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

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