FSU College of Social Work study examines incel terrorism with an eye on violence prevention

A recent study from Florida State University’s College of Social Work examined the 2018 incel-related violence that took place at a local yoga studio, utilizing case study methodology to provide a fuller description and deeper understanding of the event.

“Incels represent a growing population of men who hold anti-feminist views and rely heavily on the internet as a means of communication,” said Jim Clark, dean of the College of Social Work. “Research like this can help move the needle toward understanding and ending hate crime violence.”

The incident, which occurred just miles away from FSU’s campus, left former FSU student Maura Binkley and faculty member Nancy Van Vessem fatally wounded and prompted the creation of Maura’s Voice Research Fund, an FSU interdisciplinary initiative sponsored by Jeff and Margaret Binkley that supported the study.

The initiative focuses on analyzing policies related to hate crimes and gun violence, particularly toward women, as well as supporting research that further targets understanding mass violence and prevention.

Jim Clark, dean of the College of Social Work
Jim Clark, dean of the College of Social Work

Clark and doctoral student Christopher Collins’ study of the yoga studio incident, “Using the TRAP-18 to Identify an Incel Lone-Actor Terrorist,” was recently published in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, a peer-reviewed journal from the American Psychological Association.

The study used the Terrorist Radicalization Assessment Protocol (TRAP-18) to examine data collected from multiple sources, including criminal investigation reports, employment records and online personal video diary entries.

TRAP-18 is a threat assessment tool designed to identify eight proximal warning behaviors and 10 longer-term distal characteristics. The assessment may be used by mental health, intelligence, law enforcement and security professionals to organize data on a person of concern to plan for threat management, in order to reduce the perpetration of targeted violence.

With the support of Clark, Collins determined that the TRAP-18 assessment was a particularly useful tool when applied to lone-actor terrorism cases and was especially important to their research, as no such tool exists that focuses on violent incels.

“A major theme identified in our study was the limited action of officials that were taken to impede the perpetrator,” Collins said. “This was typically due to the lack of laws and policies that would facilitate prevention.”

Previous research, along with Collins and Clark’s study, indicates the TRAP-18’s capacity to identify risk factors in individuals inclined toward violent extremism.

“While research has been conducted on incels and their lives online, as well as on violent extremism, there were no research studies analyzing incels from a threat assessment perspective,” Collins said. “Threat assessment, when implemented well, has the potential to thwart acts of violent extremism.”

doctoral student Christopher Collins
Doctoral student Christopher Collins

Collins also views the study as a call to action for other researchers to provide and test tools to prevent mass violence. He hopes the study will be a launching pad for other researchers to begin using similar assessments in their research on violent incels.

“People often had an image in their minds when they heard the word terrorism, but recent acts of domestic terrorism may be changing that image,” Collins said. “Case studies like this have the potential to impact public policy by providing documentary evidence of violence against women and girls and to calibrate the need for policies to mitigate violence.”

Working nearby as a yoga instructor during the tragic event, the study holds special significance for Collins.

“For the local community and me, the incident left a wound that I felt compelled to try to heal in my own way,” he said.

More research in this area is planned by Collins, Clark and collaborators, including the aim to study a larger sample of violent incels using the TRAP-18 to further examine its effectiveness in assessing incel lone-actor terrorists.

“If we’ve learned anything from this case and similar cases, it’s that violence against women continues to be a serious and significant problem that we need to work harder to ameliorate,” Collins said. “Looking toward the future, we have to examine the processes of official agencies, such as law enforcement, and partner with them to develop and refine threat assessment and management protocols that are effective.”

To learn more about, or support Maura’s Voice Research Fund, visit https://csw.fsu.edu/research/mauras-voice.