ISIS and Applied Behavior Analysis

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

ISIS is the best financed group ever.

That is the opinion of Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  His opinion formed the crux of a recent CNN article detailing ISIS financial strategies.

The group brings in millions of dollars every single day from a number of sources including:

1) Oil Smuggling: ISIS took over oil wells and refineries in Iraq and Syria that became vulnerable after the U.S. pullout and the Syrian civil war.  Consumers pay around $7.50 per gallon of gas in the region, making cheap ISIS gasoline a bargain in comparison.

2) Organized Crime: Levitt (above) says ISIS “was born among crooks and thugs from a broken Iraq, and at its root it is a criminal enterprise.”  According to Levitt, al Qaeda in Iraq, the Tawhid Network, the Zarqawi Network, and the Islamic State of Iraq have all merged together to form ISIS.  In ISIS controlled territory, you pay to do just about anything, including something as simple driving down a highway.  ISIS has also been known to loot banks such as the central bank in Mosul.  

3) Donations: Wealthy ISIS sympathizers in countries like Kuwait and Qatar have been known to donate generous sums of money to the group.

So what does any of this have to do with Applied Behavior Analysis?  A lot, actually.

Back in the 1980s behavior analysts and anthropologists did a lot of talking and found many commonalities between ABA and a particular anthropological perspective known as Cultural Materialism.  

Cultural Materialism states that the characteristics of a culture ultimately rest on the modes of production available to turn resources into usable things, or stimuli that occasion behavior.  In the case of ISIS, the three types of funding listed above constitute their modes of production.  The massive amounts of money gained in these ways is then exchanged for stimuli such as arms, ammunition, trucks, and infrastructure that comprises the Islamic State of ISIS.

What many in ABA likely don’t think about is that our world is largely man made.  This means most of the stimuli we interact with have to be created or manufactured.  Modes of production are essential to this process.  

To read more about ABA and cultural materialism, a great starting place is Sigrid Glenn’s (1988) paper titled “Contingencies and Metacontingencies: Toward a Synthesis of Behavior Analysis and Cultural Materialism.”  Though the metacontingency concept has changed since then, the latter paper is a great springboard into this literature.  

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles 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].

Be the first to comment on "ISIS and Applied Behavior Analysis"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.