The Calgary mother fighting radicalisation in Syria

BBC News/May 5, 2015

By Dominic Casciani

Canada is thousands of miles away from the war zone in Syria and Iraq - yet the self-styled Islamic State has recruited young fighters to join its cause. Can the lessons from the death of one young Canadian help prevent other tragedies?

Christianne Boudreau is baking cookies. While there's snow on the ground across the city of Calgary and the plains below the Canadian Rockies, there's the warm glow of family life in her kitchen.

"I usually bake a lot in the winter because it's cosy in the house and it smells good - it feels more like a home, the warmth," she says as she measures out the batter.

But someone is missing. Her son, Damian Clairmont. The last time she had baked these cookies with him was in 2011. After that, he refused to take part. He was beginning to change into a different person - changes that would lead to his death in Syria.

Damian Clairmont became a Muslim in his teens and later chose to abandon the mainstream of the faith and join Islamic State's jihad. He died in Syria in January 2014 at just 22 years old.

Calgary is a continent and ocean away from Syria. But Damian Clairmont isn't the only young man to have swapped ice hockey for IS.

When Damian turned to Islam, he had found peace after some very troubled teenage years.

Christianne hoped her son had turned a positive corner in his life - but in the years that followed he increasingly distanced himself, particularly after he moved to a different part of the city and apparently abandoned the people who had been supporting his transition to the faith.

"Bit by bit, it wasn't anything drastic that would stand out, but slowly over a period of time starting in 2011, he grew his beard and cut his hair really short," she says.

"He started talking about how the media was portraying the lies about what was really happening around the world. He said we didn't know the truth here and that the Western world was selfish.

"I would challenge it but... when he had an idea in his mind, good luck trying to change it.

"Then he became more rigid over wine at the table - whereas before he would respect that, even if he didn't drink. Then, all of sudden, he wouldn't even come to the table."

Damian is far from being the only Canadian to have joined the self-styled Islamic State.

Canadian officials won't say how many people they are tracking in Syria and Iraq, but informed speculation puts the number at around 80. That's far lower than the estimated 600 Britons and thousands of other Europeans who have joined the fight.

But the threat posed by supporters back home is very real. Last year, one of IS's ideologues urged online sympathisers to attack their countries if they were part of the international military coalition launching air strikes.

Canada is part of that alliance. On 22 October, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot a Canadian soldier on ceremonial duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Parliament Hill. He was gunned down as he tried to attack the parliament itself.

The assault was the second incident in Canada in two days. IS later bragged that the culprits were inspired by "nothing more than the words" they had posted online.

So how has this fighting group proved so successful in recruiting fighters from the other side of the world?

Just a few miles away from where Damian grew up is Michael Zekulin's office at Calgary University. He's researching online extremism and says the lure of IS comes down to their story-telling skills.

"They have foregone these traditional al-Qaeda style videos of an old man with a beard sitting in front of a blank background reading these 45 minute to an hour sermons," says Zekulin.

"What they have done is move to these shorter Hollywood style productions, lots of graphics, lots of violence, lots of English - but also translations into specific languages such as German, Dutch, Spanish, or French depending on where they are targeting that specific video."

Damian Clairmont never appeared in any IS videos - but an Ontario man called John McGuire became the online poster boy of the anti-Canada offensive. He recorded a recruitment video - denouncing his home country and appealing to others to sign up.

"You have these are individuals who are speaking directly to the camera and, intermingled with the larger message of ISIS, is this idea of their experience as a Canadian," says Zekulin.

"They say they were normal Canadians as they grew up, playing hockey, fishing and hunting. The bottom line is, 'We were once like you and we have found the true calling.'

"Once you have individuals from Western states who go abroad to fight and they then reach back, they have much more credibility."

By 2012, Damian had, ideologically speaking, utterly transformed. In November he called his mother from Calgary Airport to say he was going to the Middle East.

"It was 6am in the morning and I started crying so loud. I said, 'I just wish you would stay.'

"He just kept begging me to stop crying. He said he didn't want me to hurt, everything was going to be OK. When he got there, it took about a week before I heard from him. I could hear the sand crunching underneath his feet, and we spoke like this on a regular basis until 23 December. And then our intelligence security services showed up on our doorstep."

Damian's Canadian radicalisation appears to have followed a familiar pattern - although it is difficult to know for sure.

There is anecdotal evidence from another Canadian fighter that he rejected mainstream Islam and became consumed by the jihadist worldview. He is said to have followed online lectures by the now dead American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who played an instrumental role in recruiting for al-Qaeda.

If his journey mirrored that of others across the world, he would have been part of a tight-knit social circle who would have shared online extremist material, reinforcing each other's anger and resolve. And finally, with some assistance, he found a route to the war zone.

That well-established process of online and real-world radicalisation poses huge challenges to the security services.
Calgary: 6,000 miles from Syria

"This has had a huge impact, but as horrible as it is for the families and as tragic as the outcome has been, what it has done is told us that Canada is no longer immune," says Chief Rick Hanson of Calgary Police.

"For too long too many people in Canada said, 'Oh you know it's not going to happen here, it's somebody's else's problem.' The factors that contribute to radicalised youth are the same that contributed to a person being attracted to a gang lifestyle or any kind of criminality, and that is they don't fit in.

"But the hook is the social media. So if we don't develop those [counter-extremism] strategies really quickly, we will be in the middle of it and then we will be wishing that we had responded better, quicker and earlier."

Damian Clairmont's mother Christianne is angry that nobody intervened to prevent his radicalisation and journey. The Canadian intelligence agency officers who knocked on her door said they'd been aware of Damian for up to two years and that he was in Syria.

One day, out of the blue, Damian contacted his mother and came clean.

"He said he was there for a purpose - to save women and children, from torture, rape and murder. No-one else was doing anything, he thought. When I asked him, 'Are you holding a gun?' he would never answer. He didn't want me to know the details."

Christianne says she felt utterly lost - no-one in officialdom was capable of helping her.

And then she found someone who understood.

Daniel Koehler has the look of a young and bookish academic - tall and quietly spoken. But when he begins to explain what he does, he becomes incredibly passionate.

He's the director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies and a pioneering thinker on deradicalisation. He has worked with neo-Nazis and jihadists and helped to prevent people going to Syria. A great deal of his work is confidential and involves highly sensitive support programmes for families trying to bring a loved one back from the brink.

But he is scathing - in a very polite way - of most counter-extremism schemes.

He says they are doomed from day one because they involve the people extremists love to hate - spooks, police and mainstream preachers.

"The family is absolutely an essential key to recognising the early stage of the process or to intervene in advanced radicalisation­," Koehler says.

"The family are closest to the potential terrorist. They are the ones you need to work with. You need to strengthen these people and their environment to become a living counter­-narrative."

"When families notice [radicalisation] they try to debate the core theology, the core political arguments and that usually pushes their sons and daughters further away. They are not interested in debating the core because they think they have found the truth.

"I try to bring in positive alternatives and motivations. If they want to go to Syria to deliver aid, I would have the family strongly support the motivation to help other human beings - but suggest alternatives - staying in the country - but whatever fulfils the same goal.

"Every extreme movement draws this black and white picture. They are sucking out colour because it is very easy to make a decision to go to Syria if there is one right or wrong. As soon as you add more colour to the picture it becomes more complicated."

By the time Christianne had found Daniel, it was too late for him to intervene. In January 2014, Christianne got a call late in the evening from a journalist who asked for a picture of Damian.

"He said he had just received a tweet with a photo of Damian and his eulogy," she recalls. "I was shocked and said, just go to his Facebook page. He said, 'Oh this is the same photo as his Facebook page, thanks,' and hung up. That's how I learned."

Damian's death was confirmed online by another Canadian fighter in Syria who said the ordinary Calgary kid was shot in a summary execution by a Free Syrian Army unit after his group had been captured.

In the eyes of many people, his journey had made him a terrorist. Damian had joined an extremist group that has poured untold resources into a social media recruitment machine that has encouraged others to follow.

"He made some really bad choices and decisions," says Christianne. "I think that initially when he went he didn't realise what he was signing up for. He thought he was going to fight Bashar al-Assad and his heart was in the right place. But when he got there, I think over a period of time he got brainwashed and it's very difficult for us here, to conceptualise what they go through.

"To me he was a young man who was compassionate, caring, loving and protective. That was the boy I knew. I'll always remember him as that. Not for what everyone makes him out to be. He was taken advantage of and he was a victim."

Christianne will never get all the answers she want. But she refuses to be a victim.

Since Damian's death, she has begun helping others to fight back - and her target is IS online.

She's now joined Extreme Dialogue, a new international counter-terrorism project which puts family stories at the heart of its online campaigns. She features at the heart of its first campaign which will be used to train police and teachers on radicalisation.

And she is also working with Koehler, the deradicalisation expert to bring his pioneering family-counselling tactics to Canada.

He has held the first training session for volunteers in Calgary and Christianne is building an international network of mothers who have found themselves in similar situations.

The aim: To speak out, speak out and speak out again.

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