Why Terrorism Studies Miss the Mark When It Comes To IncelsEviane Leidig 31 Aug 2021
When news broke of an ‘incel’ (involuntarily celibate) terrorist attack in Plymouth, England on 13 August, media coverage of the perpetrator and explanations for his motive quickly went viral. Academics tracking the shooter’s online activity provided further information of his digital footprint, which indicates an interest in incel subcultures, while the UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation linked to a report referencing inceldom as a potential terrorism category. Others rightly pointed out the problematic issue of the shooter being given back his gun license last month, after it had been previously revoked following an allegation of assault. Initially, it was contested whether the attack qualifies as terrorism, but after police reviewed the case, it has been reclassified as incel terrorism.
This Perspective does not focus on the attack itself—the perpetrator’s background, his modus operandi, etc.—but instead critiques terrorism studies’ approach to researching and understanding incels. Notwithstanding the Plymouth attack itself, there is still a need to critically evaluate how terrorism studies, and by extension counter-terrorism frameworks, label incels. While incel terrorism should be considered a threat, terrorism researchers should not dismiss the well-developed body of scholarship on violent misogyny and male supremacism, which offers useful analytical perspectives on the phenomenon. This Perspective further argues that policymakers and tech companies must identify and classify incels in ways that move beyond traditional counter-terrorism models.
The primary area of oversight amongst terrorism studies researchers is that the guiding ideology of deep rooted misogyny promoted by incels is embedded within mainstream social structures and norms. Misogyny and patriarchy do not exist in a vacuum, and this is not exceptional to incels. As scholars at the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism note: ‘Although misogynist incels use more extreme dehumanizing language and glorification of violence, their belief systems and ideologies are developed from and supported by the cultural and societal contexts in which they live’.
Incels attribute their lack of success in developing sexual relationships with women to biological determinism, believing that women solely choose men who are physically attractive and that some men, such as incels, are thus genetically predetermined to never find a mate. Self-described incels are allegedly ‘victims’ of this social dynamic and increasingly blame women’s agency, escalating into violent misogyny where women are frequently targets. This process is referred to as embracing the ‘black pill’ ideology in the incel community. While such attitudes are extreme, they amplify mainstream gender norms. Misogyny and sexism are socially prevalent despite efforts towards achieving gender equality. Women continue to be sexually objectified across all social institutions, from popular culture to politics to the workplace, while gender-based violence continues to disproportionately affect female victims. Academic research on incels highlights that ‘wider society is implicated in the emergence of the incel subculture’. Understanding this connection means recognising the social structures that enable incel ideology. Further, the beliefs and worldview of incels stem from mainstream cultural concepts that have become popularised, such as evolutionary psychology from pseudo-scientific research.
Understanding this relationship between incel ideology and mainstream gender norms has practical implications for policymakers and practitioners, as it means catering responses in an appropriate manner to address this threat. Part of this means supporting mental health and social services, but not as a solution for misogynistic violence; not all incels have suicidal impulses, and aggrieved male sexual entitlement is not a mental health issue but rather an ideological one. Additionally, interventions should build upon insights gained from domestic abuse counselling, given that perpetrators of mass violence share in common a history of abuse or harassment towards women. Such programmes must be centred upon a gender justice-oriented foundation, which avoids supporting men’s entitlement to women, at an early stage and routinely.
Classifying Misogynist Content Online
Secondly, incels should not be analysed as a fringe phenomenon of terrorism or political violence, but instead recognised as connected to a broader online ecosystem of the manosphere. Incels constitute part of an umbrella network that includes the men’s rights movement (MRM), pickup artists (PUA), fathers’ rights movement, and men going their own way (MGTOW) – all united by the narrative that men are victims, a stance of anti-feminism, and denial of gender inequality. While incels are the most recognisable subculture within the manosphere, as evident by the labelling and reporting of terrorist attacks, it is important to note that not all acts of violent misogyny are incel related, but can constitute these other factions within the manosphere.
Understanding how incels link to these other communities in the manosphere, and their areas of overlap, gives a more comprehensive mapping of this threat. This loose coalition of male supremacist activism connects across multiple websites, blogs, forums, and social media platforms that has become a distinct subculture with its own language, vocabulary, humour, and narratives. The manosphere network is further linked to a broader ecosystem of extremist websites that monitor the media, government, and academia to engage with content produced by these institutions. Thus, incels do not operate remotely but are deeply embedded into a vast online apparatus of misogyny and sexism, which mobilises in reaction to mainstream discourse. Policy responses must consider that extremist behaviour online feeds into a feedback loop rather than existing in isolation.
While there has been much research into this subculture, the governance of these online spaces in terms of policy is far behind. In a recent report published by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), myself and other co-authors recommend that tech companies should expand their terrorist taxonomy of the hash-sharing database to explicitly include violent misogynistic content. Thus far, the GIFCT hash-sharing database contains mostly jihadist-related hashes, with a pledge to include more right-wing extremist-related hashes. Violent misogynist content, including incels, only constitutes a tiny percentage of the hashes. More nuanced and comprehensive knowledge of male supremacist subcultures will better inform tech policy teams to be more equipped with the adequate resources to track and monitor hashes. A systematic approach in categorising such online content will be beneficial towards establishing an industry standard on tackling violent misogyny. Rather than an ad hoc implementation by each tech platform, a taxonomy that is mutually agreed upon by companies will ensure that cross-platform posting behaviour is appropriately monitored and examined for harmful content.
Applying a Gender Lens to Counter-Terrorism
Finally, incel-motivated violence has quickly evolved into a public security concern, sparked by the Canadian government designating a terrorism charge for the first time as incel related in 2020. The UK’s Prevent programme has also seen an increase in referrals of individuals who fall under the category of ‘Mixed, Unclear and Unstable’ (MUU) threats, which includes inceldom. More recently, in the new US National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, there is a threat category of domestic terrorism that identifies “single-issue ideologies related to… involuntary celibate—violent extremism”. Movements such as male supremacism and incels can and should be considered a separate threat category, not just a ‘gateway’ to other ideologies.
However, this should not come at the expense of situating the strong overlap between male supremacism and the crucial role of gender in contemporary far-right movements. Take, for instance, the Proud Boys, which originated as a men’s rights activist group and has quickly transitioned into a far-right organisation predicated on ‘Western chauvinism’. Other examples include right-wing terrorists such as the Christchurch shooter, whose manifesto highlights an obsession with white reproduction and fertility rates in Western countries in promoting the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, or the Hanau attack perpetrator whose violent misogyny is deeply interlinked with far-right beliefs. In short, gender-motivated violence should be prioritised as a security threat, but in addition to, rather than a substitute of, recognising male supremacism in far-right extremism.
Fundamentally, counter-terrorism frameworks are ill equipped to address ‘non-traditional’ threats that defy easy categorisation. Created in response to the War on Terror, which identified and classified Islamist organisations with strong hierarchical command structures, this model is outdated to represent the contemporary threat landscape. Identifying and tracking groups is inadequate when the threat can no longer be neatly classified into groups, or when individuals choose whether to self-identify with labels at any given moment. The Plymouth attacker, for instance, did not describe himself as an incel, despite spending much time online writing on incel forums and expressing deeply misogynistic views. Determining the ideological motivation for what qualifies as a category of terrorism should not be dependent on group affiliation, but situated on a variety of organizational types like networks and subcultures. In particular, online-based violent ideologies should be determined by content rather than necessarily by actor type. A focus on content can help prevent the trap of uncategorised attacks being designated as ‘lone wolf’ terrorism—a broad, vague, and sometimes inaccurate, description. The phenomenon of incels (as well as far-right extremism) is fragmented, socially diverse, and perhaps most importantly, amplifies mainstream gender norms that appear acceptable to the public. This latter point reveals a bias in CT/CVE programming efforts that must be addressed in order to effectively counter this threat.
 A hash is a digital signature unique to an online image or video; the database allows tech companies to share hashes in order to easily identify and remove terrorist content.
Eviane Leidig is a Research Fellow in the Current and Emerging Threats programme at ICCT.