‘Incel’ threat is growing 5 years after Toronto van attack: expert

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TORONTO — Five years ago, after a man deliberately drove a van down a busy Toronto sidewalk in one of Canada’s worst mass murders, the country was confronted with a previously obscure extremist movement, which experts say remains a growing threat.

The attacker, Alek Minassian, had claimed to be angered by women who wouldn’t sleep with him and inspired by“incels,” or involuntary celibates.

While Minassian later cited various motivations for the violence and the presiding judge at his trial ultimately found he carried out the attack to achieve notoriety, his rampage on April 23, 2018 forced renewed attention on the capacity of misogynist movements to inspire violence.

Arie Perliger, the director of security studies at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell, said law enforcement agencies now see incels and groups with misogynist ideology as a rising concern.

“The threat is growing,” he said. “It will continue to be a problem.”

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Canada has not seen a wave of incel-inspired violence since Minassian perpetrated the deadliest attack in Toronto’s history, but isolated cases have occurred.

In May 2020, a 17-year-old boy — who cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act — faced terrorism charges after a stabbing at a Toronto massage parlour that killed Ashley Noelle and seriously injured another woman. Public Safety Canada said evidence suggested the attack was motivated by incel ideology.

In Sudbury, Ont., Alexander Stavropoulos pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder in 2020 after he tried to kill a baby and her mother out of hatred for women. Stavropoulos, who was later sentenced to life in prison, was an admitted incel adherent and told police he was inspired by Minassian.

Perliger, who co-wrote a study on extremist misogyny for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism this year, said the threat extends beyond incels and includes various groups that use anti-women ideology to radicalize men.

These groups “understand that these kind of messages are very attractive and very effective,” he said.

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“They always focus on encouraging strong masculinity, emphasizing that they are reactionary organizations against what they perceived as liberal efforts to oppress men, to marginalize men,” he said.

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Perliger cited The Proud Boys — a far-right extremist group whose members participated in the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — as an example of an organization that recruits through misogyny.

“Some far right organizations also are focusing more on traditional lifestyles or traditional gender roles, so it’s part of a broader ideology focusing on conserving what they see as a traditional way of life, traditional lifestyles, traditional families,” he said.

“For many of these young males, this is exactly the type of language that connects with them.”

Proud Boys Canada announced last year it was dissolving after the Liberal government listed it as a terrorist organization, but experts warned that local Proud Boys chapters continue to operate in Canada.

Jacob Ware, a terrorism researcher at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations who studies incels, said the group “clearly conforms to every objective definition of terrorism” but countering it is complicated because incel violence is usually committed by lone attackers.

“A lot of the measures that we might have to try to interdict an act of violence, like tracking group activity, finding where they meet, looking at finances, communication, those might not be there,” he said.

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“What you’re really dealing with is a network of people who typically use a lot of violent rhetoric, typically make a lot of threats, but you’re not necessarily clear which one of them is being serious.”

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Perliger of UMass-Lowell said U.S. and Canadian law enforcement have devoted more research, training and intelligence collection to confronting misogyny in recent years, but more work is needed.

He emphasized underlying causes that may be pushing young men towards incel and aligned groups.

“The statistics show that men are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Men are more likely to conduct a suicide or to attempt suicide. Men are more likely to be incarcerated or to end up in prison. Men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes.” he said.

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“Young men are dealing with some significant challenges and we need to think how we can help them and how we can address those challenges.”

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