For several years, those whose job description includes making the nation safe from terrorism have been documenting something novel and quite chaotic. Thursday’s murderous rampage on the streets of Plymouth merely confirmed the new terror threat has arrived.
The traditional silos of far right and Islamist extremism are disappearing. Instead, the security services are monitoring individuals who have gone for a mixed approach to extremist ideologies, able to accommodate the views of Tommy Robinson alongside Osama bin Laden, often adding a layer of conspiracy theory and fantastical tropes for good measure. Individuals who jump casually between fascist dogma, Islamism or misogyny are increasingly cropping up on the radar of intelligence agencies.
The incel ideology followed by Jake Davison belongs to this new blurry extremism – incubated, propagated and weaponised online.
What hasn’t changed are those seduced. Socially isolated individuals with little stake in society, like Davison, are those most vulnerable. The pandemic has amplified a sense of marginalisation for many. Yet even before the first lockdown, the incel ideology was increasingly popular. Inceldom is classified within a government category known as “mixed, unstable and unclear” ideologies. This category accounted for more than half of all referrals to the counter-terrorism Prevent programme in 2019/20– up from just 11% three years earlier.
Thursday’s killings will mean that the online “manosphere” comes under new scrutiny, its sprawling decentralised network of chat rooms and gaming platforms helping to normalise misogyny. Any attempt to crack down on such hate may, though, only push its members to migrate to newer ungoverned internet platforms.
The police’s decision not to categorise last Thursday’s attack as a terror incident will likely be judged by history as an oversight. Terrorism, by definition, is the threat or use of action to intimidate the public in advancement of a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.
More immediately, it appears to reflect that Devon and Cornwall police are not up to speed with the emerging threat of “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideology.
It is a decision unlikely to be repeated. The next Davison will most likely be known as a terrorist.