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Spring Provides Timely Reminder of Incel Violence—And Clarifies How to Respond

28 Aug 2020
Short Read by Jon Lewis, Jacob Ware

On May 19th, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced that they were commencing terrorist proceedings related to a February 24 stabbing attack at a massage parlour in Toronto. In doing so, they claimed that this attack—in which an unnamed 17-year-old male killed a woman and injured one other individual—was inspired by what they call ‘Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism,’ specifically the involuntary celibate (incel) movement. Several days later, 20-year-old Armando Hernandez Jr. was arrested after reportedly shooting three people at Westgate Entertainment District in Glendale, Arizona. According to the Maricopa County Prosecutor, Hernandez Jr., a self-professed incel, “had the purpose of taking out his expressed anger at society, the feeling that he has been bullied, the feeling that women didn’t want him.” And on June 5th, charges were announced against Cole Carini, who was reportedly injured while constructing an explosive device. When investigators searched his residence, they found a variety of items used in the creation of improvised explosive devices, including Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP), rusty nails, PVC pipes, and empty chemical containers, as well as a letter fantasising about committing violence like his incel predecessors.

These incidents highlight the ongoing threat posed by violent fringes of the incel movement and spark debate about whether such attacks constitute acts of terrorism. Certainly, the incel movement is not cohesive or united under a clear vision of goals, strategies, and tactics. Its logic, or perhaps ideology, is even contested by its members (although all incels will argue that sexually promiscuous and popular men and women, generalized as “Chads” and “Stacys,” are denying them access to what they perceive as a sexual marketplace) and does not always play a central motivating role in attacks by actors on the movement's fringes. Yet the violent fringes of the incel movement fit relatively neatly into several emerging trends in violent extremism. The ideologically symbolic nature of incels’ typical targets, as well as consistent anti-female narratives permeating the forums, suggests that classifying the acts of attempted or successful violence perpetrated by incels as acts of terrorism at the very least warrants serious discussion. The rising threat, coupled with violent incels' adoption of several trends in terrorism, suggests their violence should be treated as part of the broader domestic terrorism landscape—and that any new strategy should account for the totality of that threat.

Trends in terrorism

The rare violence perpetrated by incels mirrors several key trends in terrorism. As with other modern extremist movements like the increasingly visible anti-government Boogaloo movementthe incel community was born and exists almost entirely online through a network of social media sites and dedicated forums. There, incels often develop double lives, unbeknownst to friends and family; in a March 2020 survey of the forum site, over 50% of respondents claimed nobody in the real world knew they were incels. The movement’s online safe haven facilitates the radicalisation of new recruits, encourages ideological convergence with more recognised far-right currents, and anonymises extremist rhetoric, rendering counter-terrorism far more difficult by hiding the few truly plotting violence while increasing the number of adherents.

Incels also mimic some of the communications tactics adopted by the far-right, such as promoting the publication of manifestos and live-streaming of their violent attacks. The manifesto published by the first recognised incel attacker, Elliot Rodger in 2014, laid out his grievances and plans and is now often cited by subsequent attackers. Manifestos or pre-attack messages were also left by Oregon gunman Christopher Harper-Mercer, Toronto van attacker Alek Minassian, and Carini, who penned a letter detailing his plans to “be heroic” and “make a statement like Elliott Rodgers [sic].” Armando Hernandez Jr. also livestreamed parts of his reported attack on Snapchat, following a precedent set in Christchurch, New Zealand; Poway, California; and Halle, Germany. With the publication of manifestos and livestreams, like with the propaganda videos produced by the Islamic State, terrorism becomes 21st-century performance art, which amplifies its impact on audiences and increases the possibility of copycat attacks.

Finally, violent incels have followed the evolution in terrorist tactics perfected by the Islamic State: rather than seek out well-defended hard targets or areas of political importance, today’s violent extremists instead attack soft targets, where defences are limited if not non-existent. Further complicating matters is the absence of a clear pattern or logic in target selection by the perpetrators of incel violence, who have chosen a wide range of targets, including sorority houses, busy streets, yoga studios, massage parlours, and shopping malls. Incels have also chosen to use crude weapons, including vans, machetes, and knives, with the perils of innovation displayed in the Carini case, where the would-be attacker caused life-changing personal injury in his attempts to construct a complicated explosive device (the urgency to innovate is already lessened in the United States, where weapons such as the AR-15 used by Hernandez are easily accessible). Needless to say, counter-terrorism becomes significantly more challenging when any location is a legitimate target, any object a viable weapon.

How to respond

Policymakers, therefore, should consider efforts to counter the threat of ideologically-motivated violence presented by the fringes of the incel ideology during the development of new counter-terrorism strategies that account for the totality of the domestic terrorism threat to the homeland.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that the incel movement is predominately an online one whose actions occasionally impact the real world, whereas white supremacist and jihadist movements are often physical organisations or movements that take advantage of the permissiveness of social media platforms to further their goals. Consequently, any steps geared towards addressing this threat at a policy level must prioritise matters concerning online radicalisation, the incitement and glorification of violence, as well as proliferation of instructional material by the violent fringe of the incel movement. The primary challenge for policymakers and practitioners will be determining how to best address the online nature of the threat through enhanced cooperation and partnerships between the public and private sectors. As these online communities are pushed off larger, mainstream platforms like Twitter, individuals often gravitate towards platforms that are smaller and less able or willing to engage with government efforts to support the necessary robust enforcement of terrorist content on their platforms, such as Telegram8Kun, and Discord. As such, it is imperative that the government act as a reliable partner in supporting and engaging with private sector efforts to better understand and counter the ability of violent groups and movements to freely incite violence online. While speech protections and other laws in the U.S. may complicate efforts to confront incels online, policymakers should take proactive steps to guide those private industry stakeholders who engage in good faith efforts by recognising the online activity of the violent fringes of the incel ideology as a threat to safety and security.

While many domestic incidents of incel-inspired violence have either resulted in the death of the perpetrator or filing of state murder charges, it is also crucial to ensure law enforcement is best positioned to counter incel terrorism before such violence is committed, and adequately prosecute such individuals for the totality of their actions in furtherance of violent plots. The emerging links between the incel subculture and white supremacy represent a challenge for law enforcement, which is already forced to rely on an antiquated legal framework to counter the rising threat of domestic terrorism. A rights-protecting domestic terrorism statute which criminalises specific existing predicate terrorism offenses when committed within the United States would act as an important tool to combat this amorphous, nontraditional, emerging threat.

But we also cannot simply police our way out of this problem. Due to the public nature of their forums and because incels are typically open about their radicalisation process and motivating grievances, incel forums may provide a blank canvas to test innovative counter-messaging and possibly even deradicalisation strategies. Consideration should be given to the potential for a wide range of non-traditional counter-terrorism measures, including educational programs aimed at addressing misogyny and hypermasculinity. As more analysis on this emerging threat is produced, government should consider the potential benefits of good governance programs in helping to counter not just incel extremism, but also that of other extremist movements. While previous deradicalisation programs have often been ineffective and lacked support from the very communities they were designed to work with, practices based on those implemented by groups such as Life After Hate and Parents for Peace could eventually provide voices of former incel extremists an avenue for effective counter-messaging or allow individuals the opportunity to disengage from the movement. Increased mental health resources online might also be beneficial, particularly given the high self-reporting of diagnosed mental disorders on incel forums, as well as the high rates of suicide among the movement’s adherents.

Looking ahead

There remains much we don’t know about the incel movement, not least the threat to Europe. A number of recent far-right attacks in Europe, including a largely failed shooting at a mosque in Norway and the twin attacks at a synagogue and kebab shop in Germany, were perpetrated by attackers who also echoed incel themes, whether in online postings or in their police statements. The March 2020 sentencing of a British incel who was building explosives also indicated the movement’s growing prominence abroad. To date, there appears to have been no attacks outside North America directly inspired by incel ideology—but the increasing internationalization of “domestic” extremist movements, coupled with the tenuous connection to multiple previous far-right killings, suggests European governments and security agencies should at the very least be aware of the threat, if not already planning their countermeasures.

Debate understandably also remains over whether or not counter-terrorism mechanisms are appropriate against the violent fringes of the incel movement. Further study is unquestionably needed to fully understand the contours of this threat, including the linkages between the violent fringe of the incel movement and other extremist ideologies, including white supremacism and antisemitism. In the shorter term, however, the need to recognise and respond to the totality of the domestic terrorist threat in the United States is becoming increasingly obvious—and the first half of 2020 has provided an important reminder of the extent of the specific threat posed by violent fringes of the incel movement.