Applied Behavior Analysis and Counterterrorism

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Founding Editor,


If one had to describe global events of the 21stcentury in one word, it would likely be this — terrorism.  Terrorism may be thought of as an interplay between two broad categories of organizations – terror cells (e.g., Al Qaida, ISIS, and Boko Haram) and counterterrorism agencies (e.g., CIA, FBI, and SOCOM).  Broadly speaking, the likelihood of a terrorist attack waxes and wanes depending on who has the upper hand in the terror-counterterror dual.  The likelihood of an attack is something that people from a variety of sectors are trying to predict and quantify in terms of terror risk. 


Scientific American recently published an article on efforts to calculate this risk not only to bolster counterterrorism efforts but for companies selling terrorism insurance to businesses.  The 9/11 attacks, for example, produced insured losses of more than $40 billion.  Companies such as Risk Management Solutions focus their efforts on refining models to predict terror attacks for insurance agencies.


But to accurately predict a phenomenon, you need good data.  The Global Terrorism Database is an excellent source of worldwide terror attacks, but it is not without flaws.  For example, the very definition of terrorism itself and its distinction from other violent acts is subject to debate.  Moreover, as Erwann Michel-Kerjan of the Wharton Risk Center notes, “you cannot reliably track terrorism risk without access to classified information.”


Aaron Clauset of the University of Colorado Boulder developed a model of terror attacks based on a power law correlating smaller incidents with rare yet extremely destructive attacks on the scale of 9/11.  His model predicts a 30% chance of another major attack occurring within the next decade.  However, that 30% is a global probability – it cannot predict where attacks are likely to occur at the level of cities or businesses.  


From the standpoint of Applied Behavior Analysis, how are we to contribute to the amelioration of what is perhaps the most critical issue of the modern era?  We see here, as we did with a previous bSci21 article on Predictive Policing, that the analysis of the problem is not at the level of individual behavior – in fact, doing so would be extremely impractical and counterproductive.  The critical measures here are not the probability that a given individual will commit an act of terror.  Rather, the measures of interest are the incidence (i.e., the frequency of terror acts) and prevalence (i.e., the number of people engaged in terror acts) of terrorism in a given population. 


To affect terrorism then, one must focus on broad sociological conditions of a given country or region.  The question for behavior analysts, then, is how a science of individual behavior can connect to work on broad social issues like terrorism.  Certainly terrorism is based on individual behavior, but “terrorism” as a phenomenon is not practically analyzed with the behavior of particular people in mind.  There is at least one exception,– the analysis of terror leaders.  These individuals exert power and influence over wide numbers of people through the issuing of policies and ideology that then affect acts of terror.  But these people don’t act in a vacuum – their behavior is nested within broad sociological conditions as well.  What the ABA community needs is a clear articulation of how it’s subject matter (i.e., functional relations among stimulating and responding of individuals) fit into an interdisciplinary framework for comprehensively addressing social issues.


For related resources in ABA, the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and Behavior and Social Issues have many articles focused on leadership behavior and models for the analysis of cultural phenomena via the metacontingency and behavioral systems analysis.  Give them a search when you get a chance.


What do you think?  Let us know in the comments below.  If you like this article, consider subscribing to bSci21 via email to receive new articles and free monthly issues directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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