More needs to be done to prevent homegrown extremism: anti-radicalization experts

This undated family photo provided by Christianne Boudreau shows Boudreau, left, and her son, Damian Clairmont. Clairmont, a Calgary, Canada native, was 22 when he was killed in fighting between rival groups of Islamic militants in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The efforts of a grieving Canadian mother were highlighted at a White House summit this week as an example of how to turn the tide in the online war against ISIL.


A Calgary mother whose son died fighting for a terrorist group overseas says attacks like the one in Edmonton will continue to occur if more isn’t done to inoculate Canadian communities from the threats of extremism and radicalization.

“I’m not shocked because this is happening all over, and Canada is not immune to it,” said Christianne Boudreau, whose son, Damian Clairmont, was killed while fighting alongside extremist groups in Syria in 2014.

“We have to be very conscious of it and start putting programs against the root of the problem instead of focusing on the symptoms for a week or two and then going about our daily lives.”

During the suspected terrorist attack in Edmonton Saturday, a police officer was mowed down and stabbed several times before a number of pedestrians were run down by a van in the city’s downtown. Authorities in Edmonton say they’re not looking for any other suspects, calling it a “lone wolf attack.” 

One 30-year-old man — identified by Postmedia as Abdulahi Hasan Sharif — is in police custody, facing terrorism-related charges and five charges of attempted murder. 

Calgary has had its own high-profile brushes with violent extremism, including a study group that formed in a downtown mosque that allegedly helped vault several members — Boudreau’s son among them — to join radical groups overseas.

The Edmonton attacker, however, appears to have acted alone. Authorities say the man was on the radar of Edmonton police and RCMP stemming from a 2015 complaint alleging he’d been “espousing an extremist ideology,” though there wasn’t sufficient evidence that Sharif posed a threat at the time.

After her son’s death, Boudreau was thrust into the national spotlight as an advocate determined to prevent other Canadians from following Clairmont’s path.

She launched Hayat Canada Family Support, which counsels loved ones of those who are on the path to join extremist groups, or have already joined, in the hopes of intervening and preventing violence.

Since it opened in 2014, Hayat Canada has dealt with 30 families that have been caught up in violent extremism.

“We have had contact with families across Canada, including Alberta, but we lack the resources to adequately help them,” said Alexandra Bain, executive director of the non-profit.

In an email exchange from Croatia, Bain said those who become radicals are often recruited by friends, family and increasingly strangers over the Internet “who become like family.” She has seen cases of children as young as 13 who were radicalized and ready to fight in as little as two weeks.

“Alberta has suffered more than its fair share of extremism, with significant groups from both Calgary and Edmonton leaving to fight abroad,” said Bain, adding her group has worked with a number of these families to offer the young radicals an “alternative narrative.”

“These young people were radicalized at home, and reached back to their friends in Alberta and the rest of Canada online, hoping to recruit others.”

Although authorities have not disclosed what extremist ideologies the alleged Edmonton attacker previously espoused, Bain said Islamic extremism has killed more people in the Muslim world than it has in Europe or North America.

“When you look at the statistics, Canada has far more to worry about violent extremists from the far right, like white supremacists, or neo-nazis than it does our fellow Muslim citizens,” said Bain, also a professor of religious studies at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick.

Mohamed El-Rafih, the Calgary founder of an anti-radicalization program for youth, said increasing social isolation and social media “echo chambers” are reinforcing toxic ideologies that lead to radicalization.

“When people are isolated, then we as a community don’t get to hear those grievances and concerns,” said El-Rafih, of the Centre for Excellence, an academic support and mentoring organization in northeast Calgary.

“We don’t get to hear people getting upset, and we don’t get to hear people progressing from getting upset to getting violent, and that’s what we need to disrupt.” 

El-Rafih said it’s important that youth especially learn to critically analyze the messages they encounter in the news media and on social media, and learn to respond constructively to the injustices they perceive in the world.

“If we don’t start raising a generation that is critically conscious and is able to question the information they’re being fed then there is always going to be those echo chambers and radicalization to violence,” he said.

Boudreau said there needs to be more funding and resources dedicated to the effort of combating radicalization, especially in schools. She said without more mentoring, intervention and programming, she expects further attacks in the future.

“People are going to keep getting hurt and it’s going to create much more division,” Boudreau said.

“Whenever these things happen it creates fear and that fear creates division, which creates acts of hate and violence. It’s just a vicious cycle that doesn’t need to happen.”

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