups’ use of drugs for operational and strategic purposes is the recruitment of child soldiers. ISIL has drugged children as a way to turn them into hardened fighters. In a CBS News interview, a 15-year-old boy who was forced to fight with ISIL when his village in Syria was captured claimed that he was drugged with anti-anxiety medication before going into battle. This is consistent with the claims of other captured ISIL fighters who claim that young recruits are given drugs “that would make [them] go to battle not caring if [they] live or die.”

Responding to a Drug Jihad

In the near term, the nations and militaries arrayed against ISIL can do little to alter the group’s setting and set of drug consumption. Perhaps the most that can be done is to make policymakers and military members aware that drug consumption is integrated into strategy, operations, and tactics of groups such as ISIL.

Drug consumption will certainly affect the tactical behavior of jihadists on the battlefield. Those confronting jihadist groups are likely to encounter drugged fighters who may operate in unfamiliar and seemingly irrational ways. Drug consumption will create more unpredictability when countering these groups’ operations. For example, stand-offs and sieges against such groups may last longer if the fighters are on drugs such as Captagon. This occurred during the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Those who attacked hotels in Mumbai were high on at least one type of drug. On the other hand, the physiological symptoms of drug withdrawal in violent non-state actors have led to the outbreaks of violence. Forensic evidence revealed that some of the militants who seized over 1,000 hostages in a southern Russian school in 2004 were long-time heroin addicts who were in a state of withdrawal shortly before they killed more than 300 people, mostly children. Withdrawal symptoms can last from a few days in the cases of cocaine and heroin to a few months in the case of methamphetamine, thus varying the length and severity of unpredictable behavior.

Such unpredictable behavior will also likely be a factor in bringing conflicts with these groups to an end. Ceasefires, victories, and the possible decommissioning of these groups are required to set a foundation for greater political stability and personal security. However, as seen in other post-conflict environments involving drugged militants, creating the conditions for ceasefires and conflict resolution can be difficult due to the unpredictable behavior brought about by drug use and withdrawals. These problems are exacerbated by the already-loose nature of the command structure of many of these forces, and commanders often have little means to limit the amount and type of drugs that their fighters consume.

Although little can be done in the near term to alter the setting and set of jihadist groups in ways that reduce ISIL’s consumption of drugs, it remains important to include a focus on the group’s use of drugs and the effects they have on ISIL’s behavior. Practices like community mapping, used by big city police forces to chart who is dealing and consuming drugs, should be integrated into military campaign planning. To improve the clarity of their operating environment, conventional militaries fighting ISIL should consider designing and implementing similar intelligence practices to monitor and assess the ways these groups use drugs. Such awareness can help prepare militaries for encounters with drug-intoxicated jihadists by developing early warning signals in order to adjust their tactics in particular contexts. Knowing how and where the drugs are manufactured, along with how some narcotics arrive in ISIL territory, can contribute to tactics designed to confound drug consumption among its ranks. Drugs are a warmaking resource for ISIL. For the future, policymakers and military professionals should consider including drug manufacturing sites in campaign plans as well as hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies — which these groups often loot for drugs.

In territories regained from ISIL, detoxification programs should be integrated into efforts to help drugged fighters who were compelled to fight for the group. Such efforts can help break the setting and set linkage while contributing to post-conflict operations aimed at reintegrating combatants into society. While militaries may have their medical corps undertake such detoxification programs, merely providing security for NGOs who do so may be enough. Where possible, these programs should include members of society who form the basis of informal social controls on drug use. Surviving village elders, mayors and the displaced should be empowered again — detoxification programs run under traditional social norms may be more effective with the guidance from these individuals. Members of diaspora communities may be able to assist in reconstructing the rough outlines of these informal social controls. Once again, for the future, these programs need to become part of existing military doctrine on counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, and stability operations.

The non-medical use of drugs has been part of the history of war and violence; ISIL and other jihadist groups are proving to be no different in how their setting and set provide the motivation for individual fighters to use narcotics. As nations, militaries, and militias ramp-up their operations to reclaim ISIL-held territory, they will increase the motivation of the group’s fighters set to consume narcotics to cope with a more violent setting. An increased awareness of ISIL’s use of drugs may be helpful in producing strategies that can lead to its defeat as well as to the defeat of other likeminded groups.


Paul Rexton Kan is Professor of National Security at the U.S. Army War College and the author of Drugs and Contemporary Warfare (Potomac Books, 2009) and Cartels at War (Potomac, 2012). His forthcoming book is Drug Trafficking and International Security (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). The views expressed do not represent the U.S. government.

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