Beheadings have become commonplace in the territories held by the militant Islamic State, but the severed head reportedly found last month in the eastern Syrian city of Al-Mayadeen was nevertheless unusual.
It had a cigarette placed between its lips.
“This is not permissible, Sheikh,” someone had scrawled in Arabic on the decapitated corpse lying nearby, according to an account from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group. The body and head belonged to an Islamic State official, a deputy police chief.
From consuming alcohol to cursing, vices of all types are frowned upon by Islamic State.
But it is the militants’ injunction on smoking, in a region rife with chain-smokers and water-pipe aficionados, that may be the hardest habit to kick. (About half of Syrian men and one in 10 women smoke, according to the World Health Organization.)
Shortly after the group’s takeover of large swaths of Deir Elzur province in eastern Syria, Islamic State began to close tobacco shops and shutter the ubiquitous water-pipe cafes.
Although smoking is allowed under Islam, some ultraconservative variations of Sharia law condemn the practice as a slow form of suicide, and therefore haram -- forbidden.
It’s an interpretation that Islamic State has taken seriously: The group’s supporters regularly upload images depicting cigarettes literally going up in smoke as black-clad, bearded men toss cartons into blazing pyres. Other footage show fighters displaying caches of smoking accessories, a stern hand pointing at the contraband.
For those who live under Islamic State rule, a respite can be found beyond the “caliphate” it controls.
“I’m enjoying it while I can,” said Mohammad Khalil, relishing his cigarette recently as he sat near the gate of the Akcakale border crossing in southeast Turkey.
On the other side lay the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, where the Islamic State’s black-on-white flag was fluttering in the wind.
“Once I go across I can’t smoke in the open,” explained Mohammad, taking another long drag.
Truckers delivering goods into opposition-controlled Syria regularly face problems cutting across the different spheres of influence controlled by rival factions. Navigating a route means also knowing and conforming to each group’s idiosyncrasies.
“Whenever they approach an Islamic State checkpoint, our drivers switch the music to Islamic nasheed [chant] and throw any cigarettes they have out the window,” said one official with the Aid Coordination Unit, a Syrian opposition body based in Turkey that organizes deliveries of staples Syria’s north. For security reasons, he did not want his name used.
Even many of Islamic State’s own recruits have buckled under the strain.
In November, Flavien Moreau, 27, a French citizen who had traveled to Syria to join Islamic State, was convicted on terrorism charges upon his return to France and slapped with a seven-year prison sentence, according to France24, the French news broadcaster.
His career as an extremist warrior had been brief. Only two weeks after joining the group, he said he handed over his Kalashnikov rifle and headed back to Europe.
“I really struggled with not smoking,” Moreau testified, according to France24. “I had brought Nicorette gum with me, but it wasn’t enough,” he explained, referring to the nicotine replacement product. “So I left my gun with my [commander] and I left.”
Violators of the smoking ban face a minimum punishment of 40 lashes with a whip. Repeat offenders face lashes as well as prison time — and, as in the case of the beheaded police official, may even be executed, according to activists contacted in Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in northeast Syria.
Still, the ban hasn’t stopped people from trying to sneak cigarettes into Islamic State terrain. Contraband smokes arrive via the Turkish border and from areas under the control of less militant factions.
“There is a lot of smuggling going on,” said Abu Mohammed, a Raqqa-based activist who uses a pseudonym for security reasons. “There are many ways to do it,” he explained via Skype. For instance, smugglers hide cigarettes inside cans or in sacks of flour or stuff them inside bags of Arabic flatbread.
More innovative was an approach pioneered by a truck driver making regular runs to the Iraqi border town of Qaim, where there is no smoking ban. Once there, the trucker would strap cigarette packs to the wings of carrier pigeons for hassle-free home delivery to Raqqa, some 175 miles away, according to an account on an opposition news website on Facebook.
With tobacco a proscribed item, prices have skyrocketed.
“In the past you would pay 50 Syrian pounds for a pack of Gaulouises Red,” noted Abu Mohammed, a price equivalent to about $1 before the war began. “Now you pay 150 [Syrian pounds], and some times you can’t even find it.”
Hitherto unknown -- and inferior -- brands of cigarettes have also cropped up, often at highly inflated prices.
“People are forced to buy them anyway,” lamented Abu Mohammad. “It’s something that is important.”
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.