TORONTO—Christianne Boudreau was at her wits’ end when I first spoke to her in June 2013. Her son Damian Clairmont, a bright but emotionally troubled 21-year-old, had left Canada the previous November. A Muslim convert, he had said he wanted to study Arabic in Cairo.
But then a pair of Canadian intelligence officers came to Mrs. Boudreau’s townhouse in Calgary and broke the news: Damian was not in Egypt, he was in Syria. “I had no idea,” she said. “I was totally oblivious to it. You’re in Canada, you think everything’s safe and fine here.”
After a week that saw two members of the Canadian Forces killed in separate terrorist attacks carried out by men who, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, claimed responsibility for their actions in the name of their extremist beliefs, few Canadians are feeling that way anymore.
Canada’s awakening began on the morning of Oct. 20, when Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, an online supporter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria, waited for two hours at a strip mall near a military training center in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, before running down two soldiers with his Nissan Altima, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53.
Chased by police, Couture-Rouleau called 911 and claimed the attack in the name of Allah before flipping his car into a ditch. He was shot dead as he came at officers with a knife. The RCMP said later he was “known” to them; they had seized his passport in July as he was trying to leave for Turkey, the transit country for foreign fighters on their way to Syria.
In Ottawa two days later, Michael Zehaf Bibeau, 32, opened fire on reservists standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. He then ran into the nearby Parliament buildings, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper was chairing a caucus meeting, before being fatally shot by Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, a former Mountie.
While Zehaf Bibeau’s mother said her son was a mentally unbalanced drug addict, “an unhappy person at odds with the world,” the RCMP said he had left behind a video recording in which, appearing “lucid” and “purposeful,” he said his attack was conducted in the name of Allah and a response to Canadian foreign policy.
If the attacks shocked many Canadians out of their sense of invulnerability, they shouldn’t have. Canadian police and intelligence have disrupted three major terror plots over the past eight years, most recently in April 2013 — all by Islamist extremists who believed Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan was an assault on their faith.
Months before last week’s violence, government officials had been warning that the rise of ISIS had bred a new generation of extremists who wanted to do Canada harm. Shortly before the attacks, the nation’s threat level had been raised and legislation had been drafted to give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service greater powers to track foreign fighters.
About 50 extremists have left Canada for Syria and surrounding countries, according CSIS. Another 90 or so have been identified as “high-risk travellers” who remain in Canada but have become radicalized to the point they want to travel to the region. Together with about 130 active in extremist groups elsewhere in the world and 80 “returnees,” it is a significant number — although not anything like what the United Kingdom and Germany are experiencing.
For some discontented youths, ISIS offers an appealing escape from reality. Spread across the country, Canada’s ISIS followers are young and, thanks largely to the Internet and social media, quick to radicalize. They see Canada as a place of sin and ISIS as their promised land. Many are converts who have little experience with Islamic teachings.
Once they buy into the simplistic ISIS worldview, their self-image seems to transform. They are no longer Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a chubby Somali-Canadian movie theatre popcorn vendor and small-time dope dealer from Calgary. They become, in Shirdon’s case, “Abu Usama,” a fighter who posed for selfies with his AK-47 and recorded videos threatening to terrorize the world.
Damian Clairmont had dropped out of school at age 14 and converted after swallowing a bottle of anti-freeze in a failed suicide attempt. In Syria, according to fellow jihadists, he joined the Al Nusrah Front and when it fractured, he went with ISIS. After meeting his mother, I began to speak with him, first on the phone, then over the Internet.
Over time, he opened up a bit, although only to justify the decisions he had made. He spoke about the afterlife and joked about the weather. “The ski masks here usually aren’t for the cold,” he wrote. He spoke about Canada as a place of evildoers wasting their lives in the pursuit of triviality, living in a delusion of freedom and democracy, too dumb to realize that the only thing was to serve God.
It was clear he had fallen into a very deep hole. He would occasionally contact his mother but she no longer recognized him. He wasn’t her son anymore. After not hearing from him for weeks, I sent him a message asking if he was still alive. He responded that he was “still waiting” for martyrdom. A month later he was killed in Aleppo during a clash between rival rebel factions.
The flow of Canadian youths to Syria prompted the RCMP to step up efforts to stop them. Police seized their passports and worked with their families and communities to talk them down from their fanaticism. But that has resulted in a new type of threat, which Canada experienced last week: seething anti-Western extremists trapped in Canada, who decide to strike at home instead.
Testifying before the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence on Monday, Michael Peirce, the CSIS Assistant Director Intelligence, said the danger Canada faced was not an ISIS-orchestrated plot but rather “individuals being radicalized and encouraged to action.”
Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, no doubt had that in mind when he released an audio recording on Sept. 21 imploring his followers to kill Canadians and their allies. If unable to kill them, he said, spit in their faces. Analysts believe the Quebec attack at least was a response to ISIS propaganda that, according to Mubin Shaikh, a former undercover agent who helped stop terror plots in Toronto and Ottawa in 2006, “has awakened the zombies.” It has also roused something much more powerful: Canadians.
Stewart Bell is Senior Reporter at Canada’s National Post newspaper and the author of three nonfiction books, most recently Bayou of Pigs.