Incels Are Radicalized and Dangerous. But Are They Terrorists?
Canada is searching for new frameworks to tackle ideological violence.
In late February, a 17-year-old walked into a massage parlor in Toronto’s West End just after noon with a machete. Paramedics were on scene within a half-hour, treating three victims for stab wounds.
Ashley Noell Arzaga, just seven years older than her attacker, died on her way to hospital. The spa’s owner lost a finger wrenching away the weapon. The alleged attacker, who remained mostly silent during the rampage, was arrested at the scene.
The attack garnered some media attention at the time, but there was scant detail available. The alleged assailant cannot be named, as Canadian law prohibits identifying youths in the criminal justice system. But it rocketed back into the news on May 19, after police announced that, on top of first-degree and attempted murder charges, they would be prosecuting the crime as an act of terrorism. Investigators “determined that this crime was in fact one in which the accused was inspired by the … movement commonly known as INCEL (involuntary celibate),” according to a statement from the Toronto Police Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
It is the first time Canada has prosecuted a terrorism-related charge not tied to Islamic extremism and seemingly the first time in the world a country has pursued terrorism charges against an adherent to the incel movement.
It’s an imperfect solution. Incels are a diverse and loose-knit movement drawn together by two things: a burning misogyny and a nearly cultlike belief that sex is a necessity that should be guaranteed to young men. That has manifested, at times, into attacks on symbolically relevant soft targets: a street full of people enjoying the spring weather; a school full of young adults; and, in February, a massage parlor—a gray-market sex work establishment.
A stabbing attack in Sudbury, Ontario, last June left a woman and her infant daughter injured, while a shooting at an Glendale, Arizona, mall on May 20 critically injured one man and sent a 16-year-old girl to hospital. Over the past six years, more than two dozen people have been killed by members of incel communities.
National security and police agencies are growing increasingly concerned by the threat.
Among incel forums and communities online, an internal struggle is going on. Some, already struggling with poor self-esteem and mental health issues, condemn the attacks and feel further victimized and unfairly maligned. Others, however, are emboldened by and celebrating the mass killings that have taken place in recent years, raising the possibility that there will be more attacks to come.
A series of attacks
Canada is unfortunately very familiar with the threat posed by the incel movement. The term itself originated from a Canadian woman hoping to describe—and thus help—lonely young men frustrated by their own virginity. Since then, she has watched in disgust as it has come to describe a movement that is virulently misogynistic and often avowedly racist, homophobic, and sometimes violent.
In 2018, a rented cargo van plowed through pedestrians along a 1.5-mile stretch of Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street, running through red lights and onto sidewalks. Ten people died in the attack.
Police arrested the driver, Alek Minassian, who now stands accused of 26 charges of first-degree and attempted murder—his trial was scheduled to begin this spring but has been postponed until later this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A message posted to Minassian’s Facebook shortly before the attack began read: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
The message may look like gibberish to many, but in it are a series of references to the incel community—a loose movement that is also well versed in irony, memes, and inside references, similar to the online white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements. Distinguishing truth from deliberate “shitposting” in such manifestos can be tough, but the core ideology remains.
It’s hard to ascribe a single ideology to the incel movement, but broadly speaking the denizens of incel message boards and communities—of which 4chan was an early meeting point—rage against men and women who are capable of finding partners. They are the “Chads” and “Stacys.” Incels believe they are particularly excluded from the dating pool because of their appearance or personalities. Taking the “black pill” (in homage to both The Matrix and the so-called men’s rights movement) means to recognize the supposed unfairness of the Western social structure.
Boiled down, it means waking up to how society has deprived them of sex. For many, the vision of sexual life in the modern West is one in which only a small amount of men scoop up desirable, youthful partners and where other men must settle for, at best, second-rate partners; it is usually coupled with a violent anti-feminism and a nostalgia for an imaginary past of enforced sexual partnerships.
In and of itself, such a movement would be odious, and it might inspire domestic violence—some incels, despite the name, are in relationships but believe that their partners do not match the qualities they “deserve,” such as virginity. But it wouldn’t be a national security threat. For some time, that’s what it was. But, as Minassian recognized in his social media post, that changed when Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old member of some early incel communities, launched a spree attack in Isla Vista, California, on May 23, 2014.
A manifesto found after Rodger’s rampage ended, which left six people dead, laid out a deeply misogynistic worldview. The themes in that screed—blaming women for ignoring him, other men for finding partners while he remained alone, and society at large for perpetuating a system that left him lonely—are central to the incel movement. On the message boards where incels gather, Rodger’s face is often used for users’ avatars, and he is normally referred to by the shorthand “ER.”
Since Rodger’s spree killing, incel communities have grappled with the violent aspect of their own movement. Some have expressly disavowed violence and have committed to self-improvement rather than self-destruction. Reactions to attacks like the two in Toronto range from outright encouragement to a contention that such incidents are understandable but not justified, while others have tried to argue that these are false flags, organized by police as an excuse to crack down on incels.
The danger of lone-wolf attacks, of course, is that they only take one person.
Chris Harper-Mercer cited Rodger in a manifesto discovered after his 2015 shooting spree at an Oregon college killed nine people. Scott Beierle, who attacked a Tallahassee, Florida, yoga studio in 2018, had uploaded videos praising Rodger and identifying with the movement. Last June, Brian Clyde was shot and killed by officers after attacking a federal building in Dallas—his online posts show he was well versed in the incel world, and his family believes it was a case of suicide by cop.
Alexander Stavropoulos was arrested in Sudbury last June after stabbing a woman in a parking lot and trying to attack her infant daughter—later telling police he was “out to murder a little white girl.” In an agreed statement of facts filed with the court, Stavropoulos self-described as an incel and said he drew inspiration from Minassian’s alleged crimes.
The FBI arrested 33-year-old Carl Bennington in April on cyberstalking charges, after harassing a litany of women online—in some cases, threatening rape and murder. Investigators found he was active in incel communities.
Last month, just before the six-year anniversary of Rodger’s attack, a mass shooting at an Arizona mall sent three to the hospital. Police said 20-year-old Armando Hernandez Jr. went to the mall with the intention of attacking 10 people. Prosecutors said, after an interview with the suspect, that Hernandez identified as an incel and “was targeting couples.”
All told, dozens are dead and maimed at the hands of perpetrators who have, to varying degrees, been part of incel communities online.
A growing national security concern
National security agencies are waking up to the threat. This year’s annual report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, one of Canada’s main anti-terrorism agencies, singled out “gender-driven violence” as an emerging current of violent extremism—it specifically mentioned the 2018 van attack, as well as the stabbing attack in Sudbury.
“Once viewed as a criminal threat by many law enforcement authorities,” a January report from the Texas Department of Public Safety described. “Incels are now seen as a growing domestic terrorism concern due to the ideological nature of recent Incel attacks internationally, nationwide, and in Texas.”
The Texas report even contends that “this particular threat could soon match, or potentially eclipse, the level of lethalness demonstrated by other domestic terrorism types.”
While the security concern over this amalgamated movement is growing, misogynistic violence is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1989, Marc Lépine targeted female students at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. In a manifesto, he railed against women and feminism, listing women he regretted not being able to kill. Lépine, though, did not have the benefit of the internet to share his warped worldview. He didn’t have a community egging him on.
Lépine, though, lives on in these communities. His face is a common profile picture for denizens of these incel forums.
The emerging concern mirrors the evolution of the incel movement itself. The web forums that comprise the broader incel community have moved and relocated over the years, as they have been taken offline and deplatformed by their web hosts—r/Incels, one of the largest gatherings, was banned by Reddit in 2017 after amassing some 40,000 members.
Today, Incels.co and Incels.net are the primary gathering points. On those forums, users are quick to argue that there is no incel movement or ideology, often when discussing their alleged culpability in acts of violence. Yet reading through the thousands of posts belies a common set of grievances—and a common set of solutions.
Based on their self-reported histories, many of the incels were bullied in school, while some appear to still be in high school. They report low self-esteem, depression, and an inability to make friends. They obsess over their weight, height, and looks. While other online communities may encourage each other, incels often propagate the shaming and bullying they claim to see in the outside world. It’s common for members to post pictures of themselves, only to be told how hideous and undesirable they are by their fellow incels.
It’s from there that things turn particularly ugly. Incels point the blame for their inability to find girlfriends on a supposed moral degradation of Western society. They argue sexual liberation has created a society that is unfair to young men like them—instead privileging the “Chads,” “Stacys,” and the racist archetype of “Tyrone.” Much of this worldview seems heavily informed by pornography.
Incels believe that there is a reckoning coming and that society will need to revert back to a more patriarchal society where men like them can expect partners. Attackers and their online cheerleaders argue, like other accelerationists before them with different ideologies, that violence will heighten the contradictions and force a reckoning that leads to a misogynist utopia.
While incels are clearly a movement and pose a unique security threat, there have definitely been efforts to overstate just how organized and coherent an ideology or organization they represent. A moral panic over the premier of the blockbuster Joker, spurred in part by the FBI and in part by the media, suggested that screenings could be targeted by incel terrorists. Incels had the last laugh, as the premier came and went largely without incident.
Clearly, traditional counterterrorism thinking can’t be easily applied to the threat posed by the incel movement.
Addressing this problem, like deradicalizing other movements, is extremely difficult. Jack Peterson is a prime example of the fraught challenges at hand.
After the Toronto attack, Peterson, a well-known user and the host of an incel podcast who went by the username “jackbud,” became a de facto spokesperson for incels. He insisted in interviews that his community wasn’t inherently violent—but that some members were struggling with mental health issues, which led to the killings. For the rest, like himself, he insisted the incel forums were just another corner of the internet where edgy and morbid humor is the norm. “I do think that making dark jokes for people who aren’t mentally ill helps keep a lot of us from going crazy,” Peterson told the Daily Beast in 2018.
After interviews like that one, Peterson started hearing from fellow incels. “The response I got,” Peterson told me, was: “‘You’re misrepresenting us: We really do hate women. We’re not joking.’”
That was an eye-opening experience for Peterson. It was then that he began to realize that maybe violence wasn’t incidental to the incel movement but increasingly integral to it. All the jokes about mass killings and terrorism were “not as ironic as I imagined,” he told me for a story in the Guardian in 2018. He declared that he was disavowing the incel movement.
That year, Peterson had tried to start dating again. He told me he was hoping to produce a documentary about the incel movement, in order to encourage others to leave the community. “It’ll be tough to maintain this level of confidence and productivity if I don’t have a strong circle of friends,” he confessed.
In the two years since, Peterson has been interviewed for an ABC News feature and profiled in the podcast Invisibilia. It seemed he was doing what he promised and becoming a signal of hope for the incels looking to break out of the cycle of self-pity and depression.
But in a YouTube video uploaded this March, titled “I hate women,” Peterson repudiated it all. “It was a fucking lie to make money from the media,” he says in the video, over a black background. “I pretended to be this other guy to make money.”
I, of course, did not offer Peterson a dime to tell his story—money didn’t come up, and the vast majority of journalists consider it unethical to pay a source for an interview.
The simpler explanation is that real life offers rejection and difficulty. Young men like Peterson, and many on the incel forums, find comfort in their shared rejection.
As Peterson himself put it, that shared experience can turn into an alienation from society that allowed their rejection. “The mindset is kind of like this: ‘I’ve been bullied and rejected my whole life, so because of all the suffering I’ve experienced, now the world owes me sex, it owes me friends, it owes me success, because of all the failures I’ve had,’” he said.
“True incel heroes”
In recent years, as far-right extremism has flourished online, there has been an intense debate as to whether acts of violence committed in the name of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, and misogynistic movements can be accurately described as terrorism.
The legal systems designed to prosecute terrorism cases after 9/11 were geared toward those who operated on behalf of well-understood terrorist organizations, like al Qaeda. The Islamic State tested the boundaries of those processes by encouraging its followers to conduct lone-wolf attacks, pushing out playbooks on how to carry out mass stabbings and vehicle-ramming attacks, while online recruiters targeted disaffected young men and encouraged them to strike at Western governments. Even then, the Islamic State was a listed terrorist organization to which attackers could profess fealty.
Incel attackers have emulated the tactics of the Islamic State without any of the organizational structure. They have also echoed white supremacist and neo-Nazi attacks of recent years, like mass shootings targeting mosques seen in Christchurch, New Zealand, or Quebec City, Canada.
Navigating how to prosecute cases of incel violence, or even keep tabs on self-professed incels, poses legal and constitutional challenges with no clear solution. Despite that, U.S. President Donald Trump announced via Twitter on Sunday that a similarly amalgamated movement would be added to the list of designated terrorist organizations—one that, unlike incels, had not been responsible for any significant acts of murder or terrorism—Antifa.
Antifa, of course, exists to oppose other violent and racist ideologies. Incels, meanwhile, are all too aware that they bear all the hallmarks of a terrorist group. Users have shared memes featuring Pepe the Frog—a particularly popular mascot for incels—clad in black and sporting the Islamic State shahada and at the wheel of a van driving through a busy street. Minassian’s alleged crimes closely emulate attacks in places such as Barcelona, Spain, and Nice, France, where the attackers drew inspiration from Islamic State propaganda channels. Alt-right memes and propaganda are common, as well.
Much as how recruiters for the Islamist terrorist organization preyed on those with mental illness or self-esteem issues, some incels have tried to goad vulnerable adherents into violence. A 2017 post from a popular incel web forum instructed followers that “if you go ER,” a common reference to committing a mass killing, “you’ll basically be immortalized and live on forever since people will speak about you for decades.” When some users have posted on these web forums expressing suicidal thoughts, others have responded by encouraging them to take out others in the process and committing suicide by cop.
After the Toronto van attack, one incel posted: “This guy forgot the most important part of going ER: killing yourself at the end.”
Just as the Islamic State excelled at creating slick multimedia propaganda to entice new recruits, there are even incel hip-hop tracks. In April, one user uploaded a YouTube video titled “Alek Minassian”—a song that glorified the van attack to celebrate the two-year anniversary, with couplets like “hop over the curb like I’m Alek Minassian … while I run over pedestrians.” The video was online for weeks until it was finally taken down by YouTube.
The Canadian prosecution of the massage parlor stabbing attack is clearly an attempt to try to make the existing legal structure around terrorism apply to ideologically motivated violent extremism, like the incel movement. It’s still unclear how the courts will respond to that—or what other movements it might be applied to.