FLINT, Michigan (Reuters) - The daughter of a 33-year-old Michigan woman who converted to Islam and was killed in fighting in Syria this week insisted on Friday her mother was “NOT a terrorist,” although the woman’s father said he had expressed concerns about her to the FBI.
Syrian state media said Nicole Mansfield, a single mother from the Midwestern city of Flint, was killed with two others in an ambush by Syrian government forces on an opposition mission in northwestern Syria. Syrian media also showed the passport of a British man, Ali alManasfi, 22.
Security sources said it was not clear what Mansfield and alManasfi were doing or which rebel group they were with. Insurgents are seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict has killed more than 80,000 people since March 2011
Gregory Mansfield, Nicole Mansfield’s father, told CNN on Friday that he approached the FBI three years ago after his daughter made remarks about Israel at an Easter family gathering.
“All I know is that I went to the FBI about my concerns,” he said. “And I know they did follow up because they were following her for a while. They needed to revoke her passport, then this wouldn’t be going on.”
Lindsay Godwin, a spokeswoman at the FBI’s Washington field office, said the FBI “is looking into the situation that happened in Syria.”
In a posting on Facebook on Friday, Mansfield’s daughter, Triana Lynn Mansfield, wrote, “My mother was NOT a terrorist.”
“She went there for a reason that is unknown,” she wrote. “But believe this-SHE WAS FORCED TO STAY.”
The woman’s grandmother Carole Mansfield added she was not convinced her granddaughter was in Syria to fight, although she said she had told her, “You’re looking a rattlesnake in the face” after she converted to Islam and began wearing a hijab.
“You never would have thought she’d be a terrorist,” Carole Mansfield said.
Known within the family as “Nikki,” Nicole Mansfield was a high school dropout and teenage mother who was raised Baptist. Relatives said she appeared lost and wanted a cause to believe in.
In her late 20s, after an unsuccessful marriage, she converted to Islam after meeting Muslims online. She attended a local mosque but never showed signs of radicalism, her family said.
She married a Muslim immigrant after her conversion, but family members said they never met him and Nicole never talked about him.
“I don’t even think they ever lived together,” Carole Mansfield said. “He was a mystery. No one knew anything about him.”
Syrian state media showed footage on Friday of a dead woman in a full black hijab and a picture of Mansfield’s identification, saying she was part of an extremist rebel group caught in an ambush.
The government-run media said the group was ambushed while exploring a checkpoint and that government forces found weapons on the group and documents, including a sketch of a security building.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper quoted a Syrian army officer as saying it was believed the third person killed was Canadian because his cellphone listed numerous calls to Canada.
There appeared to be little on Friday tying Nicole Mansfield, whom family members described as “compassionate, stubborn and unusually intelligent,” to extremist Islamist groups.
Her Pinterest social media account contains as many references to shoes, dogs and other animals as it does to Islam. The Islamic-themed pictures appear moderate and pious.
Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler and a human behavioral expert said, “Setting aside whether Islamic extremists would even let an American woman take up arms, there are many questions left unanswered at this point.”
“It’s a huge step going from living in Flint, Michigan, to taking up arms against the Syrian government,” O’Toole said. “And there’s a big difference between converting to Islam and going on a James Bond journey into a war zone.”
Monica Mansfield Speelman, Nicole Mansfield’s aunt, said on Thursday that she was “just devastated” when the FBI told her that afternoon her niece was dead.
“I didn’t think she would stoop that low to go over there and try to harm anybody,” Speelman said.
Reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Mark Hosenball in Washington, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and James B. Kelleher in Chicago; Writing by Nick Carey; Editing by Peter Cooney