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The Warning Signs Of Radicalization: A Parent's Guide


How does a normal seeming middle-class American college student get tangled up with ISIS? We're going to dig a little deeper with Christianne Boudreau. She's co-founder of Mothers for Life. It's an international support for parents of children who have been radicalized by terrorist groups. Boudreau's own son Damian ran off from their home in Calgary to join ISIS fighters in Syria. He died two years ago near Aleppo. He was just 22. She spoke to me from Eymet, France, where her family lives now. And I asked her if the case in Mississippi is typical.

CHRISTIANNE BOUDREAU: I don't think there's any one particular pattern. I think the biggest part of it is a lot of people don't see it coming. They think they may be immune to it or a community might be immune to it, and they don't realize what's going on underneath the surface. And that's most likely what happens. A lot of these kids are very intelligent. They've been athletic, popular in school, whatever the case may be. It doesn't mean that they're immune from this type of thing.

KELLY: Tell us about how things unfolded for your son Damian.

BOUDREAU: Well, in his case he converted in 2008 after suffering a severe bout of depression. He had an attempted suicide and survived it and wasn't supposed to. So once he survived that, it was his understanding that there was deeper meaning to it. And that's when he started researching religion again. He had stopped coming to church with us when he was about 14 or 15 years old. And then he started looking at other faiths.

KELLY: It sounds as though at first his conversion to Islam struck you as a positive thing. He was a boy who'd had troubles and this was something that seemed like a positive influence in his life.

BOUDREAU: It was very positive. He had cut himself off of society basically prior to that, didn't socialize with people outside the home, wasn't working, wasn't going to school. To see him all of a sudden go from that depression to being really grounded, happy, a social life again, working - he was back to his old self. He was my little boy all over again.

KELLY: And when did you first start hearing anything about ISIS or have any idea of what was going on?

BOUDREAU: At that time, nobody ever heard of ISIS. Looking back, now that I have knowledge and researched everything to death, we could see the changes. There were some aggravated behaviors. He was cutting himself off from his usual group of friends - but back then didn't even have an indication of what that would mean. I had never heard of any of these extremist groups nor would I ever suspect that that would be something that would reach Canada of all places.

KELLY: So as his story unfolded, he left Calgary. He told you he was going to Egypt to study. In fact, he had gone to Syria, is that correct?

BOUDREAU: That's correct. What I learned was in January of 2013 - at the end of January, I received a phone call from the Secret Intelligence Service. They paid a visit, and they said that they were talking about Damian. And I said well, Damian's gone to Egypt, so he's not even a concern right now. And they said well, in fact, we've been wanting for almost two years along with another group of young men. And we suspect that he's actually gone to Turkey to a training camp and may have already crossed the border into Syria to fight with a terrorist organization.

KELLY: Did you say that Canadian intelligence told you they had been watching your son for two years?

BOUDREAU: Almost two years. That's correct.

KELLY: When did you get news that your son had been killed?

BOUDREAU: I didn't hear anything until January of 2014 when a journalist contacted me late in the evening. He was looking for a recent photograph of my son to compare it to a eulogy tweet he had received.

KELLY: I'm so sorry. Losing a son in such circumstances, I can't imagine the pain. And yet you have turned this into a positive thing in your life by starting this group Mothers for Life, trying to help others maybe in a similar situation. Why did you decide that that was the right way to move forward?

BOUDREAU: Well, I didn't know what the right way was at the time. There were so many unanswered questions. And I think that's the first thing most parents do is start searching for those answers. It's what you do. They're your child. And in the process, I realized how alone I'd been and that we weren't getting any help or support and it was difficult. And that's what led me in the direction.

KELLY: As you talk to other parents, is there specific advice you have as they're watching their children perhaps turn in a radical direction?

BOUDREAU: Well, I think the first thing is they have to realize that sometimes it's not going to be staring them in the face. They have to look for other indicators. So whether it would be an agitation, they start becoming anxious in some way. There's a lot of similarities in somebody who's going through depression that may be on the verge of suicide, any changes in social structure - different friends all of a sudden. It's those subtle hints that they have to look for.

KELLY: How is your family doing now, if I may ask?

BOUDREAU: We struggle. I mean, we made a big move leaving Canada to come here to France to evade some of the stigma and try to put the pieces back together. When we need that space to grieve, we have it now where we didn't have it before. So things are starting to come together, but there will always be those questions that will be able to answer. We don't have a body. We don't have a death certificate, so closure's not something that's very simple. But at least I'm closer to a lot of the other families I work with as well.

KELLY: Well, thank you for sharing your story, and we wish you luck in your work.

BOUDREAU: Thanks so much.

KELLY: That's Christianne Boudreau. She's co-founder of Mothers for Life, an international support group for parents of children who've been radicalized. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.