Nicole Lynn Mansfield, the American woman who was killed Wednesday in Syria while allegedly fighting with rebel forces, was a mother with a “heart of gold” who struggled to find a purpose in life, according to family members.
Ms. Mansfield’s cousin, aunt, and grandmother told the Associated Press that FBI agents visited them Thursday to inform them of her death. An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
A pro-Syrian government news agency said Mansfield and two others were fighters for a group opposed to Syria's government and were killed in a confrontation in Idlib, in northern Syria. The agency said a banner of a rebel front linked to Al Qaeda was found in the car in which the three were traveling when they were killed. The report on the circumstances of the deaths could not immediately be confirmed.
“She had a heart of gold, but she was weak-minded,” her grandmother, Carole Mansfield, told the Detroit Free Press. “I think she could have been brainwashed.”
Mansfield grew up in Flint, Mich., where she was raised a Baptist. Her father was a production worker at General Motors. Her parents divorced, and Mansfield was brought up between them and her grandmother, according to the ML-The Flint Journal.
Mansfield dropped out of high school after she became pregnant at age 15, according to the Detroit Free Press. Her daughter is now 18. Mansfield’s aunt, Monica Mansfield Speelman, said Mansfield married an Arab immigrant about five years ago, at which point she converted to Islam and started wearing the hijab. The marriage ended about three years later after her husband was able to get a green card that permitted him to stay long-term in the United States.
Ms. Speelman said Mansfield traveled to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, two to three years ago, but returned after concerned family members urged her to come home.
Mansfield’s aunt and grandmother described her as developing a spotty record when it came to family gatherings, and say they didn’t know that she was in Syria or the name of her former husband who inspired her to convert to Islam.
She told people “that the best way of life was to be a Muslim. And that women should wear scarves ... women should always cover their head,” Nicole’s grandmother told the Free Press.
Mansfield finished her GED and took classes at a local community college, but didn’t settle into a clear career. She worked as a home health-care provider for about 10 years, helping elderly people at various group homes and hospice facilities, and would have liked to have been a nurse, her grandmother told the ML-Flint Journal.
Muna Jondy, a Syrian-American activist who is president of the Flint-based United for a Free Syria and who opposes the Syrian government, told the Detroit Free Press that she hadn’t heard of Mansfield. She also warned about accepting the Syrian television report because the station is linked to the Bashar al-Assad government, which is battling opposition forces and may be reporting propaganda.
Mansfield could be the first American killed in the Syrian conflict, notes the Daily Beast. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in that country's civil war. The US indirectly backs certain of the rebel groups fighting the Assad government in Syria, but it has also registered concern that Islamist extremists have joined the rebel forces.
The Daily Mail noted in April that an in-depth study published by Kings College London said the presence of American fighters in Syria is rare, although as many as 600 Europeans have traveled there to fight in the conflict.
In April, former US soldier Eric Harroun attracted international attention after posting videos online of him supposedly fighting with rebel groups in Syria and holding rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
The FBI arrested Mr. Harroun when he returned to the US in March on charges that he fought with the the Al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Foreign Policy identified a Pinterest account that it said could be Mansfield’s. The account, belonging to a Nicole Mansfield from Flint, Mich., has 13 followers, including several from Michigan who converted to Islam.
Most of the pictures are of puppies, birds, food, and vacation destinations. A folder called “Islam” contained mainly stock images of mosques and the holy city of Mecca. There was also an album called “Hometown Love Never Die” with pictures of Flint, and a hot dog, including the caption “ewww, pork!”
– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report