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 killed 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 programmes to prevent and even reverse radicalisation. Initiatives include school counseling, emergency hotlines and even programmes to help find jobs for returning jihadists.
The West has grappled with radicalisation 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 who had fought in Syria was arrested in France on suspicion of shooting four 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 approaching the problem pre-emptively.”
Bozay runs a project called Wegweiser, which means ‘signpost’ in German. It seeks to prevent radicalisation among Muslim teenagers in the city, which has a large Islamic community, with the help of schools, families, religious leaders and job centres. Besides Bochum, there are two Wegweiser centres in Bonn and Duesseldorf.
The centres 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 try to offer solutions that steer youths away from fundamentalism.
The centres, 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. They number around 6,000 in Germany.
“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 many 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. “We were never made aware that this type of issue was a problem in Canada,” she rued.
Two years ago, Germany launched a telephone hotline for people worried their friends or relatives might be turning to radical Islam. It is operated by the government, but callers are referred to the four civil groups that handle the actual 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 was launched in 2011. Based in Berlin, it has grown out of a long-running project aimed at helping far-right extremists leave the neo-Nazi scene. Founder Bernd Wagner, a 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.
“We saw a parallel between Islamism and the far right,” Wagner said, adding that the group has helped some 528 people quit the far-right scene and de-radicalised dozens of Muslims.
Unlike its far-right programme, Hayat doesn’t work directly with Islamic radicals — saying they are more hardened to persuasion from outside. “We try to use the family,” Wagner said.
A typical example will involve a family that contacts Hayat before a relative travels to Syria. The counselors then focus on helping the family convince him, or her, to stay home.
In more serious cases, the call comes after a family finds a farewell letter from a loved one who has already left. Hayat counselor Daniel Koehler and his team then coach the family in how to re-establish contact, with the aim of bringing the person back home.
Demand is huge, said Koehler.
“The most important thing is to avoid reacting to provocation,” said Koehler. “We encourage the family to connect with their son or daughter on an emotional level.”
In one Skype call, Koehler said, a mother opposed her son’s attempts to get approval for a suicide attack in Syria, prompting him to launch into a lengthy religious diatribe. “After an hour, the family asked him how he was, whether he was eating, and so forth. He just calmed down completely,” said Koehler. Since then the son has become less radical and contacts his family regularly.
Hayat alone has had 83 cases over the past three years, 63 of which are still active. Apart from Canada, the group has received inquiries from Austria, Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands. Koehler said that in about 30 cases, a “clear de-radicalisation” has taken place. At least 18 cases involved people considered to be serious security risks, either because they planned to travel or had been to Syria, or because they were suspected of planning domestic terrorism.
Koehler and his team take care to reassure callers that their concerns will be treated confidentially, unless there is an immediate danger. “With cases related to Syria,” he said, “we’ve had several parents say they are grateful if security services step in.”
Boudreau wishes that had happened in her son’s case. She travelled recently to Europe to meet Koehler and see whether Hayat’s programme can be imitated in Canada. Hayat will start a pilot programme in London and the Netherlands later this year.
“Canada will be facing a large number of returnees considering it is very easy to come back home and cross the very large border into the US, which is where I feel they really want to get to,” she said.