Why Tramadol Is the Suicide Bomber's Drug of Choice

The United Nations has warned of a rise in trafficking of synthetic opioid Tramadol in West Africa and the Middle East. It said the drug, found in the pockets of suicide bombers and arrested suspects, plays a "direct role in the destabilization" of the Sahel region, which is marred by terrorism.

"This raises the question of who provides the tablets to fighters from Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda, including young boys and girls, preparing to commit suicide bombings," said Pierre Lapaque,United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Representative in West and Central Africa.

The organization called on the international community to step up efforts to stop the consumption and trafficking of the drug.

UNODC said that seizures of tramadol have risen from 300 kilograms to over 3 tons since 2013, amid indications that the drug is smuggled through the Gulf of Guinea by a "transnational organized crime network".

It added that, at the end of September, more than 3,000,000 tablets were seized in Niger, packed in boxes bearing the U.N. logo. The tablets, dispatched from Nigeria, were bound to northern Mali.

What is Tramadol?

Tramadol is a strong opiate painkiller used to treat moderate and severe pain, according to the NHS. The drug, which comes in tablets, capsules, liquid drops or injection form, is available only on prescription in the U.K.

The most common side effects are sickness and dizziness. People can also develop an addiction.

More serious side effects, although rarer, include heart problems, seizures, breathing problems and hallucinations.

Why do terrorists use Tramadol?

Boko Haram attack
A police officer stands at the scene of a bombing after at least 20 people were killed when a young female suicide bomber detonated her explosives at a bus station in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, on June 22, 2015 in an attack likely to be blamed on Boko Haram. The group is thought to give Tramadol to children before forcing them to carry out suicide bombing missions. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The drug has often been linked to terrorist organizations, whose members are thought to use it to endure pain and fatigue. It is thought to boost resilience and repress pain and hunger.

The drug is popular among members of the Islamic State (Isis) and its Nigeria-based ally Boko Haram terrorist organizations.

"When members of terrorist groups sustain injuries during battles, they cannot be guaranteed a clinical treatment like an ordinary soldier, so it is important for terrorist groups to have Tramadol," counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Newsweek.

"Tramadol has been intercepted many time by law enforcement heading to the likes of Boko Haram and ISIL, but they still manage to smuggle it through. When terrorist groups raid hospitals or pharmacist, pain relieve medications are a priority on their list."

Suicide bombers are thought to take the drug before embarking on a mission. In 2015, the Guardian reported that Boko Haram gave dates stuffed with Tramadol to children before forcing them to carry out suicide bombing missions.

"Tramadol numbs you from immediate pain. It is given to suicide bombers so they have the illusion that death will be painless and therefore they should not be afraid of dying," Otto explained.

He added that Tramadol gives fighters the equivalent of "Dutch courage", a sense of bravery and confidence gained from intoxication with alcohol.

"Groups think that even when fighters are captured and tortured by security services as a method of interrogation, they would not feel pain and thus they will not reveal any secrets of the sect or group they belong to," Otto continued.

Tramadol is also a source of income for terrorist organizations. In November, Italian police seized more than 24 million Tramadol tablets at the port of Gioia Tauro, Calabria, en route to Libya from India.

Investigators said they were confident the pills were destined for Isis militants in Libya, who would have sold the drug to fund their activities, news agency Ansa reported. The discovery also raised questions about the possible involvement of Calabrian mafia syndicate 'Ndrangheta.