The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turning the lights off on the Islamic State

Iraqi military personnel distribute water to Shiite Iraqi Kurds, known as “Shabak”, displaced by fierce fighting between Kurdish peshmerga forces and jihadist militants from the Islamic State, on Aug. 8 on the road between Kirkuk and Arbil. (MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post from Princeton University political science doctoral candidate Andrew Shaver


While many in the media have focused their attention on the Islamic State’s reprehensible activities – the beheadings, mass executions and amputations – the story of the organization’s ongoing battle with the Iraqi government to win the allegiance of local citizens plays in the background. Which side prevails in that unseen struggle will ultimately determine the group’s staying power.

For its part, the Islamic State is attempting to administer Iraqi and Syrian communities it now considers part of the Islamist caliphate it has declared. To do so, the organization has engaged in a variety of actions to provide for Sunni Muslims in those areas, including ensuring that wheat is available to citizens: The group has seized “grain stored in government silos, [and is] milling it and distributing the flour on the local market.

In Syria’s Raqqa province, which is firmly under Islamic State control, it is reported that the organization’s militants “fix potholes, bus people between the territories they control, rehabilitate blighted medians to make roads more aesthetically pleasing, and operate a post office…”

But almost entirely unnoticed is how the Iraqi government has responded. Central to the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraq’s Sunnis is the supply of electricity. In June, fellow Princeton doctoral student Gabriel Tenorio and I, writing for The Post, described results of our research, which indicate that increased electricity supply during the Iraq war was associated with strong and persistent reductions in levels of insurgent violence against coalition forces.  In light of these results, we suggested that the Iraqi government employ a “strategy [against the Islamic State] that combines offensive military tactics with meeting the needs of citizens within affected communities.”

Unfortunately, such strategy requires that the Iraqi military penetrate Islamic State strongholds, which it has yet to do. Perhaps as a result, the Iraqi government has done largely the opposite, and potentially with good strategic effect.

The United Nations released satellite imagery this summer comparing a large swath of northern Iraq between May and June showing significant reductions in night lights (and, therefore, electricity) between those dates. Since then, Iraq’s central government has provided me with province-level electricity statistics for the months before and after the Islamic State’s spread through Iraq.

The data are striking: within the three provinces most affected by the Islamic State – Anbar, Ninewa and Salah Al Din – the organization’s arrival has been marked by massive reductions in electricity supply. In Ninewa, which was hardest hit, mean monthly electricity load fell from more than 866 megawatts in May to 186 megawatts in August. Meanwhile, electricity levels throughout the rest of Iraq have remained stable (Figure 1).

In fact, other provinces appear to have benefited from the diverted electricity. Basrah, for instance, had more electricity in August than during any other month during the past 20 (Figure 2).

While the Islamic State’s spread has certainly affected the local economy (and, therefore, consumption of electricity) in these provinces, reduced commercial activity is unlikely to account for precipitous declines in electricity. For years, demand for electricity has greatly outstripped supply in Iraq. As a means of assessing electricity demand, the Iraqi government regularly “floods” communities with electricity to assess consumption in the absence of supply restrictions. Figure 3 depicts the estimated supply-demand gulf over a six-year period.

Even in the face of substantial reductions in demand following the Islamic State’s spread, supply may still not have been sufficient to satisfy demand.

The observed reductions have resulted from changes in supply. Fighting between Iraqi military and Islamic State forces has resulted in some downed transmission lines, although this factor alone cannot explain the massive reductions. And there is little evidence that the Islamic State seeks to keep to the lights off in the areas it now controls. Instead, the group has launched an aggressive campaign to secure control of Iraq’s major dams, which are capable of generating significant levels of hydroelectric power. Similarly, in Syria, in an effort to keep the lights on, the organization now “runs an electricity office that monitors electricity-use levels, installs new power lines and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones.”

A distinct possibility is that the Iraqi central government has cut off power to areas of the country under Islamic State control. Iraq’s Kurdistan regional government has done so. Under this scenario, Baghdad may be calculating that by restricting the supply of electricity, affected Iraqis will direct blame for the lost electricity on the occupying militants. If they do, the government may benefit as local Iraqis report on the Islamic State’s activities, passively resist the organization and so on.

Whatever the cause of the massive reductions, the longer the lights remain out, the more accustomed citizens in heavily Shiite areas like Basrah are likely to become to their newfound electricity levels. It may be worth considering how these communities will react if and when their electricity levels are reduced to once again provide for Iraq’s Sunni communities, some of which supported ISIS as the organization first pushed into Iraq.