In Montana, Casting A Web for Terrorists

Judge Shannen Rossmiller, an online expert who works with federal agencies, and her husband, Randy, somewhere in Montana.
Judge Shannen Rossmiller, an online expert who works with federal agencies, and her husband, Randy, somewhere in Montana. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

HELENA, Mont. -- Like a hunter using a duck call, Shannen Rossmiller invites the online attentions of would-be terrorists by adorning her e-mail with video clips of Westerners getting their heads cut off.

"They get pumped up when they see beheadings. For them, it's like rock videos," Rossmiller said. "I always give the appearance that I am one of them."

Appearances deceive. At her Montana high school, Rossmiller was a cheerleader -- a farm girl whose slight frame meant she was the one hoisted to the top of the human pyramid. Now 35, she is a mother of three, a part-time paralegal and a $23,000-a-year municipal court judge in a town north of here.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she has found herself an unpaid night job. She uses the Internet to find terrorism suspects, she said, hunting for them while her family sleeps, spending the hours between 3 a.m. and dawn at her home computer. Her husband, Randy, a wireless network technician, keeps eight computers and two broadband systems working in their house.

Posing as an al-Qaeda operative, she has helped federal agents set up stings that have netted two Americans -- a Washington state National Guardsman convicted in 2004 of attempted espionage, and a Pennsylvania man who prosecutors say sought to blow up oil installations in the United States. Rossmiller was a key prosecution witness against the Guardsman, who is serving a life sentence, and said she has been told she will be called as a witness in the Pennsylvania case.

Most of Rossmiller's terrorist tracking, though, has focused on foreign suspects, she said. By her count, she has turned over to federal investigators about 60 "packages" of information on suspects outside the United States.

She provided The Washington Post with hundreds of pages of e-mail exchanges that she said are transcripts of her conversations with would-be jihadists outside this country. Rossmiller said she meets nearly every week with U.S. intelligence contacts in Montana, and that they have periodically given her feedback about the usefulness of her information. She said she has been told that foreign intelligence officers have detained more than a dozen individuals whom she helped identify.

But while Rossmiller has been vital in uncovering two cases of domestic terrorism, it is not clear how extensive a role she has played in the global fight against terrorism. Federal intelligence sources confirmed that for several years she has provided the FBI and the CIA with useful information, but refused to characterize it or say how it has been used. Her assertions about detentions of foreign suspects could not be independently confirmed, and officials from the FBI and CIA declined to speak publicly about her.

Still, the outspoken small-town judge raises the remarkable reality of the government regularly using a self-appointed, self-trained Internet sleuth to help fight terrorism at home and abroad. Given several chances to do so, no one in the intelligence community characterized Rossmiller as a crank. Indeed, protecting Rossmiller and her family in their rural Montana home, not far from the Canadian border, has for two years been a regular agenda item at meetings between local police, the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol agents, according to a Montana law enforcement official who requested anonymity.

Rossmiller said she is disappointed that federal agencies will not go on the record to confirm the details she offers about the nature and extent of her online work. "For the life of me, I can't understand what the deal is with higher-ups in the FBI," she said.

Rossmiller's night job became public knowledge in 2004, when she testified against Spec. Ryan G. Anderson, who was part of a National Guard tank crew based at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Rossmiller said she spotted him Oct. 6, 2003, when he appeared, writing in English, on an Arabic Internet forum. She apparently convinced him she was a member of al-Qaeda and he wrote back, asking: "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?"

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