Son died fighting for ISIS, mom wants to fight propaganda

Story highlights

  • Damian Clairmont left Canada to go fight alongside ISIS
  • He was killed in Syria last year during fighting
  • His mother now works to help fight extremist propaganda online

Ottawa (CNN)Christianne Boudreau's voice wavers slightly as she recounts how her little boy became an ISIS militant. Every word seems tinged with anger and regret, but most of all, purpose.

The process of radicalization is gradual and persuasive, she said. And deadly. Her son, who joined ISIS's ranks in Syria, was killed in fighting there more than a year ago.
"It's so easy for them to get to our children, to access our children," she said.
    Boudreau's son, Damian Clairmont, converted to Islam after a troubling period in high school in Calgary, Canada.
    The mother remembers her son's religion bringing him peace. She didn't suspect anything when Clairmont told her he was leaving for Egypt to study Arabic.
    In reality, the 22-year-old was in Syria alongside ISIS fighters. He was killed during fighting near Aleppo in January 2014. (Aleppo was considered Syria's most dangerous city at the time, with intense fighting between government forces, rebels, and ISIS militants).
    How did her boy -- the one in photos kneeling by a Christmas tree, or shirtless and raking leaves as a child, or sitting in a laundry basket as a toddler -- end up losing his life fighting for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East?
    Boudreau is now lending her support and voice to two organizations trying to combat radicalization. Hayat Canada and ExtremeDialogue.org are two new online resources for parents, teachers and communities to help counter extremist messages and recruitment.
    "The way a lot of it happens is one main recruiter plants the ideology in their mind and the Internet reinforces that with the information that they can search up and other contacts that they can make easily online," Boudreau said.
    Her message boils down to this, something reminiscent of anti-drug ads: Talk to your kids about ISIS before they do.
    "We need to start arming ourselves with the knowledge, the awareness, the education, and to be able to deal with these issues and be able to speak with our children at an early age," Boudreau said. "We do the same thing with sex education, with drugs, and this is just one more thing that our kids are faced with, a challenge."
    The lack of understanding and resources available to families like hers was devastating, she said.
    She was especially afraid for Clairmont's younger siblings.
    "We were living in a really desperate black hole of trauma and we didn't know how to heal from it, and I was terrified that the anger would burn within them and not being able to cope with this type of trauma and that they would follow the same path," she said.
    While growing up in Calgary, in Alberta province, Boudreau remembers her son as a cuddly, warm and compassionate little boy. That changed in high school, when he experienced problems with peers and became withdrawn.
    He attempted suicide just after his 17th birthday, his mother said. After his recovery he converted to Islam.
    "I saw some positive changes start to happen. He became social again. The old Damian that I knew when he was younger, much younger, was starting to come out. He was socializing, he was peaceful, he was grounded, he wasn't drinking, he wasn't using drugs, there were lots of positive changes," Boudreau said.
    But that changed when Clairmont moved out on his own, changed mosques and sought out more and more radical content online, his mother said.
    What Boudreau learned is while youths can become radicalized online, there is nothing to counter it or to provoke questions about what they are being told.
    "In fact, what's out there is only something that can reinforce those ideas so we really need to start challenging the ideologies that are being placed in their minds," Boudreau said.
    Canadian security officials came to her door in 2013, breaking the news that Clairmont was suspected of being a militant and was likely in Syria, not in Egypt.
    The next time she spoke on the phone with Clairmont, she confronted her son and he admitted that he was in Syria.
    "He was compelled to go there to help save women and children to stop the torture, to stop Bashar al-Assad and that's what drew him there and as he told me, 'I'm finally doing something productive in my life, mum,' " Boudreau said.
    She says her son was further brainwashed in Syria and the he eventually sided with ISIS, believing they were the stronger group and he was more likely to survive fighting for them.
    Boudreau wishes the Canadian government had the power then to do what it is doing now: Confiscate passports of Canadians suspected of communicating with terrorists.
    She wants the government to go even further, to detain and provide counseling and help to those being indoctrinated in extremism.
    There are families, she says, that are desperate as they see their children being drawn by jihadist propaganda.
    "The biggest problem we have is that parents -- a lot of the time -- want to be able to place the blame somewhere else," she said. "We want think that our children are safe and it could never happen to us. It's always going to happen to somebody else. That's a big mistake we all make as parents."