Tikrit: ISIL Focuses on Punishment, Not Governance

Tikrit Occupation Status

The Islamic State captured Tikrit, the capital of Iraq's Salah ad-Din province north of Baghdad, in its June 2014 offensive shortly after the fall of Mosul. The city capitulated peacefully to ISIL control soon after a small contingent of its forces arrived, all without a single shot fired.

Despite the ease with which the group conquered the city, Tikrit was never an essential component of ISIL's state-building strategy. Existing evidence of ISIL's control over Tikrit's economy suggests that the group mainly prioritized punitive violence against the city's former government officials, as well as extortion and seizure of assets, more so than regulation and taxation of economic activity. ISIL controlled Tikrit for a brief nine months. Given that Tikrit was one of the first cities to fall from ISIL control in early 2015, this case study offers the chance to leverage a lengthy time series of post-liberation data to assess how economic activity recovers after ISIL leaves town. Furthermore, Tikrit is a useful case study into the impact of ISIL control given that the group devoted few resources to actually governing and providing stability.


Nighttime lighting estimates suggest that very little electricity was available in Tikrit, at least at night, for the entire period of ISIL's control over the city. This is alarming evidence of ISIL's impact on the city. Interestingly, electricity data from the government of Iraq's Ministry of Electricity suggest that modest levels of power were still being supplied to Salah ad-Din province through February 2015. This contrasts with Mosul's Ninewa province, where the government of Iraq shut the power supply off completely in June 2014, but modest levels of nighttime lighting persisted. Combined, these results suggest that Tikrit's access to the national power grid was severed or damaged immediately following ISIL's takeover of the city and that the group was unable to provide, unwilling to provide, or not interested in providing generators and fuel resources to power the city in its stead.

Nighttime Lighting in Tikrit Researchers conclude that Tikrit's access to the national power grid was severed or damaged immediately following ISIL's takeover of the city in June 2014, and that the group was unable to provide, unwilling to provide, or not interested in providing generators and fuel resources to power the city in its stead.

Although damage to the city under ISIL's rule was limited, the fighting during the city's liberation in March 2015 took a moderate toll on the city's economic infrastructure. The fighting severely damaged the city's electrical grid, so the city was still not connected to the grid in June 2015 some three months after the city was recaptured, and returning residents found "buildings burned, shops looted, schools shuttered and hospitals inoperable" (New York Times).

Following ISIL's defeat in Tikrit in March 2015, we see an immediate and steady rise in nighttime lighting. Early reporting in the city from June 2015 noted that the government of Iraq was relying on generators for power and had been unable to reconnect to the national power grid. Electricity consumption rose steadily over the course of 2015 as generators rose in capacity and Tikrit was reconnected to the national power supply. However, it took a full year, until March 2016, for the city to return to its pre-ISIL levels of nighttime lighting.


Tikrit was the hometown of Ba'ath party dictator Saddam Hussein but more recently can be characterized by its restive Sunni population and tensions with the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Like other Sunni strongholds in Iraq eventually taken over by the Islamic State, Tikrit was the site of major Sunni protests in December 2012 over anti-Sunni crackdowns and sectarian favoritism perpetrated by the Shiite-dominated Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad. Local anti-Baghdad political dynamics in Tikrit provided ISIL with an opportunity to infiltrate the area more easily than it would have otherwise, given the military balance of forces in the area.

Sunni discontent with the Shiite government in Baghdad might explain the lack of internal migration away from ISIL-controlled Tikrit. Researchers used ORNL LandScan estimates of the city's population from 2008 to 2016 to conclude that little depopulation occurred following ISIL's takeover of the city compared with 2008 levels. The vast majority of Tikrit's residents either chose not to flee ISIL's coming reign, or were unable to do so.

Estimates from May 2015, the first data point following ISIL's retreat from the city, show relatively little depopulation immediately after the Shia militia–led recapture of the city. This might be an artifact of a time lag in the sensitivity of LandScan's measurements, particularly given that the 2016 data confirm the massive depopulation of the city at some point after liberation. One year into reconstructing the city as of June 2016, our estimates suggest, only 44 percent of those who lived in Tikrit under the Islamic State chose to remain or return under government of Iraq control. This finding contradicts other public estimates of the near-complete repopulation of the city by the summer of 2016.

The Population of Tikrit appears to have remained steady following ISIL's takeover in June 2014. However, 44 percent of those who lived in Tikrit under the Islamic State chose to remain or return after the city returned to government of Iraq control.


Tikrit's economy is predominantly agrarian and governmental. Although only 25 percent of employed people work directly in agriculture, a reported 85 percent of people in Tikrit and its surrounding areas had agriculture as a source of income before ISIL's takeover of the city. ISIL's control over Tikrit from June 2014 to March 2015 roughly corresponds to one full growing season for wheat, barley, and potato crops in Iraq. This suggests that changes in the spatial intensity of vegetation in March 2015 are likely due to the cultivation period after ISIL first established control over the city in June 2014. This obviously excludes any intervening damage to agricultural areas due to fighting or other physical destruction over the course of the growing season.

Researchers tracked the average Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for all areas within 5 km of the urban core of Tikrit as a proxy for agricultural activity in Tikrit over time. The result suggests that ISIL's takeover had relatively little impact on the 2014–2015 growing season in the immediate periphery of Tikrit: Peak NDVI values approaching harvest season were comparable between the spring of 2015 and the spring of 2014. We do see, however, that NDVI values in the spring of 2016 were significantly above levels seen in the two prior years. This suggests that the resumption of government of Iraq control over Tikrit had a significantly positive impact on agricultural activity through late 2015.

Agricultural activity surrounding Tikrit 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). NDVI values were comparable before and during ISIL's control of Tikrit, but rose significantly after the resumption of government of Iraq control.

Building Destruction

The research team used crowd-sourced analysis of commercial satellite imagery to map buildings, roads, and other areas within Tikrit that were damaged or destroyed over time. This was especially important for understanding the extent to which the city was damaged by the fight between ISF, Shia PMUs, and ISIL forces in March 2015 when the city was liberated. Researchers used data on destruction to understand how violence might have directly or indirectly affected our previous indicators of economic activity.

This analysis suggested a relatively low level of damage across the city, which is confirmed by other published estimates of damage to Tikrit post-liberation based on high-resolution imagery. Of note is that relatively modest damage occurred to Tikrit's main industrial area to the southwest and hospital to the southeast and that no damage occurred to the city's university. Sufficient high-resolution imagery post-liberation has not been available to use to assess the rate at which damaged parts of the city have been rebuilt.

Damage in Tikrit was modest compared to the other case study cities. Above, an image from before ISIL's control of the city is compared to one from shortly after the government of Iraq regained control, and light damage is evident.

Market Activity

Crowd-sourced estimates of market activity based on commercial imagery show the overwhelming impact of ISIL's control over the city. Prior to ISIL's arrival, markets in Tikrit were bustling. Two months into ISIL's control of the city, they show more-limited signs of activity. Through the final months of ISIL's control and immediately after the city is liberated, market activity was all but nonexistent.

Although the last available image of Tikrit was captured soon after the city's liberation, nighttime lighting data allowed researchers to gain insight into how Tikrit's markets fared after the government of Iraq began its efforts to rebuild the city. Although most markets largely mirrored the citywide average level of electricity usage at night, Tikrit's main market area lagged well behind other locations. This is despite being the most consistently active market in the crowd-sourcing data prior to ISIL's control of the city.

Crowd-sourced estimates of market activity in Tikrit show the overwhelming impact of ISIL's control on market activity. Through the final months of ISIL control, market activity was all but nonexistent.

Researchers also used estimates of commercial vehicle traffic in Tikrit based on crowd-sourced satellite imagery to better understand how commercial activity was affected by ISIL's control of the city. The post–ISIL takeover image shows only sporadically located vehicles throughout the city, with almost no presence by the main market and industrial area in the city. The ISIL effect here is clear: The market and industrial area were not receiving truck-driven supplies, nor do they appear likely to have been distributing goods to businesses within the city from these locations.


Analysis of satellite-derived measures of economic activity in Tikrit demonstrates that ISIL's tenure in the city, although short-lived, had a dramatic chilling effect on the economy. ISIL's impact on Tikrit's economy is best illustrated by crowd-sourced data on market activity as seen in satellite imagery, which show a rapid decline in commerce during ISIL's control of the city. Commercial vehicle counts portray an identical effect, suggesting that the presence of tractor trailers and large commercial vehicles in the city declined by up to 70 percent on average during ISIL's control. Data on nighttime lighting offer a similar conclusion: Electricity consumption rapidly falls within only a few months of ISIL's arrival, though the timing of this decline is in large part due to deliberate government of Iraq efforts to restrict electricity access through the national power grid.

Researchers also explored how conditions evolved during the stabilization and reconstruction of Tikrit. Our analysis of nighttime lighting data suggests that Tikrit's electricity consumption took nearly a year to reach levels at or below its pre-ISIL levels. Although agricultural activity in the vicinity of Tikrit appears to have grown significantly post-liberation, the few industrial locations identified in the city fell well behind other types of infrastructure in terms of their nighttime lighting. Our population data provide a similarly mixed result, suggesting that less than half of Tikrit's pre-ISIL population remained in the city as of early 2016 and that this depopulation might have actually occurred after liberation of the city from ISIL forces.

This latter result is perhaps unsurprising, given the reported violence associated with the recapturing of the city, concern over improvised explosive devicess left by ISIL, and the potential for ethnic violence between Sunni residents and Shia militias that made up the main body of the government of Iraq force that liberated Tikrit. However, damage to the city was only moderate and left much of the city's main economic infrastructure intact, including its university, hospital, main market area, and main industrial neighborhood.