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Accused St. Kate's arsonist twice tried fleeing U.S. to join Islamic jihadists

Police arrested Tnuza Jamal Hassan, 19, of Minneapolis, on suspicion of arson after eight small fires were set at St. Catherine University in St. Paul on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (Courtesy of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office)

ST. PAUL — A student accused of starting several fires last month on St. Catherine University's St. Paul campus tried to leave the country twice last year to join jihadist forces, according to court documents.

Tnuza Jamal Hassan, 19, of Minneapolis was charged Wednesday, Feb. 7, in U.S. District Court with one count each of arson, making false statements to the FBI and attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis.

In a memorandum filed Friday, the U.S. attorney's office argued that Hassan be denied bail at a detention hearing and arraignment scheduled for Monday, Feb. 12, saying she was a flight risk and posed a danger to the community:

"The defendant's own recorded words speak chillingly to this issue. ... The defendant has openly acknowledged that she both expected and hoped that her fires would burn down the structures involved and that she wanted innocent Americans to die in these fires. She has also admitted — and warned — that the community is 'lucky' that she not know how to build a bomb because she would have used that instead in her acts of jihad."

Hassan also faces arson charges in Ramsey County District Court.

Hassan turned away twice

The memorandum outlined how Hassan attempted to flee the United States and join jihadist forces twice in 2017.

During the first attempt, on Sept. 19, Hassan got as far as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She was on her way to Kabul, Afghanistan, to join al-Qaida but was turned away.

"But for a lack of visa, she may well be in the ranks of AQ at this moment," court documents said.

At the time, her family filed a "missing persons" report with law enforcement.

On Dec. 29, Hassan reportedly tried to leave the country with a ticket to Ethiopia. In that case, she was denied access to the flight after authorities found she was carrying identification information for her older sister, along with a winter coat and boots.

'Self-admitted act of jihad'

Less than a month later, on Jan. 10, her family again reported Hassan missing after she "disappeared from the family's Minneapolis apartment — only to be found hiding in a dorm lounge at (St. Catherine's University) after setting multiple fires as a self-admitted act of jihad," according to the memo.

On the morning of Jan. 17, a series of fires was reported in several buildings on the St. Kate's campus. St. Paul police and firefighters responded to calls at the campus about 11:40 a.m., and Hassan was arrested later that afternoon. Security cameras filmed her entering several university buildings carrying a plastic bag, which was later found to contain matches, police said.

The largest fire was in a residential dormitory that also houses a day care; there were 33 children and eight adults in the building at the time, according to police.

Hassan allegedly told investigators she set the fires because she had "been reading about the U.S. military destroying schools in Iraq or Afghanistan and she felt that she should do exactly the same thing."

"You guys are lucky that l don't know how to build a bomb because l would have done that," she added, according to the charges.

According to the memo, when Hassan was asked what she would do if she were released from custody but not allowed to leave the United States, she said, "Then I have the right to do jihad."

Hassan questioned earlier

Last fall while still a student at St. Kate's, Hassan was interviewed by FBI agents about a letter she allegedly sent to two fellow students. The letter encouraged them to "join the jihad in fighting" and to "join "Al Qaeda, Taliban, or Al Shabaab," according to the U.S. attorney's office news release. Hassan denied writing the letter and told the agents she did not know how it came to be delivered to the students, the release said.

St. Kate's on Wednesday issued the following statement about the letter:

"On March 27, 2017, three students on the St. Paul campus reported to University officials that they had received a letter from an unknown person or persons. The letter did not threaten students, faculty, staff, or the University, but did reference 'join the jihad in fighting.' The University turned the letters over to law enforcement, who immediately began an investigation. The University was requested to keep the matter confidential, which it did until today's indictment. We remain in full cooperation with the authorities."

Hassan remains in custody at the Ramsey County Jail. She is expected to appear in federal court Monday for arraignment and a detention hearing.

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