Her Son Joined ISIS And Never Came Back

An estimated 4,500 Westerners have joined ISIS so far – leaving behind devastated parents who never saw the signs of radicalization. Here's one story from Canada.

Christianne Boudreau and her son Damian Clairmont
Christianne Boudreau and her son Damian Clairmont
Alexandra Bradford

CALGARY â€" Christianne Boudreau was standing in her garage, braving the cold Calgary night to finish her cigarette, when the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number on the caller I.D. Thinking it could be her 22-year-old son Damian Clairmont calling from Syria, she quickly answered. But the voice on the other end of the line was not Damian’s â€" it was a reporter. “He asked me for a current picture of Damian,” Boudreau says. “I told him he should just use the one Damian has as his profile picture on Facebook. But the reporter sighed and said, ‘Never mind, that’s the same picture ISIS has just used in your son’s eulogy.’” Then he hung up.

That was how Boudreau learned her son was dead.

It had been just over a year since two agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had arrived on Boudreau’s doorstep and shattered her world by telling her that Damian â€" her kind-hearted, curious, goofy boy â€" was fighting with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

“They walked into my house and started questioning me,” she says. “They asked if I knew where he was.”

Boudreau had told the agents what she thought to be true: her son was studying Arabic in Egypt. But the agents corrected her, telling her what, in her heart, she had feared, but didn’t want to believe. “Damian was actually in Turkey, at an ISIS training camp, learning how to fight and preparing to make his way to Syria to join the terror group,” she says.

An estimated 4,500 Westerners have traveled to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq to join the terror group, according to a report by the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. That means thousands of parents across the West who have had to deal with the pain of losing a child to radicalization. But when Boudreau discovered that her son had joined ISIS, she found herself alone and isolated. There was nowhere she could go for support, nobody she could speak to who had experienced “the same tragic story” as she had.

As a child, Damian was “inquisitive … he loved science and history and he loved to read biographies of important historical figures,” Boudreau says. He was also known for being compassionate. “Damian always cared about the underdog,” his mother says. “He always wanted to protect people and be friends with those in school who were bullied or who didn’t have friends.”

When asked where Damian’s protective nature might have come from, Boudreau pauses, tears running down her cheeks. “I think he felt a need to protect people because he spent his childhood protecting me,” she says.

When Damian was a child, Boudreau had an abusive partner. “Damian took a lot of it abuse on my behalf and tried to protect me as much as he could,” which he would do “by hiding the bruises on his body,” she says.

Stuck with him

Boudreau went to the police and begged them to take her and her children to a shelter. Instead, she says, they told Boudreau’s partner that as “an adult he should know better” and left. The abuse continued.

Boudreau and her children were finally able to escape, but she says the apathy of authorities who wouldn’t help her family was something that “stuck with Damian into his adulthood.” He became depressed and, when he was 17, tried to kill himself by drinking antifreeze.

“The doctors didn’t think he would survive; they told me to call my family so they could say goodbye to him,” Boudreau says. Damian pulled through, and spent the period following his suicide attempt searching for a purpose to his life. Then he found Islam.

Boudreau, who was born in Toronto and grew up in a small French-Acadian fishing village in Nova Scotia, had raised her children as Christians: They attended the United Church of Canada every Sunday. But Damian “struggled with the hypocrisy” he saw in the practicing Christians around him, she says.

In Islam, he found what he felt was a more honest relationship with God. “It spoke to his heart,” says Boudreau.

And it did him good. “He found a new group of friends at the mosque and he became more involved with the family,” says Boudreau. “I was happy he became a Muslim. He stopped hiding, stopped blocking himself from the world.”

Three years after Damian’s conversion, he moved across town and began attending a mosque closer to his new home. Boudreau says this is when she started to notice a change in him. “He was introduced to people who were stricter, and this opened him up to other ideas because he wanted to be an even better Muslim,” she says.

Damian started talking to Boudreau about the abuses Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was inflicting on the Syrian people. “He would say to me, ‘Mom, Assad is allowing women to be raped. He is killing thousands of people and no one is helping.’” He was upset that the West â€" and in particular the Canadian government â€" were not intervening.

Looking back, Boudreau says she was concerned, but never considered that Damian’s anger towards Assad would morph into extremism. “If I had seen the signs of his radicalization, I could have done something,” she says. “I would have stopped him.”

On November 12, 2012 â€" a date Boudreau remembers because it was the day after her daughter’s 10th birthday â€" Damian called his mother to tell her he was sitting on a plane on his way to Egypt to study Arabic. “I begged him not to go,” she says. She spent the rest of that day crying. “I felt sick and shaky, I knew something wasn’t right.”

No way to cope

But even, later, when the two CSIS agents showed up to confirm her worst fears, Boudreau found it hard to believe that her son had lied to her, that he was fighting with ISIS. “I couldn’t imagine him being there in Syria holding a gun and hurting people,” she says.

Like so many mothers who lose their children to radicalization, Boudreau had no support; no one to help her cope with her new, tragic reality. The CSIS banned her from telling anyone that Damian had joined ISIS, and so she spent her days pretending everything was fine.

But it wasn’t. “I was glued to my phone. I was always waiting for him to call me,” she says. “If I took a shower, I would take my phone into the bathroom with the volume on loud so that I could hear it ring. If was in a meeting at work, I would leave my phone on the table in front of me and spend the entire meeting starting at it so that I wouldn’t miss a call from him.”

The nights were even worse. After she put her daughter and other son to bed, Boudreau would spend hours in front of the computer, her face up close to the monitor as she watched streams of videos of ISIS fighters on YouTube, looking for a glimpse of her son. Then she would scroll through the eulogies of ISIS fighters who had recently died in battle, hoping Damian was not among them. “I just needed to know that he was still alive,” she says.

A few times, Damian called to tell her he was okay and eventually admitted that he was in Syria. “He was very vague with the tasks he was doing, other than saying they were mundane and boring,” she says. “The main reason he was there, as he explained to me, was to save the women and children from Bashar al-Assad.”

When the CSIS first came to question Boudreau, she learned that they had been tracking Damian for two years, even putting him on their terrorism watch list. But they had failed to stop him from getting a new passport two months before he left for Syria. “How could they have allowed him to get on a plane bound for the Middle East?” Boudreau says, her voice raised, tears in her eyes.

Boudreau took that question to her local member of parliament, who was also parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs at the time. The only reply she got was that her questions were “too difficult and complicated to answer,” she says.

Trying to deal with Damian’s radicalization in secret was hard enough for Boudreau. But when he died and the press connected her to the killed Canadian ISIS fighter, Boudreau’s personal tragedy became a public scandal.

With news about Damian making headlines, Boudreau was branded “the mother of the terrorist.” On one occasion, she says, someone told her that “I should die because it was my fault that Damian became the terrorist he was.” Boudreau admits that the public reaction was “painful,” but says she understands it comes from fear. If her son, an ordinary boy from Canada, could become radicalized, then no one’s child was safe.

Deep doubts

After reducing her work hours as an accountant so she and her children could mourn Damian’s death, Boudreau tried to return to full-time work only to find there were no openings at the company she worked for, or anywhere else. Unable to support her family in Canada, she had to move to her parent’s house in France, where she now lives in their basement. “I am now in serious debt, with no work … not knowing what tomorrow will bring,” she says.

What Boudreau does know, though, is that she is not alone in having lost a child to a terror group. And, like her, there are other mothers who get no help coping with their pain, grief and confusion. “We were turned away from any assistance in Canada,” she says. “That’s when I realized that no one was working towards change.”

In 2015, Boudreau was introduced by a mutual friend to Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies. The two went on to form Mothers for Life, a worldwide organization that connects mothers who have lost family members to radicalization. “We are able to share memories and photographs without any judgement. Just lots of love,” she says.

This summer, Mothers for Life linked up with London-based think tank Quilliam to create FATE, a network across Europe and North Africa that brings together families and organizations to prevent radicalization and fight back against terrorist groups. Boudreau’s hope is that FATE will help encourage people, organizations and governments to build systems that support families like hers and help children like Damian before it’s too late. “Being able to have a hand in solutions to stop other children from following the same path gives a lot of us strength to face another day,” she says.

According to a Facebook post by an ISIS fighter, Damian was executed by the Syrian opposition group Free Syrian Army. Every day, Boudreau thinks about her son’s final moments. “I will always wonder if he was scared,” she says. “Did he wish I was there holding his hand?”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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