ESKI MOSUL, Iraq — It was a heart-racing moment. The cigarette smuggler was stuck in line at a checkpoint as, up ahead, Islamic State militants were searching cars. He was running a big risk: The militants have banned smoking and lighting up is punishable with a fine or broken finger. Selling cigarettes can be a death sentence.
Falah Abdullah Jamil, 30, relied on his quick wits and silver tongue.
When the fighters came to his vehicle at the checkpoint leading to his home village of Eski Mosul in northern Iraq, they asked what he had in his trunk.
“Nothing,” he lied.
They popped open the trunk and found the 125 cartons of cigarettes he’d brought from Rabia, a town near the border with Syria.
“I swear, it’s out of hunger,” he said he pleaded with the men. The father of six told them he was the only breadwinner for his extended family and was helping his neighbors as well.
The fighters took him to the checkpoint commander, who warned Jamil he’d go to prison and his car would be confiscated. Jamil promised never to do it again. “Just let me go this time for the sake of my children,” he said. “If I don’t have money, what can I do? Should I steal? If I steal, you’ll cut off my hand.”
In an interview with The Associated Press in May, Jamil sat in his modest living room, describing how he survived nearly seven months of IS rule before the extremist group was run from town by Kurdish fighters.
The checkpoint commander ordered his subordinates out of the room, Jamil recalled. Once they were alone, he made his offer: “I will let you go if you give me cigarettes.” Jamil asked him what brand. “Anything, just give me two cartons,” the commander replied.
The commander “said he hadn’t had a smoke for three days so when he saw the cigarettes, he was very happy,” Jamil said with a laugh.
Iraqi civilians living under IS rule in Mosul, the group’s biggest stronghold, told the AP that the militants actually control the cigarette black market, banning smoking in public while privately controlling the sale of cigarettes at an inflated price. They spoke anonymously for fear of retribution.
Saad Eidou, 25, a displaced Iraqi from the town of Sinjar near the Syrian border, said that like everyone else, militants smoke in private. The cigarettes come in through Syria, where movement in and out of Turkey and non-IS areas is easier.
“They brought in cigarettes from Syria, where you probably won’t pay more than 250 dinars ($0.20) for a pack, but they were selling it here for 1,000 dinars ($0.80),” said Bilal Abdullah, another resident of Eski Mosul. With IS gone, he took deep draws from a cigarette in public as he spoke.
In another incident, Jamil said, he was accused of selling cigarettes by a member of the Hisba, the vice patrol that ruthlessly enforces the group’s regulations. Jamil denied it profusely: “I told him, yes, I used to, but I stopped selling. I told him no one sells anymore since you have forbidden it.”
The Hisba official asked if any cigarettes were in Jamil’s house. Jamil said no.
“He said, ‘I will go and inspect your house, and if I find one pack of cigarettes I will execute you.'”
Jamil’s bluff had just gotten more dangerous. He had 1,600 cartons of cigarettes hidden at home, he said with a wicked smile.
But he stuck by his story. “I told him, ‘Go ahead, I haven’t got anything.”
Apparently convinced, the Hisba official had him sign a document vowing to never sell cigarettes or risk execution.
“I signed it — but I sold again. I didn’t stop,” Jamil said. “We had no flour, no rice, no food. I have children, and it was winter and was cold and there was no oil, no gas. … We were living a hellish tragedy.”