ROME: Italian police have seized 50 million euros worth of tablets of a synthetic opiate destined to be sold by the Islamic State (IS) group in Libya to raise funds for attacks, a court said Friday.
Financial police discovered over 24 million Tramadol tablets being transported from India to Libya at the port of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy.
The painkiller has been described as the "fighter drug" as it is known to be popular among jihadists for its ability to dull pain and suppress fatigue.
The haul is estimated to be worth 50 million euros ($58 million), and was found following a police crackdown sparked by the discovery of a similar shipment in Genoa in May.
Investigators believe the IS group planned to sell the tablets to its foot soldiers for the equivalent of two euros a tablet.
"According to the information shared with foreign investigative sources, the traffic of Tramadol is directly handled by IS to finance terrorist activities planned and carried out across the world," the court in the southern city of Reggio Calabria said.
Part of the money raised from the sales would also go "to subsidise terrorist groups and extremists operating in Libya, Syria and Iraq," it said in a statement.
The court said the seizure had been possible thanks in part to the DEA, the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
- Ties between IS, mafia? -
"Everything passes through Gioia Tauro, we can't really be surprised to uncover trafficking of this type of drug," prosecutor Gaetano Paci told La Repubblica daily.
But investigators said it suggested ties between the mafia and the IS: it is impossible to smuggle goods through the port without the agreement of the powerful 'Ndrangheta organised crime group, which has a steely grip on the zone.
"We've know about dealings between the 'Ndrangheta and organisations in the Middle East for a while," Paci said.
"Although the port has become a less of a 'safe zone' for clans due to investigative pressures, we have identified several different 'Ndrangheta families that seem involved in trafficking with Middle East organisations," he said.
Renzo Nisi, a financial police captain involved in the May operation in Genoa, said Tramadol, a powerful painkiller, "is produced extremely cheaply in India and Pakistan".
"The pills are used by fighters, terrorists, but by others too because they lower fatigue levels. You need to take four to five a day to get the results," he told Italian media.
Dependence on the drug, which is also used by Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria, has become a serious social problem in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
IS lost its de facto capital Raqa in Syria last month, and its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul earlier this year, but experts fear jihadists -- and their drug trade -- will simply move on to new havens.
The United States said in October that it is considering a stepped-up military presence in North, West and East Africa, where fighters are believed to have relocated.