Chris Boudreau’s son Damian told her over dinner on a November evening in 2012 that he was going to Egypt to study Arabic, the language of Islam.
She never saw him again.
“He flew to Seattle, then Amsterdam, then into Istanbul,” said Boudreau. “There was a training camp just outside the city where radicals train prior to crossing the border into Syria.”
Fourteen months later, the 22-year-old Canadian convert to Islam was dead, apparently killed in fighting between rival groups of Islamic militants in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Boudreau was left to wonder what she could have done to stop her son from becoming a jihadi foot soldier. For answers she’s turning to Europe, where authorities are increasingly using outreach programs to prevent and even reverse radicalization. Initiatives include school counseling, emergency hotlines and even programs to help find jobs for returning jihadists.
The West has grappled with preventing radicalization since 9/11, when a Hamburg terror cell emerged as a key force in the attacks. The conflict in Syria, where thousands of Westerners are believed to be fighting, has added urgency to the challenge. In May, a 29-year-old man who had fought in Syria was arrested in France on suspicion of shooting dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
“So far, as a society we’ve only reacted when it was too late,” said Kemal Bozay, the son of Turkish immigrants in the city of Bochum. “This is the first time we’re approach the problem pre-emptively.”
Bozay runs a project called Wegweiser, which means ‘signpost’ in German. It seeks to prevent radicalization among Muslim teenagers in the city, which has a large Islamic community, with the help of schools, families, religious leaders and job centers. Besides Bochum, there are two Wegweiser centers in Bonn and Duesseldorf — all three aimed at engaging troubled youths before they fall into radical Islam.
The centers send out social workers who intervene when they see recruiters approaching teenagers on playgrounds, football fields and school yards, or when they carry out Islamic conversions on market squares. The workers engage the youths in conversation and try to offer solutions that steer them away from fundamentalism.
The centers, which were launched in April, have the backing of the security service in Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia. The state has seen a jump in the number of Salafists, adherents of an extreme fundamentalist version of Islam that has authorities worried. Their numbers have grown to 6,000 in Germany, according to official figures, with 1,800 in North-Rhine Westphalia alone.
“Salafism is a lifestyle package for young people because it offers them social warmth, a simple black-and-white view of the world, recognition by their peer group — basically everything they lack in real life,” said Burkhard Freier, who heads the state’s domestic intelligence service.
Most of those drawn to fundamentalism in the West are the children or grandchildren of Muslim immigrants, but a sizable number of Islamic radicals are converts like Boudreau’s son, Damian Clairmont, who found religion at 17 after battling depression.
Initially Islam appeared to help Clairmont. “He became very peaceful, calm and happy again,” said Boudreau. But as time passed her son became more fundamentalist in his beliefs. “We were never made aware that this type of issue was a problem in Canada,” she said. “Nor did we really understand anything about radicalization or foreign fighters.”
Two years ago, Germany launched a national telephone hotline for people worried that their friends or relatives might be turning to radical Islam. It is funded and operated by the government, but callers are quickly referred to one of four civil groups that handle the actual case work.
So far, the hotline has received more than 900 calls, resulting in 250 cases, says Florian Endres of Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Each week two or three more are added.
One of the groups is Hayat, which means “life” in Arabic and launched in 2011. Based in Berlin, it has grown out of a long-running project aimed at helping far-right extremists leave the neo-Nazis scene. Founder Bernd Wagner, a burly former police investigator, felt authorities focused too much on locking up extremists — failing to properly address what draws young people to violent ideologies in the first place.