Jordan: You probably don’t remember the name Ashley Noell Arzaga, even if you heard about her killing when it happened.
News Clip: Police tape surrounds the crime scene here at the crown spa near Wilson and Dufferin. An active investigation is underway. One woman in her early twenties is dead following a stabbing earlier this afternoon, and two others who were also involved in the incident are in hospital.
Jordan: In the grand scheme of the news cycle at the time, it was a small tragedy. With victims and violence and a first degree murder charge and a court date to come, at some point. The crime happened at the end of February, just as newscasts were starting to be dominated by the emergence of Covid 19.
So the story got lost, until Tuesday, when the charges against the accused were updated and two words were added right after murder: ‘terrorist activity’.
And this is important because first, the image that those two words might conjure in some minds is not even close to what police say happened here. And second, because certainly in Canada and quite likely around the whole world, this is the first time that charge has been used in this way. Every murder in Toronto is a tragedy. Every murder should be covered and every victim should be mourned. And, we probably know that that’s not always the case. So what is it about this one that might leave a legacy that is significant to victims and activists across the world? What might those two words at the end of the charge change in our fight against misogyny?
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Stewart Bell is a reporter with Global News and he was part of a team of journalists who broke this story. Hello Stewart.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by telling me what we know about what happened on February 24th in as much detail as you can.
Stewart: Well, it was about noon on a Monday, and the owner of a massage parlor in Toronto heard some loud noises coming from a back room and she went to see what was going on. And a man came at her with, I believe it was a machete. Started attacking her. She was actually able to wrestle with him a bit and eventually stab him as well. And so the two of them came outside covered in blood, witnesses saw them come outside the storefront bleeding heavily, and police arrived.
They found the body of a woman inside, a 24 four year old woman. And they arrested the young person who was injured at the scene, and at the time they charged him with first degree murder and attempted murder. But there was always this kind of big question mark over this particular killing as to why and what was the motive for it.
And there were, there was some, especially given Toronto’s history with, Incels and the 2018 van attack, there was some speculation, you know, could this be. But it was only yesterday when the charges were laid in court when we finally got the confirmation that in fact, police are alleging that this was an Incel attack.
Jordan: Let’s start with the victim of the attack. What do we know about her? And about the place where this happened, set the scene for us a little bit so we have some context for the charges.
Stewart: Well it’s an erotic massage parlour. If you read their website, they certainly don’t conceal the fact that, you know, they’re perhaps doing a little bit more than massage or they’re certainly encouraging a certain type of clientele.
The woman who was killed was 24 years old. She was a mother. The woman who was injured was 30 years old. I believe she’s described herself as the owner of the business. She had some cuts on her arms, you know, sort of defensive kind of wounds. You know, why this particular place was targeted? We don’t know for sure, but certainly from other Incel related attacks over the years, we’ve seen places targeted, for example, a yoga studio in Florida, just because the attacker believed that was a place where he could find women, which were really his target.
Stewart: So that may have been the case here as well.
Jordan: What do we know about the alleged killer?
Stewart: Well, we don’t know much and can’t say much of what we know because he’s a youth. He’s 17 and therefore his identity is protected by the young offenders act. It’s just not even possible to discuss anything that would reveal his identity. But we do know from our police sources that following his arrest, he made statements that put him in line with Incel ideology.
One police source told our Catherine McDonald, at Global Toronto that he wanted to kill as many women as possible. We also heard that he said he was familiar with the Toronto van attacker and the author of what is considered to be the Incel manifesto. For police to come out and say outright that they believe this was inspired by Incel ideology, you can bet they must have some, either from his own statements or maybe his online usage, or maybe both, they probably have evidence that certainly leads them in that direction.
Jordan: Can you explain the significance of the way the police have changed the charge? What does it mean?
Stewart: Well, it’s significant on a bunch of levels. You know, if you look back at the history of terrorist attacks, just in the last couple of years, there was the van attack in Edmonton, there was the Quebec mosque shooting. There was the Toronto van attack in 2018. And in all those cases, these are certainly things that looked like textbook terrorism, but in none of those cases were terrorism charges brought. What the prosecutors did in those cases was basically say, ‘we’re charging you with first degree murder or attempted murder’.
And I think the reasoning behind not pursuing the terrorism aspect of that is it really doesn’t add anything in the end result. And it maybe even makes the prosecution more difficult because you’ve got to prove that the motive was somehow terrorism related. But I think you’ll probably have noticed there was a lot of pushback to that.
Why was the Quebec mosque shooting not officially considered terrorism? Why was the Toronto van attack not treated as an act of terrorism? And I think that caused a lot of confusion and a lot of people were upset. So I think it’s entirely possible that we’ve seen a bit of a change here. Don’t forget, three days before this massage parlor attack, there was another attack.
There was a woman in Scarborough on a sidewalk when she was attacked by a man with a hammer and killed. He was also arrested and charged with the same murder terrorist activity charge. And he was alleged to have been a supporter of ISIS ideology. So in that case they did lay that terrorism charge.
So I think when you look at those two cases together, we’re probably seeing a bit of a sea change in terms of prosecutors and police saying, look, it is important that when terrorism happens, we treat it as terrorism, that we recognize it for what it is. And even though it may not change the length of time that the person will spend in prison, it’s important for the community to have it recognized for what it really is.
And I think there’s another significance as well. And I’ve heard this from sources over this particular case, which is, one of the best ways to interrupt terrorism is for people to recognize when individuals are going down that path of violent radicalization. So for parents, for example, you know, we’re talking about a 17 year old in this case. For parents or friends or people that are around their teachers, people that are around someone to have a better idea of what terrorism looks like, how people behave when they’re radicalizing.
And to intervene when they see that happening, to get that person help before they end up picking up a knife or renting a van and mowing people down. And so I think the hope is that by prosecuting these types of things as terrorism, they’ll help raise awareness among people that terrorism is not just 9/11.
It comes in different forms. It can be just a young person online, radicalizing, attaching themselves to a cause and deciding to go out and pick up everyday objects as weapons and to do something in their mind, for their cause. So I think that’s the other significance is, hopefully some kind of benefit in terms of awaking people to really the broad nature of terrorism today so that they know it when they see it, and they will be willing to do something about it.
Jordan: I want to explore that a little more, but first I just want to talk about what that charge means in relation to the Incel ideology because we’ve covered Incels on the show before, mostly around the Toronto van attack, but not exclusively, but obviously, as you mentioned, that wasn’t a terrorism charge. Did anybody you spoke to, either on or off the record, give you a sense of what’s changed around labeling this kind of ideology as terroristic?
Stewart: Well, I think it’s maybe not just about this particular ideology, but certainly if you look only at Incels, Incels are a little different. It’s not Al Qaeda, it’s not an organization with a leader and training camps and different regional factions.
It’s really a collection of online people that frequent forums where they promote a certain worldview, which is very kind of victimhood oriented. And if you look at some of these forums, it’s a lot of really self-loathing, sad people, that really hate themselves. But it also channels those feelings into an ideology that says ‘it’s not your fault, it’s the world’s fault. It’s society’s fault. It’s women’s fault. And therefore we need to change society. We need to take direct actions, violence in some cases, that will change the world and change government policies to be more accommodating to the way we want things to be.’
So when you actually commit violence or plot violence in order to bring about societal change or policy change, that’s terrorism. Terrorism is not violence for violence sake. Terrorism is actually an act of propaganda. Terrorism is violence that is carried out to send a message of fear to the general public and to governments that ‘unless you buckle to what we want, we will commit more violence and we will make you feel insecure’. A lot of Incel is not that. It’s people that hate themselves because they’re lonely, but there’s a minority within that community that promotes a certain ideology which is misogynistic and violently so, against women.
Jordan: How do we quantify or even try to, the threat that that causes? Because as you say, there’s a lot of it online and a vast majority of it is sad, lonely, angry, misogynistic people. But then you have these cases. Do we know if the threat is growing, spreading? And I’m not talking about in terms of just talking about it online, I’m just talking about how it manifests in the world.
Stewart: I don’t know how you put a number to it. I mean, I have heard people make estimates as to the numbers of people that they believe are involved in the so-called movement of Incel. But I think really practically what you’re looking at is over the last several years, an increasing number of attacks that have either killed or injured people.
And in each case, you have the attackers who are saying that they got their inspiration from a previous attacker. So you know, the numbers that the academic studies have come up with is almost 50 deaths in North America over the last six years have been linked to Incel ideology. And so it’s not a huge number, but it’s a concerning number and it’s a difficult form of terrorism to stop.
And especially just in the last few months, we’ve seen a growing recognition that maybe this is a form of terrorism and since it keeps happening, it keeps repeating itself, with one person committing an attack saying they got their inspiration from the last person, that it needs to be treated as a form of domestic terrorism.
Jordan: Do we know yet or have any indication if by actually making this an official charge and labeling it as such, it’ll change anything about the way the police or courts approach crimes that that may be related to the Incel ideology? Does it open up any new avenues? Does it signal more resources, anything like that?
Stewart: Not necessarily. Terrorism is really a tactic, right? It’s not an organization. The cause that it’s attached to is really immaterial in the end. So whether that’s an Incel, whether it’s an Islamic extremist, whether it’s a white supremacist, right wing extremists, it really doesn’t matter.
To the law it’s the actions and the motivation that count. But I think it does help broaden the recognition of what terrorism is, and in particular who’s committing it. Because Canada has a fairly significant history of terrorism going back to Air India, but under our counter terrorism laws that came in after 9/11, the focus has been almost exclusively on Al Qaeda, ISIS, what you would call Islamist extremist type threats. In fact, this charge we believe is the first terrorism charge ever brought for an act of violence that was motivated by ideological beliefs other than Islamist extremism. So I think it’s a recognition that terrorism is evolving, that it’s changed since the days of 9/11. That it comes in different forms. That yes, there certainly is a threat of Al Qaeda and ISIS and there’s also a threat of right wing extremism. But this is also a threat as well. And there’s a benefit to having a realistic understanding of what terrorism is and not necessarily confining it to one little box.
Jordan: If this case eventually gets to trial, how different will that trial look from what it would have been without the terrorist charge?
Stewart: Well, it’ll be a little bit different in the sense that you now have a federal and provincial prosecutors involved. So the murder charge would be carried by the provincial crown, but the federal crown’s will have to kind of tag team and they will deal with the motivation element, the terrorism connections.
So it’ll be a little bit of a different trial in that sense. And as I said, they will have to dig into the question of why. Strictly speaking, to prove a murder you have to prove what the person did, not necessarily why. When you bring in terrorism, it’s all about motive. That this person did this act of violence in order to advance his cause.
So that can be difficult. And it may involve looking into his social media use, his online activities, how he sort of justified or explained what he did following his arrest. So it’ll be a different kind of trial, as terrorism trials always are.
Jordan: When you spoke to the experts who follow this ideology or just terrorism or misogyny in general, did they think that this was something that was badly needed? Not enough? Will or won’t make a material difference? Like how, how big was this in their world?
Stewart: The experts think this is pretty big. For the last couple of months in particular, and more generally over the last few years since the Toronto van attack, there have been growing calls among experts and academics and interest groups and advocacy groups to recognize Incel violence as a form of terrorism. This is the first time really when we’ve seen that happen. And I think the consensus pretty much is that it’s a good thing. That having a more realistic recognition of terrorism and what it is, can only be helpful.
Jordan: Stewart, thanks a lot for helping unpack the significance of this for us.
Stewart: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Stewart Bell, a reporter with Global News. That was The Big Story. For more from us, including some other episodes that explore the topic of Incels and misogyny and femicide. You can find us at Thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You can email us, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org and of course you can find us in whatever podcast player you might prefer from Apple to Google to Stitcher, to Spotify, to dozens and dozens of authors.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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