A deadly attack at a Toronto erotic massage parlour three months ago is now being treated as an act of terrorism after police allegedly uncovered evidence it was inspired by misogynist incel ideology.
Charges against the suspect accused of carrying out the Feb. 24 stabbing attack, which killed a woman and injured another, were updated in court on Tuesday to “murder — terrorist activity.”
The suspect, who cannot be named because he is a minor, was also charged with terrorism for the alleged attempted murder of the woman who survived.
He was already facing first-degree and attempted murder charges, but the development means police believe the incident was terrorism-related.
In a joint statement, the RCMP and Toronto Police Service said their investigation had determined the attack “was inspired by the Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremist (IMVE) movement commonly known as INCEL.”
“As a result, federal and provincial Attorney Generals have consented to commence terrorism proceedings, alleging that the murder was terrorist activity … and the attempted murder was terrorist activity.”
Experts said it was the first time a terrorism charge had been laid over violence tied to incels, a term that refers to self-described “involuntary celibates.”
It is also believed to be the first time Canada’s anti-terrorism laws have been used to prosecute an act of violence by a suspect who was not an Islamist extremist.
A police source told Global News the suspect had said he wanted to kill as many women as possible.
The woman who survived the attack said in an interview she was pleased with the terrorism charges and that Canadians should be more informed about incels.
“I’m overjoyed at the news that they’ve decided to charge him with the terrorism stuff. I hope it sticks,” said the woman, who asked not to be named.
The incident points to the evolving threat posed by the incel movement, which a recent paper said was “flourishing, ideologically evolving, and continuing to threaten more … attacks.”
Almost 50 deaths in Canada and the United States have been linked to incels, leading to calls to treat their actions as a form of domestic terrorism.
Canadian authorities had been reluctant to make use of federal anti-terrorism laws following incidents such as the 2018 Toronto van attack, preferring to charge suspects with non-terrorism offences.
Although the van attack suspect Alek Minassian allegedly told police after ramming pedestrians on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street that he was part of an “incel rebellion,” he was not charged with terrorism.
Nor were Quebec mosque gunman Alexandre Bissonnette or Abdulahi Sharif, who targeted pedestrians and police with a van in Edmonton in 2017. Instead, they were charged with murder or attempted murder.
But the decision to prosecute the massage parlour attack as terrorism may signal a new approach by the authorities, a willingness to bring terrorism charges when warranted, and an acknowledgement that a broader range of groups are active in extremist violence.
The incident took place at the Crown Spa, which offers “sensual body rub” and “an exotic massage that will leave you feeling completely relaxed and spoiled senseless,” according to its website.
At around noon on Monday, Feb. 24, the owner said she heard screams coming from a back room. When she went to see what was happening, a man stabbed her with a machete.
She said she was able to wrestle the weapon from him and stab him in the back. Witnesses saw a bloodied woman and man emerge from the front door. The body of Ashley Noell Arzaga, 24, was found inside.
No motive was disclosed at the time but a source said the 17-year-old suspect indicated he was familiar with both the Toronto van attacker and the author of the incel “manifesto,” Elliot Rodger.
When Toronto police came across evidence the crime might be terrorism-related, they called in the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET).
The additional charges that resulted from the Toronto INSET investigation apply to cases where a murder has occurred during an act of terrorism, and a crime was committed “with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security … or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.”
“I think it’s a move in the right direction,” Prof. Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the U.S. terrorism think tank the Soufan Centre, said of the terrorism charge.
Since the Toronto van killings two years ago, a handful of additional incel attacks have occurred, including at a Florida yoga studio in November 2018 and in Texas in June 2019.
Social media companies have responded by taking down online forums used by incels, while police have made arrests and paid closer attention to the misogynist extremist movement.
“What begins as a personal grievance due to perceived rejection by women may morph into allegiance to, and attempts to further, an incel rebellion,” a Texas Department of Public Safety report said in January.
“The result has thrust the incel movement into the realm of domestic terrorism.”
A California man described as an online incel promoter was arrested last month over an alleged harassment campaign against two teenage girls who had rejected his sexual advances.
“Incel ideology ranges from sad and self-loathing to the absolute hatred of women,” FBI special agent Marcus McCain wrote in an affidavit following the arrest of Carl Bennington, 33, adding some incels advocated for the legalization of rape and violence against women.
While Bennington was charged with cyberstalking, Clarke and other experts have been making the case that incel violence meets the definition of terrorism and should be treated accordingly.
“Some dispute that incel attacks qualify as terrorism because there is no realistic policy change that the movement is advocating, since their frustrations are merely a result of failed interpersonal relationships,” Clarke and Lilianna Turner wrote in Insights
“However, they do justify violence to assuage their grievances, their violence is ideological in nature, and they have attacked civilians in order to have a psychological impact on society, all classic hallmarks of terrorism.”
Incel violence is “indisputably terroristic in that it seeks to repress and subjugate women as part of the incels’ vision of a paternalistic, genderized society,” according to Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“By advocating bloodshed as a means of broader societal intimidation, incel ideology conforms to the core definition of terrorism as violence designed to have far-reaching psychological effects,” they wrote.
As with some far-right and Islamist extremists, incels are challenging for police because they tend to act alone, lack ties to an organization and use readily-accessible weapons such as vehicles and knives.
“The violent manifestations of the ideology pose a new terrorism threat, which should not be dismissed or ignored by domestic law enforcement agencies,” according to a Studies in Conflict & Terrorism paper.