11 May 2018

Why It Does - Yet Doesn't - Matter That The Toronto Attacker Is A Terrorist

by Scott Stewart

On April 23 in Toronto, Canada, 25-year-old Alek Minassian stomped on the gas pedal of a rented Ryder van, jumped a curb and steered the vehicle down a wide sidewalk running along Yonge Street. He charged down the sidewalk for over a mile, swerving to hit as many pedestrians as he could. He struck 24 of them, 10 fatally, before he turned the van down Poyntz Avenue, parked and exited it. When he was confronted by an armed police officer, Minassian repeatedly mimicked that he had a gun, eventually screaming for the officer to shoot him. Instead, the officer took him to the ground and handcuffed him, bringing an end to his bloody rampage.

Minassian's use of a rental vehicle to carry out an assault on pedestrians brings to mind the July 2016 vehicular attack in Nice, France, and the August 2017 attack in Barcelona, Spain, both of which were carried out by jihadists with Islamic extremist ideologies. Minassian is not a jihadist, but he is a terrorist, driven to violence by a different ideology. And his tactics can be used by attackers of all sorts, including those with no ideological motivation, meaning civilians in public spaces will remain at risk of mass public attacks and should prepare for them.

The Big Picture

Although mass public attacks remain fairly rare, they are hard for potential targets to anticipate since - even if they are ideologically motivated - they are often directed against a place and not an individual person or type of person. This factor limits the opportunities for potential targets to recognize pre-operational surveillance and other preparatory activity. However, there are always steps people can take to recognize unfolding attacks and take action to mitigate the impact on themselves and others.
The Incel Rebellion

Minutes before his attack, Minassian posted a message on his Facebook page that provided his motive for the attack. The message read:
Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!

Facebook subsequently confirmed that the account belonged to Minassian, because the post included his Canadian armed forces identification number, C23249161, which few people probably knew.

The term "incel" is an acronym for the phrase involuntary celibacy, which was coined rather innocently by a queer female blogger in 1993 but only began representing a movement of male supremacist ideology in recent years. In 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a deadly rampage in Isla Vista, California, using a knife, a gun and his car to kill six people and wound 14 others before taking his own life. In a lengthy video Rodger uploaded to the internet before his murder spree, he blamed his rage on being rejected by women - that is, being involuntarily celibate - and stated his intention to exact retribution for his loneliness on the women who had rejected him and had chosen to have sex with other men. (The incel community refers to such women as Stacys and such men as Chads.)

Like many mass killers, Rodger attracted a following. His attack and accompanying manifesto brought together similarly misogynistic men, such as members of the Pick Up Artist and Black Pill, Red Pill online communities, under the name incels. These self-identified incels tend to be sexually frustrated and believe the world perceives them as beta males. They share a powerful anger toward both the women who reject them and the men who are more sexually successful. Like Minassian did in his Facebook post when referring to the Supreme Gentleman, incels revere Rodger.

According to researchers who follow the movement, the social media platform Reddit's incel subreddit contained 40,000 members before it was shut down in November 2017 because of hate-filled and violent rhetoric that frequently called for the murder and rape of Stacys and Chads. Many incels have relocated to the website 4chan (as Minassian mentioned in his post), which is known for hosting shocking and controversial content.

By referring to the incel rebellion, Minassian's Facebook post clearly demonstrates that his vehicular assault had an ideological motive. In other words, it was terrorism. Incels strive to spark revolution with their terrorist attacks just as many other believers of fringe ideologies have done in such instances as the Oklahoma City bombing, Eric Rudolph's bombings and even the Weather Underground bombings in the 1970s.

By contrast, in some recent attacks such as the March bombings in Austin and the October 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, investigators have found no evidence of an ideological motive.
Terrorism and the Fluidity of Tactics

Minassian's attack is a reminder that terrorist tactics often transcend ideologies. Though some may consider vehicular attacks to be a hallmark of jihadist terrorists, they can be carried out by anyone. For example, in the June 2017 attack outside a mosque in London, an Islamophobic British ultranationalist targeted Muslims, killing one person and injuring nine others.

Indeed, many of the current tactics that are associated with jihadism were actually adopted from other ideological groups. For example, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and several secular terrorist groups, such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Kurdish Workers' Party, engaged in suicide bombings for many years before the first jihadist employed the technique. Likewise, the technique that jihadists refer to as istishhad, which involves assaults with bombs and firearms that can lead to the martyrdom of the attacker, was pioneered by anarchist terrorists around the world in the late 1800s.

And as illustrated endlessly throughout global history, terrorist tactics can also be used by nonterrorists, such as during the Austin bombings and the YouTube shooting on April 3. Indeed, there are hundreds of criminal bombings in the United States each year but only the occasional terrorist bombing.
A Victim Is a Victim

But for potential targets, it doesn't really matter if the attacker is ideologically motivated or not. A shot fired by a resentful classmate or mentally disturbed stranger is every bit as deadly as one fired by a neo-Nazi or jihadist. As I noted in a previous column, only 25 percent of U.S. mass public attacks in 2017 were politically or ideologically motivated - that is, they were classified as terrorism. A variety of other problems sparked the others, including workplace grievances and mental health issues.

Many mass public attacks are classified as soft target attacks, meaning there is little direct connection between the attacker's motive and his victims. And the threat of mass public attacks is global, even extending to places largely considered to be generally safe, such as Toronto. During his vehicular rampage, for example, Minassian killed a wide variety of people, including an 80-year-old man, a 94-year-old woman and two women in their 80s. Likewise, in the Oklahoma City bombing, anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh killed 19 children, who were certainly not government officials.
How to Prepare

Because of this reality, people need to be prepared to protect themselves against the simple tactics used in most mass public attacks. Protecting oneself begins with understanding the necessity, or as security experts like to say, by adopting the proper mindset. The next step is practicing the appropriate level of situational awareness and engaging all of one's senses. For example, it may be difficult to hear a vehicle speeding down the sidewalk behind you if you have headphones in your ears. Acknowledging the possibility of a threat and remaining aware can help anyone quickly recognize an unfolding attack and take immediate action to avoid becoming a victim.

People in attacks should also attempt to warn others, by screaming or otherwise signaling the danger. They should also be prepared to help the injured by attending first aid training classes and by carrying simple lifesaving items such as tourniquets, pressure bandages and chest seals.

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