ST. CLOUD, Minn. — An Islamic State news agency on Sunday said a man dressed as a security guard who talked about Allah as he stabbed at least eight people at a shopping mall was a "soldier" for the extremist group, the Associated Press reported.
St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson told the Times at an early Sunday news conference that the victims were stabbed at the multiple locations Saturday evening inside Crossroad Center by a man dressed in a private security company uniform.
An off-duty police officer from another jurisdiction shot and killed the attacker around 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Anderson said. According to St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, the shooting happened inside Macy's.
Eight people were taken to St. Cloud Hospital. On Sunday morning, hospital Communications Specialist Chris Nelson told the Times that five were released, and three were admitted with injuries that were not life-threatening.
The ISIL news agency, Rasd, claimed late Sunday morning that the man was a “soldier of the Islamic State” who had heeded calls from the extremist group for attacks in countries that are part of a U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition.
According to the Associated Press, it was not immediately clear if the extremist group had planned the attack or even knew about it beforehand. ISIL has encouraged so-called “lone wolf” attacks. It has also claimed past attacks that are not believed to have been planned by its central leadership.
St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson told a Times reporter Sunday morning that the report was the first he'd heard of a possible connection to ISIL.
On CNN Sunday, Anderson said there was no evidence to connect the stabbings with the New York City explosion that injured 29 people Saturday evening. He also said police were investigating the possibility of a ninth person who was attacked and may have driven himself to a hospital.
At the early Sunday press conference, Anderson said the attacker, who was armed with a knife, reportedly made references to Allah and asked at least one person whether they were Muslim. But Anderson pointedly declined to call the attacks an act of terrorism, saying the motive isn't yet known.
"We will be diligent and get to the bottom of this," Anderson said.
In a statement posted on Facebook Sunday afternoon, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., praised the heroism of the off-duty officer and other first responders. "My thoughts are with the victims of last night’s horrific stabbing attacks at the Crossroads Center in St. Cloud, and I wish them all a swift and full recovery," Franken wrote. "This attack is an affront to the people of Minnesota, and we need to do everything that we can to prevent attacks like these from happening."
Local police had had about three previous encounters with the suspect, most for minor traffic violations, Anderson said. The attacker was not named by authorities early Sunday.
He said the FBI had offered to help with the investigation.
The stabbings occurred in several places within the mall: corridors, businesses and common areas.
"The entire mall is an active crime scene," Anderson said. The mall is expected to reopen on Monday, according to its social media page.
Sydney Weires was shopping at the mall with her friends, Jenna Remmele and Maggie Gelke, all three freshmen at the College of St. Benedict. Weires said they got to the mall at about 8:10 p.m. and started shopping in stores near J.C. Penney.
They were walking down the hallway toward Sears when they heard a loud scream.
"I saw this security guard sprinting down the hallway toward Target," Weires said. "He was yelling, 'Call the cops! Call the cops!' "
Weires said she and her friends followed the guard because they thought maybe there was a shoplifter or a kidnapping.
"We saw these two guys. One guy was bleeding from the side of his face," Weires said. "He was screaming at us, 'get the F out!'"
The second man had blood on the back of his shirt, Weires said.
"They were just drenched," Remmele added.
Weires said a few red lights on the drive to the mall and an impulsive decision to shop in Victoria's Secret might have been pivotal for the friends.
"We would've been in that hallway. We could have been one of those victims," Weires said. "It's insane."
The girls left the mall before the lockdown was implemented and saw a police car arriving as they left the mall parking lot, Weires said. They went back to their apartment and called family members.
Weires and Remmele broke down crying from the shock of their experience.
"We don't really know what to think," Remmele said. "Hearing the possibility of the number of people who could have been injured ... it's really scary."
Danny Carranza of Willmar was with his children at the play area near Macy's when the chaos started.
"People came running around the corner and I freaked out because I thought it was a terrorist attack or something because I saw a lot of people, so I grabbed my kids," he said.
"I ran as much as I could and I heard someone yell 'Stop! Stop!' As soon as the door shut I heard gunshots."
He and his children made it out of the mall before it was locked down, but his wife was still inside the mall hours later.
Carranza said police were checking identification and taking names of everyone as they were released from the mall.
Vivian Woods, an employee at Forever 21, said employees of the fashion store helped one victim who came into their store while they awaited an ambulance.
“That right there, I started crying," Woods said. "That was hard for me to swallow. It’s hard to fathom this happened here at this mall."
Harley and Tama Exsted of Isle, who were in St. Cloud on Saturday to watch their son play in a college golf tournament at Blackberry Ridge, were in the mall when the incident occurred.
"All of a sudden I heard pop pop pop," Harley said. "I thought someone tipped over a shelf. All of a sudden these people started running. I just saw everybody running our way."
"It was a 'pa-pow' and then we saw the people start to run, which didn't catch me at first," he said. "But when we heard the screaming, then we knew it was time to go."
The couple escaped unharmed and said they helped another woman who was running from the scene to her car.
Worried relatives of shoppers and mall workers gathered near the scene Saturday night.
Anthony Bello, 18, a Technical High School student who recently moved to St. Cloud from Columbus, Ohio, went to the mall to visit his brother Dominic, 21, who works at Target but was told to leave. He wasn't sure why.
Anthony Bello said his brother, whose shift was about a half-hour from ending when the violence broke out, sent him a text from inside Target that said there was a shooter in the mall.
"My brother and I have always been really close. I want to make sure he's OK and give him a hug," Anthony Bello said.
Target employees huddled in the men's clothing department, Bello said his brother had communicated by text message. They later moved up to the registers, he said.
Their mother, who is still in Ohio, asked Dominic to text her a photo from inside the mall to show he's safe, and he did, Bello said.
Adonis Samuels, 42, St. Cloud, also was outside the mall where his wife Roxanne is a manager at Clinique at Macy's.
"She called me on the phone and told me she was hiding under the counter with a customer," Samuels said. She later called and said she was safe in a secured area.
Samuels remained outside, watching for her. He said he'd seen her through the glass doors at one point so he knew she was safe.
Desi Spoden, 52, of Sauk Rapids, and her husband were in the parking lot awaiting word from their 17-year-old daughter, Carly, who was inside the mall at Lady Foot Locker. They raced to the scene after hearing about the incident.
Spoden said her daughter's friend reached her. "Her friend called to let us know they were OK; they are on lockdown," she said.
The seriousness of the incident wasn't immediately obvious to those who couldn't see it happening. Emee Jagielski, who works at Apricot Lane and was preparing the store for closing time, said: "All of a sudden we see the gates of the other stores go down and I asked 'is it 9 o’clock already?'”
Shortly before 9 p.m., a St. Cloud police officer with an assault rifle could be seen near the west entrance of Macy’s. Other officers were searching shrubbery near the mall with flashlights, according to Times staffers on the scene.
Nelson said the hospital was placed under containment on Saturday night as a part of the mass causalities response. She said the hospital gathers a team of two dozen that trains year-round to respond to incidents like Saturday's.
Authorities said there were about 20 witnesses left to interview around midnight and 50 others still in the mall waiting to be allowed to get their belongings.