23 January 2023

Sad, insecure and inadequate – incels can be dangerous, but they are not terrorists


Are incels terrorists?

The label ‘incel’ is short for ‘involuntarily celibate’ and embraces feelings ranging through sadness to despair to murderous rage, predominantly experienced by young men who feel they are denied sexual fulfilment by a real or imagined social or physical impairment.

The question of whether or not they qualify as terrorists has been raised once again as the inquest into the spree killer Jake Davison and his victims unveils his crimes and his bleak mindset. In August 2021, Davison murdered his mother and four other people in a suburb of Plymouth, before turning his pump action shotgun on himself. It was Britain’s worst act of gun violence since the Dunblane attack in 1996, when Thomas Hamilton murdered 16 children and their teacher before taking his own life.

The comparisons between the two are of more than passing interest. Both men were thwarted in life and suffered feelings of burning rejection and humiliation. Both were sexually repressed misfits consumed with paranoia. Both caused national horror and outrage. Both were fascinated by and obtained weapons, held legally, in circumstances that suggest a catastrophic system failure in the police licensing process. 

Both Hamilton and Davison clearly committed monstrous crimes, but does that make them terrorists?

The short answer is, no. Davison’s inquest heard last week that he was obsessed with incel ‘culture’. His rambling social media offerings indicated he was immersed in the self-pity and hostility that numerous online incel forums incubate and reinforce. He devolved from thought to action over a period of time when various professionals raised concerns about his behaviour. The inquest heard that in April 2021, when explaining an assault on another person for calling him fat, he stated: ‘This is why incels were more prone to killing themselves – or going on a killing spree.’

His internet searches prior to his armed rampage on the streets of Keyham, in the words of counsel for the families, suggested ‘violence, misogynistic views, and indicated an extremely hostile relationship between him and his mother’.

While there is more and more evidence to suggest that domestic violence may be a precursor with other ideologically motivated offenders – from the extreme right or in Islamist extremism – it is all but impossible to assemble incel into a coherent ideology in itself. Moreover it covers a vast spectrum of behaviours, from the unpleasant but harmless to well planned attacks on innocent victims. Incel subcultures are huge, as the recent arrest and interrogation of international Misogynist-In-Chief Andrew Tate in Romania has revealed.

Research by King’s College London indicates that one of the biggest incel forums online has 13,000 active members and 200,000 threads. Other research points to the nature of the discourse within these groups getting gradually more violent, with ever more frequent references to the rape of women as revenge for sexual inadequacy. No one should take this threat lightly.

But it isn’t, in the main, terrorism that motivates this benighted movement. That is not to say that some of the tactics employed by incel perpetrators do not cross the threshold into acts of terrorism. But that’s quite different from levering a huge number of disaffected teenagers who, bluntly, can’t get laid, into the purview of our national counter-terrorism strategy.

That’s why the reports in The Times last week were so concerning. They suggest that the Prevent strategy, which will publish new statistics on Thursday, now has a new category for incels who are investigated as a risk of being drawn into terrorism.

We already know from leaked details of the much-delayed Shawcross review of Prevent that one of the problems the strategy has is ‘mission creep’ where more and more inappropriate referrals are made to assessors who are already overwhelmed with casework. Focusing on incels as a new category risks securitising sadness, insecurity and inadequacy and stretching resources to a point where real threats sail past scrutiny.

As the latest Terrorism Act statistics demonstrate, Islamist extremism is still by some margin the pre-eminent threat, followed by far-right extremism. These ideologies are relatively distinct. Unlike incel culture, both meet the threshold of terrorism that seeks to overthrow legitimate government by force.

However cruel and callous incel perpetrators can be, there is nobody serious arguing that they have the capacity to do this. The vast majority of incels express their frustration and anger online, rather than through physical violence. The police and security services are right to resist defining incels as terrorists, and instead treat cases on their own merits, applying the law accordingly. We certainly do not want a generation of young men having their repulsive criminal thoughts projected into reality by convincing them they are part of a grand ideological battle. 

Keyham’s local MP, Luke Pollard has been active in suggesting that our Prevent strategy tackles incels. No one can doubt the sincerity of his motives. But this is a mistake. Prevent must be free to focus on real harm, not safeguarding.

Davison fell through the cracks of a plainly threadbare safety net. Rather than pushing more work into Prevent’s ambit, we should be looking to reform our child and adolescent mental health services, our police gun licensing processes and how they interact with GPs. All of these factors played a role in allowing this enraged and wicked young man to take out his spite against women on totally innocent people. If we want to stop more of these atrocities, we should above all be looking not at terrorism, but at how we make decent men of teenage boys adrift in an online sea of ‘permissive’ misogyny.

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Professor Ian Acheson is an expert on counter-extremism and security.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.