When Ibrahim Hassan, a 34 year old living in the northern city of Mosul, was caught smoking a cigarette recently, his punishment was not just eventual ill health. The extremists from the group known as the Islamic State who currently control the city have banned smoking and Ibrahim was taken to prison for lighting up. After 24 hours, he was brought before one of the Islamic State group's self-appointed judges, specialists in the group's own brand of religious law. The judge fined him IQD5,000 and told him off, reminding him of religious verses from the Koran that banned cigarettes because they can be considered a form of slow suicide.
“I paid the amount reluctantly but I felt lucky compared to other smokers who have been caught - they were flogged,” Ibrahim says.
When the Islamic State, or IS, group first took control of Mosul in the middle of last year, they didn't ban smoking immediately. But that began to change after members of the group's “morality police” who patrol the city streets confiscated, then burned, large amounts of cigarettes, began closing coffee shops where men smoked water pipes and started prosecuting those who smoked in public places.
From the outside it does look like Mosul is succumbing to the constrictive rule of the IS group – but in private, getting hold of cigarettes has become a major issue in the city and there all kinds of ways that locals circumvent the ban.
Nobody knows how many smokers there are in Mosul but recent estimates suggest that in Iraq, at least 31 per cent of males smoke; smoking is not as acceptable for women and the number is negligible. Mosul was a city of around two million inhabitants before the IS group took it over so one imagines that there are still, literally, hundreds of thousands of frustrated smokers here.
“You can get cigarettes easily enough if you try but it's not a simple process,” says Abu Qays, a heavy smoker in his 30s. “They're available in the marketplace but you have to be careful where you buy them and where you keep them, in order to avoid prison or flogging.”
Abu Qays works as a taxi driver and he says he buys, and carefully hides, about a month's supply at a time. He has also become expert at deceiving the IS fighters. “I smoke when I am far from them and I always carry perfume in the car with me so I can disguise the smell,” he explains. “The dogs of the Caliph use their noses to find smokers,” he jokes.
So where are the cigarettes coming from now, seeing as the IS fighters did their best to destroy all the stocks in the city months earlier?
One merchant told NIQASH that they are imported from Syria and are smuggled in, in trucks, hidden under legal goods like clothing and grocery items. They also come from the Kurdish region of Syria and are smuggled through Dohuk and Erbil into Mosul.
“They also come from Iraq's central and southern provinces,” the merchant told NIQASH on condition of anonymity. “Cigarettes are hidden in tankers and oil drums. Most of what is on the market here is really bad quality and it is only meant for smuggling. The risks are high but the profits are very good.”
The traders then get the cigarettes to Mosul's retailers – and the whole system is based on trust.
Abu Qays says that the mini-mart where he gets his cigarettes has been very successful with the illegal trade. Because the market's competitors envied the good business, they informed on the mart's owner to the IS group. The morality patrols, or Hisbah, place a lot of emphasis on catching smokers. “But he's very clever at hiding them and also at hiding the tobacco somewhere totally different and far away,” Abu Qays explains.
Recently the IS group sent out news about a large amount of cigarettes that they had found which were being smuggled into Mosul in oil drums. The merchant says that catching smokers and smugglers is lucrative for the IS group because they usually charge offenders a cash fine – that fine can mount up in a big way when a large shipment of cigarettes is discovered.
“But in some cases the IS fighters also turn a blind eye and allow some merchants to sell cigarettes, in exchange for a part of the profits,” the merchant notes.