When ISIS bombed Belgium yesterday, it marked the sixth major attack in as many weeks. ISIS is devastating Europe, pushing an exodus of refugees across borders and forcing nations into high alert.

An ocean away, it seems unfathomable that one of our own citizens would turn on Canada and join forces with this ruthless organization. But that is exactly what Calgary mother Christianne Boudreau faced when she learned that her 22 year-old son Damian had been killed fighting with ISIS in Syria.

“I never saw it coming”, Christianne says.

How and why young people who have grown up in western countries are being radicalized and recruited by ISIS, and the effect it’s having on the families they leave behind, is the focus of the new  documentary, A Jihadi in the Family, premiering this Thursday on CBC’s Firsthand.

We spoke with the film’s writer and director, Eileen Thalenberg, this week.

SDTC: What initially drew you to this subject?

ET: Like a lot of Canadians, I was following the civil war in Syria closely and with increasing alarm. Overnight, ISIS had burst into the public consciousness with unimaginable brutality and aggression. And, somehow, this violent organization had managed to recruit young people from the west, including young Canadians. This raised so many questions: who were these kids? what made them vulnerable to the ISIS narrative? What were they looking for when they abandoned their families to embrace a cause on the other side of the world? And what about their families – did they miss the signs of radicalization? Could they have stopped it? How would any parent cope with the realization that they raised ‘a terrorist’?

Here in Canada, Islamophobia was rearing its ugly head. Even though a relatively small number of people have been recruited by ISIS, an atmosphere of fear and exclusion was affecting a large number of people. For me, this raised larger questions of how we as a society could respond. Should we be looking into root causes? Are there things that could be done to prevent engagement of our young people in extremist organizations? Could we intervene somehow in the radicalization process?

SDTC: Christianne Boudreau showed remarkable fortitude throughout this film. Can you describe how witnessing her journey affected you personally?

Christianne’s decision to speak out and put herself out there after her son died in Syria was remarkable. I was first of all struck by her courage. While most families whose kids have disappeared overseas went into hiding, Christianne was active on so many fronts: promoting education programs, working with the RCMP and the police force in Calgary, speaking at conferences, doing TV and radio appearances, counselling families who had concerns that their kids might be radicalizing and working with European counterparts setting up programs like Mothers for Life. She never seemed to sleep. Following her was exhausting. I was amazed that she was doing this all on her own, with no support – financial or emotional – and that she had the stamina to do it. Most of all it was emotionally difficult to witness the unique situation that Christianne – and all the mothers we met – found themselves in when their children left. There was nowhere to go for help. Parents who lose children are normally surrounded by friends and community, but when your son or daughter disappears overnight and is labelled “a terrorist”, there is no support, just suspicion, ostracism and often blame. These families have also become victims of terrorism.

When making this documentary, what surprised you most about the radicalization process?

Two things surprised me about the radicalization process. The first was the speed with which it happens and the second – which relates directly to the first – is the power of the narrative that ISIS is offering to young people. Assembled with the most sophisticated of media tools, ISIS propaganda presents an inspiring, idealized vision of state-building, promoting the ideas of inclusion, brotherhood, adventure and danger that play very well to the young and in the language they know best. The heroics, even the violence they see all the time in movies and video games, are presented in slick videos with inspirational music tracks. If young people buy into this fake vision and leave, they can realize too late that things are not as advertised. But by then they are trapped, with no way out. Most become canon fodder. As Daniel Koehler says in the film, we have no counter narrative to offer young people looking for meaning and belonging to match what ISIS presents.

Witnessing Christianne’s journey certainly opened my eyes to the fact that the young people who join ISIS could be anybody’s children. There seem to be very few common threads – these kids are from all religious, social and educational backgrounds. I came to realize that not only do their families need support, they need to be part of the solution. Instead of being the last to know, as Christianne was, that their son or daughter is on a watch list – they should be the first. As the film points out, there is a lot to be said for the power of the mother in deterring kids from a radical path. And they can play a vital role in educating communities.

What do you want people to take away from this film?

I hope that the most important take away is that these kids are not the “other”. They are not much different than any cross-section of us. Some may be alienated, angry and attracted to violent solutions, some are vulnerable, media sensitive kids reacting to what they perceive as injustice, and others for whatever reason don’t see a promising future for themselves where they now are and seek to be part of something bigger. What they may find instead is a very sophisticated group who can manipulate and deceive them and they can find themselves caught up in irreversible circumstances. I think that the failure to understand some of these driving forces can lead to Islamophobia and to exclusion. In the end, if we aren’t careful, we can actually create an environment that encourages extremism. There are complex social issues at play and I don’t think there are simple black and white solutions. I hope the film can open up the subject and get people talking.

A Jihadi In The Family airs on CBC TV’s Firsthand on Thursday, March 24 at 9 pm and will be repeated on CBC News Net on Sunday, March 27 at 6 pm ET.