What, in your view, constitutes terrorism?

I would say that shooting five people dead before turning the gun on yourself, because you have been radicalised by a toxic community to hate women, qualifies as a terrorist act. Yet as the law currently stands in the UK, 22-year-old Jake Davison was not a terrorist – and the misogynistic “incel” culture he so ardently subscribed to has never been scrutinised by the Government to the same extent as activities by groups such as Isis and al-Qa’ida.

It should be, though. Britain’s deadliest mass shooting in a decade having taken place at all is a tragedy in itself, but even more of a gut-punch is that we knew this day would come and did nothing to prevent it. Incidents in the same vein as Thursday’s killing spree have already taken place several times elsewhere in the world; carried out by men who, like Jake, identified as incels. Left unchecked, it was only a matter of time before incel ideology manifested as targeted brutal violence in the UK.

The incel – or “involuntary celibate” – community was founded by a woman named Alana in the late 90s, though its shape has shifted significantly since then. Originally it was intended as a support group for lonely people who weren’t dating or having sex. “They were this international group of very shy people meeting online to compare notes on the ways in which they felt trapped,” Alana told the Reply All podcast in 2018.

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In some ways, the glue that binds the incel community hasn’t changed at all: loneliness is still at its core. But what was once a rather anodyne online space where advice was sought on asking people out has morphed into a breeding ground of bitter contempt, misogyny and extremist ideology.

After Alana handed over the reins of her site and moved on with her life, inceldom became another facet of the toxic manosphere – a collection of anti-feminist websites, forums and chat servers – populated by virulently sexist men who obsess over how they’ve been rejected by women and emasculated by alpha males. They blame women for their perceived sexual failings and endorse violence against them as punishment. It is not uncommon to see posts calling for women to be murdered, raped or attacked with acid. They don’t desire women; they desire control.

Incels are often painted as “lone wolves” despite being part of a network with an identifiable body of beliefs, just like the groups most typically associated with terrorist behaviour. Their simultaneous fixation on and revulsion of women is also seen in religious fundamentalists who similarly operate from a patriarchal vantage point. Women are dehumanised to the point of existing as objects. It is unthinkable that a woman could have autonomy, sexual or otherwise, and live her life freely. Look at Afghanistan, where Taliban militants have shuttered girls’ schools; female empowerment is as anathema to religious fundamentalists as it is to incels.

“That kind of extreme misogyny of the type we have seen here and in terms of the incel community is a threat to all women and, ultimately, to all our communities,” said Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor for North West England, speaking on BBC Breakfast on Saturday about the Plymouth shootings. “If you treat it as terrorism then you have other options open to you in terms of intelligence gathering, in terms of being able to prosecute for disseminating materials, in terms of being able to hold them to account if they are conspiring with each other.”

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But according to Jonathan Hall QC, the Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, incels should only be treated as terrorists “if we see more of these attacks”.

I wonder how many more we need to see. We’ve already had Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in California in 2014 after posting a video in which he said “I don’t know why all you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you for it”. Christopher Harper-Mercer, who shot nine people dead in Oregon in 2015, published a manifesto prior to the attack stating “when the girls would rather go with alpha thug black men, we can all agree that something’s wrong with the world”. Then there was Alek Minassian, who posted “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!” before murdering 10 people by driving a van into pedestrians on a busy Toronto pavement in 2018.

Given that incels interact as part of a global, online community, why are we taking a “we’ll see what happens” approach when we have already seen multiple times what can and does happen? Why are we treating the Plymouth shootings as a first of its kind rather than the latest in a series of events? And if we must look closer to home as proof of the subculture existing here, why is Hall conveniently forgetting the case of Gabrielle Friel, the Scotland-based, Indonesian-born student who was convicted for possessing weapons earlier this year “for a purpose connected with terrorism” and admitted in his trial to feeling an “affiliation” with Elliot Rodger?

Countries such as Canada are already taking a tougher stance on attacks linked to the incel movement. Last year, terrorism charges were brought against a 17-year-old who murdered a masseuse after it was concluded the attack was motivated by violent misogynist ideology. It’s time for the UK Government to also step up and recognise that extreme misogyny is a form of terrorism. Where’s the sense in waiting for more people to lose their lives?

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.