One of the Best Counter-Terrorist Agents is a Suburban Housewife

This is really amazing. I heard about Shannon Rossmiller awhile ago, but this is the first detailed article on what she does. This woman has more savvy and determination than the FBI, DOJ, and the DHS combined.  Her primary advantages, believe it or not, are better resources and no PC restrictions on gathering information.

She has singlehandedly advanced the fight against Islamofascist cells both external and internal. Her dogged work has produced some of the best intelligence and helped the authorities track down, arrest, and prosecute a number of terrorist thugs; thereby thwarting attacks that might have been carried out otherwise. Her success rate exceeds the FBI’s, and the Department of Justice.

That should tell you something.

“Look,” Shannen Rossmiller says, pointing at her computer screen. She’s in an online chat room, and the name Terrorist11 has just popped up. “He’s one of the more popular guys.”

To get here, she signed onto alfirdaws.org. Then she clicked into the Paradise Jihadist Supporters Forum. The site is in Arabic, so she turns on the basic Google text translator that renders the discussion into clumsy phrases.

“Take a charge with caution,” warns one jihadist posting, “this thread is monitored.” Meanwhile, Terrorist11 is praising the 2004 Madrid train bombings and posting videos of the dead for other jihadist wannabes to enjoy. Old news, terrorism-wise. Rossmiller flips her blond hair. She looks bored. “They are just flaming, ranting and raving,” she says. “Do you want to see some blood and guts? Let’s go find it.”

In her small, one-chair home office in Montana, I sit beside Rossmiller on a little tiled table normally reserved for a lamp. Outside, the vistas stretch across Big Sky Country to the Elk Horn Ridge Mountains. Inside, Rossmiller shows me what she does as perhaps America’s most accomplished amateur terrorist hunter.

We’re monitoring jihadist chatter, and she has warned me that we’re not likely to come across anything too dangerous. Home-brew cyber-counterterrorism, it turns out, is a lot like most police work — weeks of tedious beat patrols punctuated by occasional bursts of excitement. And the section of the Internet populated by terrorists is a lot like the rest of the Internet — only instead of commenting on, say, a video of 1,500 prison inmates performing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” everyone’s chatting about the death of Americans.

Rossmiller hopes to find some people discussing an actual upcoming plot and then join the conversation. But it’s mostly just idle banter today. We come upon a thread in which participants are discussing a Baghdad sniper who has been killing US soldiers. “They call him Juba,” Rossmiller says. She suspects there isn’t a single sniper but rather a cell, and that the thread is designed to create an identity for Juba, a hero who might attract others to the cause.

The proponents of the ‘peaceful religion of Islam’ don’t like being exposed:

Shannen Rossmiller grew up on a Montana wheat farm. She is blond and slim: When she was a cheerleader in high school, she typically wound up at the top of the human pyramid. Her husband runs a wireless Internet company, and they have three children. After college, she was appointed a local judge in a small Montana town, where she and her family still live and which she’d rather not identify. Although she’s happy to talk about what she does, she fears for her safety: She has received phone threats, and her car got shot up once, an incident she attributes directly to her counterterrorism work.

……Rossmiller developed her remarkable talent for chatting up terrorists after September 11, when she started going into online forums and cajoling valuable information from other visitors. She has passed along numerous case files to federal authorities. Her information has led US forces abroad to locate Taliban cells in Afghanistan, discover a renegade stinger-missile merchant in Pakistan, and help another foreign government identify a ring of potential suicide bombers. She has also assisted in nabbing two domestic would-be terrorists and seen them both convicted of felonies: National guardsman Ryan Anderson received five concurrent life sentences, and Michael Reynolds, convicted in July and awaiting sentencing, faces a similar fate. Timothy Fuhrman, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Salt Lake City office, says Rossmiller was “instrumental in the successful outcome of those cases.”

Some good methodology:

She creates multiple characters and uses her older and more respected personae to invite the new ones into private forums. There are other self-taught counterterrorists like her, but they tend to translate and discuss, lurk and report. Rossmiller works the terrorism boards as if she were playing a complex videogame. Her characters come complete with distinct personalities and detailed biographies that are as richly conceived as any protagonist on an HBO series. She keeps copies of everything, time-stamps files, and takes screenshots. She has an Excel spreadsheet that details the 640 people with whom she has had contact on since 2002.

And language familiarization:

“I bought The Koran for Dummies, and then I bought a Koran.” ……she read textbooks on Arabic, took a nine-week online language course, and began quietly lurking around jihadist Web sites.

……then she started her online courses and bought high-quality translation software. In February 2002, as her Arabic improved and she became more comfortable with her software skills, she wrote herself a goal: “I was going to try to talk to these people as someone not me.”

Technical improvements:

She quickly encountered technical obstacles: For instance, it would be easy for someone to figure out that her email was originating in the US, specifically in Montana. So she invested in a proxy server application, which creates a fake IP address off a known IP server someplace real. That way, Rossmiller could send her email as someone living, say, in Yemen, and anyone closely examining the email header would see that the message did appear to come from Yemen. Rossmiller researched the area she was purporting to be emailing from and learned the neighborhood so she could casually mention a nearby restaurant or mosque, sometimes even the name of a local imam.

A foreign terrorist with zeitgeist implications:

……In May 2002, Rossmiller saw a post from a man in Pakistan who said he had access to Stinger missiles he wanted to sell. She wrote back to the person she now identifies in her files as Rocket Man, posing as someone interested in purchasing his wares. After a few exchanges, she abruptly threatened to cut off contact unless he provided proof he was who he said he was. “And I’ll be gol-danged if a few days later, a nice little zip file appears with pictures of him sitting on some crates.” The inventory numbers of the Stingers were clearly visible. Rossmiller then realized that her hobby had turned into something that needed attention from the FBI.

……I put all the information into little digital files and sent them to the FBI tip line.” She included her name, social security number, educational background, and a note saying, “I am not a crazy person.” Within a week, she got a phone call from the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in New Jersey, and the Feds began working on the case. She later learned that the inventory numbers matched those on Stingers the US had supplied to the mujahideen — likely remnants of their war against the Soviets in 1980s.

Catching an American traitor:

……One day she saw a post from someone named Amir Abdul-Rashid who wrote a garbled Arabic greeting, “Wa salaam alaaykum,” and then went on in English: “Just curious, would there be any chance a brother who might be on the wrong side at the present, could join up… defect so to speak?”
Rossmiller wrote back as Abu Khadija, email address khadija1417@hotmail.com, to say that she was organizing some training camps in Pakistan and noted firmly, “To receive an order, contact me.” And the guy did. Pretty soon, it became obvious to Rossmiller that he was an American. He asked to write in English and confided that he was “due to enter the war zone” and “unfortunately due to my position, I will be bearing the arms of the enemy.” Rossmiller realized he was an American soldier and saw that his IP address put him in Washington state. After a few more back-and-forths, she learned his real name was Ryan Anderson and that he was a tank crew member in the Army National Guard, destined to ship out for Iraq soon.

……For weeks, Rossmiller, posing as Khadija, had regular exchanges with Anderson. In notes replete with emoticons, Anderson told her that he would be going to Iraq. This was a time when few knew how the US military intended to station itself in Iraq, and yet he explained that his exact destination would be “Baghdad proper — something my CO called the ‘Green Zone,’ we’re not supposed to talk about it to the newspapers for some reason but I guess family and friends are OK, so I’m not too worried about telling you.”

Anderson wrote that he got “a copy of the Qur’an” for his PDA and then became “so conflicted about all this.” He continued, “What am I to do if I must fire on someone attacking me when I wish I was with them?”

As he prepared to ship out, he wrote, “Our oppertunities (sic) are coming to an end.” And, indeed, they did — with his arrest on charges of attempted espionage and trying to aid the enemy. When Rossmiller was summoned to the witness stand of a military court in Fort Lewis, Washington, she described publicly for the first time her methods and techniques. She explained how difficult some of this work was — she trawled through sites for a year and a half before coming upon Anderson. She also described how easily she could gain certain types of information, like how she had typed Anderson’s email address into Google and quickly discovered not only her contact’s name but also his Army email address, as well as menacing pictures of him clutching rifles and handguns.

After her testimony, Rossmiller says, the FBI made her an intelligence asset. She now has a contact at the Great Falls FBI field office, an agent named Mark Seyler. His boss, Timothy Fuhrman, would not comment on Rossmiller’s claim that she has sent the FBI more than 200 of her “packages” since 2002, saying that he would rather keep the details of her intelligence role restricted to what is already on the public record. He did say that “we can always learn from her.”

Outdoing the DOJ:

In fact, it’s distinctly possible that Rossmiller, alone at her computer, has a better track record than the Justice Department. A Washington Post analysis in 2005 of the 400-plus people charged with terrorism-related crimes by the federal government found that only 14 of those convicted actually had any ties at all to al Qaeda or its network. Rossmiller’s cases have come with solid backup, while the feeble evidence in the other high-profile Justice Department cases makes many prosecutors roll their eyes. Consider the seven Miami men arrested in the summer of 2006 and hyped as desiring to wage a “ground war” against the US and intending to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. They turned out to be a bunch of trash-talking blowhards whose plans were formulated while smoking pot in an empty warehouse. In contrast, the man Rossmiller most recently implicated — Michael Reynolds — had prepared meticulous plans to blow up pipelines and was shopping online for used gas trucks to implement his plot. The Pennsylvania resident was arrested after traveling 2,000 miles to southern Idaho, lured by Rossmiller into a supposed meeting with a financial backer.

Actionable Intelligence:

When I was in the White House and doing terrorism, the holy grail was ‘actionable intelligence,’ and she brings a form of actionable intelligence,” says Roger Cressey, a White House counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. (He learned of Rossmiller after he left the government.) The FBI, on the other hand, has failed in every attempt to modernize its technology since 2001, and it so restricts the software available to agents that they can’t even begin to match what Rossmiller does. “The FBI is a dinosaur in many respects,” says Cressey. Rossmiller agrees. “I went to a meeting in Great Falls, and we got to talking, and someone had to look something up online,” she says. “I asked, ‘What do you use for Internet access?’ and one agent said, ‘We have to go to the public library down the street.'”

She also tells a story about another agent who had to get permission to open a Yahoo account because it violated office regs. “They weren’t allowed,” she says.

Which means she gathers information that can actually be used.

More innovations:

Some of Rossmiller’s tactics are taken straight from the hacker playbook. For instance, on several occasions she has sent individuals in foreign countries images altered to conceal, say, a keylogger that uploads everything the recipient types, including passwords. One key logger recipient was a Middle Eastern journalist who had been a known contact of al Qaeda members. Rossmiller passed along the information she got to government officials.

Another one snagged on his own turf:

……Rossmiller assumed the identity of a particularly murderous terrorist known as Abu Musa. She befriended ‘Hakim’, who lived in a country bordering Iraq and was looking to travel there, possibly for martyrdom, with 10 other people.

As usual, Rossmiller, aka Abu Musa, bragged about participating in events at which her presence couldn’t easily be corroborated (such as fighting in Fallujah a few weeks before). But then Abu Musa made a mistake: He told Hakim he was located in a village that turned out to be just a cab ride away from Hakim, who then wanted to visit. Rossmiller had already alerted her contact in the federal government about Hakim. Now, this contact explained, he needed her to play for time while he contacted local authorities. Suddenly Abu Musa found himself summoned to Syria for an important mission.

When Abu Musa returned after a week, Hakim was briefly suspicious but then returned to being chatty and revved up for jihad. Abu Musa had ordered him to create a new email account and a new password so they could be safe. “And he’s a good boy,” Rossmiller says. “Here, he’s made an email account. I love the password. 123456.” Soon, Hakim is comfortable enough to tell Abu Musa that he and his friends are ready to go to Iraq and that he needs some ingredients for a bomb.

….”All I know,” Rossmiller says, “is that he showed up, and it played out to script.” He led his new contact to a warehouse where the other brothers were training. The local authorities took over from there.

http://www.wired.com/politics/security/magazine/15-11/ff_rossmiller?currentPage=1

If the FBI doesn’t have this woman on their payroll, they should.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sfcmac on 12/01/2009 at 22:41

    Cam,

    RE-READ the second paragraph in the article, where it says: “….After college, she was appointed a local judge in a small Montana town…”

    That is the extent of any reference to her career in the entire wired.com article, which is where I acquired the information.

    Not only that, but a quick internet search will bring up constant descriptions of “Montana mom”, “former Montana judge”, or “Cybersleuth Mom” but nothing about her currently being an attorney.

    I’m a former Soldier (retired), former Intelligence Analyst, and Iraq war veteran.

    I’m also female, and the last thing I would ever do is discount a woman’s accomplishments by relegating her to an unwilling domestic status.

    Anyone who reads my comments as well as the content of the article, can easily conclude that Ms. Rossmiller is ‘educated, articulated, and a very bright attorney’.

    If you’re that miffed about the title of the post, you’d better email the rest of the bloggers and reporters over the same characterization.

    SFC MAC

  2. Posted by Cam on 12/01/2009 at 20:49

    Just heard this woman interviewed on NPR on January 12. 09…She is an educated, articulated, very bright attorney and former judge. Why does this post characterize her as ‘a suburban housewife’?? And state that ‘after college she was appointed a judge’, omitting any reference to her legal education and career. Hard–almost impossible–to imagine a man being so characterized!

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