Ramadi: ISIL's Long Fight for Brief Control

Ramadi Occupation Status

The Islamic State established a partial foothold in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province, in January 2014 well prior to its main offensive into northern Iraq later that year. After 17 months of fighting against government forces within the city, ISIL forces finally took full control of Ramadi in June 2015. This unilateral control was short-lived; Iraqi forces moved back into parts of Ramadi's urban center as early as October 2015 and had wrested full control of the city back from ISIL by January 2016. On its way out of Ramadi, ISIL's fight against government forces destroyed much of the city's key infrastructure—including every bridge crossing the Euphrates River. For the first six months after its liberation, few residents returned, and reconstruction of the city was limited.

Because Ramadi is an economically underdeveloped city with a government-dependent economy, control over Ramadi offered limited financial benefit to ISIL in terms of potential revenue sources. However, control of Ramadi was strategically significant to ISIL as a major government and Sunni population center along the Euphrates connecting Syria to Baghdad. The lengths to which ISIL fought to take over Ramadi are a testament to the city's significance to the group for sectarian and military reasons, rather than economic ones.


Although Ramadi was not under full control of the Islamic State at the time, it suffered from power cutoffs to the Anbar power grid beginning in June 2014 as ISIL moved throughout portions of Anbar province. As a result, nighttime lighting in Ramadi had fallen to just 25 percent of its January 2014 levels by August 2014. Nighttime lighting levels during this entire period, including during ISIL's brief unilateral control of the city in late 2015 show catastrophically low levels of electricity consumption in the city. Despite ISIL's initial efforts to bring fuel into the city to reconstitute generator power, once the group was in full control of the city, the group failed to bring about any meaningful increase in electricity consumption.

Nighttime Lighting in Ramadi This video of nighttime lighting in Ramadi from January 2014 through June 2016 is based on monthly composites of satellite images of the city at night.

Following the brutal fighting in the city that led to ISIL's ouster in January 2016, electricity consumption appears to have bottomed out. This is in line with evidence of major fuel shortages in the city as of December 2015. Nighttime lighting after ISIL's defeat in Ramadi was just 1.5 percent of its pre-ISIL levels. Throughout early 2016, we see little improvement in the electricity consumed in Ramadi over time until May, when nighttime lighting levels recovered marginally to the levels seen prior to ISIL's unilateral control over the city in late 2015. This is likely a partial product of the fact that ISIL intentionally booby-trapped electrical facilities in the city upon its exit, hindering efforts to reconstitute power to the city.

Researchers also examined how nighttime lighting differed across different types of critical infrastructure and commercial locations in Ramadi. Given the city's reliance on scarce oil resources to fuel its generators, differences in nighttime lighting across different types of infrastructure offer insight into ISIL's governing priorities within the city. Nighttime lighting at four types of infrastructure—mosques, markets, industrial areas, and hospitals—is closely linked over the course of ISIL's control over the city, with markets the most electrified. At least in the case of Ramadi's teaching hospital, located just south of the Euphrates on the northeastern end of the city, ISIL's call for workers to return to the city's hospitals after its full takeover of Ramadi in the summer of 2015 was accompanied by an increase in electricity consumption at this facility.


Researchers used ORNL LandScan data to measure how Ramadi’s population changed in response to ISIL’s contestation and brief control over the city, and found dramatic depopulation of Ramadi over the course of ISIL’s involvement in the city. Ramadi experienced a 37-percent reduction in its overall population between 2008 and February 2015, with more than 100,000 residents displaced from the city over this time period. These estimates are restricted to the urban core of the city as opposed to its full periphery, so total population figures fall slightly below other published estimates. Not all of these changes can be attributed to ISIL’s presence in the city beginning in January 2014. However, these data suggest that an additional 39,000 residents left Ramadi between February 2015, when ISIL only contested the city, and May 2015, when ISIL was on the brink of total control over Ramadi. Most compelling is the fact that Ramadi’s population fell to only 36,000 people after its liberation from ISIL, or just 13 percent of its 2008 levels. These estimates suggest that more than 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) left Ramadi between May 2015 and March 2016.

Population in Ramadi declined dramatically over the course of ISIL's involvement in the city. Ramadi's population fell to only 36,000 people after its liberation from ISIL, with estimates suggesting that more than 100,000 people left the city between May 2015 and March 2016.

Although researchers lacked the ability to diagnose with these data the exact point at which people fled the city, the dramatic pace with which the city depopulated suggests two possible explanations, which are not mutually exclusive. First, the threat of ISIL control over the city appears to have driven IDP flows from Ramadi even before ISIL established full control in mid-2015. Second, the level of damage to Ramadi wrought by the fight to retake it made the city uninhabitable as of early 2016, at least in the short term.


Researchers tracked the average Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) since April 2013 for all areas within 5 km of Ramadi's urban core, as a proxy for agricultural productivity. The arid climate of Anbar province makes identification of ISIL's impact on changes in NDVI much simpler than for cities in the less arid northern portion of the study area, in that crops are solely reliant on irrigation, rather than rainfall, for water.

Cereal, legumes, and potatoes are the primary crops grown throughout Anbar, which are harvested in late spring and summer of each year. Wheat and barley still account for roughly one-quarter of agricultural production throughout Anbar, harvested in the first few months of the year. Researchers saw a significant decline in the intensity of vegetated land surrounding Ramadi for much of the 2015 harvest just prior to ISIL takeover, and gains in agricultural activity in 2016 after the city's liberation.

Agricultural Activity Surrounding Ramadi is measured using Landsat data on surface reflectance. NDVI allows researchers to differentiate vegetated areas (green) from deserts, built-up areas, or bodies of water (dark blue).

Building Destruction

Researchers used crowd-sourced analysis of commercial satellite imagery to map areas in Ramadi that were damaged or destroyed over time. This is especially important for understanding the extent to which the majority of the city was damaged in both ISIL's efforts to gain control over the city leading up to the summer of 2015 and the fight to recapture the city from the Islamic State later that year. The results showed that the fight to retake Ramadi overwhelmingly affected all parts of the city, save for a few residential areas in the city's center.

Destruction in Ramadi during its liberation was widespread, as ISIL sought to destroy critical infrastructure while retreating from the city through January 2016. This included destruction of every bridge crossing the Euphrates.

Market Activity

In Ramadi's main Souq market area in the city center (and on average across the city's other markets), significant levels of activity pre-ISIL gave way to almost no activity after the group left town, based on crowdsourced analysis of satellite imagery.

Nighttime lighting estimates over Ramadi's markets reveal that they were better lit than the rest of the city on average, including through ISIL's control in late 2015. Nighttime lighting over these markets was at 22 percent of its pre-ISIL levels in October 2015, while the entirety of Ramadi was at only 13 percent of its pre-ISIL levels. Fighting to retake the city from ISIL led to the almost zero nighttime lighting levels seen across the whole city at the end of 2015, and Ramadi's markets were not exempt from this damage. They have recovered since then at roughly comparable levels of nighttime lighting to the rest of the city.

To better visualize the dramatic decline in market activity in Ramadi, compare the two below satellite images of the main Souq market area. The first image was captured in June 2014, well prior to ISIL's full control of the city but while ISIL contested outlying portions of Ramadi. It shows a relatively bustling market area, with parking lots full of cars and traffic on the roads. The second image shown is from December 2015, after Iraqi forces entered outlying portions of the city to liberate it. The market was entirely empty. This could demonstrate a reduction in the demand for market goods (due to population outflows) and in the supply of goods making its way into the market given the extent to which supply routes outside the city were contested. Either way, the chilling effect on Ramadi's economy is clearly visible.

The Main Souq Market Area in Ramadi is shown above before ISIL took full control of the city, and after Iraqi forces began efforts to retake it.


Despite the short time period in which ISIL controlled the city, researchers find evidence that Ramadi's economy heavily deteriorated under the weight of ISIL's control over the city. For instance, although nighttime lighting fell only modestly while ISIL contested the city, it fell sharply as ISIL took full control of Ramadi in the summer of 2015 and declined to just 2 percent of pre-ISIL levels upon liberation. Although partly a result of power shutoffs by the Iraqi government, these electricity shortfalls are equally due to ISIL's inability to secure sufficient generator power for the city despite its vast oil reserves. ISIL did appear to prioritize electricity provision surrounding several key hospitals and markets, based on nighttime lighting estimates. Population estimates suggest that significant proportions of Ramadi's residents fled both before and after ISIL's control of the city. By November 2015, in the middle of the fight to liberate Ramadi, nearly half of the city's residents had fled, according to our remote sensing–based population estimates.

Crowd-sourced assessments of Ramadi's markets using satellite imagery confirm these findings. Few signs of market activity are seen in imagery from early 2016, particularly relative to pre-ISIL images of active local markets in the city's main Souq district. Estimates of commercial vehicle traffic show a dramatic decline in the presence of tractor trailers on Ramadi's roads, as well after ISIL takeover. Crop estimates for Ramadi suggest that cereal cultivation in the 2013 and 2014 growing seasons remained fairly strong during the early periods of ISIL's presence in the city, before falling off in 2015 as ISIL consolidated control. Thermal signatures over Ramadi's industrial areas offer possible but inconclusive evidence that ISIL control reduced overall industrial activity in the city.

Unlike with Raqqah and Mosul, researchers had the opportunity to examine the permanence of ISIL's impact on Ramadi after it was liberated, based on the timing of their data collection (which ended in mid-2016). Although there were fewer data points from after the liberation of Ramadi than before its liberation, analysis suggests that the level of damage to the city was immense, and that its path to reconstruction remains long and complex. Nighttime lighting only marginally improved in the first several months following liberation, and markets remained inactive likely in part because of the massive reductions in demand as a result of population flight. After liberation, Ramadi's population was down 87 percent from 2008 levels.

ISIL similarly contested the Syrian city of Deir Ez-Zor for a significant period of time. However, unlike Ramadi, ISIL forces have never fully controlled the city and so were confined to a small dense urban core of the larger city itself. The case study of Deir Ez-Zor explores the city's economy and the Islamic State's role in it over the past several years.