Are ‘Incels’ The Next Al Qaeda? — Terrorism In 2021

September 9, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Earlier this week, on Sept. 7, erstwhile FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe cautioned D.C. law enforcement to be on the alert ahead of the Sept. 18 “Justice for J6” rally planned in support of the rioters charged for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He added that the risk of violence should be taken “very seriously.”

McCabe is just one of many on Capitol Hill who are bracing themselves for another possible riot. One law enforcement source allegedly confirmed to CNN that “the Metropolitan Police Department will be fully activated,” and that they are monitoring the internet and social media chatter for any anomalies and to come up with an estimated crowd size.

The mood around D.C. could be described, then, as one of fear and uncertainty. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 looms, and in the shadow of the unbelievable events of Jan. 6, many are increasingly drawing links between the foreign attacks Americans have come to associate with the term “terrorism” in the last two decades, and the largely domestic violent incidents we have seen of late.

Furthermore, in March this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — the nation’s premier intelligence office — in a declassified report warned that domestic violent extremism poses an “elevated threat” in 2021. The report particularly singled out “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” and anti-government/authority militias, the former being most likely to “conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians,” and the latter most likely to “target law enforcement and government personnel and facilities.”

Over the last five or six years, the concept of domestic terrorism, defined by the incidents we have witnessed, has started to somewhat shed its amorphous form. There have been incidents driven by political beliefs, gender discrimination, white supremacy, racial or ethnic hate, and religious bias. There is, of course, some overlap in this Venn diagram, but each element can also function independently.

The incidents that could fall under this umbrella are multitudinous and include — but are not limited to — Elliot Rodger’s 2014 shooting spree in Santa Barbara; Dylann Roof’s 2015 murder of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston; the 2017 white supremacist/neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville; the anti-Hispanic shooting rampage at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019; the Jan 6. insurrection at the U.S Capitol; various nationwide synagogue attacks; and the rise since last year in anti-Asian hate crimes to name just a few.

This rise in domestically perpetrated violence evades simplification. These acts do not all fit into one neat box, like so-called “radical Islamic” or “jihadist” terrorism might; rather, the gray complicates the definition and, thus, the general public’s awareness of the mounting threat such violence poses.

In today’s piece, we take a look at how the understanding of “terrorism” has changed in the two decades since 9/11 and at the shifting landscape that is defined more by domestic actors and ideologies, and less by foreign groups’ goals.

Understanding The Face Of Terrorism Today

Per the Code of Federal Regulations, terrorism includes “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines domestic terrorism as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

This category includes — per the FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the DNI — violent extremism related to race or ethnicity, anti-government or anti-authority sentiments, animal rights and environmental issues, abortion rights, and religious, gender, or sexual orientation biases.

Image source: The Federal Bureau of Investigation

In contrast, international terrorism is defined as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).”

The Bureau’s director, Christopher Wray, has clarified that “regardless of the specific ideology involved, the FBI requires that all domestic terrorism investigations be predicated based on activity intended to further a political or social goal, wholly or in part involving force, coercion, or violence, in violation of federal law.”

Per the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish non-governmental organization aiming to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, terrorism can take many forms, including that of “bombings or use of other weapons of mass destruction, assassinations and targeted killings, shooting sprees, arsons and firebombings, [and] kidnappings and hostage situations.”

In the twenty years since 9/11 — the most significant terror attack in modern American history — the FBI says “the threat landscape has expanded considerably.” While thwarting international terrorism is still a priority of the government, the Bureau adds, “the threat of domestic terrorism also remains persistent overall,” with such dangers today being motivated mainly by racial or ethnic extremism, and/or anti-government or anti-authority extremism.

“The threat posed to the United States has expanded from sophisticated, externally directed plots to attacks conducted by self-radicalized lone actors who mobilize to violence based on international and domestic violent ideologies,” according to the testimony top FBI officials gave to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in 2019.

The FBI, whose “number one priority” is “protecting the United States from terrorist attacks,” says a number of factors have contributed to shaping the new face of terrorism, including a propensity towards attacks being perpetrated by “lone wolves” rather than organized, “large-group conspiracies.” Also underlying this evolution is the proliferation of social media, through which potential violent extremists — both international and domestic — have been able to find community and radicalization material.

Law enforcement faces “significant challenges” when it comes to thwarting homegrown violent extremists (motivated by the ideologies of foreign terrorist organizations) and domestic terrorists (those who plan to use violence to achieve a set of goals, but are not directed or inspired by foreign terrorist organizations), mainly because of the ubiquity and ease of online self-radicalization, and the diffused nature of those extremists’ networks and affiliations. 

Violent Attacks On U.S. Soil: The Numbers

Despite the lack of a “terrorism” label, there has been an unmistakable rise in the number of such events. The FBI disclosed, just last month, that the number of hate crime incidents reported in 2020 was the highest it’s been in more than a decade, many of which resulted in multiple deaths and injuries.

Per the latest annual report from the ADL’s Center on Extremism, there were at least 15 separate domestic extremism-related incidents in the U.S. in 2020, during which a total of 17 people were killed. For comparison, there were 45 extremist-related murders in 2019 and 54 in 2018. The group ties this surprisingly low number to Covid-19 restrictions limiting opportunities for mass casualty attacks. Strikingly, the ADL report says that 2020 was “the second year in a row that no killings linked to domestic Islamist extremism occurred” in the U.S.

According to the Brookings Institute, “Roughly 75% of domestic terrorist acts are committed by right-wing extremists and 75% of them are committed by white nationalists and white supremacists.”

This disturbing phenomenon has also prompted the White House to take action, with President Joe Biden in June releasing the first-ever “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” an all-government framework devised to combat what he deemed “the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today.” In May, he also signed into law the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act.

The Case For Defining Domestic Attacks As Terrorism

Since 9/11, there has been a blurring of boundaries between hate crimes, mass shootings, lone offender attacks, and terrorism — most of which is a legal conundrum, more than a theoretical or practical one. What we are witnessing in the national security landscape today, according to some experts, is the transformation of routine, generic grievances into larger acts of terror and violence.

As some observe, there is a certain unfamiliarity to this new landscape, and experts and the average Joe alike might be left scrambling to understand the motivations of groups without traditional political goals, “like installing an Islamist regime or winning the right for their region to secede from a country.”

While it is true that, just like with the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, “there is no single cause that motivates individuals to radicalize,” some observers point out that modern-day domestic terrorism is not actually all that different from what we would traditionally describe as terrorism.

It would be tempting to label the incidents enumerated at the start of this piece as “lone wolf” attacks, but drawing the links between them actually paints a more sinister and insidious picture.

In some ways, individuals with similar grievances are organizing online, shirking labels of just being unhappy “trolls” in their own “internet echo chamber.” For instance, there has been a rise in the number of mass murder incidents tied to misogyny, perpetrated by self-described “incels” (involuntary celibates). They may, at the moment, lack a central leader or mastermind a la Osama bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but they are still displaying signs of nascent organization and cohesion. 

It is seemingly evident that though they are not motivated by religion, many of these criminals are motivated by some shared ideology. They gather in a place together — online — and feed into each other’s rhetoric, encouraging violence and revenge. In fact, mass murderers like Roof and Rodgers often leave behind written or recorded “manifestos,” that are passed around by similarly minded people online and are even referred to by subsequent murderers. 

Alek Minassian, the man who drove a truck into a crowd in Toronto in 2018, killing 10, referred in his online activity to Rodgers. Minassian claimed to have been “radicalized” via the internet. He spoke to detectives of an “uprising” or “rebellion,” and said he spoke to “at least two other mass murderers before their attacks.”

Also key to this discussion is the fact that Minassian did not have a specific target in mind, the way that mass shooters do — whether that is a particular physical building or person. Rather, like the people behind 9/11, “he wanted to instill terror in society writ large.”

In 2020, Canadian authorities said they would be prosecuting the attack as both an act of terrorism and as first-degree and attempted murder. This marked the first time the Canadian government has used a terrorism charge against someone not connected to Islamic extremism. It is probably also the first time that someone motivated by incel ideology has been tied to terrorism.

What Next?

There is no doubt, according to senior law enforcement officials, that the terrorism landscape has changed since 9/11. Just as that fateful day was a watershed moment in shifting Americans’ perception of danger, this latest turn needs also to be studied and understood, or we will be left on the back foot, trying to play catch up.

Some in the criminal justice system have, in the recent past, called for the establishment of a federal domestic terrorism statute. Under current law, a white supremacist or incel who commits a terror attack cannot be prosecuted under that terminology. They can face murder, hate crime, or weapons charges, but “terrorism” is a crime reserved for the 60-odd federally designated foreign terrorist organizations (most, but not all, of which are Islamist). 

The danger with this way of doing this is that if a potential repeat offender faces lesser charges and sentences, they may be given the opportunity to cause more harm later. A serious charge and an appropriate punishment could serve as a deterrence in the future, though of course there is no way to guarantee this, as with all other crimes.

Others say this would endanger Americans’ first amendment rights to free speech and religion. Rather than wade into such murky and potentially treacherous waters, they argue, the way to counter rising domestic terrorism is to invest in social outreach, anti- and de-radicalization programs, and evidence-based and proven violence intervention techniques, thereby evading altogether a more legal, punitive route.

Either way, it seems apparent that we are, once more, at a crossroads and, once again, our approach to terrorism must adapt.

You can find the FBI’s list of significant domestic terrorism incidents in the U.S. between 2015 and 2019 here.