In the wake of the tragic shooting in Plymouth on 12 August and the claims from police that the incident was not terror related (now under review), there has been considerable soul-searching in the United Kingdom around how we conceptualise the threat from ideologically inspired violence.
While the facts are still emerging, there is evidence that the attacker in Plymouth was at least partially influenced by the involuntary celibate online subculture (although he himself stated that he did not identify as such, and appeared to have an ambivalent relationship with the community).
The case highlights the legal and conceptual ambiguities posed by so-called incel violence and other hybridised threats that thrive in the grey area between extremism, hate and conspiracy theories, which will likely require us to go beyond traditional counter-terrorism based-responses to such challenges.
Incels are a loose online subculture defined by their virulently misogynistic world-view, part of a wider internet “manosphere” characterised by conspiracy theories and dehumanising presentations of women as sexual objects whose sole purpose is to procreate or fulfil the sexual needs and desires of men. Despite ideological differences, there is also considerable overlap within these spaces with far-right extremist subcultures, which often share the deep misogyny of the incel movement.
Against a backdrop of escalating incel-inspired violence across the world, Canada has led the international charge in classifying incel incidents as a form of terrorism. But in the UK, incel violence falls into an ambiguous category of “Mixed, Unclear and Unstable” (MUU) threats, a broad grab-bag for the long tail of ideological drivers of terrorist violence beyond far-right and Islamist extremism. MUU now accounts for a rapidly increasing share of referrals to the counter-terrorism Prevent programme.
Underpinning the police’s initial reluctance to label the Plymouth attack as terrorism lies a certain legal ambiguity. In his latest legislative review, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, argued that incel violence could constitute terrorism under the current UK definition – the use or threat of violence to further an ideological cause – if there was evidence of an individual seeking to initiate a “revolution of the unhappy” through their violent actions. This would fit the case of Elliot Rodger, for example, who killed six people in a 2014 attack in Isla Vista, California, and fantasised about creating fear among women and sparking a revolution against “the feminist system”. His assault served to inspire violent incels the world over.
But Hall also pointed to other examples where incel tropes would serve as a relatively flimsy ideological veneer for attacks with fundamentally personal drivers, much like the motives of school shooters in the US, where we have seen categorisations broadened to “terrorism and targeted violence” to capture such incidents.
The crucial ambiguity with incel-inspired attacks surrounds the question of whether they have the purpose of advancing an ideological cause. While incels certainly share a set of deeply politically rooted misogynist beliefs, their world-view is relatively loose compared to traditional extremist ideologies, and may not necessarily have a strategic aim in mind. So-called black-pilled incels, who subscribe to the view that there is little hope for unattractive males to succeed under the current social hierarchy, are particularly nihilistic, despairing and self-pitying, with no clear strategic goal within the movement (more accurately described as an online subculture). While the Plymouth attacker referenced the black pill phenomenon in recent videos uploaded online, it is currently unclear if he sought to inspire copy-cat attackers or advance a specific ideological cause.
As this tragic episode reveals, violence associated with incel ideology defies neat categorisation within narrow existing counter-terrorism frameworks. There have been calls over the past week to adapt the definition to incorporate it. But while clearly defining terrorism threats is important from a security perspective, getting trapped in a binary debate about whether or not a violent act constitutes terrorism risks missing the wider challenge presented by increasingly nebulous extremist threats.
Alongside the incel phenomenon, other movements such as QAnon (a conspiracy theory whose adherents claim shadowy networks of elite liberals are abducting and abusing children) constitute ideologically multifaceted threats, enabled by a permissive digital environment and transnational online subcultures, which are inseparably connected to other societal harms such as conspiracies, disinformation and weaponised hate. The two-decade-old counter-terrorism toolbox established in the wake of 9/11 in response to the highly hierarchical organisation-based threats posed by groups such as al-Qaeda is increasingly ill-equipped to respond to such ideologies.
If our aim is to tackle broader societal issues such as hate crime, misogyny and toxic masculinity, these narrow counter-terrorism approaches are neither desirable nor fit for purpose. In a UK context where the counter-terrorism agenda has long suffered from a perception that the government was targeting minority communities, the desire to “balance” the UK’s definition of terrorism is understandable, but an overly broad conception of terrorist threats risks securitising swathes of society. And while labelling broader ideological violence as terrorism may serve to legitimise and prioritise the very real problem of targeted hate as an urgent security concern, we should be getting much more hawkish on hate rather than trying to fit threats under a definition to which they do not necessarily belong.
Events such as the attack in Plymouth show the urgent need for a renewed policy response that meets this shifting and diversifying challenge. This must join up the efforts of those working across a much broader spectrum, whether at the sharp tip of violence prevention or addressing the broader socio-political dimensions of the threat, such as the challenge of systemic misogyny or the proliferation of online conspiracy theories.
None of this is to say that the role of misogyny within terrorist and extremist violence should be neglected. Regressive gender norms are very often at the core of radicalised world-views, from Islamist to far-right ideologies. But it is important to move beyond terrorism alone in how we understand the wider phenomenon of targeted hate. Within this broad spectrum of hybrid threats, terrorism does not hold a monopoly on violence, which can stem not only from ostensibly hostile organisations with clear political objectives, but also from loose movements that fuel and feed off conspiracy theories and extremism.
If we are to avoid more incidents like Plymouth, our classifications, definitions and responses need to better reflect this new threat paradigm.
Milo Comerford is head of policy and research, counter extremism, and Jakob Guhl is policy and research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an international counter-extremism think tank