In the opening seconds of A Jihadi in the Family, a teenage Damian Clairmont smiles at the young children gathered before a gaudy spread of Halloween cookies and bowls of frosting.
A recent convert to Islam, Damian has grown a full beard, but there is nothing in his words or demeanor at the kitchen table to suggest a fatal transformation is underway. Behind the camera, his mother, Christianne Boudreau, worries only about the sweets and her children’s teeth.
More than five years later, the Calgary woman treasures that brief scene of innocence.
Damian was still young, only 22, when his mother learned from a reporter late one night that her son had been killed in Syria fighting with ISIS. The reporter wanted a picture of Damian, a.k.a. Mustafa Al-Gharib. Christianne wanted answers.
Close to 100 Canadians have gone to Syria & Iraq to fight alongside ISIS. 17 have been killed.
A Jihadi in the Family follows Christianne as she tries to find out what happened to her son, to understand how and why a much-loved boy who was born and grew up in Calgary could embrace a life of terrorism halfway around the world. She is determined to spare other mothers the same tragedy.
“I never saw it coming,” she says, echoing hundreds of mothers in Europe and North America whose children have left home to embrace a violent extremism.
A picture of Damian’s life emerges during the documentary: a toddler who gleefully pretends the laundry basket is a car, a happy-go-lucky adolescent worshipped by younger brother Luke, and a troubled teenager who tries to take his own life before finding peace in Islam.
Damian discovered Islam at 17, part of an exploration, his mother believes, into why he survived his suicide attempt. Christianne says his new faith brought meaning to Damian's life and returned the sparkle to his eyes.
“The little boy I knew came back,” she says.
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The peace didn’t last. Eventually, Damian’s personality became more rigid. He moved out of the family home and kept his new life secret. In 2013, he was among a handful of converts who left Calgary for the Middle East. Damian told his mother he was going to study Arabic in Egypt. In fact, he made his way to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
Listen to an interview with director Eileen Thalenburg about A Jihadi in the Family
Hoping to escape stigma, mother of Islamic State militant leaves Canada, update in The Globe & Mail
‘Sometimes it’s difficult to forgive yourself’: Mother of Canadian-born jihadi on coping with terrorism, interview with Christianne Boudreau from the National Post
Christianne’s quest for answers takes her to her son's imam, to experts in the radicalization of young people, and to a man who survived his own experience with extremists and became a crusader against their recruiters. She develops strong bonds with other women who’ve been shattered by the disappearance of their children into terrorism and then been shunned by their communities.
Like Christianne, none of the women had an inkling of what their children were up to. One woman’s son vanished after telling her he was going on holiday for a week. Another woman’s son said he was going to a wedding. The daughter of a third woman was such a typical teenager, with a love of music and fashion, that her mother still can’t believe she’s gone.
Saliha Ben Ali, whose son was killed four months after arriving in Syria, says that in a single year, 35 young people from her neighbourhood were recruited by extremists.
In Berlin, Christianne and Saliha attend a training session with Daniel Koehler, a renowned expert in de-programming who assures them they aren’t to blame for what happened to their kids. Families, especially mothers, are the first line of defence in counter-radicalization, be says. But with ISIS, they’re up against “the richest terrorist organization in the world, that has highly paid recruiters, headhunters, that produce propaganda material that is way above any counter-narrative that Western countries propose.”
With Koehler’s help, Christianne writes an open letter in the name of all mothers to sons and daughters who have joined extremist groups reminding them the real meaning of freedom, justice and honour. It was sent out from Mothers for Life a new international organization spearheaded by Christianne.
In France, Christianne meets Mourad Benchellali, who naively travelled to Afghanistan in 2001, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in New York. Talked into the “adventure” by a relative, the young Mourad wound up spending a summer at an al Qaeda training camp. When he tried to return home he was captured by the Americans and spent two and half years in Guantanamo. Now Mourad tells his story to young people throughout Europe in hopes they won’t fall for the narrative of recruiters.
People have urged Christianne to move on, but she says she can’t forget the son she knew and loved. And some people won’t forgive a mother who raised a terrorist. Christianne saw her accounting career collapse after her son’s story surfaced. She recently decided to move with her son, Luke to France, where her parents already live. She continues to devote much of her time to helping others pull their sons and daughters away from violent ideologies.
A Jihadi in the Family was produced by Gail McIntyre & Maryse Roubillard and directed by Eileen Thalenberg for Stormy Nights Productions.