The 19-year-old former St. Catherine University student arrested after setting several fires on campus last month had allegedly lied to FBI agents when asked months earlier about her attempts to support Al-Qaida, according to a new indictment returned by a federal grand jury on Wednesday.
Tnuza Jamal Hassan, of Minneapolis, now faces federal charges of attempting to provide material support to terrorists, arson and false statements outlined in an indictment that describes a federal probe that apparently began with a concerning letter she shared with classmates.
According to the indictment, Hassan lied when questioned by the FBI on Sept. 22, 2017 — three days after the indictment alleges that she tried to provide support to Al-Qaida. The three-page indictment provides little insight into how she attempted to aid the terror group but clarified that she did so by attempting to provide “personnel,” which could either mean herself or by trying to facilitate the travel of others.
Agents asked Hassan about a March 2017 letter to two fellow St. Catherine students in which she allegedly encouraged them to “join the jihad in fighting” and to join “Al-Qaida, Taliban, or Al Shabaab,” according to the indictment. The indictment alleges that Hassan lied when she told agents that she didn’t write the letter, did not know who wrote the letter and did not know how the letter was delivered to the students.
Hassan has been held on $100,000 bail in Ramsey County jail since her Jan. 17 arrest on first-degree arson charges. Because the new federal indictment was not unsealed until late Wednesday afternoon, Hassan is not expected to make her first appearance in federal court until at least Thursday, and she does not yet have an attorney listed in the federal case.
The federal arson charge included in the indictment names a fire Hassan allegedly set inside the St. Mary’s residence hall, which also houses a day care at which 33 children were present at the time of the fire. According to charges previously filed last month in Ramsey County, Hassan allegedly admitted to setting the fire and a series of other small fires across campus.
She allegedly told police after her arrest on campus that she wanted to burn the school down and to hurt people after reading about the U.S. military destroying schools in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Hassan said this was the same thing that happened in ‘Muslim land’ and nobody cares if they get hurt, so why not do this?” according to a complaint written by a St. Paul police sergeant.
“You guys are lucky that I don’t know how to build a bomb because I would have done that,” Hassan allegedly told investigators.
In statements to police last month, Hassan allegedly acknowledged writing a letter to roommates in which she detailed “radical ideas about supporting Muslims and bringing back the caliphate.” She told investigators that she quit school last fall because she and her family were planning to vacation in Ethiopia.
Anders Folk, a Minneapolis attorney who had prosecuted multiple federal terrorism cases for the U.S. attorney’s office before going into private practice, said that letter alone would not likely be enough to prove an attempt to support Al-Qaida. But Hassan’s apparent references to three terrorist organizations in control over different territories does help shine some light on possible motivation, Folk said.
“To me what it indicates is recruiting based on the ideology as opposed to the specific group or a specific geography,” Folk said. “If you read this on its face, it would indicate that the person doing the recruiting … is more concerned with just executing on this terrorist ideology that each of these organizations espouse.”
The fires Hassan set appeared to be relatively minor. A sprinkler system extinguished a chair she set ablaze inside the St. Mary’s residence hall lounge before the fire could spread. Campus surveillance video recorded Hassan entering and leaving the lounge just before the sprinklers activated, and police later found a shopping bag with a box of matches left behind in a bucket.
Hassan had no apparent criminal history before setting the fires, according to court records. She attended St. Paul Public Schools, first enrolling in the district in 2010 at Highland Park Junior High. Hassan graduated from Johnson Senior High in 2016, according to the school district.
According to the U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force investigated the case alongside St. Paul police and arson investigators.
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.