After wrestling with whether his decision would worsen her "self-radicalization" process, a federal magistrate judge on Monday nonetheless ordered that a 19-year-old Minneapolis woman accused of trying to join Al-Qaida stay detained for now while her prosecution unfolds.
Tnuza Jamal Hassan arrived at her decision to travel to Kabul last year by herself, prosecutors said Monday, and expressed a preference for Al-Qaida over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — becoming the first Minnesota terror suspect publicly named as doing so since ISIS declared its so-called "caliphate" in 2014.
On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau denied requests from Hassan's lawyers that she be released to family under house arrest and electronic monitoring, but left open the possibility of pretrial release pending more information.
After hearing evidence that Hassan told authorities she wished to harm people with a set of fires on campus at St. Catherine University last month — acts Hassan described as "jihad" — Rau carved out a portion of the 40-minute hearing to consider whether further detention in Sherburne County jail may actually be detrimental.
Rau said he wondered "whether by detaining this individual we are continuing her self-radicalization, we're emphasizing it, we're encouraging it. ... It's a question that weighs on my mind."
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter argued that because Hassan made the decision to try to join Al-Qaida on her own, coupled with statements outlining the thinking behind her failed attack, she "has done absolutely nothing to suggest she would or could follow any conditions of release."
"She made it abundantly clear that she has one plan and that is to wage jihad either here or elsewhere," Winter said. "That hasn't changed over time. She's more strident as time goes by."
A federal grand jury last week indicted Hassan on charges including attempting to provide support to Al-Qaida, lying to FBI agents and arson — weeks after her Jan. 17 arrest on the campus of her former school. On Monday, Hassan entered not guilty pleas to each count and Rau set an April 16 trial date that is likely to be pushed back.
New details about Hassan's efforts to support Al-Qaida surfaced Monday as her mother and sister looked on. Both had reported her missing to law enforcement on separate occasions in the past five months — the first after she made it as far as Dubai before lacking a visa to continue on to Kabul in September 2017. Hassan again vanished last month — shortly after being stopped from boarding a flight to Ethiopia with her mother — and resurfaced when she was arrested following the fires at the St. Paul Catholic university.
Speaking with FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigators after her arrest last month, Hassan called the fires an act of jihad. According to Winter, she said: "You kill our innocent Muslim people, I kill innocent Americans. That's how it works."
"She said very clearly that she hoped people would get killed," Winter said. "That was the plan."
Months earlier, Winter said, Hassan "readily" admitted to trying to join Al-Qaida when interviewed by agents after her return from Dubai. Hassan also allegedly wrote a "recruitment letter" to classmates in March 2017 urging them to follow her in joining Al-Qaida, the Taliban or Al-Shabab.
But federal prosecutors have presented no evidence Hassan was in touch with any Al-Qaida operatives abroad or that she had any help in Minnesota. Winter said Monday that the FBI agents searched a laptop Hassan left on campus and found evidence of online research on how to travel to Afghanistan and YouTube videos of lectures by influential radical clerics like Anwar al-Awlaki.
Robert Sicoli, an attorney for Hassan, described Hassan's travel attempts and subsequent fires at St. Catherine University as "unsophisticated." Hassan was born in the United States, Sicoli said, and doesn't speak any languages native to Afghanistan. Sicoli said Hassan initially told agents she wanted to learn about her religion while in Afghanistan and described carrying out attacks overseas only when presented with hypothetical questions.
Winter said Hassan believed she would eventually marry soon after reaching Afghanistan. But when asked whether she would be willing to kill U.S. troops using a suicide belt, Winter said Hassan replied, "I probably would have if I did join." Hassan meanwhile told agents that she "was against ISIS not for what they do" but because "they are not part of the true caliphate. Al-Qaida is trying to create the true caliphate."
Hassan appeared calm and spoke softly on Monday when asked questions by Rau. She wore a white cloth burqa that covered all but her eyes. Her mother and sister, who earlier turned Hassan's passport over to U.S. marshals during the hearing, declined to speak with reporters as they left the courthouse.
A memorandum Winter wrote calling for detention also described an incident last week as federal agents attempted to move Hassan from Ramsey County jail for her first federal appearance. Winter said she "violently resisted ... repeatedly kicking one officer, and attempting to scratch both a jailer and an FBI agent." Agents had to use both physical restraints and a "secure transport chair" while bringing her to court last week, Winter said. Sicoli said Monday that the incident began when a male agent attempted to remove Hassan's burqa and said that no further issues have occurred.
Hassan's next federal court appearance is scheduled for March 28. She is also charged with first-degree arson in Ramsey County, but that case will effectively be on hold pending the outcome of the more serious federal charges.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor