It’s a scenario out of dystopian science fiction. Combat soldiers are given a substance – a drug – that turns them into  fearless, virtually superhuman fighters. Like the berserkers of Norse legend, they are able to fight ferociously for hours without food or rest. Unfortunately, this scenario is not science fiction. It’s all-too-real, and it’s happening in Syria.

The drug is known as fenethylline, which was first manufactured in the early 1960s by a German pharmaceutical firm called Degussa AG (now part of global conglomerate Evonik Industries). The brand name even sounds like that of an evil sci-fi warlord: Captagon. Beneath the convoluted web of religious, political and ideological conflict among at least four different groups is a dangerous, extremely addictive psycho-stimulant that turns the user into a savage killing machine who knows no fear nor mercy.

Users of this pharmaceutical drug report feelings of virtual invincibility. They are able to go for days without sleep, and lose all sense of fear – as well as the normal human inhibitions about taking lives. According to Dr. Ramzi Haddad of the Skoun drug treatment center in Lebanon, those who take Captagon are “talkative…you don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you’re energetic.”  Captagon, reportedly used by Syrian government forces and various rebel groups, is relatively easy to manufacture, using inexpensive, readily-available ingredients – and it sells for as much as $20 USD per pill.

Between 1961 and 1986, Captagon was prescribed as a treatment for what is known today as “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,” or ADHD. Doctors also used the medication as a treatment for depression and narcolepsy. Because it is highly addictive and subject to abuse, most nations have banned fenethylline.

Today, fenethylline is a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S., meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use” and lacks any safety standards. Furthermore, it is unlawful even to conduct scientific research on the substance. However, it is commonly available in the Middle East. Today, much of the world’s Captagon is made in Syria, which has long been a hub for the illegal narcotics trade. Because of its history as a prescription drug, a professor from Zayyed University speculates that Captagon “still retains the veneer of medical respectability” and “may not be viewed as a drug or narcotic because it is not associated with smoking or injecting.”

This dangerous narcotic is apparently ideal for those engaged in an ongoing armed conflict.  One former combatant told the BBC: “You’re awake all the time. You don’t have any problems, you don’t even think about sleeping, you don’t think to leave the checkpoint. It gives you great courage and power…you’re not even tired.”

At the same time, Captagon makes one oblivious to pain. A drug control officer in the western city of Homs, participating in interrogation of captured fighters, reported that prisoners “would laugh while we were dealing them heavy blows.” Interrogators had to wait for drug’s effect to wear off before proceeding.

Not surprisingly, while Captagon is appallingly effective, it is also equally dangerous; side effects often result in brain damage and psychosis.

The use of Captagon has spread beyond those who are doing the actual fighting; according to Reuters, non-combatants have started “experimenting” with fenethylline as well. Some abusers are as young as 12 years old. In Saudi Arabia, Captagon is used by students in order to pull off all-night study sessions, by young men looking to increase their sex drive and ability, and by women as a weight-loss aid.

Increasing abuse of Captagon has the potential of escalating the Syrian conflict even further. It also raises an even more disturbing possibility. Because the substance is easily and inexpensively manufactured and can be sold at a huge mark-up, drug pushers in the region have a powerful incentive to see the civil war continue and escalate. Havocscope, an organization that keeps track of black market activity across the globe, reports that drug trafficking in nearby Saudi Arabia is a $6 billion business – despite the fact that penalties include execution.

Unfortunately, conditions in Syria make it virtually impossible to know just who is behind the Captagon trade. Masoud Karimipour of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime points out: “Syria is a tremendous problem in that it’s a collapsed security sector [with] many criminal elements and organized networks…there’s a great deal of trafficking being done of all sorts of illicit goods. But what is being manufactured there and who is doing the manufacturing, that’s not something we have visibility into from a distance.”

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.