The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
CALGARY, Alberta – Growing up, Damian Clairmont grappled with his identity. He tried various personas - he was into sports one year, then into hip-hop music the next. “He was just trying to find where he fit and it was difficult,” said his mother Christianne Boudreau.
At around 15, Clairmont became withdrawn. By 16, he dropped out of school and fell into a depression. The day after his 17th birthday, he attempted to take his own life.
A few months later, the Calgary teen converted to Islam and everything changed. His mother was relieved.
"He’d found this peace within him," said Boudreau. "I could relax. I wasn’t afraid of him attempting suicide again, I didn’t have to worry about him going off in a drunken stupor or with drugs.”
For three years, Clairmont seemed happy. He was working, moved into a new apartment and started to attend a different mosque. Shortly after, his mother said she noticed her son became more uneasy, “there was more agitation, within him. He started talking about 9/11 conspiracy theories.”
In November 2012, Clairmont told his mother he was going to study linguistics in Egypt.
Three months later, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service came knocking on his mother's door.
“I said, ‘I don’t know why you’re asking these questions. Damian’s not even in the country … He’s not here. He’s not a concern,’" Boudreau remembered. "And that’s when they said, ‘Yeah, he’s a concern. We’ve been watching him for a couple of years … We suspected that he’s actually gone to Syria, not Egypt.’”
What brings a young man from the foot of the Rockies to the battlefields of Syria? Calgary's police chief is sure of something: Recruiters are in town.
The recruiter next door
There's been a lot of focus on the ways radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL use social media to spread their message to the West. The State Department has even launched an online counteroffensive, with a Facebook page and Twitter account urging wavering jihadists to "Think Again Turn Away."
But Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson is unconvinced that a young man who stumbles across some slick propaganda can suddenly end up on a plane.
“I don’t buy into, ‘I went to the Internet, checked the Internet, liked what he said, I’m going to be radicalized, I’m going to fight like that,’” said Hanson, a 40-year veteran of the police force who's trained in counterterrorism. “You need someone pulling the strings, communicating, encouraging him, guiding him down that highway of indoctrination, so that all this normalizes in his head, and he says, ‘Yeah, you know what? I want to do this now.’”
Hanson said some members of Calgary's Muslim community have told him there are people in the city influencing these young men.
But not everyone is vulnerable to being recruited. Hanson says early intervention is key and that radicalization comes from the same place as other kinds of trouble, like gangs or drugs.
"The motivation is frequently the same,” said Hanson. “They’re alienated from mainstream and they start looking for ways they can feel part of something bigger than themselves.”
It's a familiar story to Boudreau, who said she thought her son, as a teenager, was just struggling to fit in.
“If you’re alone and the first person that comes to you and says, ‘I can help you end this loneliness,’ you’re going to jump in,” said clinical psychologist Mahdi Qasqas. "The devil himself can come and he'll say, 'Fine. You know what? I can't handle this loneliness.'"
Qasqas' organization 3OWN offers counseling and mentorship to Muslim youth. And he's one of a few Muslim leaders working with the police on crisis intervention.
"The police and our organization have the same objective," he said. "We want to reduce and prevent crime."
The motivation is frequently the same. They’re alienated from mainstream and they start looking for ways they can feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Chief Rick Hansen
Calgary Police Service
Qasqas says his organization is there to support youth through transitions in their lives – like from their teenage years to adulthood. “Sometimes what youth do, they just go quickly through these, they can’t wait to become adults … They don’t realize there are consequences.”
Hanson agrees. “There needs to be the second intervention piece,” he said. “Parents see it, family sees it, friends see it. They realize there’s something happening, but where do you turn to for that intervention and that second piece that’s being developed here now.”
Boudreau wishes she’d had that support. There were signs, she said, after he joined the new mosque.
"He wasn’t as relaxed or grounded," she said. "He started talking about other countries and the wars that they had there."
It made her uncomfortable, she said. But she assumed it was a phase.
Boudreau is now determined to help other families. She started a website based on a successful German program called Hayat Canada, originally designed to de-radicalize neo-Nazi youth. And she's now been in touch with ahandfulof women from around the world who have lost their sons to radicalism. The stories are eerily similar, she said.
“There’s no way that you could tell me that all these kids from all these countries are all saying, ‘We’re going to study in either Saudi Arabia or Egypt’ without having been coached,” she said. “That’s not a coincidence.”
When Canadian intelligence came to Boudreau’s door and she found out that her son was in Syria she confronted him over the phone. She admitted where he was but told her that he couldn't come home.
“He said he’d found where he’d belonged. He wasn’t coming home," said Boudreau. "That was going to be his new home. And he hoped he could stay in contact.”
Boudreau never heard from her son again. He was killed in Syria in January.
“If I can help just one family not live the terror, the pain, the stress, everything else that we’ve had to go through, and save one life, it’s all worth it,” she said. “I have nothing left of Damian, and the best I could do is try to do something good in his memory.”