Incel violence is not terrorism… at least not yet

It is simply too early to label incel violence ‘terrorism’ and we have other legal tools to deal with this hateful, misogynist phenomenon.

I know that terrorism is a charged term but we still need to put some defensible parametres around it.

OTTAWA, CANADA — I must be a masochist. There is not other way to explain why, for at least the fifth time in a little over a week, I am wading into the incel world again, a field I have acknowledged – repeatedly – that I never worked in as an intelligence analyst and have a shallow understanding of. Given the names I have been called for questioning the wisdom/justification for labeling as terrorism a stabbing by an alleged incel in February in Toronto you’d think I’d know better.

Apparently not.

Now I happen to think, bias aside, that I am a fairly reasonable guy. I try to be fair and open to other ideas that happen to counter my own, while still reserving the right to disagree/push back. When I come across a phenomenon I am not well-versed in I try to learn more, especially if it happens to be part of my general interests (in this case terrorism). Ever since I was a kid growing up in London (Ontario) I have craved knowledge.

I’ve said if before and I’ll repeat it here: incel violence is a hate crime and is often tied to vile misogyny but not, yet, an example of terrorism.

As a result, over the past week I have listened to a podcast with Bruce Hoffman, a US giant among terrorism studies, another with Naama Kates, another American who actually talks to incels (and recorded one with her), and read a primer on incel symbols and terminology put out by Moonshot, a tech startup in London which specialises in countering violent extremism. I am, as a result, a lot better informed, but still not anyway near an ‘expert’ on the incel phenomenon. Hell, I am not an ‘expert’ on anything.

Here is what I have concluded…so far. I reserve the right to change my mind since, as far as I am concerned, anyone not open to such change is either an arrogant asshole or an idiot.

I still do not think incel violence qualifies as terrorism. Allow me to explain why.

There are those who insist that incels must be seen as terrorists because their form of violence is ideologically motivated (Moonshot uses the term ‘ideology’ on several occasions in its very well written guide). Aside from the fact, which I learned from Naama Kates, that a tiny, tiny, tiny fringe of the incel ‘movement’ is violent, which does complicate things (are there ‘non-violent’ ISIS terrorists, for instance?), I do not believe, as of May 2020, that what incels purport to think qualifies as an ideology.

Don’t get me wrong, I do accept that these people have grievances – against women, against men, against society, etc. It’s just that the way this is framed does not strike me as an ‘ideology’. I see it more as anger, frustration, and, in the fringes, misogyny and hate. I cannot describe their view of the world and what to do with it, how to change it, in the same way as I see jihadist or neo-Nazi ideologies.

Is it not curious that some incels migrate, or have sympathy for, other ideologies? I have read whereby incels incorporate elements and frameworks from the aforementioned jihadisphere and white nationalists. Now I know that ideologies can cross-fertilise but it seems that – perhaps – incels are doing this for the very reason that their own ‘ideological’ frame is not robust or mature enough to stand on its own. Hence they are attracted by other ideologies which are.

Furthermore, just because the incels have their own vocabulary, a point well laid out in the Moonshot guide, that does not imply this constitutes an ‘ideology’. Street gangs have their lingo (and grievances, and targets, and…) and yet no one would seriously call these people terrorists.

Related: The challenges of calling any act of violence ‘terrorism’

I’ve said if before and I’ll repeat it here: incel violence is a hate crime and is often tied to vile misogyny but not, yet, an example of terrorism. This may indeed change if (when?) the ‘movement’ matures and its ideas morph into a true ideology. Until that time, I will continue to push back against it being treated as such by our legal systems and our law enforcement and security intelligence agencies.

My original response

As an aside I have found it very interesting that no one has taken me up on two points I made in my original response to the decision to lay terrorism charges in the February 2020 stabbings in Toronto. These are:

  • If we treat this as terrorism, where is CSIS, our primary counter terrorism organisation, going to get the resources from to investigate it and what will it have to drop to do so? What about the RCMP?
  • What will the Crown (the prosecution in Canada) have to do to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that this is indeed terrorism, meaning how does one ‘prove’ motivation?

These are not minor issues and both have serious implications. I would have hoped that those behind the decision to level terrorism charges would have given both consideration. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t.

All of this will be very captivating to watch in the months and years to come. I will continue to educate myself on things related to incel and I will continue to challenge collected wisdom where I think appropriate. I hope we can keep this conversation going – civilly – and all learn more from each other.

That is, after all, what a real ‘expert’ does.

PS Thanks to Bruce Hoffman, Naama Kates and Moonshot for helping me immensely to better grasp this issue.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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