When is a terrorist organisation not a terrorist organisation?

September 6, 2021

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.

The opinions expressed here are the author's own and should not be taken to represent the views of the DRIVE project.
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