Why incels are a 'real and present threat' for Canadians

Criminologists and sociologists are sounding the alarm over extreme and violent internet subcultures that include incels, saying the threat they pose isn’t being taken seriously enough.

Increase in violence has criminologists sounding alarm

The Fifth Estate spent months infiltrating incel forums to get a sense of what goes on in these dark corners of the internet. (CBC)

This story contains graphic content.

It all began with a Facebook post on Jan. 19, 2019.

A Colorado man named Christopher Cleary took to social media and laid out the plan for an attack that was coming together in his mind.

"I'm 27 years old and I've never had a girlfriend before and I'm still a virgin," Cleary wrote. "This is why I'm planning on shooting up a public place soon and being the next mass shooter."

In this case, police tracked him down — en route to a women's march in Utah — before he was able to carry out his plan.

But it doesn't always work out that way when men who identify themselves as incels — or involuntary celibates — post such thoughts online.

In April 2018, Alek Minassian allegedly drove a van into pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16 others. Before the attack, a post appeared on Minassian's Facebook account that said "the Incel Rebellion has already begun."

Involuntary celibates or incels are an online brotherhood of men who say they are unsuccessful in their romantic attempts with women.

Incels interact in forums online, like 4chan, Reddit and a few public incel boards, and even on popular social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube. They often express extreme feelings of misogyny and hatred.

In the worst cases, their online misogyny turns to violent fantasies, where many online encourage rape, violence and in some cases, killing.

Experts interviewed by The Fifth Estate have identified 120 instances of extreme violence in Canada by right-wing groups, including incels, in the past 30 years. This is compared to only seven by Islamist-inspired extremists.

Authorities in Canada and the U.S. are often quick to call these incidents "lone wolf" attacks, but criminologists and sociologists are sounding the alarm on incels and other growing internet subcultures that promote extreme violence. They say the threat posed by these groups isn't being taken seriously enough. 

"These people are extraordinarily dangerous," Mike Arntfield, a criminologist at Western University in London, Ont., told The Fifth Estate. "As soon as you have a suicidal, disoriented male, all bets are off in terms of what they're capable of doing.... Many are suicidal and some are homicidal.

"This [group] has an organization to it." 

Mike Arntfield, a former police detective and criminologist who holds a PhD in criminal justice, says online subcultures like incels need to be taken more seriously by authorities. (CBC)

A recent count by The Fifth Estate shows at least 60,000 people are active in the three main public incel forums online.

The origins of incel are widely considered to be in 1993 in Quebec, when a young university student known only as Alana created a website to talk about her involuntary celibacy with others. It was called "Alana's Involuntary Celibacy Project." On the website, incel was described as "anybody of any gender who was lonely, had never had sex or who hadn't had a relationship in a long time."

But those roots are long gone.

"It's about their proprietary violence, that they think they have some sort of inborn inherent right and privilege to access women and women's bodies and so that is the bit that animates them," Barbara Perry, a criminologist specializing in hate crime at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, told The Fifth Estate.

Incel attacks

The term "incel" gained more prominence in 2014, when a 22-year-old man in Isla Vista, Calif. killed six people and injured 14 others before killing himself. It was discovered Elliot Rodger had an extensive online presence, including a series of YouTube videos he made and posted — reuploading as they were banned and removed.

He also left behind a 137-page manifesto he wrote titled "My Twisted World." The last video he posted was called "Elliot Rodger's Retribution."

"Tomorrow is the day of retribution — a day of which I will have my revenge against all of humanity," Rodger said in one video. "I will slaughter every single spoiled stuck-up blonde slut.... You will finally see I'm the superior one. The true alpha male."

The name of Elliot Rodger may look familiar — it was in a Facebook post from last year, this time in Canada. The post appeared on a Facebook page on April 23, 2018, before a van rampage down Yonge Street in Toronto that involved running red lights, mounting sidewalks and running down pedestrians.

Minassian is charged with 10 counts of murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. His trial is scheduled to begin in early 2020, and his defence is unknown.

The post was pledging allegiance to the "Incel Rebellion," and hailing Rodger, the mass killer many incels consider a hero.

This image of a Facebook post started circulating online a few hours after the deadly van attack in Toronto. Facebook has since confirmed the profile belonged to Alek Minassian. (Twitter)

Minassian wasn't the first person to praise Rodger in online postings.

In the past four years, there have been several killings by people who either self-identified as incels or who mentioned incel-related names and writings in their internet postings.

Nikolas Cruz, the man who is charged with killing 17 people and attempting to kill 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year, praised Rodger online, saying "Elliot Rodger will not be forgotten."

On Oct. 1, 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer killed nine people and injured eight others in a shooting at the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Ore., before killing himself. Harper-Mercer posted online about being involuntarily celibate.

On July 31, 2016, a man named Sheldon Bentley killed an unconscious man in an alleyway in Edmonton. Bentley was convicted of manslaughter, and said he killed the man by stomping on his abdomen because he was frustrated with being involuntarily celibate for four years.

On Dec. 7, 2017, William Atchison killed two people before killing himself at a high school in Aztec, N.M. He used the pseudonym "Elliot Rodger" on several online forums and praised "the supreme gentleman."

In November 2018, a man who identified as incel shot and killed two women at a Tallahassee, Fla., yoga studio.

Watch an expert explain the growing community behind some of these attacks. 

Ross Haenfler on incels

4 years ago
Duration 0:40
Sociologist Ross Haenfler explains the organized nature of incels.

Many on incel forums consider Marc Lepine — who, in 1989, killed 14 women and injured 10 other women at École Polytechnique in Montreal — the first incel killer.

Still, these attacks are often quickly deemed "lone wolf" attacks by authorities, and the public is told there's no threat to public safety.

Experts in Canada and the U.S. are sounding the alarm bells on groups like incels, and encouraging authorities to take them more seriously.

"We're missing something," said Perry. "How is this not an attack on national security?… There's a real and present threat associated with the far right.… I think we make a dangerous mistake thinking about it as only ... a fringe movement."

What is incel?

The Fifth Estate spent months infiltrating incel forums to get a sense of what goes on in these dark corners of the internet. Self-proclaimed incels often blame society and their genetics for not being successful in romantic endeavours. Using the term "involuntary," experts say, indicates that incels have little self-awareness.

Incels believe women owe them sex, and in some cases people active on incel forums advocate for government-sanctioned girlfriends and sexual encounters.

"[Incel] became a religion of sorts, and it's a recent ideology," Arntfield of Western University, said. "These are people who've found each other online and can ruminate over what they can do."

The ideology of incels focuses on the idea that attractive women, known as "Stacys" in incel terminology, are shallow and only attracted to "Chads" — men who are hyper-muscular and highly attractive.

In some incel forums, users encourage others to commit violent acts and highlight the initials of people they consider their heroes, such as Elliot Rodger, Alek Minassian and Nikolas Cruz, in their writings. (

"The Chads are the high-status males who, from the incels' point of view, are successful and are having sex with lots of women, to whom life comes really easily," said Ross Haenfler, a sociologist who studies internet subculture at Grinnell College in Iowa.

"The Stacys are the shallow, self-obsessed women who only care about the looks of the Chads and therefore spurn any advances or attempts made by the incels.

"You also see, in the forums, just a lot of communicating of just simple rage … these incel men are really focusing on feminists as being the cause of their troubles."

Some incels say they flock to the online forums because they are lonely men trying to find like-minded people to ruminate with and to help find solutions to their problems. Others are trying to stop the hate and the violence, saying this isn't something they want to be associated with.

But increasingly, incel is a world of misogyny, hate and violence, experts told The Fifth Estate.

For many, being incel isn't about regaining masculinity, but instead is about a highly misogynistic takedown of women through violent acts.

"It's deeply disturbing to see that the answer to [their feelings] is the 'Incel rebellion,' as Alek Minassian called it," said Haenfler. "That, to me, is not a rebellion at all. It's just a retreat to the same classic forms of male domination."

In many corners of the incel subculture, people like Rodger — and now, Minassian — are celebrated as heroes. Rodger is considered a "hERo" and Minassian an "AMazing hERo" — their initials used as monikers inciting others to attack.

Photos like these are common on incel forums, and are depictions of what users say an incel, left, versus a "Chad" looks like. (Know Your Meme)

"The Elliot Rodgers and other mass killers do sometimes take on a mythical quality because, for some incels, they embody the ultimate form of resistance against a feminist culture that doesn't value them for who they are," Haenfler said.

Incels may be a recent term, Haenfler said, but in many ways the social climate that produced them has been 50 years in the making.

"What we've seen is a long-term cycle of social change in which women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, immigrants and others have demanded recognition and rights," he said. "There's the sense on the part of the incels that those rights are coming at the expense of white, heterosexual men."

Haenfler has been studying trends in alt-right and incel violence, and said he worries that things will only get worse.

"I wish, with all my heart, I could say that we've seen the last of these mass killings, but in all honesty, the cultural ingredients are there. The foundation is there. That hasn't gone away. So, in the foreseeable future, I'm very sad to say, I anticipate more of these kinds of killings."

The most active incel community existed on Reddit — a "subreddit" called r/incels — until October 2017 when Reddit announced a new policy to ban "content that encourages, glorifies, incites or calls for violence or harm against an individual or a group of people."

A Reddit moderator said: "Apart from the constant anger and violent threats (which these Neckbeards would be incapable of), these are the last 2 posts that got it banned:

  • Users helping out another member by advising on how to chemically castrate his "Chad" roommate.
  • An Incel pretending to be a woman and asking about how rapes are investigated, along with how rapists could get away with it." 

On Nov. 7, 2017, it was the first subreddit to be removed from the website. At the time of its removal, the subreddit had more than 40,000 active members.

But censorship of these chat forums doesn't seem entirely effective, because as soon as one forum or website is shut down another "just pops back up," Perry said.

Experts like Barbara Perry, a criminologist specializing in hate crime at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, are sounding the alarm on alt-right violence, including incels. (CBC)

"It's not going to do much good to engage in trying to insert counter narratives into their little echo chambers because they're going to be shouted down," she said. "Whoever's intervening is going to be attacked and going to be dismissed."

Instead, Perry said that an important starting point is for people to be having "conversations with our sons, with our nephews, as well as our girls."

"We've talked to girls and young women for eons now about how they can protect themselves, how they can defend themselves from the violence as well as the language, and it's time that we turn the table and ... ask men to be accountable for their behaviour," she said.

'Increasing concern'

Earlier this month, Canada's minister of public safety said right-wing, white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups are an increasing concern and threat to Canadians.

"The van attack along Yonge Street in Toronto earlier last year had those kinds of roots," Ralph Goodale said after a speech on national security at the University of Regina.

He said in the case of the van attack, the suspect was inspired by what he saw on the internet.

But Perry said there has been relative silence from the federal government about the threat posed by the far right.

"If you look at the ... reports on the terrorist threat in Canada, either far right isn't mentioned or they're dismissed out of hand as ... not a threat, not organized, not coherent, and therefore not a risk," she said.

And while Perry said she's tracked 120 instances of alt-right violence in the last 30 years in Canada, during the same period there were seven incidents of Islamist-inspired extremism.

"I think that really puts in context what the risk is."