Canada Filed The First Incel Terrorism Charge. How Do We Combat This Threat?
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Cristina Ariza is a research analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. She is a policy and practitioner fellow of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and the research lead for extreme right-wing terrorism at the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies.
The police have uncovered evidence that the attacker who killed a woman and injured another at an erotic massage parlor in Canada in February was inspired by incel ideology. The attack is now being treated as terrorism, making it the first time that terrorism charges are being applied in Canada to a suspect not inspired by Islamist extremism.
Incels are short for “involuntary celibates”, a loosely organized network of men that blames women for refusing to engage in sexual relationships with them. Incels believe there are three main groups in society: the alphas, referred to as “Stacys” and Chads”, who are deemed the most attractive women and men; the betas, or “normies”, who are average-looking; and the incels, who are portrayed as undesirable to women and are therefore denied sex.
The movement has not always been violent or misogynistic. One former incel told Vox about how he used to engage in online chats in the 2000s to ask for advice from female users about how to talk to women. But in the last couple of years, the movement has embraced clear sexism and misogyny, sometimes culminating in acts of violence.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Terrorism and violence: how much of a risk does incel ideology pose?
This is not the first time that incels have targeted Canada. In 2018, a man drove his van into pedestrians at a busy street in Toronto, later telling police that he belonged to an “incel rebellion”, but he failed to be charged with terrorism. The teenager who attacked the massage parlor in February knew about the Toronto attacker, but also about other key incel figures like Elliot Rodger.
Rodger, who killed 6 people and injured 14 at a California university campus before committing suicide in 2014, is probably the most well-known figure in the incel movement, to the point that experts have likened his position within the incel community to Anders Breivik’s regarding the wider radical right. He too, as Breivik, wrote a manifesto entitled “My Twisted World” in which he vowed revenge against women at sororities for refusing to have sex with him.
There have been other similar attacks in Oregon (2015), New Mexico (2017), Florida (2018 and 2019), leaving up to 50 dead in North America. Incels have been a target of arrests too: just earlier this year a man was arrested in California for harassing two girls online who had rejected his sexual advances.
Terrorism experts Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware warn that the terrorist threat from incels is very real and that it poses specific challenges to security forces, as attackers tend to plot alone and often do not belong to organized groups. Likewise, most of these conversations have moved to darker webs and less-policed sites like encrypted chat platform Telegram and gamer site Discord.
In a sense, the incel movement is the ultimate expression of the decentralized nature of the wider radical right, down to the way the discourse is often driven by memes, jokes and “shitposting” on online forums and message boards. Therefore, banning or targeting a specific group is unlikely to yield success. As such, we require a multifaceted response that understands the nature of the incel threat and how it relates to the dynamics of the global radical right movement.
The difficulty of fighting diffuse ideologies: incels and the radical right
The manosphere – the umbrella term that brings together all misogynistic movements – includes not only incels, but men’s rights activists, “pick up artists” and the so-called movement “Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW)”, the latter of whom intentionally avoids contact with women.
The Hanau shooter, who in his manifesto said that he had a very high standard for choosing women and that he avoided entering into relationships with them because they were a “temptation”, was initially labeled an incel, although he was later better described as belonging to the MGTOW movement. Several experts on the subject of misogyny and the far-right have argued persuasively that labeling every misogynistic violent attack as incel only muddies the discussion about the consequences of misogyny as a whole.
Even then, some voices have challenged that the Hanau shooter fit neatly into the MGTOW category, as he was also displaying strong paranoia and white supremacy sentiment. This debate over the different strands of the Manosphere and how the borders between categories can be diffuse is illustrative of the wider difficulty in determining what is “radical right” or “white supremacy” and how that interlinks with other ideologies.
Scholars Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware have noted how incel ideology is getting interwoven with typical white supremacist ideology, which can be emboldening for members of the incel movement. This can go on both directions, as several memes incorporating incel language and depicting terrorists like the Christchurch shooting as “Chads (desirable males)” made the rounds in online radical right forums in the aftermath of attacks last year.
Aside from the porous borders between different strands in the radical right, other variables can further add to the confusion on what constitutes radical right ideology. There was a heated debate after the Hanau shooting on whether the mental illness aspect of the case disqualified it as a terrorist incident, which experts such as Cynthia Miller-Idriss found problematic for risking glossing over how people are being radicalized and the role of white supremacy ideology in this process.
Many differing, and often contradictory, extremist movements are covered under the term “radical right”. From the Manosphere to accelerationists, through anti-government patriot militias and anti-Muslim protest movements all the way to Russian ultranationalists and Satanic-inspired neo-Nazis; it is not always clear-cut that these movements share a common ideological ground. As such, the battle against a diffuse threat with no clear leaders and high levels of infighting ends up being reactive and fails to keep up with how the threat develops.
Yet, seeing as how the incel threat continues to wreak havoc, it is imperative that we start to understand more about how terrorism materializes in the radical right, including what ideological trends are connected to acts of violence, how do strands relate to each other, and how attackers radicalize and mobilize for action.