‘Unprecedented’ drug use in Raqqa as city recovers from IS rule, say residents

A sign warns against drug use in Raqqa on August 4. Photo courtesy of the Raqqa Municipality.

AMMAN: Walking through the tattered streets of his city, Raqqa resident Muhammad Munir often comes across an uncomfortable sight—not the rows of flattened buildings or posters warning of unexploded mines beneath the rubble, but tell-tale signs of a spiralling drug problem in the former capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.

“I see young men of different ages stumbling through the streets, unaware of their surroundings, [and] it breaks my heart.”

“Even during Daesh, we didn’t see our youth in this state,” the 30-year-old says, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS), whose punishing rule over Raqqa came to end late last year following a months-long aerial and ground assault by Kurdish-led forces and the US-led international coalition.

There are no official statistics available indicating the extent of drug use or addiction in the northeastern province. However, several residents as well as local officials tell Syria Direct that Raqqa is seeing a burgeoning market of illicit substances—ranging from prescription drugs to pills and hashish—that have become particularly popular among the city’s youth.

In a region where, just months ago, violating an IS ban on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes could mean severe punishments including flogging, fines and reportedly even executions, the spread of drugs highlights the extent of the challenges—social as well as political—faced by residents during the transition away from years of IS rule.

‘They sell them in the streets, on carts and in shops’

When Tamer’s neighbor—a boy in his early teens—invited him to smoke hashish and sip arak on the banks of the nearby Euphrates River last spring, he was shocked.

“The kid wasn’t in school, but instead under a bridge smoking and drinking,” the 23-year-old, who returned to Raqqa in November, tells Syria Direct. "I asked myself, ‘Has it really come to this?’”

Testimonies from local residents suggest that drug use has become a prominent issue since the defeat of IS—one that has gone largely unaddressed by authorities until now. All of the residents who spoke with Syria Direct asked that their real names not be revealed, due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“Drugs have spread like crazy recently,” says 33-year-old resident Abdul Karim.

Ward, a 20-year-old civil society worker, meanwhile suggests that the “level of drug use is unprecedented.”

Captagon and hashish seized in Raqqa in July. Photo courtesy of Internal Security Forces in Raqqa.

Most of the residents who spoke with Syria Direct point specifically to hashish and pills—including both prescription medications and proscribed stimulants—as the drugs of choice. They list household names like tramadol (an opioid-like painkiller), zolam (an anti-anxiety medication), sudafed (a decongestant); but also captagon, a highly addictive, internationally banned amphetamine known to dull the senses and keep the user awake for extended periods. Captagon is commonly known as the “jihadi pill”—a reference to its reported popularity among militant groups, including IS.

“Pills are very prevalent here in the city,” says 40-year old Abu Hussein, a father of four and shop owner who recounts being approached by local dealers. “They sell them in the streets, on carts and in shops.”

Prescription drug abuse existed in Syria long before the conflict broke out in 2011, and the country has been a longstanding transit point for drugs bound for markets elsewhere in the region. But the war has provided ample cover for armed groups and governing authorities seeking an easy profit from the drug trade. Sale and production of stimulants have boomed as a result.

At the same time, a combination of widespread conflict-related injuries and a lack of pharmaceutical regulations has eased the spread of painkiller addiction in areas like formerly rebel-held northern Homs.

The issue of drug abuse has now come to the fore in Raqqa following the expulsion of IS, as activities and conversations previously conducted behind closed doors—if at all—have been brought into the open.

“No one talked about these things under Daesh,” says Abdul Karim, who was surprised to witness two young men openly exchanging pills in public recently. “Even cigarettes were difficult to get.”

Fadi, who works for a local civil society organization, admits that while “drugs are not new to Raqqa,” since the fall of IS, “they have become widespread among young people—especially teenagers.”

‘We want to rebuild...but who will be left?’

Despite the trend of drug use in and around Raqqa, residents and officials say that the local response has not been forthcoming, reflecting the limited capabilities of the local administration in a city still in the early stages of recovery. It also sheds light on the sheer scope of psycho-social needs among average Raqqans.  

“In this militarized period...there’s no legal authority regulating the matter [of illicit drugs] and protecting individuals from harming themselves, and there’s no civilian body [solely] dedicated to the issue either,” says Raqqa Municipality spokesperson Muhammad al-Abdullah, noting that the body’s role is still limited to awareness-raising among Raqqa’s youth—many of whom have gone years without formal schooling.

A Raqqa city market on August 2. Photo courtesy of the Raqqa Municipality.

Signs bearing images of illicit substances and morbid warnings, including “Your path to doom” and “Don’t let your life become colorless,” have started popping up around the city. Al-Abdullah says these are part of broader efforts by the municipality to tackle the issue, adding that officials have also approached religious leaders to discuss the dangers of drug abuse in their weekly sermons.

But al-Abdullah acknowledges that more needs to be done—specifically, by opening health centers focused on drug abuse and addiction, as well as bolstering the role of security forces in shutting down supply.

Jawan a-Thakheera, a member of the Raqqa Health Committee, says efforts to do just that are already underway and that local officials are “currently working with the security services to fight this issue.”

The Raqqa Health Committee is one of more than a dozen committees that make up the Raqqa Civil Council, a body established by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in April 2017 and tasked with governing the city after IS defeat.

However, several Raqqa residents who spoke with Syria Direct accuse fighters with the Kurdish-led SDF—which maintains military control over the area and close ties to the city’s governing bodies—of facilitating drug trade in the area.

“The Kurdish commanders are all working in this business,” claims Raqqa shopkeeper Abu Hussein.

Although an official SDF spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication, an SDF commander, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, denied the accusations and said his forces are committed to “regulation and diligence regarding the prohibition of drug trade and use.”

“If one official or officer did happen to be involved,” he added, “that wouldn’t implicate the entire force.”

Osama al-Khalaf, spokesperson for the Raqqa Civil Council, meanwhile downplayed the issue of drug abuse in Raqqa. “We don’t have drugs like cocaine and heroin,” he says, pointing to “regular rounds to pharmacies for oversight” by Health Committee representatives as well as preparations for a “plan to prevent the sale of medicines without an official prescription.”  

But despite an apparently renewed commitment by officials to raise awareness and crack down on pharmacies, 30-year-old resident Munir still says “no one is taking the issue [of drug use] seriously.”

“We want to rebuild Raqqa after Daesh destroyed it, but who will be left to do that if everyone’s always high?”  

With reporting by Abdullah Ismail and Muhammad Othman in Raqqa.

This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.