Editor’s note: This story first ran in 2011.
A wreck involving a rental truck rolling down a ravine on an isolated gravel road outside Valier in 2006 may have saved a Conrad woman and her family from al-Qaida assassins.
The four men injured in the 2006 crash, who came from Suriname, Eritrea and Bahrain, had illegally crossed from Canada into Montana. They hid Qurans, laptops and disassembled weapons under their T-shirts. Shannen Rossmiller’s home address was programmed into a GPS device found in the vehicle.
“I often shudder to think what would have happened if they hadn’t been such bumbling drivers on a gravel road in a rental truck,” she writes in a new book. “If they hadn’t wrecked their truck that day, I might not be here, or, God forbid, my family could have been harmed.”
Rossmiller, a former municipal judge in Conrad and a mother of three, has published a new book, “The Unexpected Patriot: How an Ordinary American Mother is Bringing Terrorists to Justice” about how the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led her to become an online terrorist hunter. She poses as a terrorist online to ferret out credible threats to security around the world.
“I am Abu Abdullah, an al-Qaida courier,” she wrote. “My name is Abu Latif, and I am a recruiter trainer. I am Abu Musa. I have weapons and supplies. My name is Abu Zeida. I am located in Af-Pak. I am radicalized, a bloodthirsty mujahedeen …”
In her book, Rossmiller also describes the sacrifices her cyber-sleuthing cost her.
Two years before the near miss, Conrad police officers pounded on her door in the middle of the night. The wide-eyed officers were shocked to see her when she answered.
“Oh, thank God, you are alive!” one told her.
The officers had just received an emergency call from the Teton County Sheriff’s Department asking them to find Rossmiller. Her car, which she had parked in her garage with its keys in her house, was found one county over totaled in a ditch ¿ and shot five times with a .38-caliber pistol.
Rossmiller had been unwillingly thrust into the spotlight after the trial of Army tank crewman Ryan Anderson — aka Amir Abdul-Rashid — who tried to defect to al-Qaida. He thought he was in contact with a recruiter, who was actually Rossmiller using one of her dozens of online personas.
Suddenly the secret she had tried to keep even from her family was exposed to the world.
As a high school senior, Rossmiller had been to the 110th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center and marveled at it. On Sept. 11, 2001, she became obsessed and decided to fight back.
A Conrad farm girl, she had always been a scrapper, “strong and determined,” but a little different. Her skills at research and analysis made her a natural fit as a judge for Conrad and Valier ¿ making her the youngest female municipal judge in American history.
She was injured in a fall the night of Sept. 11, 2001. She read books on al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Islam while she recuperated.
“My challenge to myself was to figure out where these people were coming from, to understand their teachings, their culture and how their world differed from the West,” she wrote.
She thought about enlisting in the military but didn’t because she had a young family. Then she heard about how Internet chatrooms were a forum for terrorists. She explored those chatrooms using a Arabic translation program. She began studying the language and the Quran. In 2002, she made her first post: “Death to America.”
She interacted with genuine and wanna-be terrorists, drawing out information while carefully avoiding entrapment.
“At first, in the forums, I was feeling my way around gingerly,” she wrote. “Now I know the tribes and their nuances so well, that I could probably whip out a new identity within 10 minutes.”
When Rossmiller first contacted the FBI, saying she had information about a man in uniform looking to harm his country, she was brushed off. She writes in her book that the local FBI agent she spoke with didn’t even know how to contact someone in the military about the threat.
She pressed, telling the agent she was a judge.
“A judge of what?” he asked “as if he expected the answer to be ‘pies,'” Rossmiller wrote.
She took the information she had gather to the agent’s office in Great Falls, expecting to get the “dumb-blonde treatment.”
“I had no way of knowing at the time, when I drove to Great Falls to meet with Agent Wilson for the first time, that this meeting would eventually bring my two worlds — my regular life as a judge, wife and mother and my secret online realm filled with terrorists and danger — into head-on collision,” Rossmiller wrote. “An American soldier would be prosecuted for attempted espionage and imprisoned for life. My entire family would be imperiled, and the foundation of my very existence would be rocked.”
Rossmiller’s pleas to keep her identity secret fell on deaf ears during Anderson’s trial. Her volunteer work brought adulation — and danger.
“Even with everything that had happened, the work was a watershed for me personally,” she wrote. “This was the first time in my life I was using all of my skills and talents, and the things that always make me ‘different,’ in a positive and reward way,” she wrote.
In 2006, she helped bring down Michael Reynolds, who thought he was working with al-Qaida to destroy the Alaska Pipeline and other energy targets, with the aim of creating chaos in the country and making money. Unemployed and living in Pocatello, Idaho, at the time of his arrest, Reynolds eventually was convicted of terrorism-related crimes, in part because ofRossmiller’s work. His defense argued that he, too, was engaging in Internet vigilantism.
In the wake of Reynolds’ case, Rossmiller began to speak about the role of cyber counterintelligence operations in the war on terror.
It’s “a tall order to get a whole nation of people behind a war like that,” she said.
She also thought that people should hear some good news in the war on terror.
Rossmiller worked at the Attorney General’s Office in Helena until 2009, when she began to work in — and shape — the security and intelligence field. She now argues for the development of a national public-private cyber corps.
“Even though I have been at this for many years, I am still haunted by the vehement hatred the jihadists feel for the U.S.,” she wrote.