By many measures, over the past year, the Islamic State (also called ISIS) has been surprisingly effective on the battlefield, having amassed a significant amount of territory in Syria and Iraq. The Institute for the Study of War, for example, shows that in August 2014, ISIS-controlled areas were but two thin lines stretching from the west and north of Baghdad up to Kobani on the Syrian–Turkish border. But a year later, an updated map shows how ISIS has seized thick swaths of land across Syria and Iraq that, at some points, is nearly as wide as it is long. So far, only U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria have shown the ability to reverse ISIS’ gains, retaking significant ground along Syria’s northern border over the summer.

Yet, focusing narrowly on ISIS’ territorial gains and losses offers only a limited perspective on the group’s actual success in the region. Namely, it fails to answer the question of whether ISIS is actually achieving its goal of establishing and governing an independent Islamic state. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence on this subject. But data-based evidence has been lacking.

There is, however, one way of directly measuring ISIS’ governing performance: through electricity supply, a basic good required to keep house and street lights on; refrigerators, televisions, radios, and other basic appliances running; keeping life support at hospitals operational; and water treatment and processing plants going, to name just a few essential functions. Without electricity, businesses shutter, economic activity grinds to a halt, and millions of workers are displaced.

Using data compiled and provided by Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity, we measured how electricity levels have changed in ISIS-controlled areas since it seized control of some territories last summer, and how such levels compare to those in areas outside of its control.

Electricity production in ISIS-held regions of Iraq fell precipitously following the organization’s spread into the country last year and, until March, remained abysmally low. (After March, the stream of data goes cold, so this may represent our best and most updated status of ISIS’ general governing efforts.) Conditions in Nineveh and Anbar provinces are particularly poor. There, electricity levels fell to zero during the last few months of data coverage.

Daily electricity consumption in ISIS-held provinces, August 2013-March 2015.
Andrew Shaver and David Ensign

Daily electricity consumption in ISIS-held provinces compared with the average in Baghdad and Basrah, August 2013-March 2015
Andrew Shaver and David Ensign

The biggest contributing factor to ISIS’ inability to generate electricity is the lack of fuel. With the Baiji refinery now offline, the Baiji power plant now has no supply of heavy fuel oil. Meanwhile, the Kurds have shut off gas to the Taji power plant. The sharp changes in electricity supply after October 2014 (in Ninevah, for instance) reflect changes in available fuel to ISIS. Although ISIS has managed to capture key refineries, this has had little effect on electricity in the region. For one, U.S. forces have been striking refineries captured by ISIS. Thus a number of captured refineries are not actually providing the organization with oil. It is also possible that ISIS has decided to sell whatever oil it has on the black market to sustain its operations rather than run the power plants. No matter what the story is, the effect is the same: the organization is not providing for “its people.”

In contrast, areas such as Baghdad and Basrah, which have remained under central government control, have seen little change in their average levels of electricity consumption over the same period of time.

But does ISIS’ failure to provide public goods even matter? In a blog post, Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that they do not: “The funny thing about the assertion that the Islamic State is on the verge of instability because of its failure to turn on the lights completely overlooks the fact that an inability to provide basic services does not make it exceptional in a region where being a diesel-powered generator dealer is a very good thing.” Yet, the data clearly show that this is not the case in Iraq. (Nor is it a good time to be a diesel dealer. Generators can’t run without fuel, of which there’s a major shortage.)

Of course, observers are certainly right to question whether a failure to govern will actually be ISIS’ undoing—or if it, instead, strengthens the group. After all, a variety of studies provide evidence that negative economic shocks can benefit rebel groups by facilitating their recruiting efforts. The premise of such work is that potential fighters are easier to recruit when they face poor outside employment opportunities. Scholars at U.C. Berkeley and New York University, for instance, demonstrate that negative shocks to economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa result in the increased likelihood of civil conflict, which they suspect occurs because young men are “more likely to take up arms when income opportunities are worse for them in agriculture […] relative to their expected income as [fighters].” In another more direct study, these same scholars, along with their colleagues at Stanford and Harvard University, show that conflict risk in Africa increases among regions with a “heavy dependence on rain-fed agriculture” following increases in temperatures. Other scholars reveal similar patterns in Colombia. It has been shown that local economic conditions have even fueled modern-day piracy.

A boy walks past barrels of fuel for sale inside a damaged non-functioning petrol station in Aleppo, January 13, 2015. Residents of rebel-held areas of Syria refine crude oil in makeshift cottage refineries to heat their houses.
Nour Kelze / Reuters

Along these lines, lack of electricity might, in fact, bolster ISIS’ standing in Iraq and Syria. By this logic, as the only game in town, ISIS would have its pick of foot soldiers. But studies on al Qaeda in Iraq suggest that this is unlikely to be the case. Specifically, researchers from Princeton University and the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that provides research and analysis for U.S. armed forces, found that al Qaeda fighters in Iraq (many of the same individuals who now make up ISIS’ ranks) fought for wages well below market average. Contrary to the popular narrative at the time, al Qaeda wasn’t recruiting angry unemployed young men, but instead enjoyed a large supply of ideologues for whom wages were largely irrelevant.

Another way to gauge the depth of ISIS’ failure to deliver basic goods in the region is by looking at whether disgruntled civilians, fed up with deteriorating conditions, will turn against the terrorist organization. Counterinsurgency theorists and practitioners alike have long argued that civilians’ decision to supply information on insurgents to government forces greatly influences the outcome of an insurgency. This is because while state forces tend to be stronger than the insurgents who challenge them, they lack information about the insurgency—the identities of its members, the locations of its weapons caches, and so forth. In other words, although a power asymmetry typically benefits counterinsurgents, an information asymmetry benefits the insurgents, more or less offsetting the difference in power. Local informers, therefore, threaten to upset this balance by tipping the information advantage away from the insurgents.

Additional research from the Iraq war provides evidence that citizens’ decision to share information about insurgents depends on how government and insurgent activities affect them. Specifically, using recently declassified data from the Iraq war, a colleague of ours found that citizens decreased the number of “tips” they supplied to U.S.-led coalition forces during the war when coalition forces carried out attacks that inadvertently harmed civilians. Conversely, civilians increased their supply of tips following attacks by insurgents that resulted in civilian casualties.

Smoke rises from an oil refinery in Baiji, north of Baghdad, October 16, 2015.
Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

Internal Defense Department documents recently released to us by the Pentagon indicate that tips mattered a great deal throughout the Iraq war. One document describes a national hotline established to provide citizens the means of anonymously reporting information as “a critical information resource for both [Coalition Forces] and [the Government of Iraq] in combating terrorism.” Another indicates that the tips program “was so effective, that [the] President (U.S.), Vice-President (U.S.), and SECDEF [U.S. secretary of defense]… all requested historical data for the program.” Military news stories throughout the Iraq war paint a similarly sanguine picture. Tips reportedly led to the discovery of more “than 450 deadly anti-tank mines” in Sadr City, a bomb-making factory, weapons caches, and terrorist safe houses. The tips program is even reported to have led coalition forces to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Similarly, by failing to effectively govern the state that it is trying to build, ISIS risks generating ill will that should motivate citizens to report the militants’ identities, whereabouts, and activities to government forces. Of course, this trend will only help to weaken ISIS if Iraqi and Syrian government forces have the means to both collect and act upon such tips. In Syria, the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad clearly lacks such capacity. In Iraq, the picture is not quite as bleak. There, the government has established a number of civilian “tips” hotlines following ISIS’ spread into the country. Should it win back ISIS-controlled areas, the Iraqi government may find that ISIS’ poor governance matters after all by eliciting a flow of information from the public that state forces can use to target insurgents and their operations.

ISIS’ governing efforts appear disastrous. Yet, research suggests that so far ISIS’ inability to govern has probably not affected its ability to wage simultaneous wars against the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. However, should the Iraqi government gain momentum in combatting ISIS, it may find that it can channel the discontent of Iraqi citizens who suffered ISIS rule into actionable intelligence and, in turn, seriously weaken the terrorist organization’s hold in Iraq.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ANDREW SHAVER is a doctoral candidate in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He served previously as a Pentagon analyst and foreign affairs fellow with the U.S. Senate.
  • DAVID ENSIGN is an electrical engineer with over 40 years of experience in the power utility industry. He was a consultant for the U.S. Department of State from 2005 to 2012 in Baghdad, Iraq where he advised the US government and the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity on reconstruction projects. Mr. Ensign is a registered professional engineer with BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering from New Mexico State University.
  • The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
  • More By Andrew Shaver
  • More By David Ensign