The Beginning of a Caliphate: The Spread of ISIS, in Five Maps

With Tuesday's seizure of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria notched a major victory in its campaign to create a new country containing parts of what had part of both Syria and Iraq. On Wednesday, the insurgents continued their march south, taking control of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.

Between the territory ISIS controls in Syria and its growing gains in Iraq, ISIS has managed to secure a significant swath of territory stretching from the outskirts of Aleppo in the west, to towns in Iraq's east that are about a two-hour drive from the Iranian border. In Mosul, the insurgents grabbed a cache of largely American-supplied weaponry and equipment, and may even have seized $400 million dollars from the city's central bank. What was once best described as an insurgent fighting force might now be more accurately described as an army.

Central to the notion of ISIS transforming itself into a bona fide army is its ability to hold and control territory, and as the maps below point out, that appears to increasingly be the case. ISIS may in fact be nearing its dream: The creation of a caliphate governing the land from the Mediterranean to Iran's Zagros mountains.

Here, in a map assembled by the Institute for the Study of War, you can see where in Iraq ISIS operates. The map distinguishes between zones of control and zones of attack. The former, in block, are strongholds of the group, the latter, in red, are areas where they are able to carry out attacks. The areas in light red denote areas where ISIS has an operational presence. (Click the map for a larger version.)

As you can see, the map above is somewhat conservative in its estimates of where ISIS has a presence. According to ISW, its operational presence is largely limited to transportation corridors and doesn't extend particularly far into the countryside. Rather, the group is focused on population centers. For a more granular look at what cities ISIS controls, have a look at the map below, assembled by the Long War Journal and which documents the cities under ISIS's authority:

View Iraqi and Syrian Towns and Cities seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham in a larger map

But the story of ISIS's spread -- and its influence -- is one that begins in Syria, where the group has been waging a brutal insurgency against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and, increasingly, other more moderate and secular rebel groups. The map below depicts the areas of Syria under its control. The group's influence is bounded by the Free Syrian Army in the west, the Kurds in the north, and pockets of government influence.

Meanwhile, if you want to understand the significance of ISIS's most recent territorial gains, just have a look at the map below, which shows those gains relative to Iraq and Syria's major oil fields.

And as ISIS continues its march south, it is only likely to worsen the region's refugee crisis. The map below depicts the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis, which has displaced some 2.8 million people to flee the country. Of those, about 200,000 have come to Iraq. On Wednesday, it was reported that some 500,000 have fled Mosul. And as you can see below, many of the country's refugee camps for Syrians are in areas threatened by ISIS.



The Unraveling of Iraq, in Eight Charts

On Tuesday, Islamic militants seized control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's victory in Mosul marks a milestone in Iraq's accelerating descent into chaos since the departure of U.S. military forces nearly three years ago.

Whether the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq would have prevented the resurgence of violence is far from certain, but one thing isn't up for debate: Under the rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the country has seen a remarkable lack of progress on a variety of economic and security indicators. In many, it's actually taken several steps back. The case against Maliki is laid out in a report by Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman, who has been writing about Iraq since U.S. forces swept into the country in 2003, points out that by several key metrics, the Iraq of today looks worse than it did under Saddam Hussein.

Here, then, in eight charts, is the story of Iraq's unraveling.

Iraq's monthly body count, as seen in the last graph of the triptych, is approaching levels seen during the civil war that marred the American occupation of Iraq:

Meanwhile, Iraq continues to lead the global tables on terrorist attacks, both in terms of the total number of attacks and casualties. Moreover, ten plus years of civil strife has left Iraq with a particularly deadly terrorist problem: The average lethality of a terrorist attack in Iraq is 40 percent higher than the global average.  

And as violence has continued to roil Iraq, the country has struggled to improve its governance rankings. Incredibly, according to World Bank figures, rule of law was better in Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein than during Maliki's years in power:

While Iraq had been making gains on human development indicators, those gains have mostly flatlined:

And Iraq continues to lag relative to its peers:

So it's perhaps no surprise that corruption remains a huge problem in Iraq, leaving it on par with Yemen and Libya:

Consequently, Iraq lags behind its peers on ease of doing business rankings:

Add all these things together and what do you get? Despite their country's massive oil wealth, Iraqis remain relatively poor:

You're also left with another grim conclusion. Iraq, three years after U.S. troops withdrew from a country purportedly on the upswing, is in many ways worse off than ever before.