I can’t even imagine the overwhelming grief that parents must feel when they have to bury a child. Christianne Boudreau, however, has sadly endured that pain when her 22-year-old son Damian Clairmont was killed last year in Syria while fighting for ISIS. And now Boudreau wants to do everything in her power to prevent other parents from living through that same heartbreak by way of a program she has started in Canada to counter ISIS’s sales pitch.
But before we talk about her work, let me tell you a little about her son, Damien. The family lived in Calgary, Canada, where he was raised Christian. He had been a happy child but for unknown reasons changed in his teens. He was troubled, depressed, and soon dropped out of high school. But then at about 18 years old, he converted to Islam.
I know to some (especially on the right) the fact he converted to Islam would be an even more alarming sign. It was far from that. Boudreau explained to me that her son “found that the Quran spoke to him and he had found truth in it.” In fact, after her son converted, and for the next three years, Boudreau noted that Damien had returned to being the son he was before his troubles: happy, sociable, and peaceful.
But then Damien moved to another part of Calgary and joined a new mosque where he was approached by an ISIS recruiter. Therein began the path that would end up leading Damien to Aleppo, Syria, where he was reportedly executed by the Free Syrian Army.
Boudreau explained the sales pitch used by the recruiter to her son. And this may be a shock to some, but it did not involve citing tenets of Islam. Nor was the hook an anti-West diatribe about America being “the Great Satan.”
Rather, Boudreau likened the sales pitch to a recruiting effort for a gang. As her late son told her, the sales pitch involved images sent online by the ISIS recruiter that depicted Muslim men, women, and children who had been murdered, tortured, and raped by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. The recruiter told her son that he could in essence make something of himself by preventing the slaughter of other Muslims.
Boudreau would have, of course, done everything in her power to stop Damien from going to Syria if she knew where he was headed. But Damien didn’t reveal his true destination. Instead, he told her in late 2012 that he was heading to Egypt to learn Arabic at a school there. This is more plausible than it may sound to some because I have numerous Arab-American friends who have spent summers studying at the American University of Cairo doing just that.
She first became aware that her son was in Syria when members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) visited her house in 2013. Apparently, CSIS had been tracking her son for some time. Finally, Damien admitted to her the truth in one of their last phone conversations.
After that came the news that every parent fears: Her son was dead. What came next though was simply astounding. Her son’s recruiter had the audacity to contact her via an open letter posted online to try to try to convert her to Islam and join ISIS’s fight. (The recruiter had moved to Syria by then.)
After that Boudreau realized that she needed to do something to prevent the recruitment by ISIS of more sons and daughters to help achieve its mission of “greed and power.” She soon co-created, with Germany’s Daniel Koehler, the organization Hayat Canada Family Support. (Hayat means “life” in Arabic.) Koehler is the creator of a similar project in Germany. “The program is focused on coaching families to work at reconnecting their at-risk youth to help reverse the process of radicalization,” explained Boudreau.
Boudreau sees family and friends as the front line in the fight against radicalization since they can see changes in their loved ones. Her program is designed to offer assistance to people to spot the warning signs and if they see them, how best to counter ISIS’s appeal.
And now Boudreau and Koehler are on the verge of rolling out a new program next month titled “Mothers for Life.” The goal is both to be a support group for mothers who may have lost children to radicalization and to provide them with a platform to be a part of the fight in countering ISIS’s message.
Surprisingly though, these two programs have not received any support from the Canadian government. In contrast, as I saw firsthand when I attended the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism a few weeks ago, our government is working closely with the Muslim community to counter the recruitment efforts of terror groups.
Rather, the Canadian government is almost solely focused on a law enforcement response, as Boudreau noted. In fact, the Conservative Party-led Canadian government is on the verge of enacting a law similar to our own Patriot Act that would give the police and CSIS greater leeway to spy on its own people. This led to protests over the weekend in Canadian cities and strong objections by groups like Amnesty International, which say the law is so broad that it could criminalize legitimate dissenters.
The most recent estimates of the number of Canadians that have joined ISIS is about 30, although some believe it may be higher. In fact, officials at a Montreal-based college expressed concerns that five of its students may have recently joined ISIS.
If the Canadian government truly wants to prevent other of its young people from falling for the ISIS sales pitch, it should be supporting the efforts of people like Boudreau. Her efforts may just be the most effective weapon in saving other parents from the unbearable pain of having to bury one of their children.