DETROIT (AP) — A 33-year-old Michigan mother killed during fighting in Syria became interested in the Middle East after converting to Islam and marrying an Arab immigrant several years ago, relatives said Friday, but her family lost touch with her in recent months and had no idea she had gone to overseas.
After Nicole Lynn Mansfield's marriage ended, she remained Muslim and visited Dubai several years ago to learn about Arab culture, said her aunt, Monica Mansfield-Speelman. She said she had not spoken to her niece since September, and last she knew Mansfield was in Kentucky.
"We didn't know she was over there. We didn't know she was gone, but Nicole, she was known to take off like that," Mansfield-Speelman said. "She was a traveler, I guess you could say. She didn't stay in one place."
Family members said FBI agents visited them Thursday and informed them of Mansfield's death. Simon Shaykhet, an FBI spokesman in Detroit, said he could confirm agents spoke to Mansfield's family, but he declined further comment.
Mansfield is the only American known to have been killed fighting in Syria, where 70,000 people have died in a two-year civil war. 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 the northwestern city of Idlib. The report on the circumstances of the deaths could not immediately be confirmed.
Mansfield-Speelman, who lives with Mansfield's grandmother, said she doesn't know the whereabouts of Mansfield's ex-husband, but her niece has an 18-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. Mansfield-Speelman and other family members had concerns about her niece's conversion and marriage, but the aunt said she tries to keep an open mind.
"That was her belief — I respect that, but I don't agree with that," she said of her niece, who had worked for various group homes and hospice facilities.
Mansfield-Speelman said the circumstances in Syria are a mystery to her but she believes her niece had good intentions.
"Nicole was always trying to be peacemaker — she wanted peace over there," she said.