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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

Secret Service Report Advocates Behavioral Threat Assessments for Violent Misogynist Risks

In 2018, 40-year-old gunman Scott Paul Beierle opened fire inside Hot Yoga Tallahassee in Florida, killing two women and injuring four before he committed suicide. According to a new behavioral case study from the U.S. Secret Service, the attacker was motivated to kill by his inability to develop or maintain relationships with women, as well as his perception of women’s societal power over men. While he did not specifically adopt labels frequently associated with violent misogyny, such as anti-feminist or involuntary celibate (also known as Incel), “his behavior and beliefs aligned with many who do,” the report said.

The Incel community and label began to foster a place of inclusion and understanding for people of any gender who want a romantic relationship but for whatever reason—shyness, mental illness, or other attributes—have been unable to do so. By the early 2000s, however, the voices within the community had been dominated by young heterosexual men with vindictive and aggressive attitudes against women. These men feel unable to obtain romantic or sexual relationships with women, to which they feel entitled. Through predominantly anonymous online forums, the Incel community is estimated to include between 40,000 and 120,000 people.

“Although these labels and their origins vary, they all have proponents who have called for violence against women,” according to the Secret Service report, Hot Yoga Tallahassee: A Case Study of Misogynistic Extremism.

Not all people who say they belong to the Incel community pursue violence—far from it—and experts warn that conflating “Incel killers” with Incels more broadly risks potentially stigmatizing the Incel community, creating grievances, and making the identity more appealing to people who are predisposed to violence. Instead, experts recommend identifying a subset of the community—Incel violent extremists (IVEs) or violent misogynist extremists. (For more, see “Alone Together and Angry: An Incel Revolution,” Security Management, March 2019.)

Some members have called for mass violence against women, including rape and acid attacks, as part of an Incel revolution. Between 2014 and 2019, attackers with Incel ideologies were responsible for at least 27 fatalities, according to a 2019 FBI report.

“It is further important to note that misogynistic violence is not restricted to high-profile incidents of mass violence,” the Secret Service report noted. “Misogyny frequently appears in more prevalent acts of violence, including stalking and domestic abuse.”

These acts can also serve as behavioral warning indicators for future incidents. The gunman in Tallahassee had engaged in numerous incidents of inappropriate and criminal behavior toward women and girls, which resulted in him losing jobs, being barred from public locations, and having multiple run-ins with law enforcement.

“Violent misogyny has historically been an underestimated form of extremism,” says Steven Crimando, Behavioral Science Applications, LLC. “The new U.S. Secret Service report case study of the attack at Hot Yoga Tallahassee is a deep dive into one particular case, but beyond the sharing details about this incident, it is important to recognize that many of the warning behaviors associated with the perpetrator of this attack have also been present in most of the known Incel-related killings.”

Beierle’s behavior over the years elicited concern from parents, siblings, friends, roommates, coworkers, workplace managers, school officials, students, law enforcement, the online community, neighbors, and other community members, according to the report. The report recommended focusing on a person’s behavior over any labels, such as Incel.

“While the attacker did not self-identify as an Incel or seem to have a direct connection to the Incel community, his personal grievance and ideology were in alignment with Incels,” Crimando tells Security Management. “He also engaged in many of the same pre-incident behaviors and communications of other Incel killers. For example, he had washed out of the military due to behavioral issues, had engaged in leakage of his violent thoughts about punishing women for their rejection of his advances, failed in meeting his occupational goals, as well as failed in all prior attempts at intimate pair bonding. These same features were also seen in the perpetrators of the Incel-related attacks at Umpqua College in Oregon, in the vehicle attack in Toronto, and others.  Attacks in the past 12 months—including those in Plymouth, UK, and Denver—all bear striking similarities. It is critical that those involved in safety and security recognize the warning behaviors that suggest someone may be on the pathway to extreme misogynistic violence.”

“The Hot Yoga Tallahassee case study demonstrates the opportunities that exist to prevent targeted violence while drawing particular focus to the risk posed by misogynistic extremism,” the report said. The study went on to detail a vast assortment of behavioral threat assessment themes in the attacker’s background, including threatening communications, concerning online content, stressors (chronic and acute), bizarre or inappropriate behavior, blaming others, a history of being bullied, financial instability, and failed life aspirations.

Research from the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) has identified no specific profile of an individual who executes targeted violence—instead, researchers found that this set of concerning behaviors is the most unifying factor.

“No matter the context, responding to the threat posed by these beliefs requires collaboration across multiple community systems, including law enforcement, courts, mental health providers, and domestic violence and hate crime advocacy groups,” according to the report. 

“When conducting a behavioral threat assessment involving an individual who has elicited concern and subscribes to an extreme belief system, the investigation should not be limited to the ideology itself,” the report said. “NTAC research has shown that attackers’ motives are often multifaceted. Beyond ideology, other personal elements also contribute to behaviors of concern, including desperation or despair, a need for belonging or connection with others, and a desire for attention or notoriety. Investigators should attempt to identify the origin and development of the ideology, which may help in assessing what the individual would hope to achieve through violence.”

“Although every act of targeted violence may not be prevented, the risk of future tragedies can be reduced if the appropriate systems are in place to identify the warning signs, gather information to assess the risk of violence, and apply the appropriate community resources,” the report concluded.