Montana mom becomes cyber terrorist hunter

Shannen Rossmiller is a former judge who taught herself Arabic after Sept. 11 and began her mission.

Associated Press

Shannen Rossmiller is a former judge who taught herself Arabic after Sept. 11 and began her mission.

NEW YORK — The nervous woman in a gray suit clicked on a photo lineup on an overhead screen labeled, "Jihadi Martyrs." It flashed to mug shots of men with names like Abu Issa, an al-Qaida recruiter, and Abu Jabber, a trainer.

A man in one photograph pointed a machine gun.

"They are all me," said the former judge from Montana, speaking before an audience of computer experts, law enforcement agents and investigators at the first International Conference on Cyber Security, held last week in New York. "These are all individuals I acted as on the Internet."

Shannen Rossmiller, 39, is a cyberspy who taught herself Arabic after the Sept. 11 attacks and began infiltrating Web sites and chat rooms to hunt for terrorists. "I learned to act like them," she said. "I learned to be them."

As her children slept, she spent nights and mornings posing as more than two dozen Muslim militants from her home computer to learn about planned attacks and terrorist cells across the world. Her investigations led to two terrorism-related convictions in the United States, and she has provided intelligence in more than dozens of other cases.

Now, she is trying to expand her one-woman operation by creating a "cybercore" of experts in language, data mining and technology, dedicated to helping the government track terrorists.

With 5,000 terrorism-related Web sites operating at any given time, it's overwhelming to try to monitor all of them, Rossmiller said. "As soon as you take one down … they can upload the contents on another server in another part of the world. In a day or a couple of hours they can be up again. It's kind of like playing Whac-A-Mole."

She asked the audience, "How do we supplement what the government is already doing?"

Experts from Bulgaria, the Netherlands, China and the United States spent three days in New York to tackle the issue of fighting cyber crime — from terrorism, to child pornography, to the underground online economy in which passports, bank accounts and Social Security numbers are stolen, bought and sold.

Law enforcement is limited by its manpower and rules, Rossmiller said.

"I'm just a private citizen," she said, but by working within the confines of the law, her information led to the 2007 conviction of Michael Curtis Reynolds in 2007, who went on terrorist Web sites looking for money to blow up the trans-Alaska and transcontinental pipelines.

Rossmiller posed as a jihadist, tricking Reynolds into disclosing his plan. She also helped convict Ryan Anderson, a National Guardsman embarking on an Iraq tour, who planned to sell U.S. military secrets to al-Qaida and kill U.S. soldiers. Anderson disclosed his plans to Rossmiller's fictitious personality online.

She does not encourage untrained amateurs to take the risks she has. Rossmiller has received numerous death threats, has been forced to move her family for safety and had her home broken into. Her car was stolen and later found riddled with bullets.

Still, she's committed.

"I feel it's the right thing to do," she said. "If you have something to offer that is valuable or helpful, why not offer it? If more people did, can you imagine what a different world it would be?"

Montana mom becomes cyber terrorist hunter 01/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 9:58am]

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