The college student, then just 18, left little doubt of her intentions when federal agents in Minnesota approached her last fall following a thwarted attempt to go to Afghanistan.
Tnuza Hassan offered a surprisingly forthcoming account of her itinerary and the reasons behind it in the September encounter: The St. Catherine University student said she wanted to join al-Qaida and, when pressed by an FBI agent, conceded that she would be willing to kill if ordered. Agents later found an image of the twin towers in flames on a cellphone she ditched before flying overseas.
But four months passed before Hassan's arrest for setting nine fires on her St. Paul college campus in January, in what she allegedly explained was to be deadly retribution for U.S. military actions in the Middle East. Now awaiting trial on charges that carry the potential for a steep prison term, Hassan's case has invited questions of whether more could have been done in the months before the fires — especially after December, when she was again stopped from flying internationally.
More than three years after Minnesota emerged as a test case for countering terror recruitment, the circumstances around Hassan underscore a lack of resources available to effectively intervene with those suspected of being on a path to extremism.
"Just because there wasn't a loss [of life] doesn't mean this isn't a huge loss," said Audrey Alexander, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, who said non-law enforcement interventions for terror cases are still largely missing nationwide. "This is again a punctuation of the fact that we in the U.S. are really missing that critical component that's meant to operate in that gray space."
New court papers show that the FBI is still looking at Hassan's online history to try to understand why she allegedly decided to join violent jihadists abroad. To date, prosecutors say they believe Hassan "self-radicalized," pointing to her own words about researching terror groups online and evidence retrieved from her digital devices.
According to an FBI agent's search warrant affidavit in the case, Hassan's relatives — who declined to comment for this story — were "completely unaware of Hassan's desire or plans to travel to Afghanistan for any purpose." After she was turned away from going to Afghanistan, it was still likely left to Hassan to explain to her family why she suddenly left.
Rather than paint a picture of radicalization, publicly viewable posts on a Facebook page for Hassan instead document the teen's excitement to graduate high school in 2016, an interest in an Ethiopian Olympian's pro-Oromo protests, and elation following the actor Leonardo DiCaprio's first Oscar win.
Most prominent, however, is her love for her older sister and mother, who emigrated from Ethiopia in the early 1990s.
"Without you I would be nothing," Hassan wrote on Mother's Day 2016.
"I will forever love you sis," she wrote a month earlier.
Robert Sicoli, one of Hassan's attorneys and a lawyer who has represented Minnesotans charged with trying to support other terror groups in recent years, said that the government generally shares very little information with families in counterterrorism investigations. The goal is to avoid tipping off targets, he said.
"The government is afraid that it would compromise the investigation, either by the person changing his or her behavior, or that person destroying evidence," Sicoli said.
Yet prosecutors disclosed at the sentencings of Mohamed and Adnan Farah in 2016 that FBI agents investigating a group of friends plotting to join ISIS spent hours with the brothers' parents in the months before their arrests. The government cited the talks in response to their father's claim in court that authorities hadn't warned of the brothers' actions.
Amid the same terror recruitment probe, Deqa Hussen, a Hennepin County legal advocate, intervened to send her son, Abdirizak Warsame, to live with his father in Chicago. Warsame was eventually charged, agreed to cooperate with authorities and is now in a halfway house after spending a little more than a year in federal prison.
But Hussen said she still wishes she could have known more sooner.
"I'm not asking them to show all the evidence — I know it's a process," Hussen said. "But show [parents] evidence that their children are doing bad. No one wants their children to be a felon; I never thought my son would be spending his time in jail.
"But thank God I know he is safe now. I always thank the authorities who were watching and following my son when I did not know anything," she added.
The FBI and U.S. attorney's office both declined to comment on Hassan's pending case. Hassan is charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorists, lying to federal agents and arson. If a plea agreement is not reached, she could stand trial this fall.
Agents monitored Hassan after her September interview. Prosecutors were not prepared to file charges based solely on her failed attempt to travel to Afghanistan — and such charges are relatively rare in Minnesota.
Even if Hassan's family knew what she told FBI agents last year, it is unclear what local resources they could have turned to for intervening, or "off-ramping," before law enforcement steps in.
Though a network for interventions was an early goal of a Minneapolis counter-extremism pilot in 2015, most federal, state and local efforts have since largely been steeped in "terrorism prevention" or in looking for ways to rehabilitate those already in the criminal justice system.
But judges in Minnesota are still wrestling with the young age of many local defendants in terror prosecutions. Before ultimately deciding to keep Hassan in custody before trial, U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau mused over whether by keeping her detained "we are continuing her self-radicalization, we're emphasizing it, we're encouraging it."
"It's a question that weighs on my mind," the judge said in February.
Dr. Hamdy El-Sawaf, a Minneapolis imam and psychotherapist, said the details of the case that have so far surfaced suggests Hassan's mental health could use examining to determine what may have underpinned her actions.
"If I'm not motivated by someone else, if I'm not taking someone as a role model for me, if I'm not communicating with someone to encourage me to leave from here to Afghanistan — how would it come to my mind?" El-Sawaf said.
Fartun Weli, director of the Minneapolis women's health nonprofit Isuroon, said increasing Islamophobia and broad-brush accusations against Muslim communities when cases like Hassan's make headlines are meanwhile making families feel isolated.
"We are paranoid," Weli said. "And that paranoia is going to drive us into a ditch."