On 29 June, 2023, the BBC published a documentary entitled Captagon: Inside Syria’s drug trafficking empire on its Youtube channel and
on BBC iPlayer.
The documentary was claimed to be “a joint investigation by BBC News Arabic with investigative journalism network, OCCRP”, which had “discovered new direct links between this multi-billion dollar drug trade and leading members of the Syrian Armed Forces and President Bashar al-Assad's family”.
Whatever the veracity of the claims made linking this particular drugs trade to the Syrian Government, they are apparently founded upon the testimony of terrorists—in breach of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.
Captagon is one of several brand names for the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride. It is an addictive, amphetamine-type stimulant that was used as a pharmaceutical treatment for "hyperkinetic children" until its inclusion in Schedule II of the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971, after which its use was discontinued.
The United States listed fenethylline as a schedule I controlled substance in 1981, and it became illegal in most countries in 1986.
Abuse of fenethylline under the brand name Captagon became common in Syria among the terrorist groups. The production and sale of fenethylline generated large revenues which were used to fund weapons, but it was also used as a stimulant by combatants.
The BBC’s claim now is that the Syrian Government has taken over this trade in order to fund itself in the face of international sanctions.
The BBC’s apparent use of terrorists to build a narrative
The BBC’s Captagon documentary made use of two individuals whom they described as “opponents of the Assad government”. In fact these have been identified as members of the proscribed terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
According to Vanessa Beeley in an article on her Substack:
The BBC interviewed an officer in the Border Security Department (BSD) of HTS—Muath Al-Ahmad. There is not much information on this individual as he was recently appointed according to sources in Syria.
However, I was informed that the BSD is directly under the control of a character known as Badran or Abu Ahmed Hudud. Hudud means borders in Arabic and is related to the mission he received when he was with ISIS in Hasakah, north-east Syria. ISIS had previously sent him from Iraq to Hasakah.
He later pledged allegiance to Al Joulani and joined Al Qaeda. Currently he reports directly to Joulani and is responsible for a number of tasks within HTS.
The BBC did not identify Muath Al-Ahmad or disclose his affiliations.
The BBC then interviewed someone, who, it turns out, is an HTS spokesman in Idlib.
From Vanessa Beeley:
A researcher and former Syrian Arab Army soldier that I regularly work with, Ibrahim Al Wahdi, identified the interviewee as Hakim Al Dairi, [also known as] Diaa Al Din Al Omar—the spokesman for the General Security Agency of HTS.
And again, the BBC did not identify their ‘witness’ or his affiliations.
Has the BBC broken the law?
Section 12(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000 makes it a criminal office to:
invite support for a proscribed organisation (the support invited need not be material support, such as the provision of money or other property, and can also include moral support or approval)
The BBC, then, in promoting hooded and masked members of a terrorist organisation as reliable witnesses, could be argued to have invited support for them and their views, and have to broken the law in the process.
Last week, I wrote to the BBC press team, to BBC Director-General Tim Davie, and to Head of Programmes and Documentaries for BBC Arabic Tim Awford, asking them:
… could I get a comment from the BBC please about why a BBC documentary failed to inform their audience that the organisation interviewed in Idlib are in reality the intelligence arm of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS); a UK and US proscribed terrorist organisation formerly Jabhat Al Nusra (Al Qaeda) and that the specific individuals interviewed are responsible for war crimes in Syria including the murder of children in Idlib?
To date, there has been zero response from the BBC. No denials. Nothing.
And while the documentary is still available on the BBC World Service YouTube channel, it has been removed from iPlayer. Why? Again, they refuse to comment on this question.
This is not the first time the BBC has apparently worked with terrorist groups in Syria, of course.
As a result of broadcasting the Captagon documentary, the Syrian Government revoked the BBC’s media accreditation.
The Syrian Government cited the BBC’s history of “biased and misleading reports” as the basis for the decision and stated that the BBC failed to adhere to professional standards.
If you would like to find out more about the background to this story, you can read ‘BBC normalises a terrorist organisation to frame Syrian President’ on Vanessa Beeley’s Substack.
Finally, here is an excerpt from last Friday’s UK Column News Extra, with further discussion on the issue with me, Vanessa Beeley and Patrick Henningsen: