- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Yesterday, pictures began to emerge (warning: graphic) on pro-Assad sites allegedly showing an American woman killed in Syria. They also showed what appeared to be the woman’s driver’s license, identifying her as Nicole Lynn Mansfield from Flint, Michigan.
Members of Mansfield’s family confirmed her death last night, saying FBI agents had visited to inquire about her. Her aunt told the Detroit Free Press that Mansfield, who was born a Baptist, had married an Arab immigrant to the United States several years ago, and subsequently converted to Islam. The couple eventually divorced, but Mansfield remained a Muslim and, at one point, concerned her family by setting off for Dubai. “She had a heart of gold, but she was weak-minded,” her grandmother said. “I think she could have been brainwashed.”
Up until 10 weeks ago, a user named Nicole Mansfield — who gave her hometown as Flint, Michigan, and described herself as a Muslim — was active on Pinterest. Of her 13 followers, several of them are converts to Islam from Michigan. The description the account user offers for herself reads: “Self determined, yet confused o_O”
There is not a hint of Islamist extremism in the Pinterest account — many of the pictures are simply cute images of puppies staring at fish, seahorses, and sleeping kittens. One of the images jokingly appropriates a quote from the horror film The Exorcist — “the power of Christ compels you!” — to which the account user added “lool.”
The pictures under the tag “Islam” are mostly stock images showing the holy city of Mecca; a crowd of worshipers gathered around the Kaaba, one of the holiest sites in Islam; and Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia. Another image simply carries the message: “Keep smiling, it’s Sunnah [good Islamic practice].”
Other pictures represent an homage to Flint, Michigan. One image celebrates the “Coney dog” — a Michigan variation of the chili dog — available at the Flint restaurant of Angelo’s. Another shows a hot dog, with the caveat “ewww pork!” In recognition of Michigan’s battered economy, one image shows graffiti that reads: “God help save us Flint.”
The Pinterest account may be an interesting visual account of Mansfield’s interests, but it cannot answer the central question being asked about her today: Why would she suddenly leave the United States to join the Syrian revolt? To solve that mystery, we’re going to need more than a scattered set of photographs.