When is a terrorist organisation not a terrorist organisation?

Co-authored by Anne-Marie Martindale & Jacob Astley

The recent killings perpetrated by a young man, Jake Davison, in Plymouth in the UK - first of his mother and then of four strangers - have drawn attention once more to an internet organisation calling themselves ‘Incels’. This group of ‘involuntarily celibate’ men - which Davison was believed to be affiliated with - espouse sexist ideology and openly promote misogyny. Incel-related misogynistic driven violence is not a new phenomenon. The recent incident in the UK, however, hastens the need not only to recognise it but, moreover, to address the dangerous reality of Incel culture.

The nascent debate that the Plymouth attack generated was rapidly overshadowed by events in Afghanistan. There, ISIS-Khorosan (ISIS-K) - targeting those trying to flee the country at Kabul airport - killed over 175 people and injured many more, detonating an explosive device at the entrance to the airport. In contrast to the incident in Plymouth, the attack at Kabul airport was immediately ascribed as an act of terrorism by security experts and understood as such in the media and political circles. Although there was some debate about the drivers for the Plymouth perpetrator - most notably stimulated by the comments made by Jonathan Hall, QC, the UK Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism - the attacks in Plymouth were not defined as terroristic.

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations.

Given that - on the surface at least - it would seem that both the violent attacks in Afghanistan and Plymouth were motivated by ingrained values and beliefs that can be defined as ‘extremist’. This raises some interesting questions. Should those inspired to undertake acts of violence by Incel culture be considered terrorists? Indeed, should the Incel network itself be classified as a terrorist organisation?

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations. After all, members of the extreme Incel culture share an ideology, form part of a horizontal global network of individuals with dangerous views and provoke subscribers to undertake indiscriminate violence against women. Yet, with no clear guidelines on what constitutes a terrorist organisation and what does not, Incels continue to slip the net.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.The speed, scope and scale of the internet affords opportunities for those that incite violence and presents sizeable challenges for those trying to prevent it. The evolving nature of the online realm, its widespread accessibility and the possibility of anonymity are factors which Incels - like terrorists - seek to exploit to propagate hate and violence.

The attacks in Plymouth were certainly not the first nor the only act of organised and extreme violence perpetrated by individuals affiliating with this group. Demonstrable connections have been made with similar acts of violence in Canada and the United States in recent years. Yet still, as a group, Incels are not formally recognised as a terrorist organisation. It could be that reluctance to recognise them as such lies in their ideology which is rooted in hatred against women, or indeed psychosocial circumstances that affect young men who may already be socially vulnerable in different ways.

In recent years, criminological researchers have been paying increasing attention to the links to be found between men who abuse women and their tendencies toward political and religiously motivated violence. The work of Joan Smith (2019) is the most recent in a long history of feminist informed work which has made these links explicit. From the intervention of Frances Power Cobbe in 1879 - who labelled wife abuse as torture - to Morgan’s powerful observations in The Demon Lover first published in 1989 and updated post 9/11, 2001, to Elizabeth Stanko’s (1997) analysis of women’s fear of crime as a technology of the soul, alongside the work of Johnson (1995) defining domestic abuse as intimate terrorism, to the work of McCulloch et al (2019) on so-called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.

Taken together, this work demonstrates the links between misogyny and the lives women live in a culture of fear and intimidation by men; some of which result in death at the hands of those same men, like in Plymouth, where one of the victims was the young man’s mother. To put it simply, neither Incels nor other terrorist organisations - like ISIS-K - assign much value to women’s lives outside of their presence in the world to service and support men, raising the question as to why women’s safety and security is not only muted but routinely ignored.

So when is a terrorist organisation not considered terroristic? Why is an ideology that only targets women and supports indiscriminate hatred and violence against them beyond the reach of terrorism? What might be the resourcing implications of classifying Incels as terrorists? Might bringing this group more squarely under the purview of the security and intelligence service attention result in greater protection for women at risk?

Food for thought indeed for those wanting to understand terrorism and those for whom it has serious consequences. How to prevent those consequences for those subjected to its worst effects should be a priority for researchers, politicians, policy makers and security practitioners.

Far right and Islamist politics are mutually dependent in the shared displacement of 'the Muslim'

For some time now, I have been trying to make sense of the process by which a particular representation of the figure of ‘the Muslim’ is intrinsically entangled in Islamist and far right politics.[1] The prevalence of the Muslim ‘other’ in legitimising their identity is known from studies on far right politics. In Islamist politics, 'the Muslim' is central in the legitimising the establishment of a Muslim homeland - the caliphate.[2] What dominant research and policy tends to overlook, however, is how far right and Islamist politics connect beyond language and action.

In other words, research is generally occupied with the political discourse and performances of certain groups and parties without giving sufficient focus to the actual workings of identification. One way to perceive mutuality in more detail is to shift attention from the study of identity to the study of identification. In the study of identity, politics is understood as the formulation of, and interaction between, fixed identities. As an alternative, the study of identification acknowledges that political identities are always relational and co-constituted. In the context of identity politics and extremism, the relational aspect is important because it provides insight into the legitimation, or normalisation of radical political demands.

As researchers, community practitioners and policy-makers, I suggest we take into account the deeper, undisclosed, connection between far right and Islamist politics. In focusing solely on plain language and actions, we risk missing important factors related to the dynamics of political identification. We have to allow for inconsistencies and contradictions, some of which are ingrained in the concepts we use as observers ourselves. In the case of far right and Islamist politics, there is a contradictory alliance between seemingly opposing identities.

One such radical demand is the construction of a state governed by Islamic laws and principles - the caliphate. Rather than arguing such a demand is an Islamist demand only, the caliphate is co-constructed by both Islamist and far right politics. Perceiving mutuality beyond mere interaction between Islamist and far right politics reveals such underlying paradoxes. The far right would never explicitly demand the establishment of the caliphate as the solution to the ‘out of placeness’ of Muslims.

And from what we might conclude from the analysis of Islamist groups such as Daesh, not every form of Islamist politics actively pursues the establishment of the caliphate. The caliphate is rather an imaginative tool - a utopia/dystopia - that functions to legitimise the displacement of Muslims. The possibility of the caliphate is important for the emotive appeal to the discourse of the far right and Islamists. The politics of Daesh, for example, is not necessarily in favour to other Islamist groups that aim to mobilise the Muslim community (the ummah) on the grounds of displacement.

In the context of identity politics and extremism, the relational aspect is important because it provides insight into the legitimation, or normalisation of radical political demands.

The legitimacy of the caliphate, both in far right and Islamist politics, is dependent on the construction of ‘the Muslim’ as one particular - homogeneous - way of being Muslim. ‘The Muslim’ in the politics of the far right is a ‘out of place’, or displaced, figure deprived of a homeland. For the far right, there is no place for ‘the Muslim’ beyond the structure of the caliphate. The only way of being Muslim is to abide by the all-encompassing way of life, or ideology, of Islam. Hence the reasoning that ‘the Muslim’ is irreconciable with secular and liberal culture.

And because there is only one way of being authentically Muslim, the far right ultimately deny the possibility of so-called progressive or liberal Islam. Similarly, the ‘out of placeness’ of ‘the Muslim’ is pivotal to the legitimacy of Islamist politics. Their displacement is an inevitable outcome of the dominant culture and politics of assimilation of the West. The structural eradication of Muslims can only be reversed through the establishment of the caliphate - the place of origin of the ummah.

To merely conceive them as polarised identities overlooks the symbiosis, or mutuality, of such a construction. After all, far right and Islamist politics aim to construct a frontier between ‘the Muslim’ and ‘the secular’. Yet, beyond the frontier there exists a mutual relationship that is paramount to the longevity of both forms of (extremist) politics. And although such a relationship has recently been captured in concepts such as ‘cumulative extremism’ and ‘reciprocal radicalisation’, I propose we need to go beyond the binary to perceive the so-called third position.

The third position refers to the context far right and Islamist extremism are subjected to and, through their mutual practice, aim to change. While generally understood as the outcome of far right politics alone, the ‘mainstreaming’ of the political right is a result of the interaction between oppositions. Without the lens of complexity, it is easy to attribute such mainstreaming entirely to the far right.

However, by taking into account the relational dynamics embedded in the optimal functioning of the far right, the critical role of Islamist politics in the mainstreaming of the political right is rendered visible. The third position is the synthesis - the coming together - of far right and Islamist politics. It is a particular perspective that privileges perceiving relations and its very (contingent) implications. Thus, in occupying a third position, context is crucial because the extremist identities we analyse not only derive from it, but also seek to change it.


[1] Please note I acknowledge recent discussions on the ambiguity of these categories. In speaking of far right and Islamist politics here, I refer to the variant that is overdetermined populist in articulation and identification.

[2] The Muslim in Islamist politics encapsulated both the Muslim ‘self’ as the authentic subject, and the Muslim ‘other’ as the corrupted subject (e.g. the progressive or liberal Muslim).

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