Nicole Lynn Mansfield grew up a Baptist in Flint, Michigan, but converted to Islam after starting a relationship with an Arab man who’d immigrated to the United States, Mansfield’s family told the Detroit Free Press on Thursday. The couple married and later divorced, but Mansfield held on to her new faith, dressing in a headscarf and at one point moving to Dubai. But her family had no idea that she’d ventured into Syria, they told the newspaper, until the FBI came calling. Paying a visit to the family’s home in Flint on Thursday, two FBI agents informed them that Mansfield had died in the Syrian province of Idlib earlier this week—potentially making her the first known American combatant killed in the country’s grinding civil war.
“I'm just devastated,” Mansfield’s aunt, Monica Mansfield Speelman, told Reuters after the FBI visit. “Evidently, she was fighting with opposition forces.”
The details of Mansfield’s journey to Syria remain murky. A 33-year-old mother to a daughter of 18, she casts an unlikely figure as a rebel fighter. But that’s exactly what the Syrian government accused her of being when state media published a report of her death on Wednesday.
The report showed images of a black Volkswagen car riddled with bullet holes, as well as Mansfield’s driver’s license and passport. It said she was killed in an ambush by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, alongside two other Westerners—the U.K. press has identified one as a British man born in 1990. The other remains unknown.
The government report also included images of weapons that it claimed had been found in the car, along with the banner of a rebel front linked to al Qaeda. It called the trio a “terrorist group.” Assad’s government regularly refers to the country’s rebels as terrorists, and it often manipulates news reports and evidence to support its narrative that the rebellion is fueled by foreign-backed extremists.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a respected activist group that monitors the conflict, told news outlets that Mansfield and the other two Westerners were not engaged in any fighting—but that they had been taking photos of government military positions. American officials have not commented publicly on the case.
As The Guardian notes, an in-depth study published by Kings College London last month said that up to 600 Europeans have traveled to Syria to fight in the two-year-old conflict, which has claimed more than 80,000 lives. Britain had the largest proportion of these fighters, and Europeans made up as much as 11 percent of the foreign combatants in Syria, the report said. But accounts of Americans fighting in Syria have been rare.
Earlier this year, Eric Harroun, a former U.S. soldier, made headlines when he posted videos of himself online in which he purported to be fighting with rebel groups, holding weapons, and driving with fighters through contested parts of Syria. He was arrested by the FBI when he returned to the United States from Syria in March and accused of fighting with the al Qaeda–linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. In an earlier interview with FBI agents in Istanbul, Harroun had said that he was opposed to al Qaeda and had been fighting only to help topple Assad.
It’s still unclear what brought Mansfield to Syria. Her family has provided few details from her recent past, telling the Detroit Free Press that they were unaware even of the name of the man Mansfield had married. And they had no idea of her activities or motivations in Syria, offering only speculation. “She had a heart of gold, but she was weak-minded,” Mansfield’s grandmother told the newspaper. “I think she could have been brainwashed.”