US & Canada

US woman Nicole Mansfield 'brainwashed' into Syria fight

Media captionBBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan spoke to Nicole Mansfield's family

She was an American woman, who lived in suburban Michigan, so how did Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, end up dying in Syria, caught up in a conflict, thousands of miles away?

Her family, who live in Burton, near the town of Flint, still do not know the answer.

"Nicole Mansfield liked to travel," says her aunt, Monica Mansfield Speelman.

"She would say, 'I'm going to Ohio for a couple of weeks to visit some friends', and just take off, you never knew where Nicole was."

Monica had no idea her niece had even left the country, until she ran into Nicole's best friend and closest confidant at a store, a few weeks ago.

She misheard the destination, thinking it was South Africa, and thought nothing of it.

But Nicole was in fact in Syria, at the heart of a conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives.

Syrian state TV has broadcast images of her passport and driving licence, and the bullet-riddled car she was said to have been travelling in, with two other companions.

Syrian authorities say the three, including one Briton, were in the country fighting for the rebel forces.

"She was a peacemaker who always tried to make everyone happy, and I think she went over there and she got brainwashed," says Monica. "It's not in Nicole's nature to even think of throwing a grenade," she adds.

'Not weak-minded'

To say the past few days has been difficult for the family to comprehend is an understatement.

FBI officers visited them on Thursday to break the news of Nicole's death - ever since, the phone has been off the hook with journalists and concerned friends trying to get through.

As they sit out by a manicured lawn, with their pet dog Buster running around, Syria could not feel further away.

Burton, Michigan, is an economically deprived area, which has high unemployment. It is here that Nicole grew up, with dreams of becoming a nurse.

Image caption Nicole grew up in suburban Michigan and was raised as a Baptist

Her parents split up when she was young - her mother played no part in her upbringing, her father worked for General Motors.

Her grandmother Carole Mansfield, helped raise her.

Nicole was "not weak-minded, but gullible," Carole says. She believes it would have taken some time to persuade her granddaughter to leave for a place like Syria, and wonders whether a financial reward was offered.

"She wasn't a fighter, she'd stand and let some bully smack her in the face or kick her in the shins," she says.

"Not unless this all came about within the last six years and I didn't know about it. But don't ever say never with what your kids will do."

On edge

Nicole was raised as a Baptist, but converted to Islam four or five years ago.

Her immersion in her new faith took some adjusting to for the family, as Nicole began wearing a headscarf, attending a local mosque, and changed her email address to an Islamic name.

Image caption Nicole's grandmother Carole Mansfield believes she may have been offered a financial reward

Her new-found faith coincided with a trip she made to Dubai. Nicole told her family she was going there to go to college and live in a penthouse, and that she was being taken care of financially.

But she returned after about six weeks.

What exactly happened during the visit is unclear.

"I think she had a hard time getting out of the country then, because she called my youngest daughter and said, 'If I'm not home by Friday call the US embassy', so I think she ran into something over there," says her grandmother Carole.

The trip concerned the family so much that Nicole's father called the FBI. Agents visited them, and made enquiries, but the family heard nothing more from the agency until this week, when they got the fateful knock on the door.

Her aunt Monica says Nicole became paranoid that the FBI was following her, and was sometimes on edge when she walked along a street. But just why Nicole felt she was a target is yet another unknown.

'Not a terrorist'

There are many gaps in Nicole's story in recent years, which the family are desperate to piece together - like her second marriage, to an Arab man, several years ago.

Image caption Syrian TV broadcast images apparently showing Nicole Mansfied's US passport after her death

The family never went to the wedding, or met the groom, and believe the short-lived union was a marriage of convenience, purely for a green card.

When Nicole went away for a few months, she told her grandmother she had spent some time living with a Muslim family in Detroit, teaching them about America while she learnt about Islam. Again the details her family got were scant.

Her grandmother said Nicole barely talked about politics, but a video on YouTube appears to show her holding a placard at a pro-Palestinian rally.

Nicole's 18-year-old daughter Triana Lynn Mansfield knew more than most about about her mother's movements, and had spoken to her last week.

"My mother was not a terrorist," she wrote on her Facebook page. "She went there for a reason that is unknown. But believe this - she was forced to stay. She told me she would be back in a week."

But her mother never returned. And even she is unable to explain why Nicole made the long, treacherous journey from Michigan to Syria - one that she would never return from.

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