While most of the counterterrorism community has focused on the threat posed by Salafi-jihadists and radical right-wing extremists, the growth of a misogynistic ideology fuelled by involuntary celibates, or ‘incels,’ has quietly grown more ubiquitous.
This ideology persists largely online in the so-called ‘manosphere,’ which is a decentralised network of websites, gaming platforms, and chatrooms imbued with a heavy sense of misogyny and significant overlap to other violent ideologies, including but not limited to, right-wing extremism and white supremacy.
The Ideology of Involuntary Celibates (Incels)
Elliot Rodger, perhaps the most high-profile incel, was a 22-year-old Santa Barbara, CA resident who embarked on a shooting and stabbing spree that killed 7, fuelled by extreme misogyny and sexual frustration. Rodger has become a martyr for the incel movement, revered in online chats in the ‘manosphere.’ His admirers have bestowed on him the honorific ‘The Supreme Gentleman,’ a term Rodger used to refer to himself. In some ways, Rodger is the incel equivalent of Anders Breivik for white supremacists: a hero and an inspiration who is labelled as a ‘Saint’ by his sympathizers. Rodger has also been “canonised” by his followers, his image often transposed onto religious iconography. Both terrorists also left behind lengthy manifestos that continue to provide insight into their twisted ideologies.
Incels and others in the manosphere refer to the sexual market value of women where they rank them by their looks according to a ten-point scale. In addition to incels, the manosphere includes “Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW),” “Pickup Artists,” and “Men’s Rights Activists.” Some incels are not actually celibate but are angered that they are unable to engage in relationships with women who they perceive to have a high sexual market value, something that makes them unattainable for those with the grievances.
In some cases, there seems to be an overlap or convergence between incels and far-right terrorism. Misogyny intermingles comfortably with racism, as reflected in an analysis of recent manifestos written by both groups. There is also a nexus between the incel ideology and other far-right ideologies, and much of the online discussion involves a not so insignificant amount of racism.
Some dispute that incel attacks qualify as terrorism because there is no realistic policy change that the movement is advocating, since their frustrations are merely a result of failed interpersonal relationships. However, they do justify violence to assuage their grievances, their violence is ideological in nature, and they have attacked civilians in order to have a psychological impact on society, all classic hallmarks of terrorism.
The Internet as the Great Connector
The Internet serves as a place for incels to exchange memes, share experiences, and ultimately expand their network of like-minded people. But just as with jihadi chat rooms, there is a radicalisation effect that can take hold, as (mostly) isolated young men consume vast quantities of highly misogynistic propaganda and anti-feminist and anti-female vitriol.
There is a funnelling effect happening online in which the most extreme members of the fringe are pushed off sites like Reddit. The incel movement is ensconced in contemporary meme culture and use the term ‘blackpill’ to describe the perceived power and social status that women supposedly use as leverage over men. There are also frequent references to ‘Chads’ and ‘Stacys’ which are code words for, in the perception of incels, men and women who can attain unlimited desirable sexual partners.
The most recent decades have seen ideological extremist groups utilising the Internet to its full potential in an effort to radicalise and recruit new followers. While sites that members of the manosphere frequent, like 4chan, 8chan, 8kun, and Reddit, were not originally created to be congregating points for these specific groups, the mechanisms of these sites make them very hospitable. It is easy for groups within the manosphere to establish online communities for themselves where they are free to share memes, rants, personal stories, and the like all while evading heavy moderation for extended periods of time, sometimes years.
However, on sites like Reddit that are heavily populated with those who do not belong to the manosphere, extreme misogynist communities are often noticed by outsiders and can sometimes be “brigaded” by other communities or even banned by site moderators. The subreddit /r/Incels was banned in November 2017 and was subsequently replaced by /r/Braincels, which was then banned in October 2019. /r/MGTOW was quarantined in January of this year, meaning that the community does not appear in any search results and users are met with a warning before entering the site. ‘Shitposters’ make law enforcement’s job more difficult, because they add a constant torrent of noise to the possible signal from lone actors openly musing online about committing acts violence in real life.
From Online to Offline
A domestic terrorism threat, with some estimating the number of incels in the tens of thousands, is emerging with a significant following in North America and Europe. Even though only a small fraction of those subscribing to this ideology ever mobilise to actual violence, that still represents a major challenge for law enforcement and security services focused on countering terrorism and extremist violence.
In April 2018 in Toronto, Canada, an incel named Alek Minassian drove a van through a crowded pedestrian area, killing ten people and injuring more than a dozen others. In his interview with police, Minassian railed against ‘Chads’ and ‘Stacys.’ Immediately following Minassian’s attack, fellow incels online called for mass rape and acid attacks against women. There have been other incel attacks in Oregon, Florida, and New Mexico. At one point, Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in the Parkland, FL massacre commented on a YouTube post that Elliot Rodger ‘will not be forgotten.’
In late August 2019, a 22-year-old man from Middlesbrough in the United Kingdom was arrested and charged with possessing explosives and terrorist materials. Anwar Said Driouich was an adherent of the so-called ‘Incel’ movement. The day before his arrest, Driouich visited the website incels.co and viewed postings warning about another Elliot Rodger-style attack. As Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware have highlighted, there are a number of other terrorist attacks linked to incel ideology, including attacks in Roseburg, Oregon (2015), Aztec, New Mexico (2017), and Tallahassee, Florida (2019). For those willing to dismiss incels or extreme misogynists as mentally disturbed, these labels are not mutually exclusive. Individuals suffering from mental illness can also be heavily influenced by a specific ideology and commit acts of violence that qualify as terrorism.
It is impossible to predict how this noise will migrate from the Internet and cross the line into real-world behaviour. So far, the threat appears to be from lone actors and not any small cells or groups. To reduce the presence of terrorist groups and individuals espousing violent ideologies online, social media and technology companies have grown far more vigilant in recent years, moving to eject terrorists and their supporters from popular platforms like Twitter and Facebook. However, because language from extreme misogynist groups is sometimes not as classically alarming as language from other extremist groups, it is still the case that it can more easily fly under the radar.
Naturally, this has caused a shift toward other more clandestine platforms, like Gab, the encrypted app Telegram, and the gaming site Discord, where there is much less moderation, regulation, or oversight. The manosphere is currently flourishing in these locations, although it is likely that attempts to stamp out extremism will cause another migration to a different group of platforms and the continuous game of cat-and-mouse will continue unabated.