Two years after the Toronto van attack that killed 10, the misogynist incel subculture allegedly behind the mass killing is part of an evolving threat that intersects with far right extremism, according to experts.
Those who self-identify as incels number in the “tens of thousands” and are a major challenge for law enforcement, said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a U.S. think-tank.
“Part of the challenge, is to wrap our heads around this, that it’s terrorism,” he said.
“It is an ideology that promotes violence, and it meets the very basic definition.”
Governments should be dedicating more resources and expertise to help police and security officials track the incel movement the same way they analyze other terrorist networks, according to Clarke.
Clarke warns of a growing overlap between so-called incels and far-right extremism, like white supremacists, that is helping to indoctrinate young men online at an earlier age with a media diet of racist, misogynist and hateful propaganda.
He said the first six months of 2020 will be a “watershed” moment for these movements of angry young men as they are spending more time online amid lockdowns to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.
“More people than ever are online and more people than ever are accessing propaganda and white supremacist content,” he said. “We’re seeing kids as young as nine, 10, 11 years old that are engaging with white supremacists online. This is a huge concern.
“You have these almost teenagers that are holed up in their rooms, their basements, they’re online and their parents don’t really know what they’re doing.”
Canada’s most recent outburst of incel-related violence was allegedly a machete attack on Feb. 24 at a North York massage parlor that left a 24-year-old woman dead and another badly injured.
Global News has learned that police are alleging the attack was inspired by incel ideology.
The suspect, a 17-year-old boy, can’t be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
While the motive for the killing was not disclosed at the time, police are now calling it terrorism. Charges against the suspect were updated in court on Tuesday to include counts of terrorism.
“Terrorism comes in many forms and it’s important to note that it is not restricted to any particular group, religion or ideology,” the RCMP said in a joint statement with Toronto police Tuesday.
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The terrorism charges are believed to be the first directly related to the violence of the incel movement, which is now responsible for almost 50 deaths in Canada and the United States since 2014.
“It’s a real challenge for police to find that one individual, the lone actor who’s going to break off and actually commit real world violence,” said Jacob Ware, a U.S. researcher who studies far-right extremism.
Experts say “incels” have quietly grown more ubiquitous in recent years through a decentralized network of online forums and gaming chatrooms where lonely young men look to expand their networks. The term “incel” is short for “involuntary celibacy.”
Social media sites have shut down several incel forums, shifting discussions to clandestine platforms like Gab and the encrypted app Telegram, where there is less moderation or oversight, according to experts.
The online conversations alternate between expressions of loneliness to hatred and misogyny, experts said. In the most extreme cases, messages encourage rape, violence and killing.
“De-platforming” has increased significantly in recent years with Reddit and other social media sites cracking down and removing incel groups, according to Ware.
But that hasn’t slowed or moderated the movement or its calls for violence, he said.
“It just means that those who are really vicious in their rhetoric are moving to darker places, darker websites,” Ware said.
He noted that sites like Gab, a social media site favoured by the far-right, has been embraced by incels over its absolutist commitment to free speech.
Both Clarke and Ware said incels and right-wing extremists have increasingly co-mingled.
“The ideologies aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. And in fact, misogyny is a key similarity that runs through a lot of these different types of extremism,” Clarke said in an interview.
Although only a fraction of self-proclaimed incels have mobilised to violence, many espouse hatred of women and rail against what they claim to be their oppression as sexually rejected men.
Incels often refer to women as Stacys who they perceive as being only attracted to hyper-masculine and highly attractive men, referred to as Chads.
These often isolated young men can become radicalized from a steady media diet of misogynistic propaganda and anti-feminist or anti-female vitriol, Clarke said.
The charges filed in the wake of the machete attack are a grim reminder of the suspected misogynist violence that killed 10 people and injured another 16 people April, 23, 2018.
In a chilling interview with Toronto police, Alek Minassian claimed he was an “incel” and part of a movement of angry young men upset they can’t attract women.
“It’s basically a movement of angry incels such as myself who are unable to get laid,” he told police during a four hour interview. “You could call it an incel rebellion.”
Minassian called his own attack “a day retribution.” He seemed unrepentant and enamoured with Elliot Rodger, who conducted the first incel attack in 2014.
Rodger killed six and injured 13 near the University of California, Santa Barbara. He left a manifesto blaming the attack on his inability to get a girlfriend and his disgust at interracial couples.
In 2018, the gunman in the Parkland, Fla., massacre that killed 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2019 had commented on a YouTube post that Elliot Rodger “will not be forgotten.”
“We have these incidents that are piling up and now we’re paying attention,” Clarke said. “But shouldn’t we have been paying attention five, 10 years ago as this threat was percolating?
“Frankly, it makes me concerned over what we’re missing now,” he added. “We need more research because we understand very little about how this movement works.”
Their pervasive online presence and loose affiliations make incels difficult to track, said Clarke.
Police must also distinguish between those who truly pose a threat and those who are simply trying to be provocative.
“There’s so many of these people online that are just trying to be provocative and it’s difficult for law enforcement to know who is just (talking smack) and who is really going to something violent,” Clarke said.
In its 2018 report on the threat of terrorism, Public Safety Canada said the Toronto attack “alerted Canada to the dangers of the online incel movement.”
The department has since granted nearly $2-million to organizations that study right-wing extremism, including misogynistic violence.