The Incel Terrorist

Oguzhan Sert was 17 when he walked into a Toronto massage parlour and killed an employee with a sword. The Crown argued the attack wasn’t just murder, but an act of terror against women. The hard part would be proving it.

By Lana Hall

April 3, 2024

The morning of February 24, 2020, began like any other at Crown Spa. The first clients of the day began coming and going for sessions, and J.C., the manager, was upstairs in the apartment where she lived. J.C., whose full name is under a publication ban, had managed the spa for about five years, and it wasn’t unusual for her to work seven days a week, greeting clients at her desk and scheduling sessions. That day, she had a dentist appointment, and a newly hired receptionist had failed to show up for work. J.C. texted a friend, 24-year-old Ashley Noelle Arzaga, to fill in. She arrived around noon.

The spa was one of Toronto’s 25 licensed body-rub parlours—nondescript storefronts where attendants offer erotic massages, and that are consigned by city zoning to semi-industrial areas. Crown Spa was in just such a neighbourhood, near Dufferin Street and Wilson Avenue, just blocks from the busy Highway 401, which ferries travellers east and west. The spa occupied a small, two-storey building on Dufferin Street, its front window obscured by frosted glass blocks, with a sign in the window flashing “open.”

A few blocks away, a 17-year-old boy named Oguzhan Sert was getting ready for his own day, in the house he shared with his father and stepmother. He dressed in sunglasses, a hat and a long dark coat. He tucked his driver’s licence into his coat pocket, along with a sharpening stone and a note scrawled on lined paper: “Long Live The Incel Rebellion.” Into a black sheath attached to his belt he slid a short sword, 17 inches long, etched with the words “THOT SLAYER” (THOT is an acronym for That Ho Over There, a slur sometimes used for women, especially sex workers). Then he left home.

At about half past noon, he walked through Crown Spa’s front door into a small vestibule, then through a second door into the lobby. He approached Arzaga at the reception desk and, without saying a word, began stabbing her in the neck. She collapsed to the floor as he continued slashing. As J.C. got ready for her appointment, she heard sounds from downstairs: banging, then a scream. She ran down and into the lobby, where Sert stood holding his sword, blood pooling at his feet. J.C. turned to flee, but she struggled to open the exterior door, and Sert followed her. She slipped on the floor as Sert stabbed her over and over, one slash cutting the flesh on her hand to the bone, another nearly slicing off an entire fingertip. She screamed at him to stop. “You fucking whore,” he said as he continued his attack. “Die, die, die.” 

At least one attendant was with a client, oblivious to what was unfolding in the reception area. At some point, J.C.’s brother-in-law Jason, who had been waiting outside to accompany her to the dentist, tried to open the front door, but it was blocked by J.C. and Sert, who were grappling on the floor. J.C. wriggled aside to let Jason in; at the same time, she wrested the sword from Sert’s grasp, struggling away as he clapped a hand over her mouth. She stabbed him in the back. Sert let out a gasp and stumbled into the parking lot. Jason leapt for him as J.C. ran, bleeding, to a neighbouring business, begging the employees to call 911. 

As she waited for paramedics, J.C. went back inside and found Arzaga on the floor. She had sustained 42 wounds, and J.C. could tell her friend was dead. Still, she tried to talk to her: “Everything is okay now, baby.” By the time paramedics and police arrived, Sert was lying in the parking lot, bleeding onto the asphalt. His sword lay nearby. A paramedic asked him what had happened. “I wanted to kill everybody in the building,” Sert said. “I’m happy I got one.” Police took Sert into custody and charged him with both murder and attempted murder. 

Crown Spa, one of Toronto’s 25 licensed body-rub parlours, occupied a small, two-storey building on Dufferin Street

When the headlines about Arzaga’s death popped up on my news feed, I began following the case intensely. My interest was not only journalistic, but personal. The streets around that part of North York are very familiar to me because, in the early and mid-2010s, I spent five years working in Toronto’s massage parlours. I did it during a hiatus from university—rent was expensive, writing was economically precarious and, as I sometimes joked to clients, working a parlour job was more interesting than folding T-shirts at the Gap. For about a year, I worked at a parlour located in an office building near Highway 401, only 10 minutes from Crown Spa. I thought of all the late nights and sleepy weekday mornings I spent with fellow attendants as we laundered towels and answered endless prank calls, as we applied each other’s eyeliner before sessions and skittered around suburban strip malls on coffee or Red Bull runs. 

And I thought of Ashley Arzaga, picking up a shift to make ends meet. I had never met her, but I knew plenty of young women much like her. The massage parlour economy operates on cash payments, unpredictable hours and, often, loose adherence to regulations. As a result, it attracts workers in transitional phases of life: students, single parents, women between jobs and aspiring entrepreneurs. Violence is a risk, and a lack of trust in law enforcement makes staff more likely to handle the burden privately. 

When I worked at parlours, we would occasionally get a client walking in visibly drunk or high, who wouldn’t take kindly to being turned away. Sometimes, in the dimness of a session room, tensions would rise during negotiations about services, and my heart would race until I felt the smooth handle of the doorknob under my palm. Once, somebody even robbed the front desk of a parlour I worked in at gunpoint. 

But most days, it was simply a job. Contrary to stereotype—that the men who pay for sexual services are deviants, that the women who provide them are reckless or desperate—those moments were by far the exception. And the idea that anyone would walk into a massage parlour and commit an atrocity like the one at Crown Spa was unimaginable. 

My interest in the case redoubled a few months later, when news broke that Sert—whose identity was then under a publication ban, since he was a minor—would be charged as a terrorist. His attack, it was alleged, was motivated by his self-identification as an incel, an “involuntary celibate,” who advocated violence against women as retribution for his inability to form intimate relationships. Sert was the first person in Canada to face terror charges based on an incel-motivated crime, and he is likely the first person in the world. The charges were poised to spark a broader reckoning on what terrorism means in Canada. Violence against women has never, historically, merited such a label. Even Marc Lépine, the shooter who killed 14 people, mostly women, at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989, escaped that branding. A terror designation could mean a shift in how the courts treat offenders, and in how law enforcement pursues them. It could also mean that women like my former colleagues, and very much like me not very long ago, might no longer be regarded as simply the unfortunate victims of a disturbed individual—that their victimhood may come to signify something more. 

As a crime recognized and punishable by Canadian law, terrorism is the new kid on the block. It didn’t appear in the Criminal Code at all until 2001, when the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed in a hurried response to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. The act defines terrorism as a crime intended to intimidate the public, committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose.” But none of those terms—political, religious, ideological—were defined, an apparent oversight that was flagged even at the time. Robert Lanctôt, a Bloc Québécois MP, expressed reservations in a 2001 House of Commons debate, saying, “We cannot leave such a broad definition of terrorist activity in this legislation.” 

And yet, in the urgency of the moment, the act passed that December. Leah West is a professor of national security law at Carleton University who has written extensively about counter-terrorism and the definition of terrorism in Canadian law. She says the problem lies primarily with the most nebulous of the act’s three criteria: ideology. “The term itself is fuzzy and amorphous,” says West. “If you don’t have a good sense of what it looks like, you don’t look for it.” On the other hand, if you only have a narrow sense of what it looks like, that’s all you see. And, after 9/11, there was a very clear idea of what terrorism looked like. Of the roughly 60 terrorism charges laid by the Crown over the past two decades, almost all have been against extremists inspired by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Those include Saad Akhtar, a Toronto man who beat a woman to death with a hammer in 2020 and pledged allegiance to ISIS; and the “Toronto 18,” a group of men and youth, some of whom were convicted in 2006 for planning to attack targets including Parliament Hill, CSIS and nuclear power plants in the name of al-Qaeda. 

Cases that don’t fit into that narrow mould have, typically, not been prosecuted as terrorism. Consider Alexandre Bissonette, a 27-year-old man who in January of 2017 walked into a mosque in Quebec City and fired on worshippers during evening prayers, killing six. The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the crime an act of terrorism—it felt, intuitively, like one. Yet despite outrage from Canadian Muslim groups, the Crown did not charge Bissonnette as a terrorist. In part, that’s because he acted alone, without the participation of a recognized terror group, which would prove his commitment to an ideology—and possibly indicate a national security threat that extended beyond a lone-wolf incident. University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach explained as much in an interview with the Canadian Press at the time. “Inspiration alone is not enough,” he said. “You would need some form of active participation or direct instruction or incitement to commit a terrorist act.” Without proof of that, prosecutors would face a much steeper challenge proving that Bissonnette’s motivations were ideological. 

Similarly, the incel movement is, at best, loosely organized. The word itself dates back to 1997, when a Toronto university student known online as Alana coined the term “invcel” to describe both men and women struggling to form relationships. She created a web forum called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project,” a sort of online support group. Eventually, she started dating and stopped maintaining the forum, and it was only then that the term began to acquire its darker connotations. 

In 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old self-described incel, killed six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California, shooting some and ramming others with his car. He then shot himself dead, leaving behind a manifesto expressing frustration over his loneliness, his hatred of women and the plans for his crimes. Rodger died by his own hand, so the debate that followed over whether he was a terrorist or not was academic—there was no one to prosecute. But his crimes were a watershed moment for the incel movement: a burst of mainstream notoriety, and a fallen hero to rally around. 

And rally they did. In 2015, 26-year-old Chris Harper-Mercer killed nine people at a college in Oregon; he had previously written a manifesto describing how Rodger had inspired him. In 2018, a man named Scott Beierle murdered two women at a yoga studio in Florida. He, too, had expressed admiration for Rodger in videos he uploaded to YouTube. 

That same year, 25-year-old Alek Minassian drove a rented van onto a sidewalk near Toronto’s North York Centre subway station, killing 11 people. Minutes after committing the crime, Minassian posted on Facebook, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” and “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” In spite of his professed allegiance to Rodger and the “incel rebellion,” police did not lay terror charges. Just as in the Bissonnette shooting, there appeared to be no organized threat to public safety. The judge in the case found that Minassian was motivated by the potential for notoriety, not by ideology—whatever his social media posts said. 

Oguzhan Sert idolized Elliot Rodger too. He was born in Toronto to a mother from Mexico and a father from Turkey. They divorced when he was young, which devastated him. By all accounts, he was a lonely and depressed teen, bullied relentlessly in school. In Grade 9 he told his parents he no longer wanted to attend classes. He left school, effectively ending his education. At some point, Sert’s mother looked for professional help for her son, and mental health practitioners suggested medication. That never came to pass. Instead, Sert moved to his father’s house, where he spent his days alone in his basement bedroom, spiralling deeper into a network of fringe websites and YouTube channels promoting alt-right and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—and the incel subculture.

Sert sought out incel-themed videos on YouTube and discussed incel themes on social media and on Steam, a gaming platform. Without in-person social contact and the structure of secondary school education, Sert found his feelings of abandonment reinforced online. He began describing himself as a “proud incel,” and a “Seeker of Martyrdom” on Steam, declaring in his profile that he hated feminists. 

After Sert was arrested in February of 2020, he told police that he regretted what he’d done, but only because he’d assumed police would kill him at the scene of the crime. Left alive to face the consequences, his life was ruined. He said he believed people like him deserved a country of their own and that he couldn’t advocate for those rights without hurting women. “Nobody would take us seriously,” he said.

Sert was charged with murder and attempted murder, but as the depth of his ideological motivations became obvious to Toronto police, they tapped the RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams, a federal counter-terrorism unit. In May of 2020, Crown attorneys charged him with terrorism during a remote court appearance, where Sert appeared via video link from a youth detention facility. He was only 17 years old. As a minor, he was facing a maximum 10-year sentence for the murder. But if he was convicted of terrorism, he could be sentenced as an adult, with the possibility of a life term. 

Two federal Crown prosecutors—Lisa Mathews and Amber Pashuk—were brought aboard to assist with the case. Mathews is a 23-year veteran of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, while Pashuk had already prosecuted a handful of domestic terrorism cases. To get a terrorism conviction, they would have to prove something that had never before been argued in a Canadian courtroom: that the incel subculture constitutes a real ideology and therefore a terrorist threat, and that Sert himself intended to intimidate the public, or at least a segment of it, with his crimes. 

Maurice Mattis, who was once Jamaica’s superintendent of police before studying law and setting up practice in Toronto, took on Sert’s defence. For assistance he tapped Monte MacGregor, a former corporate finance lawyer turned criminal defender with experience in homicide cases. They knew that a first-degree murder charge would be basically impossible to defend against. Sert had already implicated himself, and admitted his premeditation, in his police interview. Mattis and MacGregor knew their best chance would be to try to fight the terrorism charge and have Sert sentenced as a youth—likely his only chance to avoid a life sentence. 

The case came at a time when the perception of the incel movement, and of the crimes committed by its adherents, was changing fast among lawmakers. In February of 2020, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague retroactively described Elliot Rodger’s murders as acts of misogynist terrorism. That same year, a domestic terrorism threat assessment produced by the Texas Department of Public Safety described incel violence as a serious risk. “Once viewed as a criminal threat by many law enforcement authorities,” it read, “incels are now seen as a growing domestic terrorism concern due to the ideological nature of recent incel attacks internationally, nationwide, and in Texas.” It said the threat could potentially eclipse other domestic terrorism threats.

Still, no one, anywhere, had ever been convicted of terrorism based on incel ideology. Such a conviction, says Leah West, could help prevent such crimes in the future: law enforcement might allocate counter-terrorism resources to the incel threat and improve data collection and tracking of incel-related crimes. It could also begin to shift public perception of the perpetrators. “It helps the public understand that these are terrorist movements,” says West, “not just wacky things that people are saying online.” Mathews and Pashuk would need to put that argument to a judge, however, with little precedent, domestically or otherwise.

Sert pleaded guilty in September of 2022 to charges of murder and attempted murder. But the court still needed to determine if his crimes met the threshold for terrorism. That month, the prosecution and defence began arguing their cases at the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto, before Justice Suhail Akhtar. Silent and downcast, Sert sat in the prisoner’s dock, dressed in a burgundy sweatsuit issued by the William E. Hay Centre in Ottawa, where he’d been in custody. He was alone, save for a court official who sat a few feet away. Neither of his parents were there—they had, according to MacGregor, washed their hands of him.

Behind the counsel table, Mathews and Pashuk launched into their case. To prove the first part of their argument—that Sert was motivated by ideology and an overarching set of shared beliefs, just as jihadists or political extremists might be—they brought forward an expert witness, known as T.E., an academic who has researched the incel subculture for almost a decade. T.E., whose name is under a publication ban, told the court that incel culture revolves around a consistent theory of hypergamy: the belief that women are more sexually selective than men and seek to “marry up” into higher social status. A key incel belief, said T.E., is that as women have gained greater sexual and financial independence, they rely less on men for physical and financial security. But men, their attractiveness determined at birth, are more or less powerless to change their romantic prospects. The least attractive are denied sex and intimate partnerships and, as revenge for being denied what they’re entitled to, they feel violence is justified.

Incels especially loathe sex workers, who they see as exploiting and profiting from their inability to access sex or intimacy, at least without paying for it. That’s very close to what Sert told police during his interview in 2020. “I was thinking about this incel ideology,” he’d said, adding, “I guess that’s why I chose that spot. Some incels say prostitutes are taking advantage of their bodies and gaining money as a result.” (There’s no evidence that the services offered at Crown Spa went beyond erotic massages, but Sert apparently didn’t make that distinction.) 

That quote addressed the prosecution’s second challenge: to prove that Sert chose Crown Spa to target and intimidate a certain group. Sert’s choice of weapon—
a sword inscribed with a misogynist slur—was further evidence. “Mr. Sert here,” said Mathews, “by showing up with his THOT Slayer sword, dressed in his Matrix costume, with the incel rebellion note in his pocket, his Steam profile, declaring himself to be a proud incel and a killer and a seeker of martyrdom—these are messages to the world.”

The defence strategy took an opposite tack: that Sert was a confused child who had no friends and little parental guidance. In custody, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, social anxiety disorder and a tendency toward major depressive episodes, one of which he’d endured shortly before the attack in February of 2020. Yet he’d received essentially no support before committing his crimes. He appeared to have a limited intellect, said MacGregor, and the rigid, categorical thinking often associated with people on the autism spectrum made him vulnerable to the nihilistic thinking of conspiracy theorists. This argument was all too easy to believe when observing Sert, who often seemed overwhelmed by the formality of court proceedings. At his sentencing hearing, I watched Sert stare into space, looking as if he could scarcely believe where he was. I found it hard not to imagine his life playing out differently, had he found the psychological supports his mother had hoped for, and had he not spent hours online in that basement bedroom. 

He seemed hopelessly alone, and his aloneness was also part of the defence. “That’s who he is,” said MacGregor, delivering his argument with the cadence and hushed melodrama of a radio host, which he had been before becoming a lawyer. It was in these tones that he painted a decidedly unflattering picture of his own client. “Not loved enough, friendless, bullied, uneducated, ignorant to the world, and choosing to lash out for no reason but because other introverts hidden in the dark share their conspiracy theories about why they are mistreated.” 

When lone actors have faced terror charges in Canadian courts, the results have been mixed, even when their crimes and motivations closely align with the post-9/11 spirit of the Anti-Terrorism Act. In 2019, Crown prosecutors failed to convince a judge that Ayanle Hassan Ali—who had gone on a knife rampage at a Canadian Forces recruiting centre in Toronto, injuring two people and claiming that Allah had sent him to kill people—was a terrorist. He was acquitted on terror charges, and an appeals court upholding the ruling later said that a person cannot commit a crime of terror on behalf of a cause or group and be the only member of that group.

But here, too, perceptions are changing. In 2022, the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security delivered a report to Parliament on the rise of “ideologically motivated violent extremism.” It explicitly described the growing threat of lone actors, radicalized by social media and affiliated with shaggier, less-coherent ideologies than traditional terror groups. “Terrorist groups whose credo, membership, command structure and tactics are known and relatively stable have not disappeared,” read the report. “Rather, these long-standing national security threats have been joined by a new breed of violent extremists, lone actors and leaderless movements.”

The report cited, as examples, far-right extremists, lone-wolf jihadists—and incels. This interpretation is similar to the argument Mathews and Pashuk made for the prosecution. They said that the attacks at Crown Spa were not being prosecuted as a terrorist group offence, so no organization or communication with a larger group was required.

Closing arguments didn’t wrap up until last October. Mathews stood up to read victim impact statements from Arzaga’s two sisters and her best friend. Arzaga’s older sister’s letter detailed the devastation her family had endured. She talked about watching Arzaga’s five-year-old daughter observe Mother’s Day at a cemetery. She talked about the anxiety and hypervigilance she felt, wondering which men in a crowd might harbour violent thoughts about her. She talked about arguing with Ashley and never having a chance to resolve it. Arzaga’s younger sister’s letter described the agony of watching the casket close on one of the people she loved most in the world: “Ashley was one of the toughest people I knew, and not once did I think I would ever lose her.”

24-year-old Ashley Noelle Arzaga was filling in as Crown Spa's receptionist when Oguzhan Sert attacked. She left behind a young daughter, who spent Mother's Day at the cemetery.

Mathews, who had until then delivered her arguments in precise, methodical fashion, became clearly emotional; Pashuk quickly took over. In the prisoner’s dock, Sert stared into the distance, periodically tugging at his short black beard. Provincial Crown attorney Chikeziri Igwe asked the judge to sentence Sert as an adult. Later that day, Sert also delivered a statement, standing up to face J.C. and Arzaga’s family in the gallery as he read, stiltedly, from a piece of lined paper. He asked for forgiveness, claiming to not understand why he’d committed the attacks. He said that he’d matured and no longer hated women. “I wish I could travel back in time and talk some sense into my former self,” he said. “That way Ashley would still be alive and none of this would have ever happened.”

In the end, Justice Akhtar accepted the Crown’s case: that Sert’s crimes were motivated by a poisonous and virulent ideology, one that would require “the entire might” of correctional programming to rehabilitate. He cited Sert’s meticulous planning, suggesting it required a degree of maturity. He noted that Sert intentionally sought out web forums, online videos and other information and took little responsibility for the attacks. The crime, said Akhtar, “reflects the evils of that ideology.”

Sert’s sentence is life in prison, although he will be eligible for parole in 10 years. His lawyers wanted to ask for a lighter sentence under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, in which he would complete an intense rehab program in a provincial facility. But that would have required Sert to serve out his sentence in a shared cell, which he was terrified of doing. He refused.

Leah West thinks the decision has the potential to change how the justice system—from local law enforcement to lawyers to judges—deals with terrorism and, ultimately, what the public at large considers to be terrorism. Lisa Mathews also recently prosecuted the case of Nathaniel Veltman, a young man who in 2021 ran over and killed members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, with a pickup truck. That too is a high-profile terror case, involving a lone actor radicalized online with a loosely defined ideology. This February, Veltman too was convicted of terrorism, another sign that the legal and public perception of the word is expanding.

In October, shortly after both sides had delivered their closing arguments, I returned to Dufferin and Wilson on a Sunday afternoon to walk the stretch where Crown Spa was located. The spa now operates under a different name, but it otherwise looked the same as it would have in 2020: the late autumn sun dappling the hard industrial landscape, the highway stretching into oblivion. I thought about J.C. and Arzaga, fighting for their lives behind its frosted-glass window—in a place, J.C. said, where “we love everybody.” 

Sex workers, like those in the massage parlour community, are familiar with precarious employment and public judgment. The spa business particularly can feel insular; many are located in the same part of the city, and attendants, who are independent contractors, often swap parlours regularly in search of more clients or a better environment. Anyone in this small community could have ended up as one of Sert’s targets that day. 

Yet I was struck when reporting this story by how many people—including lawyers and legal experts—were surprised that the case resulted in the watershed conviction it did. Some felt it would open the door to an overly liberal definition of terrorism, while others thought that a case resulting in only one homicide lacked the notoriety normally associated with terror convictions.

Sert’s case expands not only the definition of a terrorist, but that of a victim. The perception that sex work is intrinsically seedy or undesirable often lends itself to the idea that the people who do the work perhaps deserve that violence. Or at least that it’s inevitable. The Sert case blows up those assumptions, demanding that both perpetrators and victims receive more attention and effort from law enforcement and courts. For now, his conviction looks like the beginning of a change.

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This story appears in the April issue of Maclean’s. You can buy the single issue here or subscribe to the magazine here.