Damian Clairmont was born in a small Nova Scotia town. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old died in Syria fighting for the Islamic State.
Damian's mother, Christianne Boudreau, had no clue how radical his ideas had become until she learned her son was in Syria working with ISIS, not in Egypt studying Arabic as he led her to believe.
His story is becoming increasingly common. As of September, the federal government said 30 Canadians like Damian had flown to Syria, and some of them had joined the Islamic State. As the political movement—which advocates violence in the name of extreme religious views—gains strength both abroad and at home, Boudreau is pushing for programs that would de-radicalize formerly peaceful Muslims like her son.
Damian spent his first six years in a French Acadian fishing village in Nova Scotia. He was a curious, bright child who taught himself to read by age four. In 1997, his family moved to Alberta. It wasn't until his teenage years that Boudreau told VICE, "we started to run into problems."
At 14, Damian dropped out of school. He became reclusive and depressed. His mother tried to get him counselling, but found mental health resources expensive and hard to access. "I kept beating my head basically against a brick wall trying to get him help," she said.
Then, the day before his 17th birthday, Damian left a note for his family and vanished. Boudreau later found him in hospital. He had attempted suicide. Soon after, he converted to Islam, which seemed to address his depression.
"It was relief because he was getting out of the house," Damian's mother recalled. "He was calm, he wasn't using drugs, he wasn't drinking, he was integrating with the family well again, and it looked like he was getting better."
For three years, Islam was a solution. "He was looking for that thing, that fulfillment, that purpose, and he found something that spoke to him and resonated within him."
But in early 2011, his ideas began to morph. "It was gradual, very gradual," his mother said.
Before, he didn't drink, but now he wouldn't come to dinner if wine was on the table. He began spouting 9/11 conspiracy theories and declaring that Western media was covering stuff up and lying. He decided a man should have more than one wife so that he would be "better looked after." He spoke about how Canada wasn't doing enough in Syria to help women and children who were being tortured. Boudreau believes it was the humanitarian in him that drew him overseas.
Damian's conversion to Islam in 2009 was triggered by an argument with a Muslim classmate about the role of women in Islam, according to another Canadian ISIS fighter and blogger who goes by Abu Muhajir. The two met in a Calgary Tim Hortons near their mosque, and later travelled together to Syria.
Abu Muhajir said he gave Damian a book called The Evidence for the Ruling Regarding Alliance with the Infidels, which he called "a great compilation of verses from Quran and Hadith that clearly shows the apostasy of those who ally with disbelievers against their own Muslim brethren."
Boudreau believed the shift in Damian's views were only a phase, and that he would eventually settle into a moderate mindset. "I kick myself now, but I didn't know what I know now back then."
Suddenly, in late 2012, Damian boarded a plane. He had spoken of going to Cairo to study Arabic, but his mother didn't think he would actually leave Canada. Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) later told her Damian flew to Istanbul, not Cairo, and travelled southeast through Turkey into Syria.
There he teamed up with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, fighting alongside other foreigners like himself. In June 2013, Damian joined the Islamic State. Boudreau said he settled in an ISIS-infiltrated town, Hraytan, outside Aleppo. She last heard from her son over Facebook in early September 2013. In January 2014 the Free Syrian Army reportedly captured and killed Damian.
A reporter at the Globe and Mail called her to ask about a tweet by Abu Muhajir. "It was a picture of Damian alongside a eulogy," his mother said. A CBC producer then confirmed Damian's death through a reliable source in Syria who had known him.
Since Damian's death, Boudreau has connected with a German de-radicalization group called Hayat. The organization connects families with counselling, provides risk assessments for young Muslims who are becoming radical in their views, and coaches families on how to react. Boudreau is fundraising for a new branch of the organization, Hayat Canada.
If Damian had accessed Hayat's services, or talked to a moderate imam scholar, he may have been coaxed away from his violent inclinations, his mother said.
Jamal Badawi, a former religious studies professor who gives talks rebutting what he calls the Islamic State's "twisted theology," said ISIS is successfully targeting young westerners like Damian, both online and in person. They are "quite savvy with the cyberspace," he said.
Badawi agrees with Boudreau; if a young Muslim is becoming radicalized, it's helpful if a knowledgeable imam has a "quiet conversation" with them.
"I would have loved to speak with him, whether he would have been convinced or not," he said. "But at least I think I had quite a bit to offer if he was willing to listen."
Extremism can arise out of misinterpretations of the Quran and the Hadith, Badawi explained. Muslims can also be moved by injustices against people of their faith, as in Damian's case. Young people especially have great compassion toward human suffering, and may conclude they have to act. Mental illness can play a role, but it's difficult to connect radicalization to any one particular source, Badawi said.
At the time Damian's ideas were shifting, Boudreau believes an intervention like Hayat could have saved him.
"If I had had connections to those resources back then, they could have assisted me in the dialogues to have with him based on what he was saying," she said.
So far, the federal government hasn't offered her any financial backing.
"Nobody in the government is doing anything, so somebody has to, because this can't happen to anyone else," she said.
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