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DETROIT — In April 2010, Gregory Mansfield walked into the FBI office in downtown Flint, Mich., to warn the government that his daughter might be getting into trouble.
Nicole Mansfield — who was raised Baptist as a child and grew up watching NASCAR races — had embraced Islam a couple of years before that and her political rhetoric was starting to worry her father.
He had heard about the case of Colleen LaRose, known as Jihad Jane, a white woman born in Michigan who converted to Islam (like Nicole) and had been arraigned the previous month on terrorism charges. And now Nicole — or Nikki as the family called her — was talking about going to the Middle East, possibly Dubai.
On May 29, Gregory Mansfield’s worst fears were realized when his 33-year-old daughter was killed in Syria, reportedly by government military forces. Photos of her bloodied body and Michigan driver’s license were broadcast around the world.
Nicole Mansfield was the first American known to have been killed in Syria’s civil war, which has dragged on for more than two years, claiming more than 100,000 lives. Her death comes at a time of intense debate over whether the U.S. should support the Syrian opposition, which Mansfield was working with.
A Syrian government TV station claimed Mansfield was with the Al-Nusra Front, a branch of al Qaida, but another Sunni Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, told the Telegraph of London she was fighting with them.
Her family is just trying to make sense of it all. Some family members worry the idealistic American woman might have been duped by militants who stole her ID, making it impossible for her to leave Syria.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Gregory Mansfield, 54, on the front porch of his Burton, Mich., home in which his daughter grew up. “How she got mixed up in this, I have no idea. I wish I had answers. I’ve worried about her for years.”
An all-American girl
Growing up the daughter of a staunch Republican autoworker, Nicole Mansfield loved going to car races with her grandparents, listening to boy bands such as New Kids on the Block, and rooting for sports teams as a cheerleader at her middle school. She read the Bible.
But Mansfield’s worldview took a sudden shift five to six years ago when she converted to Islam. The Flint woman started wearing conservative Muslim dress that covered her entire body except for her face. She entered into a series of relationships with Arab immigrant men, and her ideas about foreign policy changed, especially when it came to Israel.
“She said that [Israel] oppressed people,” recalled her father.
Nicole would say that “the best way of life was to be a Muslim,” said her grandmother Carole Mansfield, 72, of Burton.
“I told her she was looking … for trouble,” the grandmother added.
In March, Gregory Mansfield tried one last time to persuade his daughter to quit obsessing about the Arab world and Islam.
He called and left a voice mail, pleading with her: “What are you doing? Where are you at? Don’t make me go back to the FBI about this.”
“I got no response,” he said. “After that, everything was just literally shut off.”
Mansfield said of his daughter: “She was just an awesome kid, smart, smart as could be, but probably a little bit too smart for her own good.”
Throughout her life, Nicole moved easily among cultures — from white conservatives like her own father to African-Americans like the father of her only child to biracial families and finally, Arabs and Islam converts. Before she left for Syria, she was living with a family of Yemeni-Americans in Dearborn, Mich., according to her daughter, Triana Mansfield, 18.
How it started
Nicole became interested in Islam after her grandfather died in October 2007, her father said. It’s unclear who introduced her to it. Gregory Mansfield said it was someone at work; Nicole was a health care aide who worked in a rehab clinic in Flint. Other family members say she became Muslim after she met an Arab immigrant she later married, then divorced.
After she accepted Islam, Nicole developed a network of friends who had converted to the Islamic faith. In a photo posted in February on Facebook, two of Nicole’s friends, Janice Wilson and her sister Safiyah Zaynia Ameera, posed in niqabs, a type of Islamic dress some associate with extremism that covers everything except the eyes. In March, Nicole wrote “Islam beauty” beneath her post on the social site Pinterest that featured a photo of a mosque she got from the Dearborn-based Arab-American National Museum.
Nicole started wearing a hijab, the Islamic headscarf, and dressed often in long robes, her father said. He wasn’t happy with that, referring to the garb as “rags.”
One time, he saw her get out of her car in his driveway in Muslim dress. He told her: “You’re not coming in here with that on. You can go right back to your vehicle.”
She complied, and when she lived with him for 10 months, she never wore Islamic clothes around him.
Nicole’s parents divorced when she was young and she became pregnant at age 14 by a boy who lived nearby. At 15, she was a mother. Dropping out of high school, she later got a GED diploma and attended Mott Community College.
“My mother struggled to make ends meet and we often moved around,” said her daughter, Triana, on her Facebook page in early May. “I never stayed in one place for long because my mother could never keep up with the bills.”
Gregory Mansfield grew increasingly worried about his daughter’s future, so he contacted the FBI. Shortly after that, Nicole traveled to Dubai but returned after several weeks.
Back in the U.S., Nicole now had FBI agents on her trail, her father said.
“She’d go make U-turns, they’d make U-turns,” Gregory Mansfield said. “She’d pull into a parking lot, they’d pull into a parking lot.”
At first, Nicole brushed it aside, thinking “it was kind of … hilarious,” her father said. But it bothered her enough that she contacted the Michigan office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group.
Nicole met with Lena Masri, a West Bloomfield, Mich., attorney who works for CAIR. Masri told the Detroit Free Press she met with Nicole twice but refused to say why.
CAIR sent a letter last year to the FBI, asking them to stop trailing Nicole, alleging they were harassing her, Gregory Mansfield said. Masri would not comment on the letter.
After Nicole went missing this spring, family members contacted CAIR, seeking help. CAIR told them to file a missing persons report with authorities, Masri said.
Now, CAIR has again gotten involved in the case, Gregory Mansfield said. Since Nicole’s death, CAIR has contacted family members, telling them not to speak with the FBI, which is investigating the case.
A FBI official told the Free Press: “We are investigating the circumstances surrounding her death and have spoken to family.”
Nicole started her journey to Syria by traveling to Tunisia, Triana said. That may be significant, as experts say Tunisia has emerged as a major source of militant fighters in Syria.
A report released in June by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says there has been a “sudden rush to prominence by mujahedeen (Islamic warrior) volunteers from Tunisia” fighting in Syria.
On May 29, Nicole Mansfield and two men from England were on a reconnaissance mission near the city of Idlib, according to a Syrian TV station sympathetic to the Assad government. The station said they were trying to photograph military sites in Syria near the border with Turkey. When they were confronted by Syrian military, the group hurled grenades at them, the station reported.
The Syrian soldiers returned fire, killing all three, according to the report. Near their bodies, Syrians found ammunition clips, assault rifles, maps and a flag associated with the militant Al-Nusra Front, the TV station said.
In Michigan, Syrian-American activists opposed to Assad say they are skeptical of the accounts of Nicole Mansfield’s death given by Syria’s government.
And those closest to her say she was not a fighter.
“She doesn’t have a violent bone in her body,” said Tito Jones, 41, her ex-boyfriend who helped raise Triana. “She was a beautiful person, good-hearted.”
Despite her conversion, Nicole kept one foot in her past world. On her Pinterest page, her last entries, from early March, are about stylish shoes she liked. And she had a page called “Hometown Love never dies” that featured photos of Flint.
She reminisced about her favorite Coney Island, but agreed with another woman who said that she now only eats halal hot dogs.
The last time Triana saw her mother was March 17. Afterward, they chatted through FaceTime on their iPhones. Her last contact was about a month ago, when her mother called from a different number.
“She texted me one day, out of nowhere,” Triana recalled in a Facebook post. “She said she couldn’t tell me where she was or who she was with. She also couldn’t talk to me over the phone. We stopped talking after that.”
But Mansfield still kept in touch with other family members. In her conversations, Mansfield indicated she had gone first to Tunisia and then Turkey before entering Syria. At one point, she told a friend she was going to fly back to the U.S. and wanted to get picked up at an airport in Cincinnati.
Triana said she believes that her mother was “forced to stay” in Syria.
“Last time my family talked to her, she said someone stole her ID,” Triana said.
Gregory Mansfield said his ex-wife, Nicole’s mother, received an email from Nicole that indicated she was stuck because her ID was taken from her.
“She wanted to get out of there,” her father said.
Regardless of Nicole’s motives for being in Syria, her daughter calls her mother “a martyr.”
“She was a God-sent woman in my eyes,” she said. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and I believe the reason for this is to bring attention to the uproar in Syria and stop it. But most importantly, to bring the people of Syria the rights and freedoms they deserve. This is what my mother would have wanted, and I believe this is why she died.”
Mansfield is waiting to hear from the State Department about whether Nicole’s body can be brought back for burial in the U.S. A State Department official told the Free Press it’s “in touch with the family,” but provided no additional comment.
“I just wish this was a nightmare and this wasn’t really happening,” Mansfield said. “You know, there’s that glimmer of hope (she’s still alive), the kind of stuff that happens in movies. But I kind of doubt it because everything’s pointing to the fact it was her. God only knows what happened.”