If extreme misogyny is an ideology, doesn’t that make the Plymouth killer a terrorist?

The Observer, Sunday 15 August 2021

To track the ‘incel’ diatribes uttered and read by Jake Davison, murdering women can seem like the logical conclusion to their seething hatred

The hours after a fatal attack on members of the public are harrowing. Confusion reigns, rumours swirl and anxious people try to contact loved ones to make sure they are safe. Last Thursday evening, as reports of gunfire and possible fatalities on a housing estate in Plymouth began to circulate, the question of whether it was a terrorist incident was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. When Devon and Cornwall police announced it was not terrorism-related, I wondered how they could be so sure – and their judgment has been called into question by everything that has emerged since.

We now know that 22-year-old Jake Davison was a misogynist who shot dead his mother, who had recently been treated for cancer, before taking the lives of four others. There are parallels between Plymouth and the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in 2012, when Adam Lanza shot his mother five times before going to a primary school where he killed 20 children and six adults, all women. Not for the first time, the significance of extreme misogyny in the genesis of a fatal attack on members of the public seems to have been missed.

It is hard to see how Davison’s actions fail to meet the government’s definition of terrorism, which includes “the use of threat or action… to intimidate the public”. Examples include serious violence against one or more people, endangering someone’s life or creating a serious risk to the health and safety of the public: tick, tick and tick. But here is the get-out clause. The definition stipulates that terrorism must be “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and it is often argued that even the most extreme misogyny does not meet that test.

It seems that its deadly interaction with other forms of extremism is poorly understood, something that struck me forcibly after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Five years earlier, Salman Abedi was already showing signs of being radicalised, but the significance of his assault on a young Muslim woman at college was not recognised. Abedi punched her in the head for wearing a short skirt, almost knocking her out in front of witnesses. It was an act of staggering brutality, displaying a toxic combination of misogyny and allegiance to Islamist ideology, along with a low threshold for violence. Yet Abedi was not charged. Greater Manchester police dealt with the incident through restorative justice and Abedi owned up to anger management issues, avoiding a referral to the Prevent counter-terrorism programme. In what seems to be an example of history repeating itself, it has been revealed that Devon and Cornwall police recently restored Davison’s firearms licence, which he lost in December, after he agreed to take part in an anger management course.

Yet Davison made no secret of his seething resentment of women, posting hate-filled diatribes on YouTube. He compared himself to “incels” – involuntary celibates – angry young men who blame women for their inability to get sex and revealed an obsession with guns. In a video uploaded three weeks before the shootings, he came close to justifying sexual violence. “Why do you think sexual assaults and all these things keep rising?” he demanded in a 10-minute rant, claiming that “women don’t need men no more”. One of the questions Devon and Cornwall police need to answer is if they were aware of the content of Davison’s social media posts when they returned his licence.

In North America, incels have been linked with white supremacy, as well as being held responsible for the murders of around 50 people. In Canada, their ideology has been designated a form of violent extremism following an attack on a Toronto massage parlour last year in which a woman was stabbed to death by a 17-year-old man. It was the second such attack in the city in two years, after a self-described incel drove a van into pedestrians in 2018, killing 10 people.

In the UK, however, misogyny is not even widely recognised as the driving force behind violence against women. Time and again, we hear about men who supposedly “just snapped” and killed their female partners in what the police describe as “domestic” and “isolated” incidents. Not so isolated, given that 1,425 women were killed by men in the UK between 2009 and 2018, but we are expected to believe that such homicides could not be predicted or stopped. In fact, it is rare for a woman to be murdered by a current or former partner without a previous history of domestic abuse.

Hatred of women is normalised, dismissed as an obsession of feminists, even when its horrific consequences are staring us in the face. In June last year, two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were murdered in a north London park by a teenager. Danyal Hussein, now 19, had been referred to Prevent after using school computers to access rightwing websites, but was discharged after a few months with no further concerns. What seems to have been missed is his virulent misogyny, which led him to make a “pact” with a “demon” to kill six women in six months.

Five years ago, I began to notice how many men who committed fatal terrorist attacks had a history of misogyny and domestic abuse – practising at home, in other words. No one would listen so I wrote a book about it, listing around 50 perpetrators who had previously terrorised current and ex-partners. It was published in 2019 and inspired groundbreaking research by counter-terrorism policing, showing that almost 40% of referrals to the Prevent programme had a history of domestic abuse, as perpetrators, witnesses or victims. Project Starlight has produced a number of recommendations, arguing that counter-terrorism officers need to look for evidence of violence against women when they are assessing the risk posed by suspects.

That is a welcome development, but we need to go further. We are all in shock after hearing about the horrific events in Plymouth, while the grief of the victims’ families is awful to contemplate. But Davison’s murderous rampage demonstrates that our understanding of what constitutes terrorism is too restrictive. Extreme misogyny needs to be recognised as an ideology in its own right – and one that carries an unacceptable risk of radicalising bitter young men.

 Joan Smith is the author of Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists


What do so many terrorists have in common? They abuse women

The Guardian, Friday 6 August 2012

Groundbreaking research shows that extremist attackers are often united in their violent misogyny, whatever their ideology

Five years ago, I began to notice that the perpetrators of some of the worst terrorist attacks had something in common. A high proportion shared a history of assaulting wives, girlfriends and other female relatives, sometimes involving a whole series of victims, long before they attacked total strangers.

In the summer of 2016, for example, when just two terrorist attacks in Florida and the south of France left 135 people dead and hundreds injured, both perpetrators claimed to be Islamists. But I was struck by the fact that each had a horrific record of domestic violence.

A year later, there were four fatal attacks in the UK and all six perpetrators turned out either to have abused women or, in one case, to have witnessed his father abusing his mother and sister. There were striking similarities between the histories of Darren Osborne, the rightwing extremist who drove a van into worshippers leaving a mosque in north London, and Khalid Masood, the Islamist who staged an attack on Westminster Bridge. Both men had criminal records for violent offences – and both had abused women.

I thought these cases challenged conventional wisdom about terrorism, which holds that it is all about ideology. Many fatal terrorist attacks actually appeared to be an escalation of violence that had been going on, sometimes for years, against members of the perpetrator’s family. I was convinced that the police and MI5 needed to change the way they assessed the risk posed by suspects, treating a history of domestic violence as a very significant red flag.

When I raised this with the authorities, however, I encountered scepticism and disbelief. So I decided to write a book, using published sources to piece together a woeful catalogue of men who had humiliated, beaten and sexually assaulted women long before they became notorious as terrorists. It was published in 2019 and this time senior figures at counter-terrorism policing and the Home Office listened.

They commissioned groundbreaking research using data on just over 3,000 referrals to the Prevent programme in England and Wales in 2019 – adults and children who had caused concern to teachers, social workers and family members because of a possible vulnerability to radicalisation (V2R). The results of what came to be called Project Starlight have not yet been published, but I have been given access to them – and they are stunning.

Almost 40% of adult referrals had a history of domestic abuse either as perpetrators, witnesses or victims – or a combination of all three. This is likely to be an underestimate, given that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes, but it provides some idea of prevalence for the first time. The comparable figure for children is 30%, another likely underestimate because under-16s were not routinely questioned about domestic abuse in the home.

There were many more men than women among the sample and the research showed another significant difference between the sexes: male referrals were more likely to be perpetrators of domestic abuse, while the women were more likely to be victims. But what is really shocking is the extent and seriousness of the violence disclosed in family histories. “Incidents recorded ranged from children witnessing domestic abuse in their households to people being convicted of the attempted murder of their partner.”

As I expected, the link is visible across ideologies, from Islamists and rightwing extremists to the fifth of the sample where no known ideology was identified. This confirms my theory that terrorism is at least as much about male violence as ideology, suggesting that angry young men are attracted to extremist ideas that appear to “justify” their grievances. The route from victim to perpetrator is not inevitable but it is well known, and the research reveals that almost 16% of adult V2R referrals had been victims of domestic abuse, nearly three times higher than the estimated national figure.

Take the tragic case of the Deghayes brothers from Brighton. After enduring years of violence at the hands of their father, 18-year-old Amer Deghayes fled to Syria where he joined a terrorist organisation, the al-Nusra Front, in 2013. Two younger brothers followed and were killed within months of their arrival. Another brother, who had remained in Brighton, was convicted of drugs offences and stabbed to death in 2019. The cost of violence in the home is unacceptably high.

Another reason why extremist organisations appeal to aggrieved men is, I’m afraid, their misogyny. When the Project Starlight researchers looked for a link between V2R referrals and hate crime, they did not find it – but they did find one with woman-hating. Indeed so-called incels – bitter young men who blame women for their inability to get sex – have carried out fatal attacks in the US and Canada.

A recent horrific case suggests that counter-terrorism officials need to be alert to the possibility that extreme misogyny is in itself a form of radicalisation. Last month a 19-year-old man was convicted of the murders of two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, in north London. At his trial, it emerged that Danyal Hussein had been referred to Prevent in 2017 after using school computers to access far-right material.

He appeared in front of a Channel panel, the statutory body that assesses the risk posed by individuals, but was discharged a few months later with no continuing concerns in relation to extremism or terrorism. Yet Hussein would later draw up a “contract” with a “demon” in which he promised to kill six women – and only women – in six months in return for winning the lottery. He refused to give detectives his passwords, so it is impossible to confirm a suspicion that he may have accessed incel sites on the web. But in a note that echoes the incel obsession with not feeling sufficiently attractive to women, he pledged to “offer some blood” in exchange for making a girl fall in love with him.

All this demands a revolution in how we think about terrorism, domestic violence and misogyny. The Project Starlight report rightly includes a raft of recommendations, calling for much wider awareness of the link between violent extremism and a history of domestic violence. “All counter-terrorism case officers should consider checking for potential links to a domestic abuse-related incident,” it says.

But this may not be straightforward when so few incidents lead to convictions. A recent report revealed that three-quarters of domestic abuse cases reported to the police in England were closed without the perpetrator being charged. Some organisations have come up with welcome innovations – Croydon in south London, for instance, has a specialist social worker sitting on Channel panels, leading to the disclosure of previously unsuspected domestic abuse in the history of V2R referrals.

But the Cinderella status of crimes against women can no longer be tolerated. The connection between private and public violence is now crystal clear – and the cost of continuing to ignore it is way too high.