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What's an 'incel'?: Westgate suspect says he identifies with men who feel shunned by women

The online subculture grew out of the 2014 massacre in Santa Barbara. But an expert on mass shootings says that identity alone isn't a trigger for violence.


The investigation of the Westgate Entertainment District shootings is still in its early stages. There is a lot about the suspected gunman, 20-year-old Armando JR Hernandez, that we don't know.

But Hernandez has shed some light on his possible motivations in interviews with police.

He's a self-professed "incel," according to the prosecutor at Hernandez's initial court appearance Thursday. 

Hernandez has "the feeling that he has been bullied," Maricopa County prosecutor Ed Leiter said, "the feeling that women don’t want him. He claims he’s involuntarily celibate. and was deeply angered by this."

The term "incel" is relatively new.

"It’s an online subculture focused on member's perceived inability to find romantic or sexual partners," said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis and co-founder of The Violence Project., a think tank that studies mass shootings.

The Westgate shootings are a hot topic right now on incel chat rooms. These chat rooms are intensely misogynistic, stoking resentment and rage with their own slang. 

"They blame women for their grievances, and that’s often what they will discuss in these online chat rooms," Densley said.

The subculture stems from a massacre in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2014. 

The 22-year-old killer posted a video blaming women who had rejected him. He said he was a virgin who couldn’t find a girlfriend despite his money and other assets.

"His words and his deeds have sort of become a motivation for others. They see themselves in him," Densley said.

In Canada, authorities are taking a harder line on crimes that appear to have an incel connection.

Earlier this week, terrorism charges were brought against a 17-year-old boy accused of killing a 24-year-old woman at an erotic massage spa in Toronto. It's believed to be the first case in North America that links the incel subculture to terrorism.

Just two years earlier, in 2018, an incel-connected attack in Toronto by a man driving a van killed 10 people and injured 16. The man charged in that massacre told police he started to "feel radicalized" after the 2014 slaughter in California.

Terrorism charges weren't filed in the 2018 case.

Densley questions the wisdom of putting incels in the same league as Isis jihadis.

"Usually an act of terrorism is ... a way of promoting an extremist ideology," he said. 

"You could make the case that the incel movement is an extreme ideology, but it lacks the political underpinnings we would think of in terms of a terror attack."

"There's a risk that you'll elevate the movement to a level it doesn't need to be elevated to."

Hernandez told police he was targeting couples at Westgate. Two of the three people who were wounded apparently were a couple.

"What separates guys that go ahead and actually pull the trigger from those that are on the chat rooms posting messages is usually that there’s some deeper, darker past to these individuals, Densley said. 

In other words, there’s more going on than a self-image as an incel. 

"If this person wasn’t struggling in life, wasn’t experiencing a lot of challenges and wasn’t questioning their role in society, they’d have never gone seeking the incel movement in the first place," Densley said.

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