Incels: Inside the disturbing women-hating cult of troubled young men

Inside the disturbing world of incels: How ex-GCHQ worker who tried to murder female US spy after he was rejected by her predecessor was member of paranoid women-hating cult of troubled young men driven to commit mad acts of mass murder

  • Joshua Bowles attacked an NSA spy who succeeded a woman that ‘ghosted’ him

The former GCHQ worker who attempted to stab a female spy to death was spurned by her predecessor after he asked her to go on a walk and carried out his attack because he was an ‘incel’ who couldn’t get attention from women.

Joshua Bowles, 29, has been jailed for life after he set upon the National Security Agency (NSA) employee – named as operative 99230 – at a leisure centre in Cheltenham on March 9 armed with a pair of knives.

While prosecutors said that Bowles was motivated by terrorism, lawyers acting for Bowles sought to frame him as an ‘incel’, short for ‘involuntary celibate’: hetereosexual men who harbour resentment towards women because they cannot find sexual partners.

He is the latest in a line of young men who have seemingly turned to violence after growing frustrated at their seeming inability to have relationships with women; a list that includes Plymouth shotgun killer Jake Davison and US gunman Elliot Rodger, both of whom said they had faced rejection.

Bowles – who admitted attempted murder in August – had researched another female American NSA operative who had been working as his target’s predecessor at GCHQ, the UK’s cybersecurity intelligence agency.

A police-issued mugshot of Joshua Bowles, 29, who has been jailed for life after attempting to murder an American intelligence agent in March this year

Plymouth shooter Jake Davison (pictured) opened fire on strangers, killing five people before turning the gun on himself

Defence barrister Tim Forte said Bowles had claimed to be a terrorist because he was embarrassed by his real motivation – which was being rejected romantically by 99230’s predecessor and being overlooked for a permanent promotion at GCHQ. 

He said the forerunner, known as 13370, had been the ‘object of hiis (Bowles’) affections’ but that she had spurned his advances, ‘ghosting’ him. 

He told an earlier sentencing hearing: ‘There is nothing in this case demonstrating a terrorist cell, it’s an incel.’

Prosecutors say Bowles went on to develop a ‘preoccupation’ with the woman’s successor. 

READ MORE: Chilling moment knife-wielding ‘incel’ GCHQ worker tried to murder female US spy in frenzied ‘politically motivated’ attack outside Cheltenham leisure centre – as he is jailed for life 

Bowles had worked at GCHQ as a software developer before leaving in 2022. He then began plotting his March 9 2023 attack in the weeks beforehand, staking out his target’s schedule.

His search history was littered with lookups for the letters written by Ted Kaczynski – the notorious US terrorist known as the Unabomber – and ‘what is stalking’ after he looked up his victim’s social media and the website for her netball group.

CCTV screened during the trial showed Bowles entering the reception area of the Cheltenham leisure centre a month before he set upon her with knives, stepping up to a window overlooking a leisure hall where activity was taking place.

Duncan Penny KC, prosecuting, told the court: ‘In the month before the attack the defendant made almost daily visits in his car to GCHQ…demonstrating an apparent preoccupation with…the NSA employee whom he would eventually target.

‘When shown a photograph of the defendant 13370 said that he looked familiar, that he had messaged her at work asking if she wanted to go for a walk, but she had declined.’

Mr Penny added: ‘Significantly, he also visited the leisure centre one month before the attack, on 9 February, a date when 99230’s team was playing a netball match there.’ 

On the day of the attack Bowles looked up murderers and serial killers, Russian massacres of German civilians, an Iraqi immigrant stabbing someone and misogynistic attacks on women.

Then at 9.15pm on March 9 Bowles rushed at the woman and another US national, knocking her to the ground before bystander Alex Fuentes intervened and gave her a chance to escape.

But Bowles punched him off and pursued his target, following her back into the leisure centre where he stabbed her several times; she suffered cuts to the abdomen, chest and thigh before another bystander, Steve Bunn, stepped in.

The judge, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb, ruled Bowles had been motivated by terrorism – but did not discount that his ‘anger against…women’ played a part.

She said: ‘I accept the psychiatric evidence that by the start of the year you were moderately or severely depressed and felt disempowered. I accept your motivation was mixed and may have resulted partly from sadness at your position in life.

‘It is not unusual for those who commit offences of terrorism to have had negative life experiences to suffer mental health or to exhibit mixed motives.

‘Your anger against GCHQ and women had persuaded you to launch an attack through which you intended however unrealistically to disrupt intelligence between the UK and the US by killing one of the Americans working in the UK.’

Bowles’ lawyer’s suggestion that the defendant had been an ‘incel’ marks him out as another individual in a growing community of men who believe they are unable to attract women as sexual partners for societal reasons.

Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and injured 14 others in a killing spree in California that he blamed on women

Alongside the belief that they are being ‘denied’ sex and romance, incels often hold hostile views towards women and sexually active men – and use coded phrases such as ‘redpilling’ to suggest that they are being underserved by society.

More extreme incels exhibit misogynistic views, including that they are owed sex by women: they speak of ‘Chads’ and ‘Stacys’ – terms for conventionally attractive men and women – and being ‘redpilled’, borne from a scene in the 1999 film the Matrix in which the main character is ‘woken up’ to the reality of the world around him.

They direct most of their ire towards ‘gigachads’ – extremely muscular men that they believe are stealing away prospective partners. 

But research has suggested that the dark and depraved community of straight men has actually come about because they lack confidence and see themselves as innately inferior.

Statistics also suggest that the incel movement is building momentum in the UK following earlier incidents tied to the toxic school of thought in the US and Canada.



Extremely muscular man


Conventionally attractive man


Conventionally attractive woman


Physically plain woman


A fatalistic idea that an incel cannot improve their own situation and should accept their fate of unattractiveness, lack of wealth or social status


Refers to waking up from your ‘normal’ life of ignorance and seeing the world how it really is


A person who lives a conventional life, unaware of men¿s ‘oppression’ by women


Feeling unsure about conventional stances but rejecting a particularly gendered value system


Using earnings, possessions, exercise or plastic surgery to maximise attractiveness


Inspired by US mass murderer, Elliot Rodger, means a killing spree


Denotes suicide


Translates to Lie Down And Rot, indicating there is no hope in life 

UK terror prevention scheme Prevent has seen a huge rise in the number of referrals it has received for people considered to be incels – 77 in the year to March 2022, the most recent figures available, compared to three the year before and none in 2000. 

And a report by UK security research centre Crest published earlier this year has warned of an ‘incelosphere’ online – spaces in which incels are exchanging ideas and perpetrating the idea that society is withholding sex from them.

The report warns: ‘Engagement with incel content is likely to continue to increase in the coming years given that this ideology is particularly insidious and pries on the insecurities of young boys who are often still going through a period of socialisation.’

Plymouth gunman Jake Davison, 22, who had described himself on social media as a ‘f****** fat ugly virgin’, killed five people before turning the gun on himself in 2021. 

Davison, used a legally owned pump-action shotgun to shoot his mother Maxine, 51, in August 2021 before murdering Sophie Martyn, three, and her father Lee, 43.

He then opened fire on dogwalker Stephen Washington, 59, before killing Kate Shepherd, 66 – and then killing himself before armed police arrived on the scene.

Davison had previously shown a fascination with mass shootings and had warned in an online post weeks beforehand that ‘there are a lot more guns in Europe and the UK than people think’.

He had shared videos online in which he hit out at ‘mother****** that don’t deserve half of anything…getting a free road to the top’. 

MailOnline revealed at the time of the shooting that Davison was a frequent poster to YouTube under the name ‘Professor Waffle’, where he ranted about life being ‘rigged against you’ and failing to find a partner.

He said in the last video he shared: ‘You wake up and you stare at the wall and you’re thinking um nothing’s changed but I’m still in the same position, same period in life, still a f****** this, that virgin f****** fat ugly, what.’

He also spoke of being ‘blackpilled’ – a codeword in incel communities for a form of fatalism, where he accepted that he was never going to succeed in finding a partner.

The toxic movement came to the fore in 2014 when Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage in Santa Barbara, California, after posting an online hate manifesto in which he lamented being a virgin and being rejected by women.

Rodger killed six people and injured 14 others in the violence before turning the gun on himself while he was being pursued by police.

Rodger had said in a video posted before the rampage: ‘I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it.’

He had added: ‘I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male.’

In 2018 Alek Minassian, who identified with the movement, murdered 10 people in a van attack in Toronto, mowing down pedestrians on a pavement.

Despite their association with toxic beliefs and violence as an answer to their problems, former members of the incel community believe the majority of those who see themselves as involuntary celibates are simply lonely and drawn to toxic online communities in their lowest moments.

Riley Drapp, a self-confessed ex-incel from Chicago in the US, said he was in a ‘properly dark period’ in his life when he discovered incel communities.

He said: ‘The thing with a lot of incels is that they need some kind of guidance. The reason why they have these feelings is for a reason – it’s not like they have things completely perfect in life.

‘The things online make people think this is how reality really works but it doesn’t – they are really extreme ways of feeling things.’

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