17 Jun 2021
By Ahmed Eid Ashour, Sameh Ellaboudy, Maher Shaeri and Cecilia Anesi, OCCRP, 16 June 2021
OCCRP — 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.
Kayali: 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.
Read more at OCCRP
RiskScreen: Eliminating Financial Crime with Smart Technology
Advance your CPD minutes for this content, by signing up and using the CPD WalletFREE CPD Wallet