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.
CALGARY — 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 — 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, â€˜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 — her kind-hearted, curious, goofy boy — 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 â€¦ 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, â€˜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 — and in particular the Canadian government — 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 — a date Boudreau remembers because it was the day after her daughter's 10th birthday — 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.
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 â€¦ 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?"