What is an incel?

Jake Davison’s deadly shooting has prompted debate over whether it should be declared a terrorist attack

Computer keyboard
(Image credit: Tim Brakemeier/AFP/Getty Images)

Police are reviewing whether the mass shooting carried out by gunman Jake Davison in Plymouth last week should be classed as a terror attack.

Counterterrorism sources say Davison’s ties to the misogynistic “incel” movement mean declaring the killings as a terror attack has “not been ruled out”, reports The Times.

Officers from the South West Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit will assess Davison’s “phone, computer and online postings” to determine if the attacks are “directly linked” to being an incel, in which case they could fall into the remit of counterterrorism policing, reports the newspaper.

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Davison “repeatedly” spoke about incels in a series of videos he shared online, reports Sky News. But he never explicitly referred to himself as an incel, instead alluding to “people similar to me” in that they had “nothing but themselves”, says the broadcaster.

What does ‘incel’ mean?

The term “incel” is a portmanteau derived from the phrase “involuntary celibate”. Self-identified incels believe that they are excluded from fulfilling their desire to have sex, date or establish relationships with women, usually because of their physical appearance.

What is their ideology?

Although they share some ideological similarities with the better known Men’s Rights Movement - notably the belief that feminism has resulted in male oppression - incels are specifically fixated on sex and their lack of access to it.

The community “grew out of the pickup artist movement, which takes a manipulative approach to seduction, but is rejected by incels who find it too humanising of women”, The New York Times reports.

In a 2018 attack, 28-year-old Alek Minassian used a van to mow down ten pedestrians in Toronto, posting a cryptic message to Facebook just hours before. The status contained a reference to Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old man who murdered six people in California in 2014 before killing himself, leaving behind a manifesto detailing his sexual frustration and hatred of women.

Minassian’s message - the authenticity of which has been confirmed by Facebook - led investigators to believe that he may have belonged to the incel movement. He referred to “Chads” and “Stacies”, the subculture’s slang for the attractive men and choosy women - also referred to as “normies” - whom they perceive as shutting “incels” out of the sexual marketplace.

The slang reflects how incels see themselves as shunned and persecuted by their lack of sway in the dating market. One popular forum “compared women to Nazis and so-called ‘incels’ to Jews”, Vice journalist Aditi Natasha Kini reported in November 2017.

In the Plymouth case, Davison had complained in a series of online rants that “women are arrogant and entitled beyond belief”, telling a US teenager on a subreddit forum that he was “bitter and jealous” and that women “treat men with zero respect or even view them as human beings”, according to The Guardian.

Are they dangerous?

The incel movement has been identified as a strand of a broader trend of young white males being radicalised online. It shares some similarities with the better known alt-right movement, with both groups attributing society’s ills to social liberalism, women and ethnic minorities.

Feminism and social justice are blamed for supposedly upsetting the balance of the sexual marketplace in favour of women, while non-white races are frequently described in crude sexual stereotypes.

Within the movement’s most extreme fringe, California killer Rodger is revered as a martyr and an inspiration. The most hard-line incels believe that rape, violence and even murder are justified to draw attention to the “problem” of sexually frustrated males.

Acid attacks are a particularly popular suggestion for retribution, since they usually result in physical disfigurement. Others advocate for the sexual enslavement of women in order to ensure “fair” distribution of sex.

Following the Minassian attack three years ago, moderate elements of the movement have taken care to distance themselves from his extreme actions. In the aftermath of the rampage, Braincels, a Reddit message board for incels, reiterated that it “does not support, encourage, or glorify any violence or physical harm, or those who commit such crimes”. However, within radical circles, Minassian was praised as a hero.

Screenshots posted to We Hunted the Mammoth, a blog that documents the “manosphere”, showed members of one message board applauding the Toronto massacre as the start of an “incel uprising”.

“This is literally what I asked for, finally somebody breaking the mold,” one wrote. “Normies… need to be in constant fear for EVERY ASPECT OF THEIR LIFE.”

Last week, Sky News reported that the misogynistic incel movement has been associated with at least six mass shootings and the murder of 46 people in the US.

Should incels be defined as terrorists?

Minassian’s attack in Toronto led the Canadian police to categorise incel attacks “as a form of violent extremism”, reports Global News, with the force amending its Terrorism and Violent Extremism Awareness Guide to include mention of incels.

But in the UK, it is yet to be “defined in a court of law as a terrorist ideology”, reports the BBC.

Jonathan Hall QC, the UK’s independent reviewer of anti-terror legislation, has recommended that the law does not need to be changed, as the definition of terrorism is broad enough to prosecute incel-inspired violence.

In his most recent report, he also notes that not all incel-inspired attacks should be considered to be an act of terrorism. While some could be defined as intending terrorism through a “revolution of the unhappy”, others are motivated by “an extreme form of revenge”, in a way similar to school shooters in the US, he said.

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