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Lights Off in the Islamic State

What Electricity Tells Us About ISIS' Rule

An Iraqi fireman sprays water onto burning cables at a electricity storage plant in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, May 10, 2004. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

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

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