In late 2018, Greek authorities busted a freighter carrying over $100 million worth of cannabis and the speed-like drug Captagon, evidence of a booming Mediterranean drug trade fueled by Syria’s civil war. An investigation into the vessel reveals a network of criminals associated with the shipment — with connections to the Assad family, a gang in Libya, and London-registered shell companies. By Ahmed Eid Ashour, Sameh Ellaboudy, and Maher Shaeri (OCCRP) and Cecilia Anesi (IrpiMedia)
On the evening of December 2, 2018, the cargo ship Noka set sail from the Syrian port of Latakia, bound for eastern Libya.
The vessel was packed with goods sent by two agents outside Damascus. Its real cargo, however, wouldn’t show up on any official ledger.
Stashed in double-bottom shipping containers amid spices, coffee, and sawdust lay over $100 million worth of hashish and Captagon, a synthetic stimulant wildly popular in parts of the Middle East.
Just past Cyprus, the Noka switched off its automatic identification system, a device that announces its position to other ships and is used to avoid collisions. But following a tip-off and aided by aircraft from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Greece’s Hellenic Coast Guard intercepted the Syrian-flagged ship on December 5 as it passed the island of Crete. After a search they seized the drugs and arrested its crew of 11.
At the time, the Noka haul was Greece’s largest-ever seizure of Captagon and its second-largest seizure of cannabis in at least 25 years, evidence of a bustling maritime drug trade that has flourished in the Mediterranean basin since the chaos of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
“Captagon” is a brand name for the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride, produced in West Germany in the 1960s as a treatment for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, and depression. Banned in the 1980s, counterfeit Captagon pills developed a following in the Middle East, particularly in Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar — and more recently among fighters in Syria.
Today’s illicitly produced “Captagon” pills typically stray from the original formula, combining amphetamine with substances such as caffeine, theophylline, and paracetamol. But the pills are still usually designed to resemble the original tablets. The double “C” logo stamped on each pill earned Captagon the nickname “Abu Hilalain,” which means “father of the two crescents” in Arabic.
Since its conflict started more than a decade ago, Syria has grown into the region’s preeminent Captagon supplier. Over the last few years, a growing number of shipments of Captagon originating in Latakia have been seized at Libyan, Italian, Greek and Romanian ports. The largest haul, seized at the port of Salerno near Naples in June 2020, included more than 14 tons of Captagon worth an estimated 1 billion euros on the street.
As the trade has grown, so have allegations that figures and militias linked to the Syrian regime are closely involved.
Now, by examining Greek, Italian, and Libyan court documents, company registration data, and ship tracking data, and by conducting interviews with law enforcement officials and experts, OCCRP and IRPI have uncovered previously unreported details about a network of Syrian criminals and shell companies linked to the Noka and the wider Captagon trade.
Many of the trails lead back to Latakia, a Mediterranean port city under tight government control and dominated by the army’s infamous Fourth Division, a unit directed by President Bashar Al-Assad’s brother, Maher Al-Assad.
Reporters found that the man who owned the Noka, a Syrian named Taher Al-Kayali now based in Latakia, was convicted in Italy in 2015 for stealing and smuggling luxury yachts.
Kayali also has ties to Mudar Al-Assad, a cousin of Bashar Al-Assad, whose company controls a marina and tourism complex in Latakia where Kayali runs a cafeteria.
Court documents from a related trial in Benghazi, Libya, also reveal extensive details about the operations of the Syria-to-Libya gang which had allegedly been set to receive the Noka’s shipment. Four alleged members of the gang were sentenced to death by firing squad for their role in the Noka and other shipments into Libya.
Assad’s cousin, a convicted smuggler
The Noka’s owner, Taher Al-Kayali, 60, lived in Turin, Italy, with his Italian wife and their two children before relocating to Latakia in 2015. While in Italy, Kayali was convicted in two separate criminal cases.
According to a 2007 report from news agency Adnkronos, Italian police arrested him for leading a gang that smuggled stolen luxury cars out of the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands to countries including the United Arab Emirates and Japan.
He was convicted in 2010 of criminal association and receiving and selling stolen goods, but was later pardoned.
A more serious case came in 2013, when a judge in Pesaro, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, issued a warrant for his arrest. This came after a police operation exposed how an international gang had smuggled stolen luxury yachts across the Mediterranean basin.
A 163-page verdict obtained by IrpiMedia shows that Kayali and another Syrian were ordering the theft of the yachts through Italian associates, who organized the thefts in Italian ports, then drove the stolen boats to countries like Croatia, Egypt, or Greece.
Italian police referred to Kayali as a ringleader of this group and charged him with theft and handling stolen goods. In January 2015, he was sentenced in absentia to six and a half years in prison.
By that time, however, Kayali had moved to Latakia, and was never arrested.
Reached by email, Kayali said it was “unfortunately true” that he had been convicted of the crimes, but that the charges misrepresented what happened. Calling Italy his “second country,” he said that in the case of the stolen luxury cars, he had merely purchased a BMW X6 from someone who later declared it to an insurance company as stolen.
He said the yacht-theft case was based on a misunderstanding, stemming from the fact that some people obtained yachts in Italy and then traveled on them to the Middle East “using papers considered here as correct but in Italy as illegal.”
Kayali, who denies having anything to do with the drug trade, later set up various shell companies outside Syria through which he has continued to do business.
On March 4, 2017, he registered a company called Neptunus Overseas Limited at 27 Old Gloucester Street in London, a four-story residential building used by hundreds of companies as a fake address.
The same year, he set up another company in Latakia, Neptunus LLC, which describes itself as a maritime agency, providing vessel management and support and supply of vessels. According to Latakia port authorities, the company is owned by Taher Al-Kayali and a partner named Yasser Al-Sharif. Reporters were unable to find any additional information about Sharif.
On November 3, 2018, Kayali used Neptunus to buy the Noka from a Lebanon-based company, Medlevante Overseas Ltd, which had become the ship’s registered owner in February 2018.
Kayali said he rented the Noka out to a company known as the “Lamira Company” to operate a shipping link called the Lamira Line running between Latakia, Benghazi, and other Mediterranean ports.
A Greek document from the case said the Noka’s official cargo was sent by the Daboul and Mufti Company, based outside Damascus, and Mohammad Hani Abdeen in Damascus, who would later be sentenced to death for his role in the Noka shipment, and other alleged trafficking, by the court in Benghazi. Daboul and Mufti run a company that manufactures chemical products, including detergent, which had been used in the Noka shipment to disguise the smell of the drugs.
Kayali said that after he rented out the Noka, the boat ran two cargo trips from Latakia to Benghazi, and was stopped on the second by the Greek coast guard, which found “prohibited items” — a reference to the drug haul — “placed inside the containers’ floor, not in the body of the vessel or in the cargo.”
“We fully cooperated with the Greek authorities and were finally able to obtain innocence for the crew, the vessel and the cargo but after we incurred heavy losses,” he said.
He pointed to the fact that the crew had been released.
“God willing, the ship will return to its motherland as the crew did a while back. As for the goods, we informed the owners to take them and to have them shipped to wherever they like.”
Kayali then wished OCCRP luck finding “the real criminals,” and stopped responding to emails.
Who Ran the Lamira Line?
The Noka was used to service the so-called Lamira Line, a maritime link between Latakia and other eastern Mediterranean ports launched four months before the Hellenic Coast Guard busted the Noka and apparently halted shortly after.
But who exactly controlled the route is difficult to determine. Reporters were unable to find company registration records for any “Lamira Company” in either Lebanon or Syria.
In fact, beyond a December 2018 Facebook promotion by Syria’s transport ministry, which showed what it said was the Noka running the Lamira Line in Benghazi on Nov. 8, 2018 — there is little official evidence the line existed at all.
In August 2018, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian regime, ran a short piece announcing that the Lamira Line had been launched by the Latakia-based Neptunus Company.
But Kayali told OCCRP that his company Neptunus had rented the Noka to the Lamira Company to service the line. He said his company had run advertisements for the Lamira Line, but did not say who owned the company behind it.
A Greek court document offered more details, saying that the Noka was managed by Li-Marine Inc., a company based in both Beirut and Latakia whose name has a similar spelling as “Lamira” in Arabic.
But the trail ended there. The office manager of Li-Marine Inc. told OCCRP they were only in charge of running a technical inspection of the vessel’s engine room and hull at the request of Neptunus Company.
A spokesperson for Li-Marine in Beirut further insisted that the company was distinct from the Lamira Company, saying it was “a Lebanese company … responsible for shipping” and that it had a contract with Neptunus. Asked for a copy of the contract, the spokesperson directed OCCRP to a Neptunus email account.
Assad Family Fortress
With the growth of the Captagon trade have followed increasing suspicions of Syrian regime involvement. Latakia — where the Noka was launched and Kayali’s companies operate — is known as an impenetrable Assad fiefdom. In recent years, it has also come to be the source of much of the world’s Captagon.
Historically, illicit Captagon has been produced in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Lebanon, but production grew in Lebanon after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, as Hezbollah sought to replenish its coffers. The Bekaa Valley along the border with Syria — also a site of illegal cannabis cultivation — became a major manufacturing center.
The Syrian civil war marked a turning point, as Captagon demand surged among fighters. Production gradually shifted into Syria, taking advantage of both the chaos of the war and the production and transport infrastructure — such as functioning roads, electricity, and running water — that was already in place. Syria was the region’s second-largest supplier of pharmaceuticals before the conflict.
By 2013, confiscation patterns showed Syria had become “the new Captagon capital of the world,” according to a 2016 article in Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs. With agriculture, oil, and manufacturing in tatters, drug exports are now among Syria’s top sources of foreign currency.
Although reliable data is scarce, there are indications that the Captagon trade may now be among Syria’s most profitable economic sectors. The 1-billion-euro, 14-ton Salerno bust, for example, was worth more than Syria’s total formal exports of about $700 million in 2019.
By analyzing five drug shipments that left Syrian ports between June 2019 and August 2020 — seized in Greece, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Romania — the Middle East and North Africa Maritime Development Program, a London-based research institute, estimated that drug smuggling from Syrian ports may be bringing in some $16 billion a year.
The price of a pill can vary widely depending on quality and location, with prices reportedly as low as a few dollars in Syria even before its recent financial collapse, and as high as $25 per pill in the Gulf. The estimate from Italian authorities for the Salerno bust came out to around 12 euros per pill.
Adnan Haj Omar, who led the research team, told OCCRP that the size of the busts — and the fact that they were all ignored by Syrian state media — suggested that an organized drug transit network was behind the trade, able to influence state institutions and decision-making bodies. The fact that the smooth export of Captagon required “agents of exporters, customs clearance and shipping offices” to falsify documents also implied official collusion, he said.
Syrian Customs, in charge of controlling maritime exports and the imports and transit of goods, did not reply to a request for comment.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions.
The Journal of International Affairs report pointed to the ability to quickly shift smuggling routes in reaction to increased enforcement. In 2015, for example, after a crackdown by Turkish border guards, alternate routes through Jordan and Lebanon quickly saw a surge in traffic. The report suggests that centralized coordination is responsible for the majority of the Captagon smuggling, or that the organizations involved are coordinated — again implying alignment with the Assad government.
Researchers also cite the fact that so much of the Captagon trade originates from Latakia. Syria’s coastal areas are the historic heartland of the country’s Alawite minority, from which the Assad family hails, and the region has been a major center of loyalist support throughout the war. The Assad family hometown, Qardaha, is less than 30 km outside Latakia.
Latakia is particularly associated with Bashar Al-Assad’s younger brother, Maher Al-Assad, who heads the army’s Fourth Division.
A local journalist told OCCRP that “nothing leaves the area” without the approval of Maher Al-Assad’s troops, adding that the Captagon trade “is a huge source of income to fund them and the militias that work under them.”
Kayali runs a cafe within this coastal stronghold, inside the resort owned by another Assad relative, a cousin named Mudar Al-Assad.
The Libyan Links
While some Captagon moves overland via neighboring Jordan and Iraq to the oil-rich Gulf states, overseas routes from the Syrian coast are also popular because smugglers can avoid checkpoints and border crossings, allowing larger quantities to be moved with less risk.
Libya has increasingly become a key node on this route, from where drugs are moved to neighboring Chad, Egypt, or directly to the Gulf, according to researchers.
The link between Syria and Libya appears to have grown since 2014, when the renegade Libyan General Khalifa Haftar launched his Operation Dignity campaign to expel Islamist forces from Benghazi and came to control much of eastern Libya. Haftar and the Assad regime found themselves on the same side of a regional geopolitical divide, both backed by Russia and fighting forces backed by Turkey.
In May 2020, Fathi Bashagha, interior minister in the Tripoli-based government recognized by the United Nations and backed by Turkey, accused the Assad regime, and Haftar, of benefiting from the Syria-to-Libya drug pipeline.
A document obtained by OCCRP from a court case in Benghazi related to the Noka shipment shows how this trade works. Particularly revealing are the operations of a gang allegedly led by Mahmud Abdulilah Dajj, a Syrian-Libyan whom the court sentenced in absentia to death by firing squad.
On July 21, 2019, the Benghazi Court of Appeals handed down a verdict accusing Dajj — who is now in Syria — and his aides for involvement in the Noka shipment, as well as three shipments seized in Libya: one in the Al Khums port near Tripoli in western Libya, one in Benghazi, and another in Tobruk in eastern Libya.
The gang was exposed after the Benghazi Customs Directorate raided a depot Dajj had rented in Bouatney, a residential and industrial area east of Benghazi, and seized “a huge amount of hashish” hidden under false floors of containers — just like the drugs stored on the Noka.
According to court documents, the shipment was sent by the Damascus-based Mohammad Hani Abdeen — the same man identified by Greek authorities as one of the consignees for the Noka shipment — to a Benghazi-based company called the Libya East Company, which received the shipment and was responsible for clearing it through customs on Dajj’s behalf.
Dajj also allegedly hired two men in Syria as aides: Mohammed Saad and Hashem Ajjan.
To receive the cargo, a company owned by Dajj, Al Tayr International Trading, rented the Bouatney depot, paying a local man the monthly rent of 8,000 Libyan dinars — about $5,700 — a year in advance, the Libyan sentencing document says. Dajj himself usually arrived in Libya two days before the shipments arrived, and left after the containers were cleared.
The court papers say Dajj asked a representative of the Libya East Company to bribe customs officers so that consignments arriving at Benghazi would be cleared without an inspection.
The Libyan company was promised 5,500 Libyan dinars — a little over $3,900 — for every 40-foot container cleared and 3,500 dinars for every 20-foot container. The Libya East Company’s local clearance agent told the court he had received a payment from the accountant at Dajj’s depot.
Once the traders were handed their “legal goods,” including biscuits and juices, the emptied containers would be taken inside the depot, the false floors dismantled, and the smuggled drugs removed.
Saad and Ajjan told investigators that they had done the work for Dajj, receiving $10,000 apiece for each container. Then they bundled the drugs into blankets, packed them into cardboard boxes, and loaded them into a refrigerated truck which Dajj drove to an unknown destination, they said.
According to a court official, Saad and Ajjan — both of whom were sentenced to death by firing squad — are still in prison.
In an email to OCCRP, a spokesperson for Al Tayr International Trading in Damascus denied that the company had anything to do with the Noka shipment and claimed the depot in fact belonged to “Nutunus Company” in Libya. Al Tayr has continued to operate despite the court ruling, promoting maritime shipments between Syria and Libya on its Facebook page.
A Blossoming Trade
With the economies of both Syria and Libya decimated, and armed groups and militias controlling part of their territories, there is little reason to believe the Captagon trade will decline any time soon. In one of the latest busts, more than 5.3 million pills were found in Saudi Arabia hidden in a shipment of pomegranates.
Muhammad Abdul Rahman Al-Fitouri, media adviser to Libya’s new Interior Minister Khalid Tijani Mazen, told OCCRP that he did not expect smuggling to ease in the country, even with a new unity government installed under a peace deal between Haftar and the Tripoli-based government. Even matters as simple as “installing x-ray machines in Libyan ports to detect contraband” would be difficult for the temporary authorities, he said.
As for Kayali, he has emerged relatively unscathed from his links to the Noka, and appears to be benefitting from Assad family ties.
He continues to run a cafeteria in Latakia’s Marina Resort & Spa through an annual contract, while docking his private 16-meter yacht at a nearby club.
The marina complex is meanwhile owned by the Syrian Investment and Development Corporation, half of whose shares are held by President Bashar Al-Assad’s cousin Mudar Al-Assad.
Though Mudar’s father, Rifaat Al-Assad, went into exile after a failed 1984 coup attempt against his brother, former President Hafez Al-Assad, there appears to be no ill will between Mudar and the current regime.
Asked about his relationship with Mudar, Kayali told OCCRP he is a “friend I am honored to have,” but denied the two had business ties. OCCRP attempted to reach Mudar for comment by courier service through his Damascus-based company, but the delivery was refused.
When asked about Maher Al-Assad — the president’s brother whose army Fourth Division maintains a stranglehold over Latakia — Kayali said he would consider it “an honor” to one day meet him.
Stelios Orphanides (OCCRP) and Evagelia Kareklaki contributed reporting.