Nov 10, 2014

Parents of extremists urged to come out of shadows and help fight radicalization

Montreal gazette
Douglas Quan
October 23, 2014
Your child has turned into a violent extremist, now what?

Susan Bibeau, whose son Michael Zehaf-Bibeau terrorized the nation’s capital in an assault on Parliament Hill, said in a statement this week that she and her husband had “no explanation” for their son’s actions and “very little insight to offer.” She begged for privacy.

But a grassroots movement emerging in Canada and abroad is trying to encourage the seemingly hapless parents of radicalized individuals to not retreat into the shadows but to be part of the solution.

Calgary’s Christianne Boudreau, whose son Damian Clairmont was killed fighting alongside Islamic State fighters in Syria, is hoping to launch an international support group for parents whose children have either died on the battlefield or whose children are heading down the path of radicalization. Similar groups have formed across Europe.

“Who can understand what you’re still struggling through than someone else who has lived it?” Boudreau said. There’s great comfort in being able to “express yourself and know that other person won’t judge you.”

The picture that emerged this week of Zehaf-Bibeau, the gunman who fatally wounded a soldier at the National War Memorial before being killed in a gunfight in Parliament’s Centre Block, was that of a troubled man with a history of violence, drugs and mental instability. Police said the 32-year-old Muslim convert may have held “extremist beliefs” and was looking to acquire a passport to go to Syria.

Susan Bibeau said that her son was “lost and did not fit in” and that she had been estranged from him for more than five years. “I have very little insight to offer,” she told The Associated Press. “We don’t wish to be part of any media circus, we don’t think it will add anything to the conversation.”

Boudreau said she understands the desire to want to just slink away. “There’s the guilt, the hurt, the pain, the disappointment and the barrage of questions you’re left with unanswered. It’s going to take her time to process that,” she said.

Boudreau, who learned in January that her 22-year-old son had died in rebel fighting in Syria, said she had to endure the pain of not only losing her son but also the frustration of not getting answers from Canadian intelligence officials about her son’s case. There were also taunts online and accusations that she should bear some of the blame.

It was a “lonely, dark, troubling, emotional” road, she said.
Earlier this year, the part-time accountant launched a Facebook page, Support for Families Touched by Violent Extremism, with the aim of connecting with “other families that have experienced the same pain.”

Now, she is hoping to launch an international support network for mothers of radicalized children. Her partner in the venture is Dominique Bons, a mother in Toulouse, France, whose 30-year-old son Nicolas similarly died while fighting with Islamic State militants in Syria.

Feeling frustrated that she had nowhere to turn for help, Bons formed a support group for parents of radicalized children called “Syrien ne bouge, agissons,” which translates into, “If nothing is changing, let’s act” and is a play on words on the French for Syrian.  After reading a Reuters news story about Bons, Boudreau, who had had no luck reaching any Canadian parents, knew she had to connect with her.

“I have a huge bond with her. She’s an amazing woman. She is so strong and so empowering,” Boudreau said.

They are hoping to go public with a website in November. Similar networks have formed in other parts of Europe. Austrian-based Sisters Against Violent Extremism trains mothers to detect and prevent radicalization in their children. In Belgium, parents whose children have taken up arms in Syria have formed the Concerned Parents Collective.

A mother in that group, whose 23-year-old son left for Syria in 2013, told the Paris-based news channel France 24 earlier this year that her son had just finished a music album. “We didn’t think he was about to leave us. … Our children have been manipulated from the outside.”

In the meantime, Boudreau has also been busy getting ready for the launch of the Canadian chapter of an overseas de-radicalization program called Hayat. Hayat, which means “life” in Arabic, is an offshoot of the Berlin-based EXIT program, which provides help to Germans trying to leave the neo-Nazi movement.

According to its promotional materials, the program partners with non-governmental groups, psychologists and experts in Islamic extremism to counsel families who are concerned about someone who has become radicalized.

Muhammad Robert Heft, a Toronto-based de-radicalization counsellor and RCMP community outreach liaison, said he thinks grassroots initiatives like the ones being developed by Boudreau deserve more government support.

There are a lot of Canadian parents who are “sitting in limbo,” probably feeling a mix of guilt and shame, and completely confounded by their child’s sudden radicalization but uncertain who to turn to for help, he said. If police get involved, that can sometimes cause the child to feel cornered and just inflame their anger.

Sometimes a community person is a better choice for intervention, he said, to help channel their anger in a more constructive way.

“You have to bring them back down to earth. They’re in the clouds.”